Category Archives: Words

by

‘Academic Interest’

Sunaura Taylor

Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler go for a walk.

In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probab…

by

Of Footfalls and Plasters

dinklange images

Peter Dinklage: Made to talk British in Game of Thrones

A question that has long preoccupied some of the best minds of the generation is why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, especially if they’re bad guys. One commentator theorized that, on the fantasy end of things (on up through Game of Thrones, where poor Peter Dinklage is made to talk British), it’s the responsibility of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the…

by

Fit for a New Century

simple.b-cssdisabled-png.h470d12d1229bd1d8169a7250efae494c.pack

The Fitbit, a tool for the fitness age (both kinds)

What’s your fitness age?

That’s a 21st-century question you can ask, thanks to the invention of the phrase fitness age. But what does this new term mean?

Here’s an answer provided by the lexicographer David Barnhart, editor of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly devoted to new words.

He defines fitness age as “a measure in years of age of a person’s physical condition and health relative to their chronological age, based on aerobic c…

by

The Shortest Generation

16Novak-Djokovic-1

Novak Djokovic: No generation between him and Roger Federer

When Novak Djokovic recently paid tribute to Roger Federer, saying that the Swiss master was admired by players of Djokovic’s generation, many academic types might have had a little weep — and not because none of us will ever be able to grade papers at 130 miles per hour, or whatever the conversion might be from mph to pph.

Djokovic was born in 1987, Federer in 1981. That’s not enough time for a biological cycle in humans (though it wou…

by

Revealing American Speech

06-SojournerTruthPortrait

Sojourner Truth’s first language was Dutch.

If you want to become an expert on the English language in North America, and maybe teach it too, a good place to start is with the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech. The latest issue is Volume 90, Number 2, dated May 2015.

From its beginnings nearly a century ago (H.L. Mencken was one of the founders), American Speech has been accessible to readers with no special training in linguistics — at least in many of its article…

by

Do We Really Hate That?

220px-Richard_Grant_White_-_Brady-Handy

Richard Grant White didn’t like the verb “donate.”

It was the question-and-answer session after a talk I gave about “language pet peeves” (presenting a linguist’s view) a few months ago at a city club. One woman in the audience immediately raised her hand and asked, “Why do people insist on using impact as a verb?” She then added, “I hate that.” There were assenting murmurs around the room: “Ridiculous,” “I hear that all the time,” and, echoing the questioner, “Oh, I hate that.”

Hate? A noun lik…

by

The Fringe Is Coming to Town

castleI love this time of year in Edinburgh. The weather, of course, remains its usual disgraceful self: high winds with on-and-off rain the past few days. The gap between the David Hume Tower and the business school still funnels the wind into gusts that can lift small-framed people off their feet. In May this year we had hailstorms. But you don’t come to Edinburgh for equable weather. When I moved here from California, I vowed never to waste my time grumbling about the cold and the dark.

No, what I …

by

What Did You Say?

claudia-rankine-300

Claudia Rankine’s poetry ushers the reader in to an intimacy that comes from acquiring consciousness. (Photograph from Pomona College)

If you are among the 128K followers on Twitter of @AcademicsSay, you have read tweets like the following:

“I have a statement followed by a two-part question.”

“Posit.”

“I often get emotional. But when I do, I call it affect.”

“Let’s unpack this a bit.”

etc.

I recognize myself — and us — in these tweets. Such self-mocking tweets can be amusing and also, if th…

by

What ‘One’ Means to a Linguist

1019312234_43860b93be_bIt’s unsettling for a linguist to find serious doubt being expressed in a quality newspaper not just about whether one kilogram means “one kilogram” (it seems the standard kilogram, a cylinder of platinum and iridium kept under lock and key in France, may have been losing a tiny fraction of its weight), but also about whether one means “one.” Yet according to The Independent (July 15), a recent court judgment casts doubt on the latter.

ConvaTec, a medical products company, patented a wound dress…

by

Existential Questions

General_Joseph_F._Dunford

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. of the U.S. Marine Corps

Testifying before a Senate Committee last week, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., President Obama’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.”

If you have had your face buried in philosophy books the last 30 or so years, the phrasing might have seemed odd — “existential threat” more likely calling to mind Kierkegaard or …