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This Transatlantic Life

I’ll grant that it might have been my location at the time—sitting in a university clinic—that made the phrase “winding up in hospital” jump out at me when listening to a recent podcast of This American Life. But I put the jolt down to the lack of an article. This was This American Life, after all, and the speaker, Nancy Updike, sounded as Yankee as they come; shouldn’t it have been “winding up in the hospital”?

Well, yes, according to custom and Google’s Ngram viewer:

That’s looking in the Ame…

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People Who Died

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Elaine May and Mike Nichols

“Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died.”

—Jim Carroll, “People Who Died”

I am getting so sick of people dying. I don’t speak of my friends—as Jim Carroll (1949-2009) so unflinchingly and memorably did in his 1980 song—but of writers, artists, musicians, actors,  journalists,  broadcasters, and other public figures whose work and prese…

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Will ‘Selfie’ Stick?

Earlier this year I welcomed selfie as a new word that reflected the unselfish selfishness of the currently young millennial generation, epitomized by the Electronic Dance Music song “Selfie” by the Chainsmokers.

That, I thought, was my last word on selfie. But I was wrong. I had missed an important accessory, the selfie stick. This is a device that extends the reach of the camera to twice arm’s length (one arm, one stick, end to end) so the selfie can capture a wider picture. It’s not widely us…

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A Postcard From Vienna

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Vienna, Austria—I don’t think any lecturing visit has left me quite as awestruck as my visit this week to the University of Vienna. The mind boggles both at the roster of former faculty (Adorno, Boltzmann, Brentano, Freud, Hayek, Kaposi, Lorenz, Luick, von Mises, Schleicher, Schrödinger, Schumpeter…) and at the list of notable alumni (Bettelheim, Doppler, Feyerabend, Gödel, Husserl, Koestler, Mahler, Mendel, Popper, Preminger…).

It was here in the 1920s that Moritz Schlick organized the Ernst M…

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Super!

blurb_mparty6_mario_20080911One of the many casualties of spell checkers is students’ ability to describe their family rituals. Too frequently, recently, they seem to be having super in the dinning room. And from their emails, I infer that the typographical slip comes from the superfluity of the word super, which pops up everywhere, mostly as an adverb: super happy, super hungry, super fantastic. I noticed it particularly when I learned of the passing of a friend’s mother from a mutual friend who wrote to say that he was s…

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Turkey Talk

Nobody can explain the turkey.

The expression to talk turkey has been with us for a long time. We’re still not sure where it comes from, though, much less how turkeys got involved. You’d think turkeys had enough to worry about besides English usage. Especially this time of year.

Turkeys mean American Thanksgiving (a retronym, like acoustic guitar—thank you, my many Canadian friends). Which of course is why I’ve turned to British reference works for an explanation as to the meaning of the exp…

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The List Lilt

Stephen Potter

Stephen Potter

I told you about vocal fry. And you know all about uptalk? The inflection that was first discussed by Robin Lakoff in 1976, that was given its name by James Gorman in a 1993 New York Times article, and that continues to rouse the ire of right-thinking people everywhere?

Well, here’s a new one, which I started noticing a couple of years ago, among friends, colleagues, students, and National Public Radio interviewees (basically, my audio universe). It’s a way of voicing a list as if…

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Acknowledging the Corn

It’s time to take a breather from rescuing the humanities. So in this week of Thanksgiving, let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the corn.

William Bradford (1590-1657)

Corn—Indian corn—was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621 along with waterfowl, wild turkeys, and venison, according to William Bradford’s memoir Of Plymouth Plantation. (Bradford didn’t mention the Thanksgiving dinner, but he did name the foods the colony had in abundance.)

And it is significant that thi…

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Idiom Strong

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Residents of Barrett, Pennsylvania, sold t-shirts to help local police defray costs associated with a recent manhunt.

Back in September, Barrett Township, in Pennsylvania, was the center of a  manhunt for an armed fugitive and adopted the motto “Barrett Proud.” When the suspect was caught, in October, the entire region appropriated it and dubbed itself “Pocono Proud.

This week The New York Times reported that after an 11-year-old Indiana boy, Calvin Clark, suffered a severe head injury in a foo…

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An Angel for the Humanities

Last week in this space I regretted the lack of an acronym identifying the fields of the humanities, an acronym that would be a counterpart to the scientists’ successful STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A hundred readers joined in the discussion, and one, I think, came up with the answer to our prayers: RAPHAEL.

It would signify:

R – Religion
A – Art
P – Philosophy
H – History
A – Aesthetics
E – English
L -Languages

Admittedly, the acronym isn’t perfect.

—If Art, why not Music and Th…