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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…

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What Kind of Fiction Do You Write?

popularfictionpublishingcompany-weird_tales_193207This is the question I get most often when people learn I have a new novel out. I understand the context of the question. If you walk into a Barnes & Noble, or go browsing on Amazon, you will see real or virtual shelves devoted to Mystery, Romance, Thrillers, Historical, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Young Adult. My books, and the books of most writers I happen to know, don’t belong on any of them.

Recently, at a book festival, I was invited to lunch with a couple of the other authors who were presenting. Th…

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Existential Questions

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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 …

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Busy B’s at ‘DARE’

dareWhat’s new at the Dictionary of American Regional English?

Boneless cats, for one. Badgers and back-budgers. Beach-walks, bodegas, (cellar) bugs, and beelers.

The six-volume dictionary has a continuing updated online presence now, thanks to support from friends who saw the benefit of such updating in the print version — and thanks to some additional grants and very strict budgeting. Its postprint era is just beginning, but a sampling of new and updated entries is now available at the dictionary …

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Shakespeare in the Courtroom

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Marc Antony

Julius Caesar and Otello (the version of Othello by Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito): These are the texts that framed the final remarks of federal Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted last month of the Boston Marathon killings.

The Tsarnaev case moved Judge O’Toole to reach for the kind of precedent that not law but literature makes available.

“One of Shakespeare’s characters observes: ‘The evil that men do lives after them. The…

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Wanted: Grown-Up Bedtime Stories

productimage-picture-lucky-jim-272Preparing for my vacation next week, I posted a query on Facebook, which read in part: “Looking for suggestions for a couple of novels to really get into on vacation. Am not looking for tales of emotional distress, pain, suffering, etc. I can get that at home.”

I got a lot of recommendations, one of which included a plot summary that began, “Malaya, 1951. Yunking Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the …” Yo, what part of “emotional distress” don’…

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The Dictionary on Trial

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 6.15.03 PMIn a court of law, a dictionary can be a blunt weapon.

It provides meanings, to be sure, and context for arguments. But by its very nature, a dictionary rarely cuts to the heart of the matter.

This is particularly true when a case turns on the definition of a word, and the word itself is acquiring new meanings. At the recent meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, in Vancouver, one of the speakers, Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California, told of his experience as an …

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Love, Blog Me Do. (You Know I Blog You.)

0dd3b-bloglovinMy husband teases me for skipping past much of the bulk of newspaper editorials to get to the comments. He’s a social scientist, interested in government policies and the social order; I’m a fiction writer, interested in how personalities respond to rhetorical maneuvers. It hasn’t been lost on me that the majority of highly rated comments in newspapers like The New York Times come from a handful of commenters, who seem to make a full-time job out of logging on to major journals and Internet sour…

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Human Resources and Thought Control

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George Orwell

Several correspondents sent me links to James Gingell’s recent Guardian article about what George Orwell would have thought about today’s human-resources professionals. Gingell sees HR professionals as evil slimeballs. He thinks Orwell would have deplored their “bureaucratic repression” and hated “their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.” (I note in passing, without dwelling on the poi…

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Laying Low

laying low 2Last week a friend texted to see if I wanted to go out for dinner. I was recovering from some minor surgery and had been told to stay mostly indoors and take it easy. So I texted back a regretful no and added, “I’m just laying low this weekend.”

I stared at the sentence on my phone (having not yet hit send) and thought, “Wait, is it ‘laying low’?”

Another voice in my head responded, “No, it must be ‘lying low.’ It’s clearly intransitive.”

“But,” I protested (in my head), “‘laying low’ …