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The Goldfinch and the Stewardess

dv2073195The literary world has been engaged in a hearty dialogue over the merits and deficiencies of Donna Tartt’s massive novel The Goldfinch, which spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Rave reviews of the book’s range and rich plot have confronted scathing condemnations of its cloying stock characters and overstuffed passages. We won’t rehearse the whole controversy. Let’s home in on a single word usage:

“I was asleep almost before the seat belt light went off—missing d…

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Mandarin Myths

timesexthingSeenox (it bills itself as “the ultimate time waster website,” so you have been warned) offers yet another compilation of signs in China with hilariously botched English translations. An obscene instruction about what to do with vegetables; menus listing “roasted husband” and “fresh crap”; a portable “EXECUTION IN PROGRESS” sign for janitors to use; 40 of the usual suspects are there. But they are introduced by a passage containing two myths about Mandarin Chinese. One is that Mandarin is “the m…

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The First Dude

suit-19th-century-thumbNo, I’m not referring to the president of the United States. Instead, it’s the first known appearance in print of the great American word dude, newly clarified in the latest issue of the journal Comments on Etymology, published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

In 1882 dude was unknown. In 1883, it was on the pages of seemingly every newspaper in the United States, as a brand new label for a foppish young man. And it was all thanks to an 84-line poem in the New …

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Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the…

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‘Sudden Death’ at El Mundial

Brasilian Futbol soccer fan face paint from Brazil photo by Monte Isom

I love the expression “sudden death.” It refers to a FIFA tie-breaking rule last used in 2002, when South Korea and Japan hosted the World Cup, but most of matches in this year’s El Mundial, as the games are known to Spanish-language viewers of Univision, all felt like sudden death, at least in the round of 16, which concluded Tuesday. (By the way, Univision’s newscast has been far superior to ESPN’s, at least at the level of wordplay.) The Netherlands-Mexico match was a nail-biter (I…

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Man or Machine

Many people talk about becoming a different person in a foreign language—funnier or bolder or more suave. What they don’t mention is that, on the way, you become a computer.

That’s what struck me last month when reading about “Eugene Goostman,” the first machine to pass the Turing Test, by convincing 10 of 30 judges that it was a human based on a five-minute, instant-message conversation.

Eugene’s conversational style isn’t so different from that of other machines that have taken up the challeng…

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Beware Hurricane Snooki

Big-BerthaI must love language more than I love truth. Example: The venerable Economist, along with several other publications, recently reported on a study whose tentative conclusion was that female-named hurricanes—or, more precisely, feminine-sounding hurricanes—cause more death than their masculine counterparts. The reason behind this apparent rise of the Valkyries is that those who hear of, say, Hurricane Tiffany fear her far less than those who hear of Hurricane Boris. They therefore take fewer …

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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A Victory Over Genericide

A September 1959 advertisement for the Xerox 914The New York Times has begun a strange new series titled “Verbatim,” mini-docudramas culled from transcripts of court documents. In its inaugural video, the punch line kicks in when the office worker being relentlessly grilled about the presence of a photocopy machine in his office is finally badgered into admitting that a machine exists from which he extracts copies of documents. What is that machine called? “Xerox,” he answers desperately.

To my students, the scene isn’t all that funny, exce…

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Redundant Anniversaries?

yellowexclamationThis past Sunday morning, a listener of Michigan Radio emailed me to correct my speech. My weekly segment of “That’s What They Say” had just aired, and the listener (we’ll call him M) was not impressed with something I said. He wrote:

I just heard your piece … on Michigan Radio. In that discussion you referred to an author who commemorated the “hundred-year anniversary of … ” (your words). Didn’t you mean the hundredth anniversary? I didn’t ever expect to hear that misuse (redundancy…