The Great Punkin Controversy

tumblr_nus05pehML1tg0kfio1_500Starbucks watchers were taken aback last month when the company made a surprise announcement about its standard-bearing fall beverage. This year, for the first time in its 12-year history, a Pumpkin Spice Latte will contain actual pumpkin, instead of merely spices associated with pumpkin pie.

I will not be able to report on the difference, regrettably. I never tasted the pumpkinless Pumpkin Spice Latte, so vile did it sound to me.

The PSL, as it’s affectionately known, has a cultlike following, …


Members Only


Hobbes’s Leviathan, an organization composed of limbs and other functional elements working together to accomplish something. Like a faculty.

If you want to speak of someone who has a teaching appointment you might refer to her or him as a faculty member or a member of the faculty.

If it were only that simple.

Since the 12th century, the term faculty  has denoted a group, and not any group: a faculty  is an indispensable aggregation and organization, the heart of any institution of higher educat…


A Million Missing Words: The Search Is On


Medal for lexicographic valor would look something like this, only more Wordnik-y (Image courtesy of Wordnik)

They are the dark matter of the lexiverse — a million words of the English language not yet recorded in any dictionary.

Words like these: farecasting, deanling, domainer, hyperloop, unfuckulate, anachronym, smokescreening.

About a million words are already on record in works like the Oxford English Dictionary, with 600,000 words, and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, with 470,000 (many overl…


Sex and Verbs and Rock ’n’ Roll

coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

My German is barely a smattering…



freshman_first_year_school_ornament_roundThis year, for the first time, I am teaching a freshman — oops, first-year — seminar. Right there is the problem. As readers of this blog know, I like to be on top of the latest gender-neutral neologism. For many years, the term freshman has belonged to a class of designations (fireman, policeman, mailman) for which our culture has tried to find gender-neutral alternatives. As my Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan noted in 2013, within colleges — arguably one of the most progressive institut…


Such Good Friends


Are these friends of Dorothy or friends of Dorothy’s?

On Saturday, Flavia Pennetta of Italy defeated her countrywoman, longtime doubles partner, and onetime roommate Roberta Vinci to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and gracious, but what caught my ear was one sentence, which you can hear at about the 7:58 mark in this YouTube clip:

I could be wrong, but what I think she is saying is, “It’s so nice to play with a friend of my.”

When I heard it, my thought…


Pointless Vocabulary Diversity and Grammatical Structure


Geoff Pullum looked here for a discussion of useless vocabulary and weakened sentence structure in schoolbooks, but didn’t find it. If not here, then where?

I was recently browsing (I’ll tell you why some other time) in my long-neglected copy of The Basis and Essentials of German by Charles Duff and Richard Freund (Thomas Nelson, London, third edition 1945), and a polemical section in the introduction happened to catch my eye. It was a tirade against the practices of language teachers and examin…


The Tennessee Waltz

gender_bending__tennessee_kid_cooper_by_totalzadrfangirl97-d5zdgmrWhat is going on in Tennessee? First we learn that they tried to ban mothers and fathers before coming to their senses. Now we learn that their flagship university tried to ban he and she—before it came to its senses. What senses are these, and how is it that Tennessee keeps losing them?

This week, we’ll look at he and she. At our first faculty meeting, before I’d learned of the issue in Tennessee, I heard a moment of gender awkwardness when the chair of one of our departments stood up to intr…


Ice Cream, Iced Tea, and Sundaes

Ice_Tea_(2571858493)Now that summer is yielding to fall in the Northern Hemisphere, and the long days of summer are yielding to the long nights of fall, it’s a good moment to contemplate the distinctive language of certain staples of summer — in particular, ice cream, iced tea, and the ice cream sundae.

Ice cream came first. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest example comes from a 1672 history of the Order of the Garter: “The Soveraign’s Table on the Eve … One Plate of Ice Cream.” Another 17th-century example …


Permission to Footnote

It’s been 17 years since my realization that I was hoarding footnotes. I was using plenty of footnotes in my own academic work: I had been doing that since graduate school. But I was withholding footnotes from undergraduates.

Not that I was actively forbidding undergraduate students from inserting footnotes into their essays. But I wasn’t teaching them how to do it either, which meant that their essays included exactly zero footnotes.

I was teaching a senior seminar at the time of the realizatio…