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  • 04/29/15--21:01: ‘A Piece of Cake’
  • It started with an email from my eclectic friend Wes Davis. He said he’d been reading Tinkerbelle, by, he told me, “Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who, in 1965, took a leave of absence from his job and sailed a 13-and-a-half-foot wooden boat across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England.” He’d come upon a passage he thought would interest me. Manry is just starting out and it’s a beautiful day, “the wind strong enough to keep us moving along briskly.”...


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  • 05/05/15--21:01: Thugs Like Us
  • Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.54.40 AM

    A tweet by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots.

    In a press conference a couple of days after the 2014 Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who had made rather obnoxiously boastful comments after the game, was asked if he was bothered by being repeatedly referred to as a “thug.” (The sports website Deadspin calculated that thug was uttered 625 times on American television the day following the Seahawks’ win.) Sherman, a Stanford University graduate, said he was,

    because i...


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    “The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

    Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

    You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book ...


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  • 05/26/15--21:01: ‘Cheeky Nando’s’
  • Humility is always a good thing. I got a dose of it recently, courtesy of a BuzzFeed article posted to Facebook by a friend of mine, Siobhan Wagner, a journalist who was born in the U.S, but has been living in London for nine years. The article was called “Americans On Tumblr Are Trying To Find Out What A ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ Is And Are Struggling” and concerned a meme that had become popular in England. Here’s an example:

    tumblr_no71pliLwO1rmrl0oo1_500

    As the title suggests, the article detailed the exasperation expressed by Am...


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  • 05/27/15--21:01: An Honor and a Horror
  • beckham

    Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

    Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv...


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  • 06/04/15--21:01: Tweeting Prepositions
  • 36dqtb

    Toward the end of NPR’s Planet Money podcast last week, the host, Jacob Goldstein, said: “You can tweet at us at ‘planetmoney.’ You can tweet at me at ‘jacobgoldstein.’”

    In March, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addressed the U.S. Cyber Command task force and said (I quote from a transcript posted on Lexis-Nexis), “If you do nothing else and get nothing else out of this encounter today, I want you to do one thing, which is to go home tonight or make a call or tweet at your family, or do what...


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  • 06/18/15--21:01: Nibbling Away
  • Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 3.43.25 PMWhat’s a nibble?

    You’d know the answer — or at least one answer — if you’d had the good fortune to attend the combined conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America and Studies in the History of the English Language this month, at the University of British Columbia. The first morning’s schedule specified, at 10 a.m., a Coffee & Tea Break With Nibbles. And those Nibbles turned out to be … various sweet rolls and breads.

    In other words, a Nibble (at least this kind) is one possible answer...


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  • 07/13/15--21:01: 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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  • 07/23/15--21:01: 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...


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    E.B. White

    I learned something frightening yesterday. Just by chance, really. I happened to discover that in the syllabus for a course on crisis management at a noted law school (a sound and well-organized course as far as I could judge) students are informed that 60 percent of their grade will be based on a case study, and “because proper English usage is essential to effective communication, a portion of the final grade will be based upon compliance with the principles outlined in The Elements...


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  • 09/24/15--21:01: 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, ...


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  • 11/05/15--18:30: So, NPR Voice, Ya Know …
  • 800px-Ira_Glass_CMU_2006

    Ira Glass at Carnegie Hall
    (Photo by Brighterorange via Wikimedia Commons)

    I was frankly a little disappointed to read Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times piece “‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves.” Not that I’m not obsessed with the way people talk on the programs carried by National Public Radio stations. (If you have any doubt on that point, you can read my extensive reflections on the matter here.) The problem — suggested by the singular in the title — is that there isn’t just one NPR vo...


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  • 11/10/15--18:30: American Stars and Hearts
  • If Twitter users want to respond to a tweet, they have three options: reply to it, retweet it, or mark it with a symbol of approval. Over the past couple of weeks, Twitter has begun changing that symbol from a star to a heart, and the word the symbol represents from “Favorite” to “Like.”

    On its blog, the company gave an explanation for the momentous shift:

    We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You...


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  • 11/23/15--18:23: The Unsuitability of English
  • paushuize

    Utrecht, Holland— My mission in this pleasant central Holland town: giving a keynote address at the 25th anniversary conference of Sense (originally the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors, now a general professional organization of anglophone editors in the Netherlands) in the palatial surroundings of the beautifully restored 16th-century Paushuize (pictured). Knowing that the editors and translators who belong to Sense are much concerned with ...


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    How did Robert Frost pronounce "often"?

    How did Robert Frost pronounce often?

    I was listening the other day to “Reply All,” a podcast about the Internet, and P.J. Vogt, the reporter/host, had occasion to say the word often. I was pretty confident that I knew how he was going to pronounce it. After all, Vogt is young (I would judge in his early 30s), and speaks with vocal fry, list lilt, uptalk, and, generally, a pronounced Ira Glass-esque lack of slickness.

    In other words, I knew he would say off-ten, pronouncing the t.

    And he did.

    A ...


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    photo_18980_wide_large

    Illustration by Ellen Winkler for The Chronicle

    OK, word lovers. Here’s the perfect gift for yourself, or any other logophile: A whole year of the complete online Dictionary of American Regional English at your fingertips for only $47.50, half the usual subscription price.

    Yes, for that price you can leave the six monumental volumes of DARE reposing majestically on your shelf and access their contents with a few keyboard commands. And there’s much more in the interactive digital version. For a s...


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  • 01/06/16--18:25: ‘Hey’ Now
  • Hey, if you don’t mind, listen to the first 20 seconds or so of this conversation between National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro and Gene Demby:

    If you didn’t care to listen, or experienced technical difficulties, here’s the exchange in which I’m interested:

    Shapiro: Hey Gene.

    Demby: Hey Ari.

    hank-kingsley

    Hank Kingsley of “The Larry Sanders Show”: “Hey now!”

    Ari and Gene are partaking of a meaning for hey that’s not recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines the word as “A call to attract att...


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    IMG_2399

    The tiddly oggie is actually of English origin, but it typifies the Australian penchant for diminutives and abbreviations.

    I’ve been in Australia for two weeks now, and all I can say is the people here must be extremely busy. Why else would they feel obliged to abbreviate so incredibly many words? I started to write down examples shortly after I arrived, and already my notebook is almost full.

    A lot of the abbreviations are diminutives: Tasmania is Tassie, mosquitoes are mossies, politicians are...


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  • 01/31/16--15:24: Oh, Commas
  • As the self-appointed watcher of commas, known to some (OK, known to myself) as The Comma Maven, I naturally was concerned when I saw the provisional title of my friend Craig Pittman’s forthcoming book about the weirdness of Florida. The book grew out of the tweets that Pittman (a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times) has been putting out for some time, like this:

     

    Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 9.40.00 PM

    And this:

    Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 9.39.06 PM

     

    (Craig is not connected with the person or persons who send out tweets like the following under the handle @_FloridaMan:

    ...


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  • 02/15/16--15:18: Wassup, Wazzock?
  •  

    You may have caught this Budweiser ad during the Super Bowl. Dame Helen Mirren sits before a burger, is served a Bud (not bloody likely), and counsels, in strong language, against driving drunk. Anyone who does so, she avers, is a “shortsighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution.” Then, at about the 41-second mark, she says, “Don’t be a pillock.”

    My guess is that somewhere north of 99 percent of the people who saw the spot had no idea what a pillock is — though they coul...


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