December 31, 2009

toasting to a blue moon

New Year's Eve is always special, even more so on a full moon night. And once in a while, New Year's Eve falls on a "blue moon."
Yf they say the mone [moon] is belewe [blue]
We must believe that it is true. [1528]
Read more about the origin of the phrase blue moon on Wikipedia. Today, we define a "blue moon" as the second full moon in a calender month, but this hasn't always been so. According to this article in Sky and Telescope [via Wikipedia] a blue moon used to be the third moon in a season of four moons where only three would normally occur. The phrase once in a blue moon is first documented in the 19th century, but it has its origin in the phrase "once in a moon," whose first occurrence is dated at 1547 by the Oxford English Dictionary ("madnesse that doth infest a man ones in a mone").

Enjoy the moon, grab a drink of your choice and toast to a happy new year.

December 28, 2009

verbs of the decade

Have fun with this chart. It has the interesting category "verb of the year". For 2000-2009, it lists the following verbs: to I.M., to outsource, to download, punk'd, to Swift boat, to Google, to text, to blog, to go rogue, and to crowdsource.

No mention of plutoed.

December 25, 2009

December 23, 2009

menu engineering

I tend to think of an engineer as a person who builds bridges, works on noise control in airplanes or on the stabilization of slopes. However, today I came across engineering of a different kind: Menu engineers have no particular knowledge of math, technology, or science, they specialize in creating restaurant menus that diners find appealing and that make them order expensive items. Tip #1: Don't write the dollar sign on the menu.
After Tabla merged with its downstairs sibling, the Bread Bar at Tabla, in October, Mr. Meyer and his team spent months pondering such matters before unveiling a new menu earlier this month. The price of Boodie’s chicken livers, for example, is $9, written simply as 9. This is a friendly and manageable number at a time when numbers really need to be friendly and manageable. Besides, it has no dollar sign. In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant. Not only will it scream “Hello, you are about to spend money!” into a diner’s tender psyche, but it can feel aggressive and look tacky. So can price formats that end in the numeral 9, as in $9.99, which tend to signify value but not quality, menu consultants and researchers say.
Menu engineering? Menu tweaking more likely. But "Menu Tweaker" just doesn't look so great on a business card.

December 21, 2009

WOTY Season: birthers and deathers

It's that time of the year again. Linguists, journalists, editors, and bloggers are listing their Words of the Year. In an op-ed for the Times, Mark Leibovich writes:

It was a year for birthers, deathers and Tenthers to go all nine-iron on the Obama brand. Catchphrases and buzzwords can tell us much about a year past — what resonated, what stuck, what the year revealed about the sensibility of the nation, whether you’re a wise Latina woman, a mini-Madoff, a teabagger or Balloon Boy. But if ever there were a year to put buzzwords before a death panel, this would be it, before the aporkalypse comes.

Among the words that Grant Barrett lists, many will no doubt have no staying power. Who even uses the term jeggings (jean leggings) now? (I'm not a big fan of blended words anyway.) My word of the year is not exactly a word, but rather a word formation process: Creating nouns ending on -er based on other nouns, resulting in a noun that means something like "a person who irrationally hangs on to the idea of X", such as birther, deather (Barrett defines this as "someone who believes erroneously that the government would have death panels under health care reform"), and Tenther ("A person who believes the federal govenment is mostly violation of the 10th Amendment."). They're all cousins of truther (a person who believes that the US goverment was in charge of the 9/11 attack and feels the urge to spread the "truth"). Affix of the year? Let's call it "the crazy -er."

December 07, 2009

first-class and second-class luminaries

WASHINGTON — Political and entertainment luminaries gathered here over the weekend for the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors, a two-day celebration that brings together some of the most influential figures in Washington and Hollywood.The recipients of the award this year were Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, the mezzo-soprano and soprano Grace Bumbry and the jazz musician Dave Brubeck.
Note something? Gracy Bumbry and Dave Brubeck may be entertainment luminaries, but their names still warant an explanation of who they are. Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, and Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, are considered household names. They can go predicate-free.

November 25, 2009

special pun


sit. grow. learn.

For days now, this article on applying Cesar Milan's dog whispering techniques to children has been the most popular article on the NYT website.

“When we started watching his shows, we had intended to apply his advice toward our dogs,” said Amy Twomey, [...] who is raising three children under 10 with her husband, Matt. “But we realized a lot of ideas can be used on our kids.” Indeed, Mr. Millan’s advice has replaced a shelf full of books on how to tame an unruly child. “It’s all the same simple concept: how to be the pack leader in your own house,” she said.

I suppose if you live in a house in which the word ‘no’ is considered harmful, it is perhaps useful to learn that setting limits is not always a bad thing. Just why one would have to learn that lesson from watching someone train dogs escapes me.

November 04, 2009

sniffed into jail by a dog

But can a dog missniff? The Innocence Project of Texas calls scent lineups "junk science":

HOUSTON — A dog’s sniff helped put Curvis Bickham in jail for eight months. Now that the case against him has been dropped, he wants to tell the world that the investigative technique that justified his arrest smells to high heaven. [...] Dogs’ noses have long proved useful to track people, and the police rely on them to detect drugs and explosives, and to find the bodies of victims of crime and disaster. A 2004 report by the F.B.I. states that use of scent dogs, properly conducted, “has become a proven tool that can establish a connection to the crime.” Scent lineups, however, are different. Critics say that the possibilities of cross-contamination of scent are great, and that the procedures are rarely well controlled.
More here.

October 25, 2009

offense: driving while not speaking english

DALLAS (AP) — Dallas police officers have improperly cited drivers for not being able to speak English 38 times in the past three years, Chief David Kunkle said Friday. The discovery came after a woman was pulled over earlier this month for making an illegal U-turn and was given a ticket for being a “non-English-speaking driver.”

Apparently, the computer system for citations has a menu that includes a law that requires drivers of commercial vehicles to speak English. But from now on, the Dallas police will not write tickets for that offense anymore either (if there really is such a law). They have embarrassed themselves enough in a city where Hispanics make up more than 44% of the population and where one can take the written portion of the driver's license test in Spanish.

October 15, 2009

the icing on the cake

The New York Times has a hilarious slide show on professional cakes gone wrong. It's based on the popular blog Cake Wrecks, which won the Bloggie award for "Best Food Blog" this year. May the fourth be with you, always!

October 14, 2009

wisconsin palm trees?

I never heard of this before. Nor has Google, it seems. Why would someone refer to Brussel sprouts stalks as palm trees? Next time, I need to ask the farmer!

October 09, 2009

"Daddy, you own the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo's birthday"

The Obama family had reason to celebrate today: Their dog Bo turned one. Congratulations! Oh, and then there was that little other thing, the Nobel Peace Prize.

September 27, 2009

r.i.p., william safire

William Safire, self-appointed language maven of the nation, is dead. Many of his "On Language" columns in the Times magazine were, shall we say, not really inspired by linguistic research, but at least he didn't take himself too seriously:
And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
This is how some linguists remember him:

September 18, 2009

gladioli but not octopi

Let's continue with the flora theme. I recently came across this passage in Lorrie Moore's new book "A Gate at the Stairs," which is set in a college town in the Midwest:
"Well, sometimes she came to the market with her snapdragons. And gladioluses. People here called them 'gladioli,' which annoyed her."
"Yes," said Sarah, smiling. "I don't like that either."
Not to be nitpicky, but how likely is it that the owner of a fancy French restaurant (Sarah), you know, the kind of restaurant that serves gougères to the farmers' market crowd for breakfast, would find fault with the correct plural of a word of Latinate origin? I'd understand it if she had chosen octopi as a plural educated people find fault with. Octopus is a word from Greek, and as such the proper learned plural form is octopodes, not octopi. (The simple English plural octopuses is also appropriate, of course, and it might sit better with those who don't like gladioli.)

September 17, 2009

"That utterly preposterous spewing of fiction": An ABC of Tim Gunnisms

Thank you, Johnny, for giving us a memorable Tim Gunn moment. I'm sorry that you will now probably feel empty, but perhaps not as empty as you did when you were in the bottom three last week, because that was "the most empty feeling" you ever felt. It sounds as if life didn't really treated you all that badly.

The challenge was to create a design (any design) out of newspapers. Not exactly the most original challenge ever (see Jeffrey's dress from season 3's garbage challenge on the left), but at least it limited the designs in some way. After several weeks of pretty cocktail dresses made of regular fabric, you kind of yearn for a dress made from car parts or plastic cups.

And the results were quite interesting. True, some designers didn't shine. Nicolas's design, for example, was described as insect-like and reminded the judges of cockroaches. Gordana's fault was that her design was "very wearable," which, apparently, in fashion lingo means that it's too J.C. Penney. (Interestingly, in the workroom, Tim Gunn said about the same design that it was the "antithesis of ho-hum" and that it was "stunning". Go figure.)

Irina won with a striking ruffled trenchcoat, which the judges (again, a no-show of Michael Kors and Nina Garcia) fawned over as "Coco Chanel meets Yves Saint Laurent." If you say so.

Johnny was "out" with a sloppily constructed dress inspired by pop-art (read: he chose newspaper pages with images on them). But that was not really what made this episode stand out. The high point came at the very end of the show: Tim Gunn was outraged that Johnny had fibbed his way through the judging. Johnny's story was that his design was so poor because his first design, which he described as "very Dior", was destroyed by a sputtering iron when he steamed it. However, there was no steaming iron, and there was most certainly no "very Dior" dress. There was only "a craft project gone awry, like a bunch of kindergarteners did it," as Tim Gunn put it, and everybody knew it.

It was certainly not the only lie of the evening. Irina told the judges that as soon as she knew she had to use newspapers she had decided to do a trench coat. Excuse me? Her first design, which she wisely ditched, was a stiff mini dress, but at least she realized herself that was not presentable.

This episode will not go down in PR history for the fashion that was presented (nor, as advertised, for the "biggest lie in PR history"). It was really all about showing us a new facet of Tim Gunn. He never before took personal offense at a candidate's behavior on the runway -- and there was plenty of fibbing and lying in previous seasons (shoegate, anyone?). But never before did he have an outburst like last night. He angrily tugged on his cuffs in order to avoid as much as a handshake with Johnny. After Johnny had left the room, he said what will hopefully become a classic:
I'm incredulous of that utterly preposterous spewing of fiction.
This may be a good time to add to an ABC of Tim Gunnisms that I posted about three years ago. New entries are in green.

[links go to merriam-webster online]

  1. ancillary (from the Latin word for "handmaid"), antithesis (from the Greek word for "opposition), awry (based on an Old English verb for "move forward")
  2. bifurcate (from the Latin word for "two-pronged"-- the word is related to "fork")
  3. chacun à son goût (French for "each to his own taste")
  4. daunting (from Latin "domitare", to tame)
  5. egregious (from the Latin word for "flock", as in "towering above the flock")
  6. faux bois (French for "false wood")
  7. grievous (from French, related to "grave")
  8. haute couture (French for "high sewing"), ho-hum (from the interjection expressing boredom)
  9. idiosyncratic (from Greek "personal mixing"), incredulous (from the Latin word for "believe")
  10. joie de vivre (French, "joy of living")
  11. kindergarten, as in "kindergarten play of camelot" (from German for "children's garden", "camelot" is the name of King Arthur's castle), also kindergarteners
  12. lexicon (from the Greek word for "of words")
  13. malfeasance (from French, "wrong doing", -feasance is related to "faire", "do" in French, or "facere" in Latin, which is the source for the English word "fact", "that which has been made")
  14. nominations sought!
  15. omniscient (from Latin "all-knowing")
  16. preposterous (from Latin the Latin word for "absurd, reversed", from "prae" + "posterus", "before" + " coming after")
  17. quilt-like appliqués (from Old French "cuilte", the word for "stuffed sack" or "mattress")
  18. reverie (from Old French, "rejoicing, rage", related to "rave")
  19. Sturm and Drang (from German, "storm and urge", the title of a play by the German author F. M. Klinger (1776), seized upon by the historians of literature as aptly expressing the spirit of the school to which the author belonged [OED], used for young writers characterized by extravagance in the representation of violent passion [OED])
  20. trepidation (from Latin, "trapidus", meaning "scared, alarmed"), spewing of fiction (from the Old English word fro "to spit")
  21. ultra-glamorous (from Latin, "ultra", meaning "beyond", first used in French in the combination "ultra-royaliste", related to "ulterior")
  22. voluminous (from Latin, "volumen", meaning "roll, coil")
  23. woeful (from an Indo-European interjection expressing grief or lamentation)
  24. x-uberant [sorry, had to cheat on this one]
  25. nominations sought!
  26. zaftig (from Yiddish "zaftik", "saftig" in German, meaning "juicy)

foppish flowers and men

I always see these flowers on the farmers' market in late summer, but I could never be bothered to look up their name. (I'm not very good at remembering plant names, so there seemed to be no point.) Last Saturday, however, a seller's sign indicated that they are called "Cockscomb", and that made immediate sense, of course, if you imagine a rooster with a furry comb.

(Their botanical name is Celosia cristata, which sounds almost like a spell from Harry Potter.)

Spelled with an X, coxcomb refers to the human version of the rooster with the furry comb. Jane Austen heros are just the opposite of them.

"Do you know Mr. Robert Ferrars?" asked Elinor.

"Not at all--I never saw him; but I fancy he is very unlike his brother--silly and a great coxcomb."

September 10, 2009

now that you've said smurf...

Another boring challenge: Make a pretty dress for a pretty woman. You'd think the designers would have used the openness of the challenge to create a signature look that would leave a mark, but not so. So let's not even talk about the dresses, especially since I didn't "get" the winning look. The skirt looked like bloomers to me, and like Heidi Klum, I'm not a big fan of a look that "needs help up top" (only that HK said this about another designer's look. She elaborated: "They have to be perky and they have to be in the right spot.")

Let's talk about... smurfs instead. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't recognize them, but if you grew up in Germany in the late 1970s, there is no way you could have escaped the smurf craze. And this is how they dress (from Wikipedia):

Almost all the characters look essentially alike — mostly male, very short..., with blue skin, white trousers with a hole for their short tails, white hat in the style of a Phrygian cap, and sometimes some additional accessory that identifies a personality...The male Smurfs almost never appear without their hats, which leaves a mystery among the fans as to whether they have hair. ...Smurfette [a Barbie-type female smurf] is not one of the original smurfs because she was created by Gargamel, the evil wizard.

Despite their sartorial shortcomings, the smurfs were very successful in the entertainment industry. They even topped the German (and Dutch) charts.

As warm as these memories are, there are probably not too many contexts in which a dress that can be described as a "smurf prom dress" is a good decision. Logan seemed to hope that Tim Gunn would contradict him, but he didn't: "Now that you've said smurf...". Another conundrum. (Now that's an idea for a challenge: Create a prom dress for Smurfette!)

Unlike Logan, Carol was praised for having created a "sophisticated" look, which made Heidi almost forget that Carol used the Southern expression "y'all". It just shows that speaking a dialect doesn't mean you're a country pumpkin.

Somebody who missed the mark was Johnny. His dress also earned the much-dreaded label "bridesmaid". He was told to "push the envelope," an expression that originated in aeronautics. The "flight envelope" refers to the set of combinations of speed, altitude, etc. that are possible for a particular aircraft, and from there the meaning of "envelope" was extended to non-aeronautical contexts. The "envelope" is a boundary, and "pushing the envelope" means..., well, you get the idea.

The greatest shocker in this episode was the rudeness of guest judge Jennifer Rade (Jennifer Who?). True, Cristyl's design for Valerie was not very sophisticated, but her client, Valerie, liked it -- to which JR responded "but that's why Valerie is not a designer". And that's why you, JenniferBadmouthRade, will never be asked to write a book on wit or style.

Please come back soon, FashionDirectorOfMarieClaireNinaGarcia and AmericanTopDesignerMichaelKors, or we'll all end up in Smurfville.

September 03, 2009

a capital WTF

This was a badly designed challenge. The first part was boring and uninspired ("Create a fun and fashionable surf wear look" and "infuse it with a point of view" - how much blander can it get?), the second part (creating an "avantgarde design" to accompany the first look) was incomprehensible and merely tacked on. Oh, and it was a team challenge. Brought to us "by our friends at Garnier."

In previous seasons, the avantgarde challenge was a high point. Just think of the fabulous dress created by Christian Siriano and Chris March two seasons ago. It's a PR icon. As was the runner-up, a stunning coat ensemble designed by Jillian Lewis and Victorya Hong. This, ladies and gentlemen, is fashion.

This time, however, the avantgarde aspect of the challenge was a complete letdown, or, to put it more euphemistically and Tim Gunn-like: The whole episode was an "enormous conundrum"*, or, as Ra'mon succinctly stated, a "capital WTF". I firmly believe that nothing good can come from a challenge that involves sending Tim Gunn to the beach in flip-flops.**

I clearly don't have a clue what "fun and fashionable surf wear look" means, because most of the designs just looked like ordinary summer clothes to me. And the common denominator of the avantgarde designs seemed to be that they were costumy, heavy-handed, and unflattering. See exhibit A.

The teams that were the greatest pain to watch (thanks, editors) ended up as the teams with the highest and the lowest score. Epperson and Qristyl (how my fingers itch when I have to type that letter combination!) gave us a master lesson in passive aggressiveness, and Mitchell and Ra'mon illustrated the importance of prepositions: Working in a team does not equal working as a team. Heidi Klum considered Mitchell's performance, or rather non-performance, as his third strike against the law of Project Runway ("You have to design, and create, and sew"). Three strikes and you're out.

In a surprising turn, the judges took a strong liking to Ra'mon's last-minute lime-green seaweed-washed-ashore
neoprene*** dress and declared him the winner. I hope that this means that we're done with beach challenges -- I'd rather not see Tim Gunn in flip-flops again.

* The origin of this word is, well, a conundrum in itself. It may have been created as a parody of a Latin term. Alternative spellings of the word include conimbrum, quonundrum, quadundrum.
** In 1937, the name Neoprene was adopted to describe some kind of chloroprene rubber formerly sold under the trademark "DuPrene".
Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word flip-flop to describe a politician who changes his mind to go with the flow precedes the use as a word for a type of sandal. Normally, the more abstract meaning is derived from the more concrete meaning, but perhaps wavering politicians have been around longer than rubber sandals.

August 27, 2009

of chic and chicken

Earth to Malvin: The words "chic" and "chicken" are not actually related. Hence, when asked to create a flattering, chic look of any kind for a beautiful pregnant woman, a "mother hen" suit with "chicken thighs" (the original design included jodhpurs) is not the way to go.

That's all.

Edited to add: Blogging Project Runway linked to a hilarious interview with Ari Fish, the person whose design was eliminated last week. Asked what made her try out for the show she said that Lifetime had urged her to apply and that she did it "as a sort of performance" and then "it spiraled so far out of control that I went to be a contestant on the show." I guess that's what the fox meant, too, when he said that the grapes were sour.

August 26, 2009

r.i.p, ted kennedy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the "Last Lion" of the Senate, died yesterday. He will be remembered as a passionate voice for civil rights, health care, and education -- and as a dog lover. Without him, there would be no Portuguese Water Dog named "Bo" in the White House, and perhaps no President named Barack Obama either.

August 25, 2009

all vampired out

Vampires are very popular these days. The HBO series "True Blood and the movie "Twilight" make them look gorgeous. A fashion magazine invites upcoming and established designers to sketch a dress for the vampire wedding of the century, and another vampire series, "The Vampire Diaries", will debut on the CW network next month (it will be shown on "Thirstdays"). In the light of so much vampire beauty, the less supernaturally inclined may indeed feel "all vampired out."

However, an Times article today notes an interesting twist: In order to promote the series, the network teamed up with the American Red Cross to sponsor a blood drive on more than 230 high school and college campuses.

Much better than the promotional articles distributed by CW, among them "fang floss" and "sunscream."

August 20, 2009

it's garment time

They're back. Project Runway returns to the screen, with a 2-hour appetizer: The All-Star Challenge, which turned out to be not quite the delicacy I had hoped it would be. A little stale, perhaps. Santino Rice seemed to think he was in a "The biggest jackass" competition, while Korto Momolu seemed to follow the script of a show "The biggest whiner". We saw some pretty dresses, but nothing really stood out. Uli Herzner's collection, with a fabulous structural dress (my personal favorite of the evening), was waved off as "sophisticated," but without "spirit" (read: there were no flowy print dresses).

In the end, quite predictably (though not necessarily based on the quality of his athletics-inspired mini-collection), nice guy Daniel Vosovic won and Tim Gunn confessed to be "more proud* of you than I have the adequate words to express." Sweet. Less sweet, but more fun, however, was Heidi Klum's comment on Daniel's first look, confessing that she goes "all dizzy when I see boobs going all over the place". You wouldn't expect anything else from the woman who is the voice of "The perfect bra" for Victoria's Secret.

On to the main course. Season 6 opened with a red-carpet challenge (a little bit of a yawn, since the all-star challenge had also incorporated that). As always, in the beginning it's hard to keep the designers apart and we don't get to see too much of Tim Gunn. (However, Lifetime makes up for it by posting extended workroom critiques on their website.) It doesn't help that everybody finds their garment amazing and wouldn't change a thing -- at this point, nobody stands out, neither sartorially nor linguistically, unless you count weirdly spelled first names, like Qristyl, who designed a dress to match (read: It was a mess.) Underdog Christopher won the challenge with a dress that was deemed "cute** and edgy", with "a dark romantic attitude" and "a bit of youth." Ari, this season's Eliza, sent a "disco soccer ball" (Michael Kors) down the runway and was out. Perhaps she should have listened when Tim Gunn used the words "halter diaper" to her in the workroom. On the other hand, she imagined a client who would go from a Hollywood red carpet affair straight to Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. What do we know what such people would wear.

*In English, one-syllable adjectives normally form the comparative with -er and -est (bigger, cheaper, largest). Sometimes, however, speakers make the decision to form a synthetic comparative and superlative (with more and most). According to linguistic research, the underlying motivation may be to reduce the processual load for the hearer. More proud signals the comparative more clearly than prouder, since the comparative element (more) comes first and is meaningful in itself. Still, it's a non-standard form for one-syllable adjectives.

**The meaning of "cute" changed quite a bit over time. Derived from the Latin verb acuere (to sharpen), it originally meant "clever, keen-witted, sharp, shrewd", as the non-truncated from acute still does.

August 19, 2009

beefy bobama

President Obama is expected to arrive on Martha's Vineyard on August 23. Retailers are offering Obamaritas, Hawaiian muffins, and a beer named "Ale to the Chief." But that is not all.

Retailers are even taking advantage of the first dog, Bo. Good Dog Goods is selling a “Bobama” T-shirt for $18, with a picture of a Portuguese water dog on the front and the slogan “The New Dog in Town” on the back. Kerry Scott, the store’s owner, is organizing the island’s first dog parade in honor of Bo. And he is also getting his own snack: a Beefy Bobama Dog Treat from Vin-Yips, a dog treat company.

“It’s a very dog-friendly island,” Ms. Gardella said.
And pun-friendly, if I may add.

July 30, 2009

calibrating beer choices

It seems that calibrating words is nothing against calibrating beer choices. A jolly beer was had at the White House and all that everybody is talking about is what they were drinking.

Over here a schnaufblog, we would have picked New Glarus Tail Wagger for this reconciliatory meeting. Who can resist a puppy?

July 28, 2009

puppy alarm

The New York Times connects with the dog lovers among its readership (via Althouse).

July 25, 2009

do you speak calibratese?

You may or may not have been following the debate about whether or not the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a case of blatant racial profiling. Here's the story in a nutshell (from The Boston Globe):

[Sergeant] Crowley arrested Gates, a leading expert on African-American history, after police were called to a report of a break-in at the Ware Street home. Gates had just arrived home from the filming of a PBS documentary in China. His front door was stuck shut, and his taxi driver helped him pry it open.

According to a police report, a woman had called to report two black men trying to force their way into a house. Crowley said in the report that Gates became disruptive and was arrested for disorderly conduct. Gates has denied that he was disorderly.

The charge was dropped, but the story gained momentum this week as Gates demanded an apology and Crowley refused to give one -- and Obama jumped into the fray.

President Obama found unexpectedly clear words for the officer's behavior when he sad that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home." He later realized that his choice of words may not have been the wisest. So he apologized. Or not:
And because this has been ratcheting up -- and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up -- I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently.
The president now thinks that both parties overreacted. In the meantime, the charges against Gates have been dropped and the case was called "regrettable", but no apology was issued. Nor did Gates apologize for implying in an interview with his daughter that Crawley is a bad police officer and potentially a racist.

Three parties regretting their behavior, yet no apology. So what now? Let's go have a beer. The president, Dr. Gates, and Sergeant Crowley will. It seems they all speak calebratese.

Edited to add this link to an article on the "pitfall" of speaking one's mind.

July 22, 2009

of truthers and birthers

I must admit that when I read today at that "Liz Cheney defends the Birthers", I had no idea what the article was about. Turns out that birthers are those people who believe that Barack Obama was not eligible to become President of the United States because, according to them, there is serious doubt about his citizenship status.

I'm familiar with the movement, but I thought it had died down. Obviously not. Salon reports that Liz Cheney said on Larry King that the birther movement exists because "people are uncomfortable with a president who is reluctant to defend the nation overseas." A-ha.

From a linguistic viewpoint, I think it's interesting how much the term birther resembles the term truther, which refers to someone "who rejects the accepted explanation of the events of 9/11. Truthers generally believe the U.S. government committed the acts of terrorism against itself." ( Both are nouns ending on -er, but they are not derived from a verb. A birther in this sense is not someone who has given birth. It's a person who holds on to a crazy idea about the birth of someone, with much conviction but with no evidence. Similarly, a truther is not someone who tells the truth habitually (although that is one of the definitions listed on, rather, it's someone who holds on to a crazy idea about the truth of an event, with much conviction but with no evidence. The event in question is not fixed: There are 9/11 truthers (one of them even got to teach a course on Islam Studies at UW-Madison), and there are moon landing truthers, for example, among them, apparently, Whoopi Goldberg ("Why is the flag rippling? There is no air.").

It's a whole new job for the affix -er, which is already doing double duty in English, as a nominalization affix (driver, teacher) and a comparative affix (bigger, nicer).

July 21, 2009


English and its homographs! If the noun shoulder and the modal auxiliary should did not share a sequence of letters, the world would have been spared this horrible pun:

July 19, 2009

architect frank gehry

From today's "On Language":
“I’d like to know where the now ubiquitous use of ‘the’ as a modifier for people comes from,” Alan Gandelman e-mails. “Why is ‘architect Frank Gehry’ now ‘the architect Frank Gehry’? Obviously, it has more to do than simply identifying a person; if it were just that, the person’s profession or position would suffice. Adding the the seems to me a kind of flattery, an attempt to enhance the person’s standing, or possibly to tart up the prose itself.”

I’ve gone along with that Times style on identification for years, never challenging it. Because our stylebook provides an admonishing lick but no premise, I called Phil Corbett, The Times’s deputy news editor and style czar. Here’s his opinion: “We try to avoid what we call ‘false titles’ — that is, using simple descriptions as though they were formal titles. It’s ‘Gen. John Smith’ but not ‘architect John Smith.’ In most cases, it’s simple enough just to give the description after the name — ‘John Smith, an architect in New York.’ But if the architect in question is well known, that can seem a bit silly: ‘Frank Gehry, an architect’ would make us seem clueless. In those cases, we often use the description before the name, with ‘the’ — ‘the architect Frank Gehry.’ It provides the description without either seeming overly obvious or resorting to the false-title construction.”

The definite article as a fame indicator. Does it really sound so bad in native speakers' ears?

July 14, 2009

"Judges are like empires,"

declared Mr. Schumer, presumably misspeaking, before John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, switched to football imagery (the “kinds of plays you will call if you are promoted to the coaching staff”).
Senator Schumer was drawing on Justice John Roberts's often-quoted comparison between a judge and a baseball umpire (as did several other Senators during the Sotomayor hearing, which led the New York Times to wish "someone, please eject that analogy.")

Senator Schumer obviously misspoke, but let's see if the two words are actually related. Umpire should actually be numpire, it is related to the Middle French adjective nonper ("non peer", peerless). So, instead of "an umpire" it would have been "a numpire". Empire, on the other hand, is related to the Latin verb imperare (to rule). Without the transference of the "n" to the article, the two words would a lot less similar, and perhaps Senator Schumer would not have mixed them up.

July 08, 2009

proud to be monolingual

By the way, this place is not a country club, it's a porn bar that serves greasy breakfast. You'd think they'd be more into plain English.

June 27, 2009

walking on the moon

People of my generation will remember Michael Jackson at the height of his fame, when he radiated talent, charm, and energy and made us all stare at the TV screen with our mouths open.

Everybody switched on MTV to watch his "Thriller" video. Everybody wanted to have a red leather jacket. And everybody wanted to be able to do the moonwalk, a dance move not invented by MJ, but one that even the Oxford English Dictionary associates with him: "a kind of exaggeratedly slow dance intended to evoke the characteristic weightless movement of astronauts walking on the moon...., associated principally with Michael Jackson (b. 1958), U.S. singer" (OED).

Sadly, at some point, the weightlessness disappeared. Read the obituary in the New York Times here.

And don't miss out on this correction, which includes a mondegreen.

An article on Friday about the death of Michael Jackson misstated the number of songs from his album “Off the Wall” that became No. 1 singles. There were two, not four. The article also misstated part of a comment that Mr. Jackson’s brother Jermaine offered for Mr. Jackson after speaking with reporters. He said, “May Allah be with you always,” not “May our love be with you always.”

June 25, 2009

one of the greatest cop-outs in the English language

Folks, “up to” is one of the greatest cop-outs in the English language. You know what? I’ve got a laptop that gets “up to” 1,000 hours on a charge! Because “up to” just means “something below this number.”
David Pogue in the Times

June 18, 2009


Only in Germany...

what would your kid rather do... with a dog or practice playing the piano?

Yeah, right:
[from an ad for Bechstein pianos, seen in Kassel, Germany]

signs for dogs that can read

Hann Muenden is an idyllic city at the origin of the Weser river in Germany (see above), but it does not seem to be crazy about dogs:

[Note here, otherwise....!]

[Here I may]

June 14, 2009

sausage truffles?

During a recent visit to Germany (more pictures to follow!) did not try this local speciality. Call me boring, but I don't find "sausage truffles" very enticing.

May 25, 2009

dark side of the moon

The NYT reports that due to tongue-in-cheek reviews on, a slightly esoteric T-shirt became a bestseller.

Employing the snarky spirit of online humor, the review began: “This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened.” ... Like the butterfly wings creating the tornado, Mr. Govern inadvertently helped set off an almost impossible marketing bonanza and pop-culture craze: The shirt has been Amazon's top-selling item of apparel every day since May 19, and it has morphed into one of those instant icons of Internet culture.

Brian Govern, the law student who wrote the review, realizes that "it’s sad, but this is probably the most impact I’ll have on the world in my life."

The best thing about this story? It's this linguistic twist:

A competing T-shirt seller,, has already jumped in, promising a classy wolf shirt for refined tastes: “Have your wolf and eat it too with this modern take on a classic garment.” On an understated black background, it reads:

Three Wolves

Howling At

The Moon.

May 17, 2009

easy come, easy go

Much has been written about how fads emerge. A new study by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Stanford University looks at how quickly American culture gains and loses its taste for things and why the two may be related. The starkest example, based on 120 years of census data, is baby names: The faster they come to prominence, the faster their use declines.

The graphs come out as a little small, click on the picture or look at the original here.

Among the names that fall into the "easy come, easy go" category are Betty (1930s), Debra (1950s), and Amy (1980s). Names without a lot of ups and downs include Ellen, Caroline, and Katherine. Recent fads among boys' names all seem to rhyme: Jayden, Jaden, Caden, Kaden, Aiden.  Exciting, eh?

Don't buy a puppy on impulse

It's Farmers' Market season again. You expect to see tomatoes, tulips, asparagus, morels. You don't expect to see this:

This is terrible. Selling a puppy as if it were a sack of potatoes. To anyone who's willing to pay $45 for a dog he/she doesn't know anything about from a person he/she doesn't know anything about and all that on a whim.

If you're thinking of buying a puppy (rather than adopting an older dog from a rescue or a shelter), please read these notes by the Humane Society.

May 15, 2009

veni, vidi, exii (?)

When I wrote my dissertation in English linguistics, the regulations of the Graduate School stated explicitly that it could be written in Latin. We also had to document that we had studied Latin for at least 5 years. But at least our diplomas were not in Latin. Others are, even at universities that do not require any knowledge of Latin at all. What's the point?

CONGRATULATIONS. You are graduating this month with a Baccalaureatus Scientiae in Compertis ad Salutem Pertinentibus Administrandis. It sounds impressive, but what does it have to do with your degree in health information management? Almost no one knows, and that’s why the Latin diploma needs to go.

Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?

Read the whole piece, written by a classics professor, here.

May 12, 2009

a better day is possiblé

Have you seen the new commercials for McDonald's "McCafé"? They're very accent-rich. Which, according to Marlena Peleo-Lazar, McDonald's chief creative officer, shows that there is "a wit and charm to the brand, and to the products and to McDonald's." Just in case you didn't know that.

May 11, 2009

stress relievers

It's exam week. Our College Library tries hard to cheer students up. It offers free coffee doughnuts, organizes visits by the university mascot, and links to workshops on breathing techniques and relaxation exercises. However, without a doubt, the best stress-relieving technique it offers is inviting dogs into the library: Dogs on call teams normally visit children in hospital or elderly people in nursing homes, or they participate in the R.E.A.D. program, but today they paid a visit to the College Library and gave studens a break from studying. I wish they would come every week!

May 06, 2009

baby names regularized

This may strike some people as typically German, 

In a split decision on Tuesday, the German Constitutional Court upheld a ban on married people combining already-hyphenated names, forbidding last names of three parts or more. [...] Germany takes a highly regimented approach to naming. Children’s names must be approved by local authorities, and there is a reference work, the International Handbook of Forenames, to guide them. 

...but it's actually a good measure to avoid names like these:
What is a nature realated name for a boy? I am pregnant with a boy and I already have four girls. My girls are Summer SkiesAutumn NightApril Shower, and Spring Flower. Please help I am due in November. 

April 25, 2009

live like you mean it in the dairy state

Wisconsin has unveiled a new official state slogan, “Live Like You Mean It,” much to the dismay of some Wisconsinites who wondered why their tourism department spent $50,000 to come up with a catchphrase that used to be in a Bacardi Rum ad campaign.
What a misstep! Worth an op-ed in The New York Times. And don't let me get started on the logo:

(... the only thing this slogan has going for it is that it recognizes that like can be used as a conjunction)

April 22, 2009

idiosyncratic bumbling

I didn't know NYT authors are such wimps:
How does a professional writer discuss “The Elements of Style” without nervously looking over his shoulder and seeing Will Strunk and E. B. White (or thousands of readers of their book) second-guessing him? (Is “second-guessing” hyphenated or not? Is posing a question the same as using the passive voice?)
It's very easy, actually. You read George Pullum's criticism of the book (" a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules) and live happily ever after.

April 20, 2009

NYC sights

The last time I was in New York, there was a little dog park right on Washington Square. It was great to see all sorts of dogs mix and play with each other. Only people accompanied by dogs were supposed to enter the area, but I sneaked in anyway. 
When I visited last week, Washington Square was as lovely as ever, but the dog run was gone. Or under construction, I couldn't tell. But, thankfully, there were still plenty of dogs around.

April 12, 2009

And the winner is..... Bo, the Portuguese water dog!

At last! The announcement the nation has been waiting for: President Obama makes good on his promise to his daughters and gets them a puppy. From the Washington Post:
The little guy is a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog given to the Obama girls as a gift by that Portuguese water dog-lovin' senator himself, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The girls named it Bo -- and let it be noted that you learned that here first. Malia and Sasha chose the name because their cousins have a cat named Bo and because first lady Michelle Obama’s father was nicknamed Diddley, a source said. (Get it? Bo … Diddley?).
This will be quite a boost for the breed. I'm sure many people have never heard of Portuguese water dogs. And in case people get annoyed that the Obamas didn't pick a dog from a shelter: Senator Kennedy offered the dog to the Obamas after it turned out that its previous owners did not want him any longer.

Welcome, Bo! I'm sure we will see and read a lot about you in the months and years to come.

April 09, 2009


You'd think that in times like these people might cut down on spending money on dog classes. Well, not across the board, according to an article in the New York Times.

[N]ationwide, classes of doga — yoga with dogs, as it is called — are increasing in number and popularity. Since Ms. Caliendo, a certified yoga instructor in Chicago, began to teach doga less than one year ago, her classes have doubled in size.

Yoga with dogs? Come again?

Appropriate or not, this is how it works: Doga combines massage and meditation with gentle stretching for dogs and their human partners. In chaturanga, dogs sit with their front paws in the air while their human partners provide support. In an “upward-paw pose,” or sun salutation, owners lift dogs onto their hind legs. In a resting pose, the person reclines, with legs slightly bent over the dog’s torso, bolster-style, to relieve pressure on the spine.

Success not guaranteed:

[P]ost-doga smiles run about $15 to $25 a class. Whether this is a bargain or overpriced depends on how — and why — the class is taught. Paula Apro, 40, of Eastford, Conn., owner of an online yoga retail store, tried a class near her home last summer. "A stuffed animal — but not even a dog-shaped stuffed animal — was used by the instructor,” she said. Owners struggled to get their very real dogs to replicate the stuffed-animal poses, she said, and bags of treats were used to get the dogs to change positions. “It was lunacy,” Ms. Apro recalled. “Peanuts, my retired racer greyhound, didn’t participate at all. Instead, I did downward-facing dog while he ate the most treats he’s ever had in a 60-minute period.

Sounds like a dog I know.

April 05, 2009

No more "War on Terror"

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the Obama administration had dropped "war on terror" from its lexicon, rhetoric former President George W. Bush used to justify many of his actions.

"The (Obama) administration has stopped using the phrase and I think that speaks for itself. Obviously," Clinton told reporters travelling with her to The Hague for a conference on Afghanistan, which Bush called part of his "global war on terror."

The term "war on terror" was coined after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, which were planned in Afghanistan by the militant group al Qaeda.[...]

"I have not heard it used. I have not gotten any directive about using it or not using it. It is just not being used," said Clinton when asked whether the term had been officially dropped by the Obama administration.

April 04, 2009

National Grilled Cheese Month

Apparently not an April Fools' joke.

Who needs a national grilled cheese month? You'd think the love of grilled cheese sandwiches didn't really need a lot of encouragement. Who doesn't like a grilled cheese sandwich? And of those who don't, who needs to be persuaded to change their (yes, their) mind?

April 03, 2009


It's not what you think!

These days, -(a)thon pretty much is recognized as an affix, although its origin, the word "marathon" cannot be split up into [mara] and [thon]. Linguist John Algeo writes in his book Fifty Years among the New Words that the OED,
"looking down a very long and censorious nose, remarks 'barbariously extracted from MARATHON, used occas. in the U.S. (talkathon, walkathon), rarely in Britain, to form words denoting something being carried on for an abnormal length of time'. The events so named are often fund-raisers for charity." (p.6)

April 01, 2009

April Fools' Day on autopilot

This year, Google's April Fools' Day hoax was rather lame:

Gmail AutopilotTM by CADIE

Email will never be a thing of the past, but actually reading and writing messages is about to be. Gmail Autopilot automatically manages your inbox better than you can, with zero effort from you.

The best part of the joke was this:

Match your style
Autopilot calibrates for tone, typos and preferred punctuation. It's just like you, but automated.

Hoax, in case you're wondering (I did), according to the OED is "supposed to be a contracted form of hocus."