Monday, May 24, 2004

NY TimesThis week in my B&C blog: "Cool Christianity" in the New York Times, the growth of gambling in England (artist's rendering of Blackpool's expansion at left), the history of semiotics, the problem with political correctness, the upcoming transit of Venus, and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE

My language column was postponed last week to make more room for ads (priorities, priorities), but here are various inflections:

- It's never too late to try to clear up the many myths surrounding ebonics, as Geoff Pullum did in this letter to columnist William Raspberry (which Pullum posted last week at Language Log), and as John Rickford does here. In this journal article on ebonics, Geoff Nunberg questions the common assertion made in the 1997 brouhaha that learning proper, standard English will help poor African-American students succeed in society. As he paraphrased in an NPR commentary:

The fact is that the language that kids in the Oakland schools need to learn in order to enter the cultural and economic mainstream ... [is] the semigrammatical, jargon-strewn talk that you hear in corporate conference rooms or on the floor of Congress. ... At a rough estimate, the ability to write correct and lucid English has a market value in modern America about one-third as great as the ability to install Windows on a PC.


- On wine writing, by David Shaw in the LA Times: "Unfortunately, too many wine writers often seem to think they're writing about other human beings, not about a beverage," he wrote, citing a critic who judged that one wine "tried to summon a bit more seriousness but its supple femininity gave way quickly to shimmering fruitiness." More on wine writing here and here from LL.

- Notes the CS Monitor's language column: "Linking verbs used to be known as 'copulative verbs' before the snicker factor got to be too much."

- This sentence is a mess even without the typo. "Somewhat unexpectedly ... partly because"--this is what happens when journalists forget to write like real people (more earlier).

Somewhat unexpectedly for a man who was got his job partly because he was considered less polarizing than Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, Mr. Hastert is emerging in this election season as a highly partisan figure. x


- But the Times redeems itself with a clever headline over this graphic that lists disrupted Mets no-hitters: "One-hit Wonders."

- Cartoonist John McPherson (in the usually-lame strip Close to Home) imagines how people get fired at Webster's: "You are the most ignominious, pugnacious, mendacious, recalcitrant dullard I have ever had the fatuity to hire."

- My Tribune language columns are exiled after 7 days to pay-per-view archives, but I listed at left some columns that were reprinted by bloggers.
I've finally found a use for spam: the pseudonyms of senders make great names for characters should I ever sit down and write a novel. (If any of these senders was you, shame on you for spamming me!):

Weldon Scott, June Terrell, Alonzo Arroyo, Lenard Lam, Roxana Joel, Marlon Garrett, Lillie Coates, Daphne Dickens, Colin Conklin, Traci Wells, Chris Ali, Isaac Martin, Taylor Houser, Christoper Marquez, Alfred Mcdonald, Claudio Romo, Kendra Rosen, Meredith Dillard, Cleo Whitten, Johnie Hannah, Emerson Elmore, Janelle Stovall, Tamala Teeter, Eduardo Williamson, Angelica Overton, Reginald Cardenas, Ivan Sewell, Patricia Gallagher, Hattie Holder, Gale Logan, Buford Gilmore, Noe Sterner, Heather Howell, Kirsten Winn, Logan Worley
NY TimesI love Shrek and expect to love Shrek 2 (which opened big, meaning an ogre out-opened Brad Pitt), but this is a good point from the NYT's A.O. Scott:

Certainly "Shrek 2" offers rambunctious fun, but there is also something dishonest about its blending of mockery and sentimentality. It lacks both the courage to be truly ugly and the heart to be genuinely beautiful.
The NY Times' gloating article on conservatives second-guessing the Iraq invasion includes this good question about "big government":

Most blame the administration for botching the mission, and some are also questioning their own judgment. How, they wonder, did so many conservatives, who normally don't trust their government to run a public school down the street, come to believe that federal bureaucrats could transform an entire nation in the alien culture of the Middle East?


-The New Yorker's 12th hundred days
This is remarkable: Escher in Lego x/x
NY TimesLOS ANGELES - A supersized packet of French fries, Medusa on a bad hair day, the aftermath of a Great Quake: the architect Frank Gehry's huge pipe organ facade, the visual centerpiece of his new Walt Disney Concert Hall, has been called all of these things. Manuel Rosales is trying to make it sound unlike any other organ you've ever heard. And that is an acoustical and engineering challenge as formidable as any organ maker has faced. Racing to meet a July deadline for the organ's debut, the builders have had to adjust the size, sound and volume of each of its 6,134 pipes to suit the acoustics of the four-tiered, 2,265-seat hall. They had to engineer a way to make huge display pipes in bizarre shapes, anchor them securely into the rest of the structure, and yet allow them to sound normally. And since earthquake faults run beneath downtown Los Angeles, they had to make the organ quakeproof. NY Times



NY TimesSeen from Earth, Sedna, the recently discovered farthest known object in the solar system, is a dim speck. But what's the view from Sedna? NASA released an artist's painting answering this question. The Sun, eight billion miles away, is still the brightest object in Sedna's daytime sky. Venus, Earth and Mars are too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but a Sedna citizen (one with human-quality eyesight) could spy them with binoculars. NY Times

Etymology Today from M-W: raffish \RAF-ish\

1 : marked by or suggestive of flashy vulgarity or crudeness
2 : marked by a careless unconventionality : rakish

"Raffish" sounds like it should mean "resembling the raff." But what is "raff"? Originally, "raff" was rubbish. That term derives from the Middle English "raf," and it was being used for trash and refuse back in the 1400s. At around the same time, English speakers were also using the word "riffraff" to mean "disreputable characters" or "rabble." The origins of "riffraff" are distinct from the "rubbish" sense of "raff"; "riffraff" derives from an Anglo-French phrase meaning "one and all." By the mid-1600s, the similarities between "raff" and "riffraff" had prompted people to start using the two words as synonyms, and "raff" gained a "rabble" sense. It was that ragtag "raff" that gave rise to the adjective "raffish" in the late 1700s.

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Monday, May 17, 2004

This week in my B&C blog: K.A. Paul, the most famous spiritual leader you've never heard of; a hovercraft in a York cathedral; the philosophy of disgust; the danger in Asia's boy boom; why churches should (or shouldn't) think like corporations; and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
My latest Tribune language column:
On the translation of the New Testament into sign language by the Iowa-based Deaf Missions.
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Here's a site that lists the number of verses, words, and letters per testament, along with a bunch of other trivia. Speaking of sign language, how sickening was it to read last week about allegations that nuns at one Massachusetts school punished and abused deaf children for trying to use sign language.

One other language note: Today is the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. On NPR last week, historian James T. Patterson noted that the ruling instructed schools to implement changes with deliberate speed--a phrase so vague, he says, that it condoned foot-dragging and necessitated a follow-up ruling.
The OnionI wrote earlier about some of the many flaws in Samuel Huntington's alarmist new book about Latino immigration, noting that white males retain their hold on, for instance, Congress and the Fortune 500, despite the "onslaught" of foreign immigration. This point was made poignantly by this picture in last week's Onion, above the headline: "Mexicans Sweeping the Nation."

Also, Louis Menand's enlightening takedown of Huntington ran in last week's New Yorker.

And, further distancing us from doubts that politics kills brain cells, there was a recent flap in Maryland when (and no, sadly, this is not Onion satire) the governor defended the state comptroller for announcing he would no longer eat at McDonald's after being served by a Spanish-speaking cashier. As one Latino activist pointed out: "It's very, very important that you learn the language. ... But people have to understand that it takes time to learn English." More here and here.
Call off the Great Commission! Chicago monk Wayne Teasdale in U.S. Catholic, March 2003 (via the Chicago Reader):

Well, first of all, let me say, we do have the one true religion. But I don't think we should be broadcasting that. We may believe that, but I think the gospel compels us to have sensitivity to people of other traditions who have no desire to be Catholic or Christian. We have to find a different approach besides the evangelical approach, which just doesn't work. After all these centuries of missionary activity in Asia, only 2 percent of Asia is Christian.
You can find anything on the Internet, including the Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide. Which should come in handy (pun intended) if you're competing in the Southwestern US. Rock-Paper-Scissor Pro-Am Invitational on June 5 in Healdsburg, California.
Etymology Today from M-W: maffick \MAFF-ik\
: to celebrate with boisterous rejoicing and hilarious behavior

"Maffick" is an alteration of Mafeking Night, the British celebration of the lifting of the siege of a British military outpost during the South African War at the town of Mafikeng (also spelled Mafeking) on May 17, 1900. The South African War was fought between the British and the Afrikaners, who were Dutch and Huguenot settlers originally called Boers, over the right to govern frontier territories. Though the war did not end until 1902, the lifting of the siege of Mafikeng was a significant victory for the British because they held out against a larger Afrikaner force for 217 days until reinforcements could arrive. The rejoicing in British cities on news of the rescue produced "maffick," a word that was popular for a while, especially in journalistic writing, but is now less common.

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Monday, May 10, 2004

My latest B&C article:
A review of a PBS documentary on the history of Tupperware, which airs tonight.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2004/003/8.00.html

This week in my B&C blog: More thoughts and articles on consciousness and perception. LINK/ARCHIVE



Saturday, May 08, 2004

WordcraftMy latest Tribune language column:
On "Wordcraft," a new book that shows how brand names are birthed.
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My closing line was cut from the final version of the piece: "Of course, this kind of inspection could backfire, as Nunberg observed last year in the New York Times. "As advertisers have known for a long time," he wrote, "no audience is easier to beguile than one that is smugly confident of its own sophistication.""

Here's a 1997 article in Wired by the author on corporate naming. Here's a Stanford lecture and a UPenn lecture on the language of advertising.

While reading Wordcraft's chapter on pharmaceutical names, I was struck anew by how drugged we are as a culture; just in the past years and decades, we have turned en masse to drugs to transform our lives. The essential story on this is here, in the New Yorker, summarized by this blogger. (The story's subtitle: "Dietary supplements are unregulated, some are unsafe—and Americans can’t get enough of them.")

My language column last week was on Chicago's Noble Street Charter High School, a mostly Latino school that requires students to study Russian for their foreign language credits, as a way to level the playing field among students with varying proficiencies in Spanish. I think the link is still working, although it was supposed to expire, but here's the preview, and here's the principal's testimony before the U.S. House on alternative approaches to education.

Finally, I wrote earlier about Lynne Truss, whose book on punctuation has now become a bestseller in the U.S. Since then the London Guardian wrote a piece on Truss and pedantry, and the NY Times just ran an op-ed by the Times' Almanac editor saying Truss and other pedants should lighten up.
This week in my B&C blog: April news and book review roundup. LINK/ARCHIVE
Mars
The Mars rover Opportunity took this panoramic photograph of the 430-foot-wide crater known as Endurance, which scientists are eager to explore with the rover's instruments. At a news conference [Thursday], NASA ... called a high-resolution color panorama "surely the most spectacular image yet from this mission." NY Times
A.O. Scott makes a good point about the new documentary Super Size Me. Despite its overt anticorporate sentiment, does the movie actually elevate the importance of individual responsibility, since the narrator's unhealthy consumption of fast food is so willful and blatant? (Then again, isn't it odd how righteous McDonald's tries to appear by acknowledging that its product is unfit for regular consumption?) (I wrote about the legal questions of fast food last fall in the Tribune.)
I'm pondering going to grad school, so I appreciated this academic satire: Pooh studies.
NY TimesAt first I thought I saw some sacred allusions in the architecture of this Chinese oil refinery, pictured in the New York Times--those rims vaguely reminded me of the ones on the Petronas Towers--but I guess they're more functional than aesthetic (whatever their function is). Come to think of it, I wonder if there are any architecturally significant oil refineries anywhere...
Etymology Today from M-W: abnegate \AB-nih-gayt\

1 : deny, renounce
2 : surrender, relinquish

There's no denying that the Latin root "negare" has given English some useful verbs. That verb, which means "to deny," was the ultimate source of the noun "abnegation," a synonym of "denial" that began appearing in English manuscripts in the 14th century. By the 17th century, people had concluded that if there was a noun "abnegation," there ought to be a related verb "abnegate," and so they created one by a process called "back-formation" (that's the process of trimming a suffix or prefix off a long word to make a shorter one). But "abnegate" and "abnegation" are not the only English offspring of "negare." That root is also an ancestor of other nay-saying terms such as "deny," "negate," and "renegade."

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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

My latest Tribune language column:
On the ambiguities of the word "values" in business and political slogans.
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I wanted to include what I saw last month at ESPN.com, which asserted that the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl "with talent, passion and values." Pity the poor Carolina Panthers, defeated by a last-second field goal, who presumably are morally lax.

My B&C blog is idle this week; it returns next week with a roundup of the month's news and book reviews.
I've returned from the Festival of Faith and Writing enriched for having heard one of the 20th century's most underrated novelists, Frederick Buechner, and having finally picked up his collection-glossary, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC. At the risk of making him sound like a hokey spinner of Hallmarkisms rather than a miner of the subtleties of the soul, here are the Seven Deadly Sins as defined in his book. I especially like how Buechner, as with the Beatitudes, turns them from Don't's to Do's:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations yet to come ... in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Avarice [and] greed ... are based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The remark of Jesus ... is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.

Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody else as unsuccessful as you are.

A glutton is one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.

Lust is the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst.

Pride: Humility is often confused with the polite self-deprecation of saying you're not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. ... True humility doesn't consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you'd be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.

Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. Lazy people, people who sit around and watch the grass grow, may be people at peace. ... Slothful people, on the other hand, may be very busy people. They are people who go through the motions, who fly on automatic pilot. Like somebody with a bad head cold, they have mostly lost their sense of taste and smell. ... They are letting things run their course. They are getting through their lives.
Enron evildoers' excuses are so maddening, they may as well pray this prayer of confession, says David Batstone in Saving the Corporate Soul (quoted in The Christian Century):

Almighty God, I may or may not need your mercy, for I am neither admitting or denying that I have transgressed. For I would come to you with a penitent and contrite heart, if I were guilty of sin, which I am not saying I am, and I am not saying that I am not. I may have turned from your love and your path, but I am confident that any such allegations made against me will in time be proven unfounded. ... Wash me clean and restore me in a right spirit, notwithstanding the fact that my present spirit may require neither washing nor restoration. Amen.
A Maine resident who lives along the Canadian border was fined $10,000 for driving around an unmanned border checkpoint on Sundays to go to church, even though the man would have to drive 200 miles out of his way to reach a station that is staffed on Sundays.
Last week I wrote about dimwitticisms. Since then I saw that the BBC is hosting an all-cliche short story written collectively by readers. It's a grotesque form of poetry. One of my favorite (and most useful) blogs, Language Log, linked to a 1985 report called Self-Annihilating Sentences, which contains these morsels of wisdom:

This book fills a much-needed gap.

Way down deep he's shallow.

He's a unique type.

You have one choice.

Anyone who reads this is illiterate.

Acupuncture is pointless.
Etymology Today from M-W: hagiography \hag-ee-AH-gruh-fee\

1 : biography of saints or venerated persons
2 : idealizing or idolizing biography

Like "biography" and "autograph," the word "hagiography" has to do with the written word. The combining form "-graphy" comes from Greek "graphein," meaning "to write." "Hagio-" comes from a Greek word that means "saintly" or "holy." This origin is seen in Hagiographa, the Greek designation of the Ketuvim, the third division of the Hebrew Bible. Our English word "hagiography," though it can refer to biography of actual saints, is these days more often applied to biography that treats ordinary human subjects as if they were saints.

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