31 October 2008


One of the fringe-benefits of my profession is free books, which show up in my campus mailbox with increasing regularity. The most recent arrived a few days ago: Jeremy Butterfield's Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). It bore a note — a form letter, of course, but at least one that makes an effort to look personal —

Dear Professor Lynch,

Jeremy Butterfield has asked me to send you a copy of his new book Damp Squid, publishing this month, as he thought it could be of interest to you and your students.

Awfully decent of him. And it is indeed of interest, to me and at least one of my students. On Wednesday one of the better students in my eighteenth-century novel class asked about the process by which new words enter the language and old words pick up new meanings, and I answered as well as I could. I left that class, took the elevator to the fifth floor, stopped in the mail room before heading to my office, and found this book in my mailbox, which is about just that question.

I've only just begun reading it, but so far it's a charming read. Butterfield has written a very accessible introduction to corpus linguistics for people who've never heard of such a thing. I hope to finish reading it over the weekend, but I was struck by one passage. Butterfield asks, "How are new words born? Which buzzwords are most productive?" He answers with an example:

Blog is extremely fertile, and the [Oxford] Corpus lists a staggering 214 derivatives. After blog (noun and verb) and blogger, the most common is blogosphere, denoting websites and weblogs collectively, with its adjectives blogospheric or, slightly tongue-in-cheek, blogospherical.

Blogrolls are the lists of other blogs which bloggers put on their sites, while big-cheese bloggers are bloggerati. English speakers' love of punning is obvious in the word bloggocks: "Think I'm talking bloggocks?", and in blogstipation, the blog equivalent of writer's block.

The last two were new by me, but very appealing. (I doubt bloggocks will catch on in the US, since bollocks is so little known here, but one can hope.)

It may seem I've been suffering from blogstipation recently, with only a few posts a month, but it's because I've been too busy with other kinds of writing to devote any time to blogging. I'm in fact suffering from logorrhea, an older word (first attested in 1902) that makes a neat paper-based antonym to blogstipation, but it's all being directed elsewhere. Mostly it's because I've working like a sumbitch to finish Proper Words in Proper Places, which officially becomes overdue in nine and a half hours. There's something liberating in admitting you've missed a deadline; for as long as it's theoretically possible to be on time, you feel bad that you're behind schedule, but once that deadline has passed, it somehow seems out of your control.

26 October 2008

I Am the Avenging Angel

The first big batch of papers was due in my classes last week. As the papers came in — or, more to the point, as they didn't — I noticed a disproportionate number of deaths of uncles and grandparents.

I'm beginning to fear that I may be responsible for these untimely deaths. In the future, in the interest of public health and safety, I may stop assigning papers, lest I depopulate an entire generation.

10 October 2008

A Headline for the Ages

Now here's a news headline to be proud of:

Palin pre-empts state report,
clears self in probe

The full story comes from the Associated Press.

05 October 2008

The Up-Side to Palin's Campaign

I'll confess I'm no great fan of Sarah Palin. There is, however, one clear advantage to a Palin candidacy: the word moose now appears more often than ever before in major newspapers. Here, for instance, is a month-by-month breakdown, from January through September 2008, of the word moose in the major newspapers and magazines in the LexisNexis database:

Particularly striking is the sharp increase, from 243 to 794 references, between August and September — an increase by a factor of 3.27.

If, then, we make the perfectly reasonable assumption that moose references will continue to rise by a factor of 3.27 a month from now on, we can look forward to something like this:

It now seems inevitable that we can look forward to an average of more than three million occurrences of the word moose by May 2009. By next September, it should be around 350 million references a month, or more than 10 million mentions in newspapers and magazines every day.

See? — not all bad.