15 November 2009

New Language Blog

Since I started this blog at the end of '07 I've used it only intermittently, mostly for passing snarkery. It means I sometimes go weeks, even months, between posts.

With my new book out, though, my publisher has been keen to find ways to promote it, and a bit of correspondence between my publicist and the folks at Psychology Today led to an offer to write a blog there. I've agreed, with a brand new hot-off-the-presses blog called Proper Words in Proper Places. (It was my original title for The Lexicographer's Dilemma — I'll get to use that quotation from Swift somewhere, dammit.)

I've just begun it with an introductory post, spelling out the topics I plan to discuss. And whereas this one will continue to be used for occasional musings, I hope to weigh in there at least weekly. I welcome queries and suggestions.

02 September 2009

On Google Books

Geoffrey Nunberg has a smart essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the limitations of Google Book Search. Plenty of people have groused about the problems they've encountered, but Nunberg gets to the heart of the problems by focusing on Google's shoddy treatment of "metadata":

I'm actually more optimistic than some of my colleagues who have criticized the settlement. Not that I'm counting on selfless public-spiritedness to motivate Google to invest the time and resources in getting this right. But I have the sense that a lot of the initial problems are due to Google's slightly clueless fumbling as it tried master a domain that turned out to be a lot more complex than the company first realized. It's clear that Google designed the system without giving much thought to the need for reliable metadata. In fact, Google's great achievement as a Web search engine was to demonstrate how easy it could be to locate useful information without attending to metadata or resorting to Yahoo-like schemes of classification. But books aren't simply vehicles for communicating information, and managing a vast library collection requires different skills, approaches, and data than those that enabled Google to dominate Web searching.

There's much to agree with there. I adore Google Books, and would have a hard time getting by without it, but they really have to devote more energy to these concerns. Here's hoping the high-profile finger-wagging will get Google to pay more attention to cataloguing.

01 September 2009

Reading over People's Shoulders

Once upon a time, the only way to get feedback on a book you wrote was to wait for published reviews. That could take a long time. Much of my writing has been in the academic world, and there it's not unusual for your first review to appear a full year after publication. In the world of trade publishing, where publishers usually send out advance copies for review, you start seeing the first few reviews a few weeks before the book is on the shelf. Still, that's typically a year after the book has been finished. I'm impatient.

Since the mid-1990s, it's been possible to track the popularity of books in Amazon.com's sales rank. Mind you, one of my books doesn't even make the top 7.5 million sellers in America, and even my current best seller is around number 250,000, so perhaps "popularity" isn't the best word. I don't think Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling have to worry about my overtaking them anytime soon.

Even in the Amazon age, though, the feedback is very limited and sporadic. But now, thanks to Google Alerts, I can now see every stray comment about my book the moment it appears on the Web — every blog post, every passing comment in a newsgroup, every reader's review on a book sales site.

This is much on my mind as The Lexicographer's Dilemma is about to be published by Walker & Co. in early November. (It's available for pre-order from Amazon.com, though it's far better to support independent booksellers whenever you can; the ABA deserves mad props.) The first professional review hasn't appeared anywhere, and yet I've been reading over the virtual shoulders of my readers for more than a month and learning what they think of it. I've found it enlightening to read comments on blogs I'd never heard of, like this one from You'll Eat It and Like It, or this one from KingTycoon on LiveJournal.

One new development that deserves attention is LibraryThing, a service that makes advance review copies available to layfolk. Of course I got an ego-boost from seeing that LexDilem was among the "really popular books" among LibraryThing participants (more than two thousand requests for thirty-five free copies), though that just means more negative reviews if the book is a dud. I suppose some authors might be upset that these readers are getting free copies instead of paying for them, but I'd just as soon see dedicated readers get their hands on the book as soon as possible if they're willing to spread the Gospel of Lynch. As of 1 September, there are six reviews on LibraryThing, and so far they're all pretty good (an average of 4.2 stars out of 5 — I'll take that).

Reading reviews and other comments by amateur reviewers is a strange experience. On the one hand, it's a treat to get a sense what real readers think about your writing; on the other, at least a few of those readers can be downright cranky. (One of my books once got a one-star review on Amazon.com because Amazon shipped it too late to be useful to the reader. I notice Amazon axed the review, though whether it was to protect my reputation or theirs is unclear.)

One reviewer (in a generous reivew) notes that "clearly [Lynch] sides with the descriptivists in most every way," which is kinda funny for someone who wrote a thoroughly prescriptive guide to grammar, style, and usage. I've generally resisted the urge to add my own comments to the blogs and discussion forums, thinking that's just a high-tech version of what Paul Fussell memorably described as the "A.B.M." — the Author's Big Mistake of responding to book reviews. But it's not easy to stay quiet, especially in a forum that begs for interaction. (I've also resisted the urge to post anonymous positive reviews of my own books on Amazon.com, the sort of thing James Boswell was doing 250 years ago.)

As I note on the page of shameless self-promotion, where I collect the more prominent professional reviews my books have received, "I'm happy that (so far) I've received no unambiguously negative reviews (though a few have had their reservations)." I suspect that LexDilem is the book that'll change that. People can be surprisingly passionate, or stubborn, about their likes and dislikes in the language, and the odds are good that some reader will be infuriated. Oh, well. It was a good run while it lasted.

07 July 2009

Cricket Made Simple

I see the first Ashes test match is starting. After much research, I've finally made sense of cricket.

It turns out it's actually very simple. Someone throws a ball at someone else, who whacks it with a wide stick. After that, everyone runs around the field — yes, field, not "pitch," because pitching is what you do with the ball, not "bowling," because we all know bowling involves rented shoes — everyone runs around the field helter-skelter, randomly going in any direction, while the announcer makes up as many funny-sounding phrases as he can think of, like "silly midwicket," "googly," "diamond duck," and "maiden over." Then they announce that the score is "[some three-digit number] for [some one-digit number]," and everyone nods and pretends to understand. They do this for up to three days, taking occasional breaks for tea, and then go home.

Lewis Carroll understood this well in his description of the caucus race:

First [the Dodo] marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (the exact shape doesn't matter, it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no One, two, three, and away, but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.

14 June 2009


I was astounded to hear the results in the Stanley Cup finals, in which the Penguins beat the Red Wings.

The surprise: who knew we still had a hockey league?

21 May 2009

Who Knew?

I didn't realize it, but apparently I'm fluent in Korean. The evidence? I've just published a book in that language.

At least I think it's my book. It's got pictures of Shakespeare on the front and includes all the illustrations from my Becoming Shakespeare. I just got a box of them. Mind you, if it weren't for the pictures, I wouldn't be sure I'm holding them right-way up.

I wonder if it's any good. I'll have to get someone to read it to me one of these days.

18 May 2009

What to Buy Me

I'm sure the question that's been keeping you awake at night is this: "What am I going to buy Jack Lynch for his birthday? After all, I've got only a few months to think this through."

Well, now you can put your mind at ease. You'll find a comprehensive list of possible gifts at


Perhaps I should register; it would be embarrassing if two of you bought me the $2.4-million gold-cased, diamon-crusted iPhone with the 6.6-carat diamond on the center button.

If you're on a budget, the $2,800 pizza – topped with sunblush tomato pizza sauce, smoked salmon, venison medallions, cognac-marinated lobster, and champagne-soaked caviar – may be the best choice. Of course there's no better way to follow up a $2,800 pizza than with a $1.65-million fruitcake for dessert. And when the lost has made its way through me, off I'll go to the $32-million bathroom.

28 April 2009

Swine Flu Cataclysm

I think I finally understand how health-related nomenclature works in the age of twenty-four-hour cable news:

  • 1 unconfirmed case: the preferred term is "epidemic"; international news is preempted from the usual news broadcasts. Teasers between programs advise: "Is your child at risk of a lingering and painful death? — find out at eleven."
  • 1 confirmed case: "pandemic"; all domestic news except high-profile sex scandals is preempted. Anderson Cooper announces a special investigation.
  • 2–4 confirmed cases: "global panic"; cable news networks go into round-the-clock-coverage mode. New computer graphics are rolled out: "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!"
  • 5 or more confirmed cases: "apocalypse"; all coverage is devoted to the unfolding holocaust. Only stories about attractive white girls who've disappeared have any chance of bumping the global plague from the news.

17 April 2009

Lexicographer's Dilemma

A few months ago I mentioned a book-in-progress, then called Proper Words in Proper Places. It's now in the works, and now sporting the title The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. As with my last few trade books, this one comes from Walker & Co. It's at long last beginning to feel real: I answered the copyeditor's queries last week, and now the book is promised for the end of October. Amazon.com even has a page for it, so I look forward to achieving best-seller status tout de suite.

(Okay, maybe not best-seller. But earlier today, the paperback edition of Becoming Shakespeare broke into the top 100,000 on Amazon.com, which ain't bad. Even Deception and Detection has cracked the top million. Look out J. K. Rowling.)

16 April 2009

I Confess

It was me.

09 April 2009


From Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, 1690:

I ought to tell you that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give 'em some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce.

From The Houston Chronicle, 2009:

A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with." ...

"Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?" Brown said. ... "Can't you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier ... if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?"

28 January 2009

Good News for a Change

The New York Times reports that the proposed stimulus plan will provide big money to education:

Stimulus Plan Would Provide Flood of Aid to Education

WASHINGTON — The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a vote on Wednesday would shower the nation’s school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education’s current budget.

It seems only reasonable to assume "shower ... university campuses with $150 billion" means $150 billion for each campus. But even if it means $150 billion for the entire Rutgers system, Newark, being one of three campuses, should still expect $50 billion. I look forward to the faculty meeting when we figure out how to spend our billions. For one thing, I'd like to see starting faculty salaries around $15 million.