Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Guest morning name: Venn

April 11, 2017

A morning name contributed by John Wells:


Says John,

Venn St in Clapham [district of London], commemorating two bearers of the surname: the campaigner against the slave trade, and the inventor of Venn diagrams. Who knew they were related?


At the art museum

March 4, 2017

In collecting material for blog postings on recent exhibitions at the Cantor/Anderson galleries at Stanford, I came across a staff page with an excellent photo of Matthew Tiews, Associate Vice President for the Arts at Stanford:

I first knew Matthew as the Associate Director of the Stanford Humanities Center, a position that calls for a serious scholar who is generally knowledgeable about the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, and is also an able administrator, good at working with people, and (very important) with a solid sense of humor. Now Matthew oversees the arts programs and the arts complex at Stanford, which has developed into an entire campus neighborhood, or zone (three museums, a very spiffy concert hall, and more).

So I wrote Matthew about my Stanford art museum postings (which I thought might interest his staff), and now I’m reporting all this to you.


The way we were

February 25, 2017

A news item that’s been in my posting queue since last October: in the October 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “Big in Denmark: The U.S. Ambassador” by Amy Weiss-Meyer, beginning:

When Rufus Gifford, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, won a Danish television award for his reality show, he ran onto the stage, beaming. “Oh man,” he said, surprised. “Wow.” The show, Jeg Er Ambassadøren fra Amerika (or I Am the Ambassador From America), was renewed for a second season (and will come to U.S. viewers this fall via Netflix [I am watching it as I write this]). A Danish biography of Gifford was a best seller. At a music festival in June, the chart-topping Danish pop band Lukas Graham dedicated its song “Nice Guy” to him.

“Rufus Gifford is a rock star,” Nicolai Wammen, a Danish MP and a friend of Gifford’s, told me. As an appointee of President Obama’s, Gifford is likely nearing the end of his diplomatic stint, though Danes frequently ask him to stay. His biographer, Stéphanie Surrugue, remembers walking alongside Gifford at a political gathering and noticing that he was getting as much attention as the nearby prime minister. “People were shouting ‘Rufus!’ as they were shouting ‘Lars’ after the prime minister.” It was, she says, “a little bit crazy.”



Demented p.r. pitches, absurd ad copy

February 24, 2017

Recently the admirable Margalit Fox has been posting on Facebook a series “Demented P.R. Pitch of the Day” (Margalit seems to read more of her nonsense mail than I do). I’ll give the two most recent examples and then turn to some long-standing advertising themes in my own postings: absurd ad copy for premium men’s underwear and for gay porn. (So, yes, in the second case there will be some incidental sex talk.)


Odds and ends 8/16/13

August 16, 2013

Some more short takes, on a notable person, avoidance of non-taboo words, wordless instructions, typefaces, and a libfix.


Gimme shelter

March 2, 2010

I’ve been reading Terry Castle’s new book The Professor: And Other Writing, (from the dust jacket) a “collection of penetrating autobiographical essays” (and more: wit and humor, observations on literature, art, culture, and sexuality). There are any number of short quotable bits in the book; here I want to pick out just one, from the essay “Home Alone”, about magazines devoted to interior decoration, domestic architecture, home furnishings, landscape design, etc. — what she calls “shelter mags” and “shelter lit”, using both the clippings mag for magazine and lit for literature and also the coyly pretentious term shelter that many of these magazines themselves use. (She also calls this material “house porn”, using the snowclonelet X porn discussed, with others, here.)

“Home Alone” has come up in Language Log (I read it when it came out in the Atlantic a while back), since in it Terry notes the occurrence of the revolt-against-mother formula “not your mother’s X” all over these magazines. This is a special case of the larger snowclone “not your R’s X”, where R is a kin term (discussion here, including the perhaps most famous instance of the snowclone, “not your uncle’s Oldsmobile”).

[Terry is a distinguished colleague of mine at Stanford, in the English department. We became acquainted through the Stanford Humanities Center.

The NYT Magazine of January 17 has an entertaining interview with Terry by Deborah Solomon, which ends with this wonderful exchange:

[Castle] The smartest literary scholars right now are interested in evolutionary psychology and brain science — how we may be hard-wired for fiction-making, aesthetic appreciation and the like.

[Solomon] Is that a good development? How do you feel about seeing the adventure of life reduced to a function of DNA?
[Castle] I guess I’m down with it because I’ve always felt, for instance, that my own lesbianism was genetic. My cousin, whom I was just visiting in London, we have the same DNA, and we’re both big, old dykes.

[Solomon] Surely you can find a more graceful way to describe yourself.
[Castle] Svelte, coltish and effortlessly alluring? Cate Blanchett, please call me.]

Finally, the quote. This comes in a discussion of the now-defunct shelter mag nest, which was “louche, sly, sexy, so dark and downtown in sensibility it was funny — an interiors rag for John Waters.” She summarizes:

The magazine was quite stupendously mannered — redolent of Ronald Firbank trawling for hunky handymen at Home Depot.

I wish I’d written that.

Alfred Ayres

February 13, 2010

Over on his blog Motivated Grammar (subtitled Prescriptivism Must Die!), Gabe Doyle attacks the idea that healthy is incorrect with the meaning ‘promoting good health, healthful’. Where does this come from? Gabe:

MWDEU says that the whole notion that something’s wrong with that usage can be traced back to 1881, when a fellow named Alfred Ayers declared it so in a book called The Verbalist. (Google Books has the 1909 edition online.) The trouble with Ayres’s declaration is that it spit in the face of at least 330 years of usage; the OED’s first citation for healthy, in 1552, defines the two words identically, and both meanings for healthy are attested all the way up to Ayres’s book’s publication.

… Both meanings have been attested for 450 years, and the claim against the latter was an unjustified assertion from 1881 by a prescriptivist otherwise lost to the sands of history.

I objected to “a prescriptivist otherwise lost to the sands of history”. As I said a few years ago in a note on complaints about blame it on, Ayres was,

with Richard Grant White, one of the great American grammar/usage ranters of the 19th century.

Language Log had two postings on blame it on someone (versus blame someone for it), both mentioning Ayres: this one and an earlier one here. Plus a posting on objections to people ‘persons’, with Ayres as a prominent objector. As you can tell, he had something of a talent for picking the losing side in these usage disputes.

Short shot #22: Fitzgerald and Strunk

November 17, 2009

What do F. Scott Fitzgerald (the American writer) and William Strunk Sr. (the father of the Cornell English professor who was the author of  the original The Elements of Style) have in common?

Meticulous record-keeping.

Here’s Arthur Krystal, in the November 16 New Yorker (p. 38):

Fitzgerald always had a plan. He liked to draw up schedules; he kept meticulous records; he made numerous lists; and he recorded every penny earned, borrowed, and paid back. For a man who led one of the messiest lives in literary history, on paper he was as organized as Felix Unger’s sock drawer.

As for Strunk Sr., from Mark Garvey’s recent Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (p. 1):

An energetic record keeper all his adult life, William Strunk Sr., in a flowing, nearly calligraphic script, filled ledger after ledger with the details of Strunk family life–expenditures of every kind, from the cost of his own wedding to the annual expenses of child rearing [including those for Will Strunk Jr.] …

Garvey fills more than a page with further details. He doesn’t offer similar details about Will Strunk Jr., though he does touch several times on Strunk’s passion for order.

Maybe it was the spirit of the times.

The Safire watch

October 6, 2009

Since the death of William Safire, the linguasphere has been full of obits, reminiscences, appreciations, and  so on: a short obit by Ben Zimmer on Language Log (with links to Languagehat, Mr. Verb, Wishydig, and Grant Barrett); a longer version (of September 28) by Ben on Word Routes; Ben back on Language Log with some further thoughts on Safire and links to another Word Routes column of his (of October 6, mostly about WS on could care less), to a Fresh Air piece by Geoff Nunberg, and to Ben’s NYT “On Language” column on Safire (to be published in hard copy on October 11, but available on-line from October 5); and Geoff Nunberg on Language Log about his Fresh Air piece, with links to Jan Freeman, Todd Gitlin, Aaron Britt, and David Bromwich.

If you have other pieces you’d like to suggest, Nunberg has invited readers to add these as comments on this last posting. None of us is trying to assemble a full inventory of this material, of course, but we could easily have missed things of  interest; if so, Nunberg’s posting is the place to take notice of them.

John Hope Franklin

April 1, 2009

(I post on this blog occasionally on matters that are not really about language, as in this case. If that’s not to your taste, pass on.)

The American historian John Hope Franklin, of Duke University, died on 25 March at the age of 94. There are obits and remembrances all over the place.

Some people are like the gingko tree: you think they’ve been around for an immense amount of time and will go on into the indefinite future. But of course they’re just people, not a species of tree, and their time comes to an end.

Franklin was a pioneer black presence in the elite American academy, perhaps best known for his book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, first published in 1944. He combined a courtly manner — he was a truly charming man — with a steely resolve.

I met him when he was on the board of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, an institution for which I have great affection. Its current director is Claude Steele, who is, in fact, African American (which is, these days, both utterly inconsequential and also still enormously significant).