Category Archives: Society, Politics, Ethics

We’re moving! Go to “The Life of Words”!

For the last two and more years, I’ve been posting here on topics related to poetry, dictionaries, computers, and so on. Over 100 posts later, it’s time for a new home. As of June 15, 2014, I’ll be posting at my new project site: The Life of Words I hope you’ll visit us there […]

Sandwich Police make Burrito Bust

In my first-year poetry class, when introducing the idea of poetic ambiguity (rich ambiguity), I like to begin with a few examples of every-day ambiguity, in the form of so-called “crash blossoms“, those newspaper headlines that can go in two often amusing directions (e.g.: “Friends help murder victim’s family“). This morning my #CapeCod Twitter stack […]

Sappho, not a poetess – THE Poetess

The poetry world is all a twitter with the news that two new poems by Sappho have been discovered. And the Twitter world is spreading the news, chiefly linking to this write up in The Daily Beast: Many tweeters simply reproduce the headline, with a link. But some are evidently annoyed by the term poetess […]

Joseph Brodsky, Social Parasite

Joseph Brodsky died eighteen years ago today. Seamus Heaney, in his elegy for Brodsky, referred to it as “Yeats’s anniversary, | (Double-crossed and death-marched date | January twenty-eight)”. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brodsky’s show-trial on charges of “social parasitism.” In observance of these milestones, below are some key passages from the […]

#WOTYOTY. Because many, many #WOTY

Another week, another WOTY. Because marketing. The most recent and the final additional winner is because, chosen by the American Dialect Society a few days ago. Because “because marketing” … I mean, because expressions such as “because marketing” broke into the mainstream in 2013. This represents “new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” says Ben […]

Netflix, Algorithms, and Hard Working Humans

There has been some press today and yesterday surrounding Alexis Madrigal’s article in The Atlantic [“How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood“] on the genres Netflix uses to classify films – not just its films, but all films and television programmes. It’s a great article, and a good example of the kinds of approaches that inform the […]

Headline: Pentagon Requires Poetry Expertise

I’ve come across an old piece on Guantánamo Bay censorship policy, via a new piece on the same. The recent piece is about poetry going into the US facility there; the earlier article is about poetry coming out. It quotes some fascinating rationale for the close monitoring of poetry written by inmates: But most of […]

“Graduate” or “be graduated”? Graduation on the active/passive divide

On the radio tonight I heard a person use passive “graduate” in a sentence: She was graduated a year early, because she was a top student I’m aware of this usage, and vaguely aware that it can be cited as “correct” usage by mavens. But while I’ve heard the transitive active form (e.g. “the school […]

“Fail, n.” #NOTWOTY

The social media are in the midst of a brief kerfuffle over “selfie”, Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word of the Year”, hashtag #WOTY. And “hashtag”, of course, was last year’s #WOTY, as chosen by the competing #WOTY-maker, the American Dialect Society. ADS chose “tweet” in 2009, and “app” in 2010, both of which seem to have more […]

Of Wingnuts and Moonbats

It appears that the radical fringe in American politics has self-differentiated into wingnuts and moonbats. That is, these are the epithets being used to describe them, usually by them, along ideological lines. In case you don’t know, wingnuts are conservative and moobats are liberal, but each is crazy, if the other is to be believed. […]

More Dispatches from Literalville

Today’s LLog [“What did Justice Scalia Mean“] brings us yet more news out of Literalville, where it seems Antonin Scalia has been giving interviews to New York Magazine: Jennifer Senior, “In Conversation: Antonin Scalia“, New York, 10/6/2013: Q: Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy? A: I don’t know when I came to […]

You must be devastated today

From Paul Muldoon’s eulogy for Seamus Heaney, spoken at his funeral, yesterday:   I flew into Belfast International Airport yesterday morning…. The border security officer was interested in what I was doing in the US. I told him I was a teacher, and he asked me what I taught. I said, “poetry.” And he looked […]

At the MSA – Levinas, Poetry, and Criticism

This past weekend I was in Brighton, UK, attending the Modernist Studies Association annual conference. I was there mainly to participate in a round-table discussion on “Modernist Poetry Criticism and the New Ethics”. The abstract said, in part: …in the wake of the interdisciplinary debate between literature and/as moral philosophy, and the critical reception of […]

“Lets you”

If you’ve ever explained to someone how a gadget or app or website works, you’ve probably used a construction like “it lets me” or “it lets you”. You probably didn’t know you were on the cutting edge of language change. Language change isn’t immediately noticeable to those who are experiencing it–we notice when other groups […]

Emily Dickinson was a Dinosaur

In a graduate student’s paper this morning I came across a description of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting by T. W. Higginson, who in 1891 remembered receiving a letter, almost thirty years earlier, postmarked Amherst, MA. The letter was the now famous one that begins “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” […]

Smithers, Redress the Hounds!

This post is about evidence loops in the OED. But let me begin at the end: In one of his Oxford lectures collected in The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon refers back to his predecessor’s famous discussion of the word redress. Muldoon writes: … in “The Redress of Poetry,” Seamus Heaney’s inaugural lecture as […]

From William Camden’s Proverbs

A Cat may look upon a king. A dog hath a day. Agree, for the Law is costly. A friend in Court is worth a penny in purse. A good jack maketh a good Gill. All is well that ends well. A little pot is soon hot. A man will be a man though he […]

Serendipity & Contingency

In the latest lecture to be posted online [], the Oxford Professor of Poetry tells us: Because I don’t go online in any way, I think and work almost entirely by serendipity. Serendipity works by the rule that the book which is to change your life stands next on the shelf to the book that […]

“Man” Gender

Comments on today’s LL post have centred on gender neutral “dude” in certain contexts, prompted by this cartoon: A couple commentators report completely gender neutral “dude” in all contexts. Querying my own intuitions, I find I can use it neutrally in certain contexts but not in others. For instance, in the first case below (call […]

Incent, Incentivize: Authority Always Wins

In the course of a recent dinner conversation I cocked my ear (and my eyebrow) at the sound of a verb I had not heard before: “to incent.”  “Incentivize” I know well of course, having heard it many times in the wild and also in corporate-language peeving contexts [because, you know, verbing weirds language. See a […]

Fifty-Five English Words for Snow

Snowflake                   snow/single Frost                           snowflake/having formed flatly on surface Flurries                        snow/falling Precipitation              snow/and+or other/falling Snowfall                      snow/having fallen Accumulation             +quantity snow/having fallen Snow drift                   piled snow/by wind Snow bank                  piled snow/by man (with machine)

Poetry. Whatever.

This from Ernie Lapore and Matthew Stone at the NYT Opinionator blog, “Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination” [2.12.2012]: In short, a poem — and artistic language more generally — is open to whatever we find in it.  Whenever we notice that an unexpected formal feature amplifies our experience of a poem in a novel way, […]

Hesitation, Naming, Poetry

This from one of these staged “conversations”, this time between Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Fiona Sampson, on the topic of “Language Under Stress” [audio here].  Sampson is trying to make vague point about hesitation as a “mark of authenticity” when Williams cuts in: “Hesitation” is a word that means quite a lot […]

Razor Tight

‘What part of “razor tight” don’t you understand?’ This was the question posed by Stephen Colbert to Nate Silver on election eve [clip 5.11.12], following a bit about some newscaster silliness leading up to the election [transcript from Daily Kos; clip here]: BILL HEMMER (11/5/2012): This race is absolutely razor tight. CHUCK TODD (11/5/2012): A […]

The Reality we Face

From today’s transcript of the Rush Limbaugh show, the game-changing words of the Mayor of Realville, the Mayor of Literalville himself: That’s the reality we face. The reality we face is that what’s real isn’t, and what isn’t real is. […] I really meant to get a phone call in here. But when you make […]

Geoffrey Hill, Modern Thamus?

In Odi Barbare (2012), Geoffrey Hill writes: Google my old blind of Platonics with Mc- Taggart’s mystic corpulence deemed endearing. Whatever that means. Scratching his head, blogger Bebrowed did the sensible thing (i.e., did what he was told) and more: I’ve now googled every single possible permutation on Hill, his response to McTaggart et al […]

Bronco Bama

This is rapidly spreading over the interwebs, with headlines such as “Colorado 4-Year-Old Is Tired Of ‘Bronco Bama’ And Mitt Romney” (HuffPo): It’s not surprising that the video is “going viral.” But I was a little surprised that I hadn’t heard “Bronco Bama” anywhere before in other contexts. It’s one of those turns of phrase […]

Walking Wound

On NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, Stephen Colbert said of his television show character, also called Stephen Colbert: He wants to have a champion that he can champion and that just doesn’t exist in Mitt Romney right now. He’s just a walking wound. [link] As a figure of speech, to me this is both compelling and […]

‘Occupy’ Drift: Belfast

Seen on the corner of North St and Royal Ave in Belfast this week: The slogan takes on somewhat complex shades of association in the present context.

‘What, Literally or Really’?

Overheard last night at the Cross Keys, in central Leeds, from a woman in her early twenties responding to an entertaining story told by a man about the same age, which contained a figurative (I guess) mention of having ‘lost my balls’: What, literally or really?

Oxford English Dinner

Some OED entries badly need revising. A friend who teaches in Oxford just posted this to her Facebook status (I’ve noticed younger British academics in the midst of that end-of-year slow torture called ‘marking’ like to post little gems like this on social media for relief, or therapy): Most telling student error of the year: […]