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  • "In event of moon disaster" and other speeches our presidents never gave

    Two days before the first astronauts walked on the moon, H. R. "Watergate Bob" Haldeman directed Nixon speechwriter William Safire to come up with something for the president to say to the astronauts' widows. Just in case.

  • "She" -- Chelsea Manning and the first-ever court-ordered pronoun

    In what could be the first-ever case of a court-ordered pronoun, a U.S. Army tribunal has ordered prison officials to use a feminine pronoun when referring to Chelsea Manning, who has changed her gender identity from male to female. . . . In plain English, the Army doesn’t have to call her Chelsea, but it does have to call her ‘she.'


  • In this remake of the Hitchcock classic, Tony Wendice texts 'M' for Maida Vale, his telephone exchange, and for murder

    "Text 'M' for murder": The classics meet the digital age

    Matt Richtel writes in the New York Times that the mobile phone has thrown a wrench into literary plotting. Thanks to digital technology, a simple text message would tell Romeo – spoiler alert – that Juliet was only sleeping. Rick would know right away that Ilsa was running late. And Kevin’s parents would discover that he was home, alone.

    If Richtel’s complaint is true, then mobile telephony means no more star-crossed lovers, missed connections, or lost children, and no remakes of some movie greats. If Ray Milland wants to murder his wife, a phone call won’t bring her to the writing desk, where the killer waits behind a curtain, since her cell phone is probably on her nightstand. Want Shane to return? Just press 5 to leave your callback number. Want  to know what Rosebud means? Google it.

  • "War on Terror" ends in England. Will U.S. stay the course?

    The British government has decided to drop the phrase "war on terror" from its official vocabulary list.  Prime Minister Tony Blair hasn't said "war on terror" since June, and the Foreign Office has told cabinet ministers to find a way to deal with terrorism both at home and in the Middle East without further alienating the growing body of disaffected British Muslims, not to mention the entire Islamic world (apparently the British war on terror never targeted the IRA).  

    Responding to Britain's rhetorical draw down, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department insisted that the war on terror, a trademark of the George W. Bush presidency, remains alive and well: "It's the president's phrase, and that's good enough for us."    

  • "Yes, we want" -- Who owns global English?

    A 1.8 million euro advertising campaign for Madrid's new Spanish-English public schools is being ridiculed for its slogan "Yes, we want," which critics are calling bad English. English is what the chanters of "Yes, we want," want to learn, because English is the new global language. The ads, which evoke Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," have appeared on Spanish television, radio, billboards, and buses, prompting complaints that the Education Ministry should be promoting its bilingual public elementary and high schools in correct English if it wants pupils to pick them.

  • "Young chicken without sex": China bans Chinglish for Olympics

    Wanting to show off its cosmopolitan modernity while maintaining tight control over what the Chinese are allowed to say in public, China has banned Chinglish, the oddly-phrased, unintelligible, and often unintentionally funny English translations of Chinese signs that have been proliferating in the capital in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

    For example, there’s the bus sign that announces pregnantly in English lettering under the Chinese, “Offer the Seats to the Old, Weak, Sick, Cripple, and Gravid,” or the awkward but apt warning on the gasoline tanker, “Dangerous Goo Keep Clear.”

  • #twitterrevolution--reforming Egypt in 140 characters?

    Western observers have been celebrating the role of Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, and the internet in general in facilitating the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last week. An Egyptian Google employee, imprisoned for rallying the opposition on Facebook, even became for a time a hero of the insurgency. The Twitter Revolution was similarly credited with fostering the earlier ousting of Tunisia's Ben Ali, and supporting Iran's green protests last year, and it's been instrumental in other outbreaks of resistance in a variety of totalitarian states across the globe. If only Twitter had been around for Tiananmen Square, enthusiasts retweeted one another. Not bad for a site that started as a way to tell your friends what you had for breakfast.

  • 'Formulaic' is a 9-letter word for avoiding what writers need to learn

    In an otherwise excellent essay, Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff (“In Teaching Composition, ‘Formulaic’ Is Not a 4-Letter Word” [April 4, 2008]) take issue with my comment that the SAT’s “formulaic approach will reverse decades of progress in literacy instruction and ultimately turn students into intellectual automatons” (“The College Board’s New Essay Reverses Decades of Progress Toward Literacy” [May 6, 2005]). To illustrate our dependence on formula, they suggest, “Try writing a sonnet, doing the cha-cha, saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ . . . without relying on established forms that you didn’t invent.”

    Fair enough, but I stand by my statements.

  • 'Talking while Spanish' on trial in Wichita

    In 2007, St. Anne School, a Wichita Catholic elementary school, ordered its students to speak only English while on school grounds. Students and parents were asked to sign forms acknowledging the new policy.

  • 2015's word of the year is "autocorrect"

    The word of the year for 2015 is autocorrect. It may seem strange declaring the word of the year for a year that is only just starting. We’ve just named 2014’s word of the year, after all, and it is torture, because 2014 had plenty of that. But even though we tend to look back at the end of the year to the events that shaped it—the top ten news stories of the year, the films most annoying to North Korea, the best countries that have been invaded, the most significant airbag failures, the grammar rule most honored in the breach—at the end of the year we also start making predictions about the year to come: will politicians continue cozying up to white supremacists or will they be too busy smoking Cuban cigars? Will film makers see that featuring dictators in low brow comedies may put studio mainframes at risk, but it’s great for box office? Will dictators release their own annoying films depicting unpleasant things that might happen to Hollywood directors? Plus, autocorrect represents a highly-refined, first-world kind of torture, and considering what 2014 was like, some correction seems in order.

  • <CTRL>, <ALT>, and especially <DELETE>: Proposed Cybersecurity Act gives president power to unplug the internet

    On April 1 (that date may be no accident), Sen. Jay Rockefeller and his co-sponsors introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 (S.B. 773) with companion legislation creating the office of Cybersecurity Advisor to the president (S.B. 778). 

    One blogger warns that if these bills pass, the president will have the authority to unplug the internet and federalize private computer networks.

  • The right donor could buy the naming rights to [Your Name Here] University of Illinois

    [Your Name Here] University: Naming Rights for Sale

    The University of Illinois has sold the naming rights to its 50-year old sports and entertainment arena to State Farm Insurance. Effective immediately and for the next 30 years, the building that has always been called Assembly Hall will be known as the State Farm® Center. State Farm will pay $60 million for its product placement coup, though the premium could go up if the company fails to maintain a B+ average.

    The State Farm Center is just a start. What about the Library? The Pearson® English Building? The Dali Professor of Horology? The Laval Center for Surrender Studies? Considering that the former Illinois governor tried to sell a Senate seat, maybe the University of Illinois could even sell a donor on the idea of putting their name on the entire school. Imagine the [Your Name Here] University of Illinois. To quote the former governor, "It's @#*!% golden!"

    With auctioning off naming rights all the rage, the Web of Language™ wants you to send in your suggestions for the most appropriately ironic names for university buildings, programs, and endowed professorships.

  • A 300th birthday card for Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer

    Sept. 18 is Samuel Johnson's 300th birthday. The English essayist, poet, novelist, and witty conversationalist whom we know mostly through the anecdotes recorded by his friend and biographer, James Boswell, and his other friends, became famous in his day for his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.

  • A Better Pencil, available now from Oxford University Press

    Computers, now the writer's tool of choice, are still blamed by skeptics for a variety of ills, from speeding writing up to the point of recklessness, to complicating or trivializing the writing process, to destroying the English language itself.

  • A language kept alive on life support, literally

    82 year old Soma Devi Dura is the last speaker of Dura, the traditional language of the Dura people living in the Western Region of Nepal. Soma Devi is mostly deaf and blind. She doesn’t feel like talking much, and according to Nepali actuarial tables, she may not last long. So one linguist wants to put Dura and its last surviving speaker on life support.

    As a boy, Kedar Bilash Nagila played with Dura children who had already lost their language. Now he’s a graduate student studying Dura, and he’s trying to take the last Dura speaker, who like many of the Dura is also named Dura, to the capital, Kathmandu, for medical treatment and a couple of hearing aids. Drugs should allow Soma Devi to hang on for a while. And with special audiological equipment she may be able to hear Nagila, who hopes she will add to the database of 1,500 Dura words and 250 sentences that he has already compiled in his effort to make sure that Dura survives after she’s gone.