1. n. The love of language

Cage, and what separates music from mushrooms

by Louise

mushroom   music

In the mid-’50s, shortly after moving to rural Stony Point in New York state, the avant-garde American composer John Cage started to develop his fascination for mushrooms. As his biographer Rob Haskins explained, “He made much of the fact that the dictionary entries for ‘mushroom’ and ‘music’ are so close together.”

And he was right: they’re virtually alphabetically joined at the hip. Separated only by mushy (if you ignore the dodgy mushrump, which is actually a variation on the shroom as we commonly know and name it), mushroom and music make magic together, in many an artful mind …



How do you pronounce Boleyn?

by Louise


In a scene towards the end of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s riveting production of Wolf Hall (part II), which has recently been transplanted from London’s West End to Broadway, one of the king’s guards strides downstage and announces loudly and gravely the name of his newly arrested charge: “Boleyn!” (And just in case the history books haven’t spoiled it for you yet, I won’t specify which member of the Tudor family bearing this name is about to be escorted to their new lodging in the Tower of London.) Curiously, in pronouncing the identity of his Boleyn prisoner, the guard places careful emphasis on the first syllable, so that the name rings out over a hushed audience in the Winter Garden Theater in a way we’re not used to hearing it: “BULL-uhn!”. Read the rest of this entry »

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (April 3)

by Louise


TGIF. In usage and grammar news this month: Taylor Swift defending her grammar; the pet peeves of American copy editors; the language of cancer; the very distinctive sound of the NPR podcast voice; annoying musical abbreviations; and a war on farcical western names adopted by the Chinese.  Read the rest of this entry »

Demanning our language

by Louise


The National Association for Equality in the Workplace (NAEW) has announced an ambitious and somewhat controversial initiative — in cooperation with the US English Teachers Coalition — to remove “hot button” gender phonemes from standard American English over the next five years, ensuring that our vocabulary no longer contains gender-suggestive syllables or spellings. The NAEW launched the campaign today, explaining its 62-month goal to “de-gender” our lexicon by July 2020 — allocating five months per letter of the alphabet to phase out gender-suggestive words, with an extra couple of months built in to address the large percentage of male-dominant “m” words. Read the rest of this entry »

Placebo: from funeral-crasher and sycophant to inactive or sham therapy

by Louise


Watching a TV review of the new off-Broadway musical comedy Placebo (in which “Louise is working on a placebo-controlled study of a new female arousal drug”*), I learned something interesting — not about myself or female arousal drugs, but about the word that gives the show its title. It didn’t always mean a therapy that provides a psychological benefit rather than a physiological effect or a dummy drug used in clinical trials. Apparently the word’s etymology is revealed and discussed in the early part of the new play, so we’ll do the same here (but without the arousal effect) … Read the rest of this entry »

The narrative you

by Louise


“After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events. On the stereo you play your favorite harp and oboe music.”

“Your day breaks, your mind aches / You find that all the words of kindness linger on / When she no longer needs you”

Read the rest of this entry »

The history of happy (on International Day of Happiness)

by Louise


Happy International Day of Happiness!

Be happy. Or happy someone today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, happy used to be a transitive verb meaning “to make happy”.

Fortune shines on you when you’re happy. Read the rest of this entry »

The chance of a link between casual and casualty

by Louise


A scene from the popular British TV soap “Casualty”

Bloomberg View reported earlier this week that “U.S. Exaggerates Islamic State Casualties”, and a headline in the Detroit News read: “Marine casualties from Fla. helicopter crash identified”. The context of the statements leaves us in no doubt about what is meant by the word casualty here: it’s being used in its most extreme and tragic sense — to signify death. (In its plural form it’s commonly used to denote the death-count from a war or accident.)

We also meet the word casualty in a slightly different incarnation. “The unseen casualties of Japan’s lost decades suffer in silence”, reported Sahoko Kaji recently in the Financial Times, and “The Journalistic Casualties of The Guardian’s Erroneous Whisper Story” was a headline in New York magazine a few days ago. Again there’s no ambiguity here in the sense of the word, which can also refer to someone injured (in a war or accident) or a person or thing lost in or badly affected by an event or phenomenon. (In the UK there’s an additional meaning: you go to “casualty” — just as an American might head to the ER — for treatment after an accident or emergency.)

Now let’s turn to the adjective casual, so close in spelling to the ominous noun, and suddenly the mood is lifted. Whether it describes something happening by chance (i.e. not planned or expected), informal (i.e. calling for ordinary dress or behavior), or done without much thought, effort or concern, the word seems very far away in meaning or nuance from the mortal or grave sense of casualty, which is invariably associated with disaster. Can the words possibly be related? Read the rest of this entry »

Naming that app (applr, …)

by Louise

 directr   trrigr  mixlr      foodler   yummly

At the time of writing, there are just over 915,400,000 live websites online — and counting, according to New apps and sites are being added to our cyber-world by the second — and as fast as the new hopefuls pop up on our screens with their snappy vowel-less monikers, so do hundreds of Zuckerberg-wannabes surrender their lowercase domain names back to GoDaddy, hanging their bearded chins in their youthful hands and wondering what went wrong. Well, one thing that helps make a good site is a good name. But what gives a cyber-name its magic? Read the rest of this entry »

Answer to yesterday’s short grammar quiz

by Louise

Yesterday was National Grammar Day, and Glossophilia published a short grammar quiz. We asked how many of these eleven images depicted a grammatical mistake. The answer is:


Here’s why: Read the rest of this entry »