Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Practically Abandoned by One’s Friends

Whence, where, and why the English major? Adam Gopnik asks in the New Yorker, noting its impending demise like the Latin prerequisite before it ― “a dying choice bound to a dead subject.” Despite his sympathies, Gopnik finds the apologias of the discipline's defenders unpersuasive, mocking “The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities” proffered by Brown University’s Christina Paxson as “the kind of Letter to a Crazy Republican Congressman that university presidents get to write.” Like most pragmatic parries, it surrenders the tradition’s essence in the vain hope its accidents might carry the day or, at least, prolong the inevitable. Hardly surprising, given the bottom line for Paxson’s fellow economists: “Is it worth it?” ― not the best way to defend the intrinsic worth of the humanities, even in an age that abhors such “useless knowledge.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Buzzwords Drone On

Veteran readers may recall our calling attention to the problem of word inflation. Buzzwords are a prime culprit, and when they become so pervasive they’re virtually inaudible, we should start listening, as Judith Shulevitz, science editor of  the New Republic, reminds us. Take disruptive, which permeates cliché-ridden venues like the platforms at TED talks and the pages of Forbes. "Disruptive doesn’t mean what it used to," she notes. "It’s no longer the adjective you hope not to hear in parent-teacher conferences. It’s what you want investors to say about your new social-media app"  ah, there's the rub. For additional examples of insufferable argot, read her essay.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dead to the World Around Them

When I was as young as the lad to our left, I walked the streets of Olneyville, my nose buried in a book, oblivious to all but the occasional blare of horns waking me from my contemplation. Today, as Wayne Curtis writes in The Smart Set, the eyes of digital zombies are fixed on screens, not paper pages, but the risks of collateral damage remain the same. "From time to time, they will glance up and a brief squall of confusion will cross their faces as they try to reorient themselves. ... They wander into streets and traffic as if no cars or other hazards exist in their parallel universe." The hazards of substituting texting for reading ― or conversation, for that matter  is a subject for another time.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Building Blocks of English: Affixes

Affixes are building blocks of language. The four types are prefixes, suffixes, combining forms, and infixes. We are familiar with prefixes, which placed at the beginning of words qualify their meaning (inappropriate) and suffixes, which convert the stem into another part of speech (celebrate to celebration). Combining forms, which can be either prefixes or suffixes, add another layer of meaning to words (biochemistry; pesticide). The least common affixes are infixes, which are placed within a word (in this case, to form the plural cupsful).

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Literary Triple Play

In the fall of 1874, William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, importuned Mark Twain for something to put in its columns for the coming year. Twain at first demurred; then passed on the suggestion of his closest friend, the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twitchell, to write about Clemens' piloting career on the Mississippi river. The result, as they say, is history. As John T. Flanagan wrote for Minnesota History in 1936, "It is interesting to note that neither the conception of nor the early stimulus for one of Mark Twain's greatest books was original with the author." Mark Twain on the Upper Mississippi  Cf. The Lincoln of Literature: Mark Twain, The Atlantic, and the Making of the Middlebrow Magazine