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  • In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

    In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.” . . .

    Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh.

  • A Brief History of Singular 'they'

    Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

    But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375 . . .

  • The right to read

    It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

    First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

    Then, as if the book police wasn’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. Guns, yes. Books, no.

  • The Babel Proclamation: celebrating a century of banning foreign languages in America

    Today America celebrates the centenary of the Babel Proclamation. On May 23, 1918, Iowa Gov. William Harding banned the public use of all foreign languages: in schools, on trains, at meetings, in church, even on the phone.

    They called the ban the Babel Proclamation. America was at war, and German—commonly spoken in Iowa at the time—was the language of the enemy. When asked why he banned all languages and not just German, Harding explained that “German intrigue does not confine itself to the German language. The fact is they find it more convenient now to use other languages.” Apparently no one thought to ask Harding, “So if German spies speak English, shouldn’t you ban English too?”

    As for prayer, Harding told the Chamber of Commerce, “I am telling those who insist upon praying in some other language that they are wasting their time, for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice in English.”

    Oh, and that First Amendment business in the Constitution? Welp, according to the governor, freedom of speech is guaranteed only if you speak English.

  • Ghostwriters . . . who ya gonna call?

    The New York Times reports that people are turning to ghostwriters to help them write text messages, dating profiles, and status updates, the kind of personal writing that most of us used to do for ourselves along with our shopping lists, thank you notes, and diary entries. . . .

    But now that the internet has turned us all into writers, ordinary people are calling ghostwriters to help them post online. . . .

    The internet began as a free-wheeling, we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-rules space that would democratize writing. Turning everyone with a keyboard into a writer would take writing out of the hands of specialists. Along the way, you could ditch those school rules. Upper case, lower case? Who cares? Spelling and punctuation? No, thank you. Subject-verb agreement? It’s for losers. No teacher was going to cover that email in red ink; no boss was going to send that .pdf back for revision.

    But that’s not what happened. . . .


  • Yellow Fever: Is it a racist slur or just a place to eat?

    Is calling a restaurant Yellow Fever yet another example of mainstream racism? Is it a bold reappropriation of a negative stereotype? Or just a bad marketing decision?

    It’s all of the above when Whole Foods hosts a pan-Asian resto called “Yellow Fever” in one of its California markets.

  • The all-natural guide to writing technology

    What could be more natural than putting thoughts into words by writing them down? Thoreau called writing nothing less than “pure mind, pure thought.” So writing is as natural as granola, or as natural as granola made with non-GMO pure nuts and grains.

    Humans lived on earth for tens of thousands of years, or even longer, without inventing writing, which is only about 6,000 years old. That’s how natural writing is. It's all technology, all artificial in that you need artifice, you need tools, to turn thoughts into visible words.

  • Thon was Word of the Year in 1884

    Gender-neutral pronouns have been in the news recently. Last fall, a trans teacher in a Florida school was removed from their classroom for asking students to refer to them with the gender-neutral title Mx and the singular they. Two years earlier, when the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers make sure all students felt included by asking them, “What’s your pronoun?”, the state legislature closed the Diversity Office and banned the use of tax dollars to pay for gender-neutral pronouns.

    It’s only fitting then to remember that the gender-neutral pronoun thon was Word of the Year in 1884. Or it would have been, had we been picking words of the year back then. 1884 was the year that Charles C. Converse announced that he had coined thon, a gender-neutral pronoun, by blending that and one. Thon could refer both to men and women, and it would come in handy in cases where gender is unknown, or irrelevant, or where it needs to be concealed (C. C. Converse, “A New Pronoun.” The Critic, Aug. 2, 1884, p. 55).

  • The 2017 Word of the Year has been banned

    The Trump administration has banned the 2017 Word of the Year. 

    Adding to earlier reports that the federal government will no longer be allowed to use seven dirty words like evidence-based, vulnerable, diversity, transgender, season’s greetings, and #metoo, the Trump administration has canceled this year’s Word of the Year awards.

    Sources inside the White House, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear for their lives, reported on the social media site on Sunday that the Department of Homeland Security has rescinded recent Word of the Year awards to feminism, fake news, populism, and youthquake, a word no one has even heard ofDHS further announced the suspension of all awards currently in the pipelines.

  • The new digital censorship: Writers blocking readers

    In a new form of censorship, social media lets writers block their readers.

    I found out recently, and quite by accident, that a writer whose work I’ve read from time to time had blocked me on Twitter. It’s a digital first: never since the invention of letters have writers had the option of preventing readers from accessing their work. 

    I’m not talking about private diaries, personal letters, or eyes-only top secret communiqués. I mean writers who write for the public. These writers—who used to be grateful that anyone was willing to glance at their work let alone read it all the way through—now have the power to say, “My words are for everybody else, but they’re not for you.”

  • So long as we're banning devices from the classroom, let's ban clay tablets as well

    A University of Michigan professor is the latest in a long line of instructors who don’t allow students to use devices in their classrooms. Susan Dynarski (“Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting,” New York Times, 22 Nov.) cites irrefutable research that banning devices in class increases student learning. Apparently cell phones, tablets, and laptops keep even students who are actually paying attention from fully engaging with the course material.

    You’ve heard the arguments before: Devices cause distraction. Typing is faster than handwriting, so students will spend less time mentally processing each word. Typing encourages copying verbatim; writing by hand forces students to digest and summarize what they hear.

    But the arguments fail: pens and pencils are complex technological devices--if you don't believe that, try making a pencil at home. How many student notebooks consist of swirls, doodles, cartoon figures, experiments with signatures, or stray keywords indecipherable after the fact? As for verbatim transcription, there’s no research showing typed notes parrot the speaker more than written ones. Remember, too, that transcription originates as a handwriting technique; it took decades before typists could come close to the accuracy of stenographers.

  • When Donald Trump blocks you on Twitter, does he violate the First Amendment?

    The Knight First Amendment Institute claims that when Donald Trump blocks Twitter followers who criticize him or his policies, he’s violating the First Amendment, and so Knight is suing on behalf of seven blocked tweeters to force the president to unblock them and open his Twitter feed to everyone.

  • Miranda and the Louisiana Lawyer Dog: a case of talking while black

    Talking while black cost Warren Demesme his Miranda rights in Louisiana.

    In a 6-1 decision, on Oct. 27 the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Warren N. Demesme, in jail in Orleans Parish since January of the previous year while he awaits trial on a count of first degree rape and another of “sexual misconduct with a juvenile under the age of thirteen.” During questioning Demesme confessed, but he later asked the court to throw out that confession because police ignored his request for an attorney, one of the “Miranda” rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

    The court is not required to explain why it refused to hear the appeal, but in order “to spotlight the very important constitutional issue regarding the invocation of counsel during a law enforcement interview,” Scott J. Crichton, one of the court’s judges, wrote in a concurrence that police did not have to stop their questioning after Demesme’s request because he asked for a “lawyer dog,” not a lawyer.

  • Language in the age of Fake News, Fox News, and Trump™

    Everyone likes to pick apart the language of politicians, but it’s the job of linguists to pick apart everybody’s language, from the everyday to the very rare, from the learned and refined to the rough and tumble, from the main streets and gated communities to the empty lots and back alleys. We come up with stunning insights about language for a living, and so far as analyzing political language, well, you could say we eat it for breakfast. But the age of fake news, Fox News, and Trump™—all of them synonymous to some extent—is challenging our long-held beliefs about how language works.

  • Court rules that gay bashing is not a crime in West Virginia

    West Virginia's hate crime law protects people from threats and violence because of their race, religion, or sex. Last week, the state's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the word sex in the hate crime statute does not include sexual orientation. The 3-2 decision in West Virginia v. Butler means that gay bashing is not a crime in West Virginia.