You know how you've never hear a word before in your whole life, and then in you learn it -- in vocab or wherever -- and then you keep hearing it?  Well, or course, you've probably heard it many time before, but it never registered.
        Or maybe not.  At least two of you gave me "peripety".  It was in "Phil's Shadow": "In a happy peripety, rather than Phil buying the pearl with everything he has, the pearl buys him."  This is one of those rare instances where somebody cites a word I don't know.  Now, yesterday I'm reading an article about the paintings of William Blake (he's primarily known as a poet -- we'll try to squeeze him in this semester).  And I get this: 

Blake’s poems are songs, dependent on the power of word or cadence to evoke, for a moment, the full particular that makes one state of the human present, before, inexorably, the line and argument move on; or improvised epics, likewise carried most powerfully by the timbre of the singer’s voice, always bewildering and repetitive, pushing impatiently forward, impelled by an unexpectedness (aperipeteia) to come.

Call it serendipity.

 Ask is Not a Noun!

        Or is it?  (Go here if you really want to know.)  It turns out it used to be: a thousand years ago!  Then came the Norman Conquest, and the word "request" came into English.  That's a nice word.  Why don't you use that?  (When "here's my ask" is "here's what I'm asking for".  Or you could say that.)  Sometimes people say "here's my ask" when they mean "here's my question".  They think it sounds more "with it".  (It doesn't.  It sounds dumb.)
        But apparently there are certain specific usages where it can even make sense.  In finance, for instance: 

The Bakovic and Murphy postings provoked comments from readers who identified two specialized uses of the noun ask: in financial contexts, to mean 'asking price' (where it contrasts with bid and patterns with the specialized nounings put and call) –

For example, a bid of $10 and an ask of $11 for stock ABC is a fairly large spread, meaning the buyer and seller are far apart. (link)

and in fund-raising contexts, to refer to a request for contributions or grants. Here's Liz Ditz commenting on Eric's Language Log posting:

It is a turn of phrase from fundraising or philanthropy, which became ubiquitous about 5-10 years ago [that would be the mid-to-late 90s], meaning a grant request. "We have a big ask out to the GotRocks Foundation, and four or five smaller asks to community foundations." I remember being startled on first hearing it, but can't place the year.

These three specialized uses — in card-playing, finance, and fund-raising — make a lot of sense. They work BECAUSE ask (rather than request) stands out as not a normal noun; the usages suggest that something more specific than just requesting is going on. (These three uses are not separately listed in the OED, and it's an interesting question of lexicographic practice whether they should be.) Presumably the uses were innovated independently of one another, in different social groups and for different reasons, and none of them continue the older noun uses of ask.

So I guess I'll have to back off a little from my edict..  But I will say, unless you are using one of these specific usages, don't do it!  (And I stand firm on "genius is not an adjective.)

Your Smartphone Is Stealing Your Soul

One Ring to rule them all, 
One Ring to find them, 
One Ring to bring them all 
and in the darkness bind them.

     Perhaps you recognize the quotation.   It's from J.R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the inscription on the Ring of Power forged by Sauron in the depths of Mordor.  You'll recall that Sauron imbued the ring with his own powers, so that when Isildur cut ring and finger from his hand, Sauron lost much of his power.

     It's occurred to me lately that this is a perfect metaphor for our relationships with our smartphones.  Don't believe me?  Do you remember how you felt the last time you lost your phone?  Had to relinquish it to a parent or a teacher?  Because -- admit it -- it's more than just an item.  It's become part of you.  Hasn't it?

Ring of Power

     Here's a link to a short article about a recent experimental study where students were asked to do word search puzzles.  Then they took their phones away.  The subjects could still see and hear them.  Then, the experimenters called the phones.  Guess what happened.

     The second half of the article (the whole thing is a one-pager), though, says not to worry.  We're expanding our minds, that's all.  Like Sauron, with the Ring he's unstoppable.  "Being able to outsource some of the grunt work of cognition frees up our brains to do the interesting, creative processing of the information."  [I just cut and pasted that quotation.  So easy!  (Otherwise I would have had to actually run the words through my brain.)]  Still, I wonder "Will a generation that can google everything, everywhere, grow up unable to remember anything?"

     My boy Thoreau said  "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,"  The same might be said for our smartphones.

(P.S. -- Don't forget to download that Merriam-Webster app.  You'll be glad you did!)

Don't Be A Sheep

“Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week, or even better, once a month. Don’t tell them about your grades on papers or tests, or anything else about how you’re doing during the term.  Make it clear to them that this is your experience, not theirs.”

​There.  Have I got your attention?  Parents, I know I have yours.  Parents will probably agree with the author of the book review I borrowed this from: "(Note to my children: This is excellent advice. If you take it, I will kill you.)"

The review is of a book called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz..  Here's a part of review that deals with how Deresiewicz sees the college admissions process:

When I say that Mr. Deresiewicz brings the gory details, I mean that he delivers tidy scenes like an account of sitting on Yale’s admissions committee in 2008. The particulars of this experience will make parents break out in a prickly rash. I am still recovering.

Only five or six extracurricular activities? Those are slacker numbers. Does the applicant have “good rig” (academic rigor)? What about “top checks” (highest check marks in every conceivable category)? Is he or she “pointy” (insanely great at one thing)? How are his or her “PQs” (personal qualities)? Or is your child, as one committee member said of an applicant, “pretty much in the middle of the fairway”?

Mr. Deresiewicz spends a long time considering college admissions because a vast number of crimes, he suggests, are committed in its name. We’ve created kids who throughout their high school years are unable to do anything they can’t put on a résumé. They’re blinkered overachievers.

​Why am I telling you this?  It may be right, it may be wrong.  But it's something for you (maybe with the help of trusted mentors) to consider.  Pursue wisdom.  Whatever that means to you.

Have a great year.

​Summer Reading

  Well, Summer will be here soon (God willin' and the crick don't rise), and I'm starting to make my summer reading bookpile.  It's an irony of the profession that, as an English teacher, I have so little time to read during the school year.  Because I'm so busy reading -- papers, lectios, articles, and the like.  I guess you'd call that a paradox.          

But I don't have time for pleasure reading.  Not only novels, but history, too.  I read Thoreau's journals one summer.  Usually at least one book about baseball, one about religion.  I have a beautiful breezy screen porch where I can read.

 Recently, this column appeared in the New York Timeslamenting the fact that "kids nowadays" don't read nearly as much as "we" used to when we were kids. Well, of course there good reasons for that.  There are so many other distractions for kids these days (video games, I'm looking at you!) and they are faster, more engaging, and flashier.  So what can you expect?  The heyday of reading is past.          

Nevertheless, I'd like to put in a good word for reading.  It's different from those other forms of media.  But it can be a wonderful, life-changing experience.

 Here's a letter appearing today in the New York Times.  I think it says something very powerful about that most low-tech of all items -- the lowly book.

To the Editor:

Re “Read, Kids, Read,”  by Frank Bruni (column, May 13):

I was raised in Communist Albania. Books were censored, and only those that were government-approved were allowed.

I am an avid reader, and the reason for that was my grandparents’ secret library, which made it through World War II and Communist censorship and was hidden in a room with no windows accessible by a doorway behind a heavy shelf. Only close family members knew about it. I couldn’t tell anyone outside the family. I did let slip once in high school that I had read Homer’s “Iliad.” I had to deflect questions about where and how I found the book. It was scary.

Another different thing when I grew up was a lack of TV. You had to use books to fill your time and imagination. So now I do the same for my two children. Provide books and allow very little screen time. It works wonders. They can’t go a day without reading.

People are amazed at how creative and imaginative they are and how they can sit still and focus for long periods of time. I credit reading for all that.

Watertown, Mass., May 13, 2014


Schools -- not malls -- should be our cathedrals!

Down in Baltimore, in the inner city neighborhood where they filmed the HBO series, The Wire, a grand social experiment is taking place.  Now, I realize that the history of "grand social experiments" is littered with flops and failures, and that social engineering is a dangerous game, but I'm very hopeful for this one.  A new K-8 school has been built, and the whole idea is to make it a hub for the whole community.  Why should a school close at 3 p.m., or 5, or open only for basketball games and male beauty pageants?  Read about the Henderson-Hopkins school (excerpt below).

Now, there's no health clinic attached to this building.  That would be a good idea.  And a pool was proposed (like here), but that was deemed to be too expensive (like here).  Do you think Donald Trump would have put in a pool?  (I'll bet he would).

BALTIMORE — In many ways, public schools are gated communities, dead zones. They’re shuttered after dark and during the summer, open to parents and students while in session but not to the larger community.HH School

A new public school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in East Baltimore wants to challenge the blueprint. Designed by Rob Rogers, of Rogers Partners in New York, Henderson-Hopkins, as it’s called, aspires to be a campus for the whole area — with a community center, library, auditorium and gym — as well as a hub for economic renewal.

This is the neighborhood where parts of “The Wire” were filmed. In 2000, when the city’s mayor convened local business leaders, the vacancy rate was 70 percent. Poverty was twice the city average. Crime, infant mortality and unemployment were all through the roof.

The idea that emerged — of making the school the centerpiece of a major redevelopment project — is a grand urban experiment. Operated by Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with Morgan State University, the school, which opened in January, belongs to a $1.8 billion plan that also includes new science and technology buildings, a park, retail development and mixed-income housing. While gentrification might threaten to displace the poor, the school is to be the glue that helps bind the district together.

Intricacies of the English Language
Spring Training Edition

From this morning's Boston Globe comes the following observation: "Daniel Nava, who has been focused on learning first base, spent time after the workout with coach Brian Butterfield. Nava has been dogged at trying to learn the intricacies of a new position."

First of all, you probably remember Daniel Nava for his major league debut -- he hit a grand slam home run on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues -- as well as for his back story -- he was a undrafted free agent who couldn't even make the team his freshman year at college.  So he ended up washing the dirty uniforms of the other players.  But he persisted.  He made the team the next year.  He wasn't drafted but was signed by a team in an Independent league.  Who dropped him after tryouts -- only to sign him the next year.  And that's where a Red Sox scout saw him.  And then the trip up their minor league system.

Unfortunately, that first homer was the only one he hit all year (in 188 times up), and the following season he was back in the minors.  But the thing about Nava is the kid won't quit.  And in 2012 he made it back to the big leagues, even hitting six homers in a little over three hundred at-bats. But now it's 2013, and he's fighting for a job again, and that means learning a new position -- a task that he's been "dogged at".  

"Dogged at" -- an interesting expression.  First, the pronunciation: dog - ged, with the accent on the second syllable.  (It doesn't really rhyme with anything, that I can think of.  It's like Puppy School -- Dog Ed.)  If you are dogged at something, it means you are working like a dog.  You're like a terrier going after a rat.  You will not be denied.

There's a similar expression -- "dogged by".  (This is pronounced differently.  It rhymes with "slogged".)  If you're dogged by something, you're like that convict in the striped suit trying to evade a pack of baying hounds: your problems will just not let you alone.

And then of course there's "dog it", which means you're being lazy and not giving something your best shot.

English -- ya gotta love it!

Two Georges (Orwell and Carlin) on Language

In Honors English we read a short essay called "Politics and the English Language".  For those of you who think you don't care about either, check out this Youtube: George Carlin picking up on George Orwell.

And you want to hear good political writing -- honest, and simple, and true?  Go here.

And finally -- and this could take a lot longer -- every year Lake Superior State University compiles a list of "Banned Words".  For instance, from 2013, "kick the can down the road", and "job creator".  The entire list, going back to 1976, here