Thoughtful if glancing remarks on word usage, fads, and other matters of pressing concern to public-radio listeners.
Gathering greatest hits from his dozen-odd years as a contributor to Fresh Air, Xerox Corporation think-tank denizen Nunberg offers homages and brickbats to the popular culture, especially as it is spoken and written. Some of the topics are the usual fodder of the past decade—the O.J. Simpson trial, for one, and the much-mooted chads of the last national ballot held in Florida. These would be tedious to revisit were Nunberg not so adept at finding an offbeat twist of the sort that would not occur to most of us: in the matter of the Simpson trial, what interests him is the media’s use of the coyly euphemistic phrase “the n-word,” whereas what concerns him about hanging chads is not the outcome of the election but the etymology of the term. (Was it, as some have suspected, a borrowing from a Scottish dialectal term meaning “loose rock”? Was it from the ringing name of a keypunch machine’s inventor, one Mr. Chadless? Stay tuned.) Elsewhere, Nunberg writes of the bizarre examples that turn up in foreign-language phrasebooks, such as “our coachman has been struck by lightning” and “God bless you. Now hurry”; the life and death of slang words and phrases, from the perennial “cool” to the please-stop-now “whatever”; the apparent disappearance of the word “history,” replaced by “heritage,” and of the word “galoot,” replaced by, well, nothing in particular; and the current president’s “nonchalant ungrammaticality”—which, he writes, comes not from any authentic mastery of Texas patois but from the condescending WASP view that “taking pains with language [is] the unerring signal of someone who is trying too hard.”
Though the pieces here, being radio filler, are simply too short to do their subjects justice, it’s still a fine read for a logophile.