Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

February 2011

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The government’s definition of writing is seriously out of date

By Dennis Baron

There’s a federal law that defines writing. Because the meaning of the words in our laws isn’t always clear, the very first of our federal laws, the Dictionary Act–the name for Title 1, Chapter 1, Section 1, of the U.S. Code–defines what some of the words in the rest of the Code mean, both to guide legal interpretation and to eliminate the need to explain those words each time they appear. Writing is one of the words it defines, but the definition needs an upgrade.

The Dictionary Act consists of a single sentence, an introduction and ten short clauses defining a minute subset of our legal vocabulary, words like person, officer, signature, oath, and last but not least, writing.

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SciWhys: What is DNA and what does it do?

Today we’d like to introduce our latest regular OUPblog column: SciWhys. Every month OUP editor and author Jonathan Crowe will be answering your science questions. Got a burning question about science that you’d like answered? Just email it to us, and Jonathan will answer what he can. Kicking us off: What is DNA and what does it do?

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And the winners are…language lovers!

By Grace Labatt

The 2011 Academy Awards® take place this Sunday, February 27, the culmination of months of speculation about who will wear what, who will have the hardest time with the TelePrompTer, and, of course, who will win. But regardless of who goes home with an Oscar—whether it’s Natalie Portman for playing a tormented ballerina or Annette Bening for playing a tormented wife—language lovers already have plenty to celebrate with this year’s honorees. Films in 2010 had an array of unusual linguistic choices that highlighted their screenwriters’ unique skills.

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You’ve Been McGuggenized!

When my friend sent me a link with the subject line: Carmel in WSJ! I clicked with trepidation. The last time my hometown made national news it involved a sodomy hazing incident and the high school basketball team. Phew. It was only a minor dispute over an expensive new piece of suburban architecture:

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Words, words, words

By Elizabeth Knowles
‘Is it in the dictionary?’ is a formulation suggesting that there is a single lexical authority: ‘The Dictionary’. As the British academic Rosamund Moon has commented, ‘The dictionary most cited in such cases is the UAD: the Unidentified Authorizing Dictionary, usually referred to as “the dictionary”, but very occasionally as “my dictionary”.’ The American scholar John Algeo has coined the term lexicographicolatry for a reverence for dictionary authority amounting to idolatry. As he explained:

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‘Women do not count, neither shall they be counted’

By Jill Liddington
Elizabeth Crawford and I, suffrage historians both, watched with keen interest in early 2009 as the 1911 census began to go online. On Tuesday 13 January selected English counties became fully searchable by the public. Excitement was palpable. By midnight, there had been 3.4m searches and 17.4m pages viewed, particularly by family historians. But it was suffragettes who grabbed attention – with headlines like ‘1911 Census: the secret suffragettes who refused to be counted’.

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Why Wisconsin Democrats are Fumbling on their Message

By Elvin Lim

Something is afoot in American politics. There was a time when the rights of workers, even government workers, to collectively bargain, was taken for granted. There was a time when federal budget deficits were accepted as a necessarily evil but it was only a problem talked about and no one addressed. There was a time when it was political suicide to talk about extending the retirement age or reducing Social Security benefits. Whatever that is left of the political consensus of the last half-century is unraveling today into a cantankerous politics in which settled issues are now up for political re-litigation.

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Monthly Gleanings: February 2011

By Anatoly Liberman
As I said, when I first broached this subject, discussing the merits and demerits of the split infinitive is an unprofitable occupation: all the arguments have been repeated many times. But an ironic comment on my post made me return to splitting. The differences between me and a huge segment of the world (a look at British newspapers shows that the infection is not limited to American usage) can be formulated so: my principle is “split if you must,” while many others seem to stick to the principle “split at all costs.” Our correspondent asserted that nothing justifies keeping the particle to and the verbal form in close proximity. Not quite so.

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Bada-Bing! – Episode 11 – The Oxford Comment

With the Academy Awards right around the corner, we thought it might be fun to look at the lexical impact of films and some words that were actually coined by movies.

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Tchaikovsky is No One-Trick Pony

I’d argue our Black Swan fever peaked at Jim Carey’s SNL performance, but we might see a resurgence this weekend at the Oscars. In anticipation I contacted Roland John Wiley, author of Tchaikovsky and Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, for his thoughts on his subject’s recent omnipresence. Turns out Wiley’s a bit of an outsider in the academic community, where the composer hasn’t always been taken seriously. Here, Wiley explains the trappings of music snobbery – and why Tchaikovsky’s popularity among the “muggles” is no reason to discount his brilliance. (Oh, and, he dishes on the original Swan Lake ballerina dra-ma!)

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The Limits of Legal Agreements as Security for Israel

By Louis René Beres

For millennia, states and empires have negotiated formal agreements to protect themselves. Usually known as treaties, these agreements are always in written form, and are always fashioned and evaluated according to pertinent international law. Problems arise, however, whenever particular signatories decide that continued compliance is no longer in their own “national interest.” It follows that treaties can be useful when there exists an enduring mutuality of interest, but can become more or less useless whenever such mutuality is presumed to disappear.

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Why the President Got Sexified

When did the commander-in-chief become a sex icon? That was the question I pursued this Presidents’ Day. And of course the more people I spoke with, the more complex the question became. By the end of the investigation I learned some Americans continue to preserve a “pure” image of presidents past, while many find their sex lives highly relevant to our political history. Check out the slideshow below to see exactly what our authors had to say!

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100+ Eskimo words for snow? Not so.

By Dave Wilton

Having just moved to Toronto, Ontario from Berkeley, California, one thing that is on my mind, as well as on my front yard, is snow. Crunching through the drifts on my way to the subway, or when I walk my dog Dexter, gives me a lot of time to contemplate the unfamiliar white stuff. One of those thoughts is how familiarity with snow figures into one of the more persistent false beliefs about language—the one that says, “Eskimos have X number of words for snow,” with X being a number ranging from several dozen to as many as four hundred.

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Patriarchal Feudalism

Greed, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas by Nancy Folbre describes a spiralling process of economic and cultural change in Britain, the US, and France since the 18th century that shaped both the evolution of patriarchal capitalism and the larger relationship between production and reproduction. This short excerpt from the first chapter of the book, Folbre explains the notion of patriarchal feudalism.

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