An incredibly important navel-gazing announcement: I’ve been writing under my full name, Robert Lane Greene, as an homage to my beloved grandfather, since the beginning of my professional life, and it just kind of stuck around by inertia. There were lots of other fun reasons: there was a Lane Greene in my hometown of Atlanta, occasionally quoted in the papers on architecture. I like that "Robert" was recognizably male–I don’t know why. And for a three-word name, Robert Lane Greene, at four syllables, is almost as short as you get, with a nice balance.
But from now on, for a number of other reasons, I’m going to publish as plain Lane–that is, "Lane Greene", the name everyone has called me since my parents put me in this awkward situation at birth. No more confusion with Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and suchlike; I suspect the confusion steered me more of his sales than the other way around. No more telling radio presenters "Please introduce me as Robert Lane Greene, but then call me Lane." But most of all, none of the plain weirdness of a split personality where I am Robert to the wide world, and Lane to a closer circle. My writing can be fairly personal, and even where drily intellectual, it’s always my personal passion that drives it along. Why not use the name I’m called? I couldn’t think of a good reason.
So, love you, Mom! Still miss you, Grandpa! But bye for now, "Robert", which will be confined to pestering from various bureaucracies and vendors addressing me from the coziness of a database. Friends, please call me Lane.
Hey there! Do please go read what I’ve got to say on
– why women don’t like being called "feisty".
– how weird Chomsky’s theories have become
– why it may be better to work in a second language
– what would happen to English if Britain quits the EU, and
– how two biracial comedians became America’s most popular sociolinguists
In the 1990s, The Economist ran a language column called Johnson, which I loved. In 2010, having been on the newspaper’s staff for a few years myself, I proposed reviving Johnson as a blog, and three years later, it became a weekly web column. Beginning in March, it has returned to the print edition, on a biweekly basis. It is the culmination of a lovely dream to have become the paper’s language columnist, having been such a fan of it back in its first incarnation, and having the chance (and the obligation) to say something new about language every two weeks.
My first three columns have been on what Samuel Johnson himself might say about today’s language controversies; what the demotion of the French circumflex and the demotion of Pluto have in common; and how the @-sign’s inclusion in e-mail addresses jostled a punctuation system that was already barely settled.
Stay tuned for more.
Another day, a new town, a new hat: I’m now working from the London headquarters of The Economist, as the deputy Books & Arts editor. I help run the books coverage of The Economist in print and our online coverage of culture on the Prospero blog.
I continue writing my language column, the latest instalment of which was on various Word of the Year choices for 2015, and why "they" was a rather singular choice by the American Dialect Society. Find more of my columns at Prospero.
This word-nerd was asked to join the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel. What happened next rocked his world
Last summer I was delighted to be asked to join the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel, which has included so many great writers and language-experts that I was as intimidated as I was overjoyed.
Then came my first actual ballot, where the panel is asked to rule on disputed usages, and some philosophical conflicts as I filled it out. I tell the story at Schwa Fire.
Of all of the statements of solidarity, I haven’t been able to make myself say “Je suis Charlie.” I’m not, and you probably aren’t either. As a journalist, I’ve never covered the kind of people who would kill me. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did. They did so knowingly. They were the sharp end of freedom of speech. Too sharp? Who gets to say? The most humorless person on the planet? Not everything in Charlie Hebdo was even funny, or even close. But they weren’t just aiming for schoolboy laughs. They understood that for a right to really be a right, it must not be couched in the language of “You have the right to offend, but you must never use it.” They offended, intentionally, to protect more important rights for the rest of us, understanding that if we let the zealots draw the line at Charlie Hebdo, they wouldn’t just stop there. The cartoonists drew the front line way out from where we are, so we could live safely well behind it. They died for that bravery. And I’ll intentionally borrow a term from the religious: they are martyrs, having died for their beliefs and ours. We are not Charlie, because Charlie was a lot braver than most people will ever be.
So Germany won the world cup, and I reflected on the team’s grace and class in victory. Joe Kaeser has been running Siemens for a year, and I wrote about his progress in tuning up German’s industrial dynamo. And no summer would be complete without a thirsty piece about good but uncreative German beer and the slow growth of American-style craft beer here.
In the Johnson column, I turned two holidays (in Spain and Sweden) into reflections on Catalan and on the Scandinavian "neighbor languages". I also examined the communication strategies underlying "mansplaining"–to the almost equal irritation of feminists accusing me of mansplaining and men mansplaining why I was wrong.
Long time, no update, but in the past few months, while in business-finance mode I’ve written about clubby boardrooms, Germans’ low-return investment habits, the arms-export industry, and German business lobbying against sanctions on Russia.
With the language hat on, I’ve covered what a foreign language is worth (yes, in dollar terms), why English and Linguistics need each other, how computers can be better language teachers than humans, and how Ukraine’s government screwed up by demoting Russian.
One of the most fascinating reporting trips I’ve ever had was my recent one in Sofia. I talked to entrepreneurs whose creativity and grit in starting businesses in 1990s Bulgaria would make the most peacocking Silicon Valley company-founder blush.
MILEN GEORGIEV’S father had bought him a kit of cheap magic tricks. That was lucky, because it helped the young Bulgarian figure out the sleight-of-hand in the hustlers’ three-card con trick at an open-air market in Sofia. Over ten weeks, Mr Georgiev made 1,000 lev (then around $18 at official rates), while getting just 90 lev a month on his student stipend. The hustlers started turning him away.
“This was good capital at this time,” he says. It was 1991. He and a friend went into business. First they bought and sold plastic bags, then bought a machine for making them. Mr Georgiev financed new machines at 6% a month from local lenders. He fended off one protection racket by hiring another at cheaper rates, and paying the police for a panic button in his offices. Palms had to be greased to get telephone lines set up, and imports through customs.
But today his business is thriving…
Two recent Johnson columns on bilingualism have been surprise hits. The first, "Bringing up baby bilingual", discusses the cognitive benefits of doing exactly that for your child. (Amazingly, bilingualism’s benefits last until old age.) The second column offers some answers the question "Do different languages confer different personalities?"