The “Johnson” column returns

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.

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Oi! In London

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.

I was also deputy editor of The Economist‘s annual prediction-bonanza, The World in 2016. In my own contribution to World In, I took my best stab at the language trends to look for this year.

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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.
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Just 200 words on Charlie Hebdo

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.

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Recent work

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. 

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What’s new

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.
 
 
Viel Vergnügen.
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The Economist, “Bulgaria: Succeeding in spite of the state”

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…

Read the whole article.

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Bilingualism rocks

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?"

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Johnson on taking offense, “Denglisch” and the hardness of English

My latest Johnson columns have been on taking offense where obviously none was intended ("Deliberate misunderstanding"); a look at the English words slipping haphazardly into German ("Denglisch"); and an answer to the question: "Is English hard to learn?"

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Dateline: Berlin

I’ve now been in Berlin for a month, getting moved in and settling in a new office while also squeezing in a short vacation. In between, I’ve written two Johnson pieces (now in column format): one, an introduction to the new column, and another, an update to George Orwell’s six rules for writing. And with my new European Business and Finance Correspondent hat on, I’ve had a look at the travails of first Commerzbank and then Siemens.

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