The Last Philologos Ever?

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 14, 2010, issue of April 23, 2010.
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The announcement in the April 9 issue of the Forward of my 1,000th column took me by surprise because, by my own calculations, the millennium should have come a week later. Perhaps my mistake was failing to count leap years. An extra day every four years may not seem like much, but over a period of 20 years, it can add up to another week and another column.

The Forward wished me 1,000 more columns. That was kind, but much too generous. The fact is that for many years I had thought of making my 1,000th column my last one. Not that writing “On Language” isn’t fun, but how many times can you wake up on column-writing day without the vaguest notion of what you’re going to write about, while hoping desperately that something will come to mind?

The miracle is that something always does. Sometimes it’s taken the form of a last-minute e-mail from one of you, or of my reviewing previous communications that have piled up in my computer and desk and finding a usable one I’d overlooked; sometimes, by an item in that morning’s paper or an idea that suddenly popped into my head. Still, as the rabbis say, “Lo somkhim al ha-nes,” “One mustn’t count on miracles.” Eventually, even heaven runs out of them. And it keeps getting harder, because each column that I write means there’s one subject less to write about in the future. Once upon a time, nearly all the queries I received from readers had to do with things I’d never written about. Now, more and more ask perfectly good questions that I’ve already addressed.

If I were as conscientious as I should be, I’d answer these letters and inform you of the previous column in which you could find what you were looking for. But in the first place, I’m lazy, and in the second, I’ve never kept an accurate record of my old columns. Although I keep telling myself that I should sit down and index them, I never seem to have the time for it, and the index to be compiled grows longer every year.

That’s one reason queries go unanswered. Another may be that they don’t seem to me of sufficient general interest — or else that they do, but I don’t know the answer to them and lack the means to find it out. Even with the existence of the Internet and search engines, which provide staggering amounts of information if you have the patience to wade through it, I’m sometimes sent fascinating questions that I would have to spend a week rummaging through a good university library to be able — perhaps — to answer. Of course, I could always try turning to the university scholars themselves, which I sometimes do, but though they know a lot more than I do, they too often don’t know what this column’s readers want to know.

It’s because I’m no scholar that I’ve preferred writing under a pseudonym. While I’m reasonably well-read in linguistics, I’m well aware of my ignorance, and the pseudonym has allowed me to feel that whenever I say something wrong or foolish, an imaginary person will end up being blamed for it. It may be an illusion on my part, but deep down I believe that when I have to answer for my sins in the World To Come and am asked how I could have made such a dumb remark in this or that column, I’ll get away with it by mumbling, “Look, that wasn’t me, it was Philologos.” Having a pseudonym is a little like being drunk. One can take liberties that one wouldn’t take if sober.

It may be the pseudonym, however, that has also prevented the publication of a collection of these columns in book form. Over the years, many of you have written to ask me why no such book exists, and the only answer I can give is that no publisher has ever shown any interest. Quite possibly this may be because no publisher has ever read to the end of a column. But it also may be because no publisher has figured out how to put Philologos on a talk show or send him on a speaking tour. In my opinion, this reflects a lack of imagination (I could, for example, be encased in a suit of armor with the visor down), but there is apparently nothing to be done about it.

I don’t know how many more of these columns I’ll turn out. Perhaps a few hundred if I live long enough and don’t make the killing on the stock market that would enable me to stop writing for an income. Not another 1,000, in any case. And if you don’t start sending me some new questions about new subjects to which I know the answers, there might not even be another column next week.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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