How Gaia theory got its name

June 5, 2023

I was familiar, in outline, with how Gaia theory got its name: that the novelist William Golding, being well versed in the classics, suggested it to his friend James Lovelock on a walk one day, perhaps to the local post office.

Lovelock’s 2009 book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, which I recently read, provides more context:

Book cover is black with a large photo of Planet Earth from space, showing Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Antarctica, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with vast swirls of cloud. The text is in different colours and sizes: white, green, and blue. A blurb from the UK Independent says, 'Lovelock will go down in history as the scientist who changed our view of the Earth'.Before 2004 the debate about Gaia concerned only me and a relatively small number of scientists, but now a proper understanding of the Earth as a living planet is a matter of life or death for billions of people, and extinction for a whole range of species. Unless we accept the Earth as alive, with us as a part of it, we may not know what to do or where to go as the ocean rises on a hot dry world. For this purpose the name Gaia is far more suitable for a vast live entity than some dull acronym based on rational scientific terms. In ancient Greece, Gaia was the goddess of the Earth. To many Greeks she was the most revered goddess of all, and interestingly the only god or goddess that was never the subject of scandal.

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Mom vs mam, and Americanisms in Irish English

May 21, 2023

I was recently approached by the Irish Independent newspaper for comment on the influence of American English and pop culture on Irish English speech.

The resulting article, by journalist Tanya Sweeney, focuses on the words people use to address their mother: mam, mum, mom, ma, and so on. It says the rise of mom in Ireland joins ‘other Americanisms that have now slipped into the lexicographical stream’.

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Jack Gladney’s German lessons

May 3, 2023

With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.

Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.

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Book spine poem: Memory

April 6, 2023

A new book spine poem (aka bookmash).



So I am glad our story begins:
Speak, memory, the forgotten language,
Clear the mist in the mirror,
The unreality of memory going dark,
The shadow of the sun across a
Billion years, far from the light
Of heaven.


A stack of 11 books, their spines facing out to form a colourful found poem. The background is white. The authors and titles are as follows: A. L. Kennedy, So I am Glad; Tobias Wolff, Our Story Begins; Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory; Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language; Nicola Barker, Clear; Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror; Elisa Gabbert, The Unreality of Memory; Julia Ebner, Going Dark; Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun; Robert Silverberg, Across a Billion Years; and Tade Thompson, Far from the Light of Heaven.

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Don’t never tell nobody not to use no double negatives

February 27, 2023

Sometimes what I read tells me what to write about. Other times the hints come from what I watch. This time it’s both. First I read a line in Richard Pryor’s autobiography Pryor Convictions with this mighty stack of intensifying negatives:

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Six more videos about language

January 25, 2023

The latest in an erratic series. In this set we have punctuation, phonetics, raciolinguistics, gesture, lexicography, and writing advice. Viewing length ranges from 4 minutes to 1 hour 18 minutes.


A brief history of the exclamation mark!

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New year’s resolutions for editors and proofreaders

January 12, 2023

To usher in 2023, I’ve compiled 5 new year’s resolutions for editors and proofreaders at the blog of AFEPI Ireland – the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers of Ireland.

I’ve always been wary of making new year’s resolutions, never taking them very seriously. So if you feel similarly, don’t be put off on that account. But I think they can be helpful if framed in a certain way, which I do in the opening paragraph.

Some suggestions are practical, addressing work habits and environment; others focus on our relationship to words and language, since this too is an important part of the work of editing and proofreading. Certain advice also applies to other trades.

It’s a short article, just over 800 words, and you can read it here.