I don't think I mentioned that I met Geoff Pullum a few weeks ago.
Geoff Pullum is a linguistics professor at UC Santa Cruz, and one of the more prolific contributors to Language Log, a fascinating blog about linguistics, language usage, and other stuff. Pullum and his fellow Language Logger Mark Liberman have a book out - Far From the Madding Gerund - which is a selection of their Language Log postings over the years. The title of this post comes from a reviewer's delicious comment adorning the book's front cover.
Prof. Pullum was on a local book tour earlier this summer, and as he was still on sabbatical at Harvard his local tour took him right into my neighborhood - he read from the book at the MIT Coop, not five minutes' walk from my office. So of course I had to go. As much as I love all of the denizens of Language Log, Prof. Pullum is my favorite, and the opportunity to meet him set my amateur linguist heart aflutter. As it turns out, he is as tangy in person as he is in his posts. We were instantly charmed and laughing happily throughout his talk and reading.
A dramatic high point occurred when he encountered beside his podium a stack of Strunk & White's , the style guide, which he viciously excoriates at every opportunity. (He has called it a "vile little compendium of tripe about style," and if you search for "Strunk" at the Language Log main site, you can find many more of his unfettered comments upon it.) Looking around, he produced a wastebasket from beneath the podium, lifted the stack of Strunk & White's over his head, and dumped it in the trash. That gives you an idea of the delightlfully irreverent tone with which Pullum approaches the task of sharing his views on language and usage.
One of Prof. Pullum's academic betes noirs is the persistent rhetorical myth that Eskimos have dozens (or hundreds) of words for snow. (Actually that particular myth is emblematic of the real bete noir of Pullum and his colleagues at Language Log, namely, the misunderstanding, misapplication, misinterpretation, and general mishandling of linguistic concepts in the general press.) A linguistic anthropologist named Laura Martin did some good solid work debunking the Eskimo-snow factoid, and Geoff Pullum, impressed with the work, cited it in his own publications, in hopes of raising awareness of it among both linguists and the linguistically-challenged journalists who hauled it out so frequently in an attempt to make one sort of point or another. (You can read some of Pullum's thoughts on the subject here.)
Sadly, as Prof. Pullum puts it, a good idea originated by a woman tends to stick to the nearest man, and so Laura Martin's work is often erroneously credited to him, despite his diligent efforts to redirect that credit where it belongs. And so was born a sparkling moment of irony during Prof. Pullum's talk: A young graduate student sitting near the front raised her hand to ask him a question about the frequent misattribution of Prof. Martin's work, and discovered that she could not remember Prof. Martin's name.
Professor Pullum leaned over his podium and scolded her roundly but good-naturedly; we can be fairly certain she will not forget Laura Martin's name again.
Geoff Pullum signed a copy of his book for us, and also one for my mother-in-law. He was very tolerant of my fangirlish blathering, and even remembered me a few weeks later when I emailed him in response to one of his Language Log posts. Sadly for me, he has returned to his home in Santa Cruz, taking with him any hope this amateur linguist had of enjoying a cup of coffee with a smart, witty, celebrity professor of linguistics.