Putting ‘Meme’ Up for ‘Semantic Dissection’

“Meme,” coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, has been used in Times articles about genes, stocks and of course, Bernie Sanders.

Credit…June Shin

“Meme” is often considered an internet-age term, but it originated earlier. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is credited with coining the word in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins was looking for a way to describe the spread of ideas and information that make up “the soup of human culture,” he wrote. To create “meme,” Dawkins shortened the Greek word “mimeme,” which means to mimic or imitate, modeling his new word on “gene.”

It took some time before the term caught on in popular use. One of the earliest Times articles that used meme (not to be confused with the French “même,” which means “same”) was published in 1995. Titled “Meme’s the Word,” the article pointed to Dawkins and noted the word’s growing use in books and on the internet. “Meme. Pronounced meem,” the article’s author wrote. “Think of it as a thought virus or the cultural equivalent of a gene, a phrase, a way of thinking.”

1999 Times review of the book “The Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore, for which Dawkins wrote the foreword, said the idea of the meme was a useful way to understand an increasingly media-saturated world. A column in 1996 defined memes as “ideas that alter the ways in which we think.” A 1998 article by the cultural critic Edward Rothstein provided examples of memes that had “recently established themselves in American culture,” such as “the soundtrack of ‘Titanic,’” “large-soled sneakers” and “jokes about White House interns.”

In 2021, The Times wrote about the popular meme of Senator Bernie Sanders sitting in a folding chair at President Biden’s inauguration. Wearing knitted mittens, Mr. Sanders was “the star of the day’s biggest meme by doing nothing but sitting and crossing his arms.”

The Times has since covered memes by following the popularity of digital trends like cryptocurrencies and TikTok. In 2022, “meme” was used in Times articles about the so-called meme stocks, stocks, such as that of GameStop, that attract individual investors who band together on the internet.

A 2022 article in Gameplay, The Times’s puzzle section, examined the word’s evolution, cultural context and usage in Times crosswords. The article’s author, Alexis Benveniste, wrote, “The word ‘meme’ has been used in the New York Times Crossword 60 times since the puzzle’s inception in the 1940s, according to XWordInfo.” She also shared that ‘meme’ first appeared in the Crossword in 1953 with the clue “Same: French.” On Dec. 24, 2021, it was clued with “Something that gets passed around a lot.”

A 2021 Styles article was rather meta. The article acknowledged, as its headline stated, “The Timesian Urge to Explain a Meme” and how journalists tend to subject memes to “semantic dissection.” Sound familiar?

New York Times – March 15, 2023

The Intersecting Meanings of ‘Gridlock’ in The Times’s Archives

Traffic jams. Political stalemates. Strollers at Walt Disney World. “Gridlock,” a term coined in the 1970s, has a short yet rich history in the newspaper.

Credit…Kurt Woerpel

In 1916, The New York Times wrote that “thousands of people and a bewildering array of motor and horse-drawn vehicles jammed themselves into almost inextricable confusion” in New York City. Manhattan, which is laid out on a grid system established in 1811, had a traffic problem.

About 70 years later, conditions had improved — but not enough. In 1988, The Times Magazine published an article, “National Gridlock,” that stated that “trapped motorists have turned cities and freeway systems into war zones.” While stuck in traffic in Manhattan, the article’s author, James Gleick, interviewed the man who had been trying to fix New York’s traffic problem for nearly two decades. “I have a hostage in the passenger seat, New York City’s czar and guru of traffic, Samuel I. Schwartz,” Mr. Gleick wrote. In the article, Mr. Schwartz was quoted as saying, “We’re flirting with gridlock every day.”

Mr. Gleick wrote that “gridlock” was a “devilish condition” that occurred “when traffic jams up all the way around a city block and becomes a circular cascade of congestion, so that every car, paradoxical though it sounds, is actually blocking itself, the snake biting its own tail.”

In 1971, Mr. Schwartz, a Brooklyn native, got a job studying congestion patterns as a junior engineer at what is now the city’s Department of Transportation. Though the term “grid lock” was already being used in the department, it didn’t gain wide recognition until the 1980 New York City transit strike. Mr. Schwartz and his colleagues had created a contingency plan for the strike and called it the “Grid-lock Prevention Plan”; it went into effect about a week into the strike.

Once the press learned of it, the word was fused together and “took off like crazy,” Mr. Schwartz said in a recent interview with The Times. “Gridlock” first appeared in The Times on the month of the strike in the “On Language” column. The author, William Safire, wrote, “Gridlock is a fine neologism for the automobile’s armageddon, and I am pleased to pass this on to the news department only three weeks or so past the deadline.”

In 1981, The Times wrote about a plea from the mayor’s office that urged motorists to “Fight Gridlock! Don’t Block the Box!” The city introduced “antigridlock boxes” that kept traffic out of intersections to prevent backup. In another article that year, a columnist wrote in Metropolitan Diary that readers were hearing the term used to describe “almost any overcrowded situation,” such as a “‘human gridlock’ in Central Park during the Simon and Garfunkel concert.”

Today, gridlock can be used to describe “any obstructed condition or impasse,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. The Times has written about political gridlock, when the president belongs to one party while the other controls at least one house of Congress; legislative gridlock, or stalemate in Congress; and even stroller gridlock at Walt Disney World.

For “Gridlock Sam,” as Mr. Schwartz now calls himself on social media, the word holds personal significance. “Every time a president of the United States uses the word gridlock, I get a little chill down my spine,” he said. “If I didn’t utter this word during the 1980 transit strike, if I didn’t write this down, the president would have had to find another word for this.”

New York Times – March 20, 2023

To Watch a Trump Town Hall on Fox Is to Enter an Entirely Different World

Donald Trump backlit in profile.
Credit…Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By David French

Opinion Columnist

Every now and then, it’s important to watch Fox News in prime time. No, not because the programs are particularly good or because the hosts tell their audience the truth. Fox is writing Dominion Voting Systems a $787.5 million check for very good reasons, and it still faces a multibillion-dollar lawsuit from Smartmatic over the channel’s election reporting. But to watch Fox News is to begin to understand millions of your fellow Americans. And there was no better time to start understanding the 2024 Republican primary contest than Thursday night, during Donald Trump’s town hall in Iowa, hosted by Sean Hannity.

To watch the town hall was to start learning the answer to a key question: After everything, how can Republicans still be so loyal to Trump? But that word, “everything,” is loaded with different meanings in different American communities.

When I look back on the Trump years, I see a dark time of division, corruption and social decay. After all, when he left office, the murder rate was higherdrug overdose deaths had increased, and the abortion rate had gone up for the first time in decades. America was more bitterly divided, and deficits increased each year of his presidency. His early Covid lies helped fuel an immense amount of confusion and almost certainly cost American lives. And his entire sorry term was capped by a violent insurrection fueled by an avalanche of lies.

If you watched the town hall, however, you entered an entirely different world. According to Trump’s narrative, everything he did was good. His term was a time of economic prosperity, energy independence, fiscal responsibility, a rejuvenated military, a locked-down border and fear and respect from foreign regimes. The only things that marred his four years were a stolen election and his unjust persecution by the corrupt Democratic Party and its allies in the F.B.I.

In Trumpworld, the Trump past is golden, and the Trump future bright, but the present is a time of misery and darkness. It is President Biden, not Trump, who mishandles classified documents. It is Biden’s family, not Trump’s, that corruptly profits off foreign regimes. Trump would have prevented the Ukraine war. Trump would have withdrawn from Afghanistan more smoothly. As for Biden himself, he’s an object of derision and pity — far too physically and mentally impaired to be president of the United States.

False narratives are often sustained by a few kernels of truth, and so it is in MAGA America. The economy was strong before Covid, and there were fewer southern border crossings each year during Trump’s presidency than there have been during Biden’s. The ISIS caliphate fell. And I don’t know a single Republican who isn’t pleased with Trump’s judicial nominees.

Moreover, not all of Trump’s opponents possess the cleanest of hands. There were, in fact, Department of Justice excesses during its investigation of his campaign’s possible ties to Russia. A special counsel is investigating Biden’s mishandling of classified documents. Hunter Biden is under criminal investigation, and his overseas business dealings are indeed unsavory, even if there is not yet proof of criminal wrongdoing. The withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a chaotic and bloody rout of allied forces. Inflation remains too high.

In short, there is enough truthful criticism of the Biden administration to make it vulnerable to an election loss. And there remains sufficient false Trump administration nostalgia to make Trump the G.O.P. nominee. Put both realities together, and the nation is facing RealClearPolitics polling averages that show Trump to be the overwhelming favorite for the G.O.P. nomination and a slight leader in a potential general election matchup against Biden.

Given these facts — and Thursday night’s peek at MAGA America — my colleague Frank Bruni’s warning to Democrats on Thursday was timely and important: Democrats should not hope to face Trump in 2024. Rooting for him isn’t just dangerous; it’s based on misunderstandings. All too many Trump opponents — in both parties — have spent so long building their voluminous cases against him that they’ve forgotten how he looks to the other side. They can’t conceive of a coherent case for his candidacy.

The two most telling moments on Thursday came from Trump’s audience. First, they booed Mike Pence at the very mention of his name. Second, they shouted derisively at Hannity at the mere thought that Trump should perhaps tone down his rhetoric. Both moments emphasized the ferocity of their support for Trump. When you see that public response, you can begin to see his opponents’ dilemma. Given the size of Trump’s base, a winning Republican rival will have to peel away at least some members of audiences like Thursday’s — the very people who see him as a persecuted hero.

That challenge is compounded by every event like Thursday’s town hall, in which a relaxed Trump was “questioned” by a supine host in front of an adoring crowd. Hannity’s performance was quite a contrast to Kaitlan Collins’s pointed challenges to Trump during last month’s CNN town hall. Yet both events advanced Trump’s narrative. CNN’s tough questions reminded MAGA of his alleged persecution. Hannity’s coddling reminded MAGA of Trump’s alleged triumphs. Both ultimately helped Trump deepen his bond with the people who love him the most.

New York Times – June 2, 2023


Democrats Want Trump? They’re Out of Their Minds.

An illustration depicting in red the top half of the number 2016 and the bottom half of he number 2024, torn in half horizontally, against a black background.
Credit…Ben Wiseman

By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

Did we learn nothing from 2016?

That, you may recall, was when Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican presidential nominee seemed like some cosmic joke. Some cosmic gift. Oh, how Democrats exulted and chortled.

Donald Trump?!?

Hillary Clinton could start working on her inauguration remarks early.

Or so many of us thought. We got “American carnage,” two impeachments and a deadly breach of the U.S. Capitol instead.

And yet some Democrats are again rejoicing at the prospect of Trump as his party’s pick. They reason that he was an unproven entity before but is a proven catastrophe now and that his troubles with the law, troubles with reality, egomania and megalomania make him an easier opponent for President Biden, who beat him once already, than Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senator Tim Scott or another Republican aspirant would be. Perhaps they’re right.

But if they’re wrong? The stakes of a second Trump term are much, much too high to wager on his weakness and hope for his nomination. The way I size up the situation, any Republican nominee has a decent shot at the presidency: There are enough Americans who faithfully vote Republican, lean Republican or are open to a Republican that under sufficiently favorable circumstances, the party’s candidate wins. And the circumstances in November 2024 are neither predictable nor controllable — just as they weren’t in November 2016. If Trump is in the running, Trump is in the running.

So I flinch at thoughts and remarks like those of Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat, who told Politico in late April: “Trump’s obviously an extremely dangerous person who would be very dangerous for the country. But I’m confident that President Biden could beat him.” She added that “politically, for us, it’s helpful if former President Trump is front and center.” The headline on that article, by Burgess Everett and Sarah Ferris, was “Dems Relish Trump-Biden Rematch.”

The headlines on other reports that month: “Why a Trump-Biden Rematch Is What Many Democrats Want in 2024” (The Wall Street Journal) and “Trump or DeSantis? Democrats Aren’t Sure Who They’d Rather See Biden Face in 2024” (NBC News).

Granted, those three articles appeared before the Washington Post/ABC News poll that shook the world. Published on May 7, the survey gave Trump a six-point lead over Biden in a hypothetical matchup and showed that voters regard Trump, 76, as more physically fit and mentally sharp than Biden, 80.

Over the weeks since, I’ve noticed a muting of Democrats’ confidence that Biden can roll over Trump. But I still hear some of Biden’s supporters say that they’d prefer Trump to, say, DeSantis, who can define himself afresh to many voters, or to Scott, whose optimism might be a tonic in toxic times.

And I worry that many Democrats still haven’t fully accepted and seriously grappled with what the past seven years taught us:

There is profound discontent in this country, and for all Trump’s lawlessness and ludicrousness, he has a real and enduring knack for articulating, channeling and exploiting it. “I am your retribution,” he told Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. Those words were chilling not only for their bluntness but also for their keenness. Trump understands that in the MAGA milieu, a fist raised for him is a middle finger flipped at his critics. DeSantis, Scott, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley — none of them offer their supporters the same magnitude of wicked rebellion, the same amplitude of vengeful payback, the same red-hot fury.

Trump’s basic political orientation and the broad strokes of his priorities and policies may lump him together with his Republican competitors, but those rivals aren’t equally unappealing or equally scary because they’re not equally depraved.

He’s the one who speaks of Jan. 6, 2021, as a “beautiful day.” He’s the one who ordered Georgia’s secretary of state to find him more votes. He’s the one who commanded Pence, then his vice president, to subvert the electoral process and then vilified him for refusing to do so and was reportedly pleased or at least untroubled when a mob called for Pence’s execution. He’s the one who expends hour upon hour and rant after rant on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him — a fiction that’s a wrecking ball aimed at the very foundations of our democracy. His challengers tiptoe around all of that with shameful timidity. He’s the one who wallows happily and flamboyantly in this civic muck.

There are grave differences between the kind of threat that Trump poses and the kind that his Republican rivals do, and to theorize a strategic advantage to his nomination is to minimize those distinctions, misremember recent history and misunderstand what the American electorate might do on a given day, in a given frame of mind.

I suspect I’d be distraught during a DeSantis presidency and depressed during a Pence one. But at least I might recognize the America on the far side of it.

New York Times – June 1, 2023

The Word ‘Tattoo’ in New York Times Ink

It has referred to body art, repetitive sound and last call.

Credit…Jackson Epstein

In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.

In 1991, a 5,300-year-old Neolithic iceman, later nicknamed Ötzi, was found in the Ötztal Alps. Sixty-one markings covered his body; pigment, perhaps charcoal, had been rubbed into incisions. These markings are thought to be some of the oldest tattoos in the world. Scientists still debate why Ötzi was inked, but a leading theory is that the practice was therapeutic.

According to the Journal of Archaeological Science, tattooing has been practiced throughout human history. A New York Times article from 2000 attributes the origin of the word “tattoo” to traditional Polynesian markings known as “tatu” or “tatau.” “Tatau,” according to the National Park Service, was thought to resemble the tapping sounds the marking tool made.

“Tattoo” has other meanings. One definition is a drum or bugle call to command military personnel to their quarters at night. This meaning comes from the Dutch phrase “doe den tap toe” which means in English “close the tap.” This was meant to signal bartenders to close the tap on the cask and for soldiers to go home. One of the word’s first appearances in The Times came in 1860. The article recounted the “standing orders” of a military camp on Staten Island: “The ‘Tattoo’ will be beat at 11 o’clock P.M., when lights will be put out and no soldier is to be out of his tent or quarters without permission.”

Similarly, “tattoo” can mean a constant rapping sound. In 1996, the reporter Robert D. McFadden wrote in a Metro article that the rain from a weekend storm in New York “hissed like surf against windows, beat a tattoo on rooftops and stripped the bronze and russet leaves of autumn.”

Globally, attitudes about tattoos — as in, body art — remain divided. Though the norms are “slowly but steadily changing” in Japan, Hikari Hida wrote last year from Tokyo, some companies “expressly prohibit applicants who are inked.” In 2021, Krista Langlois wrote in The Times about Indigenous tattoo artists who are reviving lost traditions. A tattooist of Inuit descent, for example, “hand pokes or stitches” traditional patterns onto the bodies of Inuit people, helping them “connect with their ancestors and reclaim a part of their culture.”

The technology is also changing. The Times reported in 2020 that one company was creating paramedical tattoos to camouflage scars. A 2022 article explored tattoo preservation, like displaying a dead relative’s tattooed skin as wall art. And there has been a rise in semi-permanent ink billed to disappear after 15 months — but in February, The Times spoke with recipients who were still stuck with unwanted designs nearly two years after they were inked.

New York Times – March 26, 2023

What’s the (Meaning of) Buzz?

The answer lies in marketing, boozy beverages, bumblebees and more.

Credit…Michael DeForge

In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.

In a 2017 ScienceTake video for The New York Times, Jim Gorman, a science writer, explained why bumblebees “buzz.” The “bzzz” sound, he said, happens when bees rapidly contract the muscles in their thorax, causing their wings to flutter and their bodies to vibrate. “Buzz” is a word that resembles the sound it describes, otherwise known as onomatopoeia. Another example: The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says that to “give someone a buzz,” meaning to call them, alludes to the sound of a telephone’s ring.

The colloquial expression “buzz off,” meaning “go away,” is similar to the British slang, “bug off” or “bugger off.” In 1919, a special cable to The Times recounted the story of an Englishman who had been interrogated by officers on a train from Budapest. The man told the officers to “buzz off.” The officers were amused by the response and pasted a notice on the man’s compartment window that read: “This compartment is reserved for Count Buzz Off.”

Informally, someone who is “buzzed” is slightly intoxicated but not drunk, and is feeling happy. (In his 1737 “Drinker’s Dictionary,” Benjamin Franklin wrote that “buzzey” indicated drunkenness.) A recent Well article about mindful drinking asked readers: “Is it the taste of alcohol that draws you in? The bodily sensation of a buzz?” In everyday vernacular, to be “buzzing” means one is in a good mood. And if someone or something dampens the mood, it’s called a “buzz kill.” In a review of a Snoop Dogg concert in 2008, the music critic Jon Caramanica wrote that a percussion break in the middle of the show was “a total buzz kill.”

The phrase “buzz cut” refers to a very short haircut, alluding to the sound of a barber’s clippers. Though the cut is traditionally more common among men, a recent Styles article noted that for women, a close- or fully-shaved head was the “first trendy cut of 2022.” The article’s headline, “Shaved Heads Have People Buzzing,” has a double meaning: “Buzzing” implies that people were excited or talking about the hairdo.

“Buzz marketing” is a tactic that generates word-of-mouth conversations around a product. In the mid-2000s, The Times wrote about buzz marketing for products such as electric shavers and carbonated beverages. Similarly, “buzz words” are fashionable words or phrases. An article from 2020 about the economic recovery from the pandemic, for example, noted that in the United States, the word “reopening” had “become a buzz word among politicians.”

A final fun tidbit about “buzz” comes from “Toy Story.” For the film’s 25th anniversary in 2020, Disney shared unreleased details about the character Buzz Lightyear: The character, Disney revealed, was almost named Lunar Larry, but the producers thought the name sounded strange. So they named him Buzz Lightyear, in honor of the American astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

New York Times – May 7, 2023

Yellow Plus Blue? One Answer, So Many Meanings

“Green” has been used in The Times to describe color, lack of experience and politics.

Credit…Extra Vitamins

“Green” is “the color of growing grass,” according to Webster’s New World Dictionary. But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, or even always green: A short Associated Press article that ran in The New York Times in 1938 informed readers that insecticides were turning the grass of a Washington golf course brown, which the golfers said spoiled their game. So federal experts and the United States Golf Association combined the insecticide with green dye to achieve the look artificially.

As an adjective, “green” can describe the color of something, such as a fruit or vegetable (example: green tomato); as a noun, it can apply to specific foods. “Green” can mean leafy vegetables that possess the color, such as spinach, according to Webster’s; “salad greens” are leaves like lettuce, endives or dandelion that are “eaten raw, usually with a dressing.” Emily Weinstein, The Times’s Food and Cooking editor, recently devoted an edition of the newsletter Five Weeknight Dishes to “delightfully verdant recipes.” She wrote: “When I open the fridge to start making dinner, I reflexively look for something green to add to the meal: arugula, broccoli, even a smattering of herbs or sliced scallions.”

Someone who is “green” may be new or inexperienced. In 2010, the Times journalist Neil Genzlinger wrote that, years ago, when he was a “green reporter” at a daily newspaper in Maine, he “took a date to a murder scene.” (You’ll have to read the article to find out why.)

Since the modern environmental movement formed in the 1960s and ’70s, the word has been used in Times articles in the context of renewable energy and sustainability. But because “green” has taken on vague meanings, Manuela Andreoni, a Climate reporter for The Times, said that she and her colleagues were careful when using the term. “Green is a vague word,” she said in an interview. “Because it could mean so many things, it could end up meaning nothing.”

Ms. Andreoni recently wrote about the concept of “greenwashing,” which occurs “when companies make false or exaggerated claims to fool consumers into thinking their products or services benefit the environment.” Though greenwashing is still a common corporate practice, agencies and activists have stepped up efforts to counter “environmental deception” and “misleading claims,” she wrote.

To avoid using “green” imprecisely in their coverage, Ms. Andreoni said, The Times’s Climate reporters use “green” only in the context of specific processes or methods used to mitigate climate change. For example, a recent Climate article explored “a novel kind of industrial fuel: green hydrogen.”

What people “usually mean by ‘green’ is that it’s good for something and, like the word ‘good,’ it needs explaining,” she said.

New York Times – April 23, 2023


It’s Date Night, and Lots of Strangers Are Along for the Ri

By Neil Genzlinger

  • Dec. 14, 2010

I once took a date to a murder scene.

It was some years ago, when I was a green reporter working out of Franklin County, Me., for a daily newspaper in Waterville. The young woman and I were part way into an evening out when I paused at a pay phone — no cellphones in those days — to ring the main office, checking on some minor article I had running that night.

“Never mind that,” my editor told me. “The police scanner’s saying there’s been a murder out near the county line. You’re the closest guy we’ve got. Get over there.”

Murders in that part of Maine are rare because a) Mainers are a peace-loving people, and b) practically no one lives there. So I smelled a career-making opportunity. “Um, how’d you like to go on an adventure?” I said to my date. And off we drove into the wilds between Farmington and Skowhegan.

Because of that night, I was intrigued when I was asked to review two dating-theme shows now running in Manhattan. I’ve always wondered if I did the right thing (the woman, apparently, didn’t think so; she moved out of state not long after) and how I might have handled the situation differently. Gallantly quit my job on the spot and continued the date as planned? Dropped the gal at the movies and told her I’d pick her up in a few hours?

Since each show has an audience-participation element, I thought I might have a chance to seek an expert opinion. Who doesn’t enjoy reliving moments of dubious youthful judgment in front of a live audience?

I had particular hopes for “Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage,” in the downstairs theater at Sofia’s restaurant in Midtown. Miss Abigail, played by Eve Plumb — Jan from “The Brady Bunch” — dispenses advice taken from etiquette guides and health manuals of the distant past, like “Manners Today” (1943). Audience members are issued note cards they can use to submit questions that, supposedly, might be answered from the stage.

I was still filling out my card — providing extensive details of the crime scene — when the show began. Within minutes, it was apparent that this Miss Abigail had neither the wit nor the flexibility to deal with a question like mine.

Eve Plumb and Manuel Herrera in “Miss Abigail’s Guide to Mating, Dating and Marriage.”
Eve Plumb and Manuel Herrera in “Miss Abigail’s Guide to Mating, Dating and Marriage.”Credit…Carol Rosegg

The show, written by Ken Davenport and Sarah Saltzberg based on a book and Web site, isn’t nearly the improv-rich concoction it pretends to be. Though audience members are dragged onstage a couple of times for not-very-funny bits, Ms. Plumb is following a script from start to finish, and she never looks very comfortable doing it.

Most of the laughs, such as they are, come from Manuel Herrera, in a demeaning role as Miss Abigail’s Hispanic assistant. The whole thing’s as stiff as a ’50s hairdo, and those questions audience members dutifully filled out proved to be mostly for show. (My card stayed in my pocket.) I was glad I didn’t have a date with me this night; a “Brady Bunch” marathon, or a murder scene, would have been more fun.

Things were livelier at “Blind Date,” a nutty one-woman show — sort of — at Ars Nova, starring Rebecca Northan as a French-accented character named Mimi. We meet Mimi as she is waiting for a blind date. He never shows. And so she picks someone out of the audience to fill the spot.

It’s one thing to bring audience members onstage for three minutes of mockery, then sit them back down again. It’s quite another to play opposite a stranger who’s not a professional actor for more than an hour. That’s what Ms. Northan fearlessly does, and it’s very funny, or at least it was the night I was there. Canadians seem to love it; the show has been a hit in Toronto and Calgary.

Ms. Northan wears a clown’s red nose throughout the performance, but if you are chosen, call her a clown at your peril. She has a “time out” box where she drags her victims — er, dates — to explain some “Blind Date” basics, one of which apparently is, Don’t call her a clown. The draftees, too, can call time out if they feel things are getting out of hand.

My plan for addressing my nagging guilt from that long-ago date in Maine was to get myself chosen by Mimi and then, once the preliminaries were out of the way, drop a question on her along the lines of, “So, do you ever watch ‘Law & Order’?” Unfortunately, she chose someone else, a good-looking British fellow who seemed unlikely to have ever been near a crime scene.

To say that this guy was reserved would be an understatement; “comatose” would be closer to the truth. But watching Ms. Northan thaw him out was more than half the fun. She has a particular course she wants the evening to take — the date progresses from a restaurant to a car to, well, take a guess — but nothing feels forced. Like any manipulative woman, she made her date feel as if he were initiating everything.

She may have thawed out that British fellow a bit too much. He’s probably still explaining the kiss he gave her to his girlfriend, who was in the audience.

Fresh Meanings for a Common Word

Fruit can be fresh. So can style, the country air and an impertinent teenage boy.

Two illustrations of the word fresh. One version is drawn in red cursive letters in front of an orange background. The other uses blocky black letters.
Credit…Bill Rebholz

In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.

One of the first appearances of “fresh” in The New York Times was in a letter to the editor in 1858. Under the headline “Pursuit of Fresh Air Under Difficulties,” a reader traveling to a vacation home in upstate New York described the pungent smells of the city: the milk factory’s “stump-tail odor,” the gas works that “dispense a large part of their product in the surrounding atmosphere.” The writer, who signed as “Olfactorius,” awaited relief in the country: “I think no one will dispute that I deserve all the fresh breezes that I get after passing through the frightful variety of bad smells.”

In this instance, the country air was “cool and refreshing,” one of various definitions of “fresh,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. “Fresh” can also be used to describe something or someone new, original, inexperienced or not known before.

The word can also mean bold, impudent or impertinent. A Times article from 1979 described a high school girl who entered an arm-wrestling tournament and became a champion. Her dating life benefited from the sport, too: “No boy ever got fresh with me. That’s another good thing that came out of arm wrestling,” she told The Times.

One of the most common usages of the word is to convey that something is newly made. A New York Times Magazine article from 2001 encouraged readers to live life fully, especially during a recession. “Kiss a frog and see what happens,” it suggested. “Wait for the fresh pot of coffee.” In an article from 2006, the author described his life before Wi-Fi. In 1995, he wrote, the internet “was still shiny and new; Netscape Navigator 1.0 was fresh out of the oven.”

Today, “fresh” is often used informally to mean cool or fashionable. New footwear for the Coachella music festival, for example, can look “fresh and on trend.” In a My Ten column in 2021, the comedian Michael Che described the importance of looking and feeling fresh. “‘Fresh’ is a very, very important thing for my culture. The way I grew up, you had to be a little bit fresh,” he said, later adding: “You feel like a new man when you get a nice fresh outfit.”

Of course, the word regularly appears in cooking articles to instruct home chefs to use ingredients that are not preserved. In 2023 alone, recipes have called for fresh herbs, tomatoes, mushroomscuts of beeffruitclams and salicornia, “a crunchy, briny seaweed also called glasswort.” (And, no, these ingredients are not all used in one dish.

New York Times – April 9, 2023

A History of ‘Record’ in the Newspaper of Record

The word saw, ahem, record usage in The New York Times in 2008

Credit…Talia Cotton

In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.

On Dec. 1, 1937, the bottom right corner of Page 41 of The New York Times featured a brief, self-referential advertisement:

“In its news, comment and tables of securities and commodities, The New York Times is accepted as the complete newspaper of record. The Times rag-paper edition preserves these records indefinitely.”

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, one meaning of the word “record” is to preserve a written account of information or events. One records information and that document becomes a record. Thanks to The Times’s own record of editions, we can trace the earliest usages of “record” in the newspaper. In 1852, The Times reported that a U.S. Mail steamer ship carrying mail, 245 passengers and over $1 million in gold dust arrived in New York from San Francisco in 25 days and 18 hours. It was believed to be the “shortest trip on record, by any route.” (Here, the word is used to assert that there was no official documentation of a shorter trip; the writer could have also used “record” to mean that the trip was the fastest ever of its kind.)

As a verb, record can also mean to register the sound or image of something, such as a song or film. (Of course, a vinyl record is a disc that stores music.) Though Thomas Edison is often considered the first person to have captured the spoken word (he recorded the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1877), the earliest known recording actually came nearly two decades earlier. In 1860, a Frenchman made a recording of the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually but not play them back. In 2008, The Times reported that scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., were able to examine the recording and convert the “squiggles on paper to sound.”

Idioms that include “record” are abundant. Last month, a writer recapping an episode of the show “Perry Mason” acknowledged he was a “broken record” — making the same point many times — about the show’s lighting. In an interview with the actor Henry Winkler at a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn, Mr. Winkler used an idiom to clarify his order. “Just for the record,” he said, “I like burnt crust.” And of course, if The Times publishes an error, it sets “the record straight” with a correction.

In journalism, if sources are “on the record,” they are aware that their words are being recorded and that they may be quoted in an article. If sources are “off the record,” information they share is not for publication. Times reporters always strive for “on the record” sources. Occasionally, as a last resort when The Times cannot otherwise publish newsworthy and reliable information, it will allow a source to remain anonymous.

When reporting their 2017 investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at first struggled to find women who were willing to go on the record with their experiences. Eventually a few did, igniting a movement that spread across the world.

New York Times – May 21, 2023

Death is Real.So Is Happiness.Imagine That.

By Eric Kaplan and Francesco ChiacchioMr. Kaplan is a television writer
and producer. Francesco Chiacchio is an illustrator and comic artist.

Eric Kaplan is a writer and philosopher who has written for “Futurama,” “The Flight of the Conchords,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Young Sheldon.” He is the author of the book “Does Santa Exist?” and is a co-host of the comedy-philosophy podcast “Terrifying Questions.” Francesco Chiacchio is a cartoonist and illustrator. His latest graphic novel is “A volte sparisco”, published in Italy by Topipittori.

New York Times – June 1, 2023

‘We Have No Days Off’: The Nonstop Work of Ukrainian Air Defenses

Russian air attacks on Kyiv have come in relentless waves. Yet very little has penetrated the patched-together but increasingly sophisticated air defense network. Here’s why.

A soldier in camouflage gear, holding a launching tube for an antiaircraft missile, walks in front of a green truck, with another soldier standing on the truck bed.
Ukrainian servicemen demonstrated working on a mobile air defense system responsible for protecting a patch of sky just outside Kyiv.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Find it, target it, shoot it.

The drill is the same for Ukraine’s air defense crews as they work round the clock to combat the relentless barrage of missiles the Russians launch at Kyiv, mostly foiling the most intense bombardment of the capital since the first weeks of the war.

In the month of May alone, Russia bombarded Kyiv 17 times. It has fired hypersonic missiles from MIG-31 fighter jets and attacked with land-based ballistic missiles powerful enough to level an entire apartment block. Russian bombers and ships have fired dozens of long-range cruise missiles, and more than 200 attack drones have featured in blitzes meant to confuse and overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses.

It presents a constant struggle for Ukrainian defenders. Russian assaults can be unrelenting. They come mostly at night, but sometimes in daytime hours, as they did on Monday.

Even when Ukraine manages to blast missiles from the sky, falling debris can bring death and destruction. Early Thursday, Russia sent a volley of 10 ballistic missiles at Kyiv; Ukrainian officials said they were all shot down but that falling fragments killed three people, including a child, and injured more than a dozen others.

Yet overall, very little has penetrated the complex and increasingly sophisticated air defense network around Ukraine’s capital, saving scores of lives.

“We have no days off,” said Riabyi, the call sign of the 26-year-old “shooter” who is part of a two-person antiaircraft missile crew responsible for protecting just one patch of sky just outside Kyiv.

A building with a hole blasted in its outer wall, and a person on an elevated platform next to the hole, gesturing. A ladder stands in the foreground.
Cleaning debris from a building that was damaged in an aerial attack, in Kyiv on Sunday. Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Ukraine’s air defenses are a stitched-together patchwork of different weapons, many of them newly supplied by the West, protecting millions of civilians in Kyiv and other cities, and guarding critical infrastructure that includes four working nuclear power plants. Tom Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, called it “a sort of a dog’s breakfast” of systems.

There are hundreds of people like Riabyi, equipped with American-made surface-to-air Stinger missiles and other portable weapons. Many more are operating more complex launchers that have arrived recently, like the Patriot (American), NASAMS (Norwegian-American) and SAMP/T (French-Italian). Ukraine also uses German-made Gepard antiaircraft guns, and a mix of Soviet-era air defenses.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, said the recent air raids aimed at the capital were a “massive and unprecedented” assault intended to exhaust air defense systems, strike a powerful symbolic blow at the heart of the ancient capital and sow terror.

President Volodymyr Zelensky once again thanked “the defenders of the sky” in his address to the nation on Tuesday night. The battle in the skies, he made clear, is as important as the bloody struggle being waged by soldiers on land.

Air defense teams have managed to shoot down roughly 90 percent of the incoming missiles and drones recently and, remarkably, 100 percent of the ballistic missiles aimed at Kyiv, according to the Ukrainian Air Force. Those statistics could not be independently verified.

Pink traces cross a night sky above high-rise buildings, as air defenses fire around Kyiv.
Ukrainian air defenses firing to stop drones in a bombardment targeting Kyiv early Tuesday morning.Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

Air defense assets will also be critical in Ukraine’s looming counteroffensive — keeping newly acquired weapons safe as they stage for battle and then providing cover for Ukrainian troops if they manage to break through Russian lines.

Riabyi and his partner, Oleg, 38, are responsible for protecting a sector of the sky measuring around 10 square kilometers outside Kyiv. When the alarm sounds, he said, they race from a base in the Kyiv area to one of a handful of secret firing positions outside the city, pull the tarp off a truck-mounted Stinger system and prepare.

“If an air target is coming close to our sector, our commander gives us command No. 1: find and annihilate,” he said, demonstrating the procedure recently at a secret location outside Kyiv.

After the team fires, their position is exposed and they have two minutes to move or risk being targeted.

On the side of the team’s truck, Ukrainian tridents mark their successes. The first two tridents represent Russian fighter jets they said they shot down during the first days of the war. They said they had since shot down six Orlan reconnaissance drones, two Russian attack helicopters, and two Iranian-made Shahed drones.

A dozen stylized tridents, used to symbolize Ukraine, are painted on the side of an air defense team’s truck, one for each missile, drone or aircraft it claims to have shot down.
On the side of a truck, Ukrainian tridents representing the numbers of drones, fighter jets and missiles that a Ukrainian air defense team says it has shot down.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Continuing success in the skies, however, is by no means assured.

Leaked Pentagon documents made public in April expressed deep concern that Russia could achieve air superiority as Ukraine runs out of antiaircraft missiles for Soviet-designed S-300 and Buk systems that still make up the backbone of Ukraine’s air defenses.

Since that analysis was leaked, Ukraine’s Western allies have stepped up delivery of new systems and ammunition. The arrival of two Patriot batteries in late April gave Ukraine its first system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.

Air defense systems rely on a variety of methods to take down incoming missiles. For cruise missiles traveling at around 500 miles per hour, defenders will deploy interceptors that target the missiles by their heat signature, or they will paint them with lasers, making them easy targets, among other tactics.

Ballistic missiles can travel at a speed of five to 10 times the speed of sound. Ukrainians target them with interceptor missiles also capable of traveling about five times the speed of sound, which have their own guidance and radar to assist in tracking at such high speeds. The only proven defense against the powerful Russian Iskander missiles is the American Patriot air defense system, which can be fired within nine seconds of a target being identified.

Still, Ukraine must make difficult decisions about how to deploy limited resources.

Mr. Karako of the Missile Defense Project said the recent attacks on Kyiv have shown “how stressing and challenging a concerted air assault can be,” underscoring the need for Ukraine to keep building its defenses as the Russians try to wear them down.

While Ukrainian and Western officials have noted that Russia is most likely running low on precision missiles, and relying more on less accurate missiles and drones, Moscow has shown that it still has the capacity to stage attacks at a regular tempo.

A soldier in camouflage fatigues, his face obscured, sits and operates a Stinger antiaircraft missile system.
“We have no days off,” said Riabyi, the call sign of the 26-year-old “shooter” who is part of a two-person mobile air defense crew.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion 15 months ago, it has fired over 5,000 missiles and attack drones at targets across Ukraine, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But like Russia’s ground offensives, the air assaults have failed to produce the strategic military effects Moscow desired, according to the study, and Ukrainian air defenses have “greatly shaped the course of the war, limiting Russian striking power.”

Mr. Yusov, the representative of Ukrainian military intelligence, said that the Russians changed tactics after bombardment of civilian infrastructure and cities over the winter and early spring failed to cripple Ukraine’s ability to function.

Moscow is now targeting more military installations to undermine Ukraine’s counteroffensive, he said, while also setting its sights on Kyiv because it remains “an unconquered target for the aggressor.”

Peter Mitchell, writing for the Modern War Institute at West Point, asserted that the barrages are designed to fill the air with more incoming targets than the defenses can handle, “using a combination of land-, sea-, or air-launched missile platforms.”

For Kyiv residents, the nearly nightly blitzes have been exhausting and terrifying. The first alarm usually sounds after midnight and the assaults last for hours.

“I’m checking the information trying to understand what is flying and from where,” said Natalia Ulianytska, 32, a human rights activist who lives in Kyiv.

Staff and patients descend a flight of stairs at a hospital to take shelter in a basement during an air raid.
Patients and medical staff, including injured soldiers, took shelter in the basement of a hospital in Kyiv, during an air raid on Monday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

“When there’s a massive missile attack, I go to the bathroom together with my cat,” she said.

Ms. Ulianytska said she was not so much scared as anxious and “very angry.”

She knows when the Russian drones and missiles arrive by the thunderous explosions in the sky. Even when air defense teams successfully shoot down a target, there is danger as fiery wreckage rains down on the streets below.

Several people have been killed and injured by falling debris in Kyiv in the past month, and scores of businesses and apartment buildings have been damaged.

On a dark night, people barely visible in silhouette use searchlights pointed into the sky.
Volunteers setting up multiple searchlights, testing their range and whether they could spot airborne targets, in the Kyiv region on Monday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Riabyi, the gunner, said he has had to learn on the job. He was still going through training at a base in Ukraine’s west when Russia invaded.

His wife, pregnant with their first child, fled their home north of Kyiv before Russian soldiers could occupy the village; Riabyi was dispatched to Kyiv.

His daughter was born in May, but he did not see her for the first time until December. They spent a few days together and then he had to return to his post to help ensure she could sleep safely.

New York Times – June 1, 2023