“My son writes all the time,” my father asked the editor of the local paper. “Could you give him a job?”
I was 14 when I got that first whiff of newspaper ink. That summer I tagged along with the court and police reporter, went to the mayor’s office, the police station, the fire station. Then we returned to the newsroom, where I found an empty desk — it was an afternoon paper, so everyone had cleared out after the deadline at 11 — and typed short essays for the Saturday supplement on an electric typewriter. It gave me a taste for working with editors, talking to people about their lives, and seeing my words — in print.
Now I write mainly about language, languages, and the people who use and study them, but I also write about culture and technology. My essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Science, Wired, Slate, The Atlantic, New Scientist, Reason, The Morning News, and many other magazines and newspapers.
I am a contributing writer at The Morning News. My first book, Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean (Pantheon, 2007) was a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do) as well as a cultural history of what happens when we do. My second, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012), is a search for the upper limits of the ability to learn, speak, and use languages. It’s been published in the UK as Mezzofanti’s Gift and translated into Russian (with Arabic and Korean translations on the way). It also won the 2013 Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction.
After graduating from Williams College, I lived overseas, teaching English, then finished an MA in linguistics and PhD in English, with concentrations in rhetoric and linguistics, from the University of Texas at Austin.