Language Commentary in The Wall Street Journal

Ben Zimmer writes “Word on the Street,” a weekly column about words in the news and their history, for The Wall Street Journal.

Secrets of the Bright Orange ‘Black Box’ (Apr. 12, 2014) (free via G+)
The use of the phrase "black boxes" to describe flight recorders, as in Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, has its roots in World War II.

What Gwyneth Paltrow Meant by ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ (Apr. 5, 2014)
The mystified response to the actress’s phrase spurs an investigation leading back to Middle English and the ‘consciousness raising’ days of the 1970s.

Years of Lobbying Get ‘Yooper’ Into the Dictionary (Mar. 29, 2014) (free via G+)
How Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary agreed to accept a term for a resident of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after more than a decade of lobbying by one committed Yooper.

Marching Madly Into Brackets (Mar. 22, 2014)
The term ‘brackets’ moves from décor to March Madness.

A Canary, a Coal Mine and a Cliché (Mar. 15, 2014)
The "canary-in-a-coal-mine" figure of speech, referring to early warnings of problems, has turned into a cliché.

Kansas, the First Home of Jaywalking? (Mar. 8, 2014)
A study of the term jaywalking shows that the word ‘jay’ could be applied to careless operators of newfangled motorcars as well as unsuspecting pedestrians.

What is a Coup? It Depends Which Side You’re On (Mar. 1, 2014) (free via G+)
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called his ouster a coup; others might say it was a revolution.

A Call on the Coiner of ‘Too Close to Call’ (Feb. 22, 2014) (free via G+)
The phrase ‘too close to call’ to describe elections just might go back to a 1950 South Dakota primary.

‘Stoked,’ From 1960s Surfers to Sochi (Feb. 15, 2014) (free via G+)
Snowboarding Olympian Sage Kotsenburg couldn’t get away from the word during his news conference.

When the Beatles Were Fab (and Gear) (Feb. 8, 2014)
The sources of ‘gear’ stretch back to the sailors and soldiers who passed through Liverpool’s port.

The Seahawks Pay For An Aggie Phrase (Feb. 1, 2014)
New evidence may undercut a trademark claim of Texas A&M to the words ‘the 12th man.’

The Deadly Web of ‘Black Widows’ (Jan. 25, 2014)
A crucial moment came in a German missionary’s 1827 book.

‘Gridlock Sam’ And the Jam In Fort Lee (Jan. 18, 2014) (free via G+)
The word “gridlock” was born a few decades ago in New York.

Take Note, Grasshopper, Of Kung Fu (Jan. 11, 2014)
The death of Run Run Shaw spurs a look back at the transformation of a Chinese word for workmanship.

The Pedigree Of a Naughty ‘Pooch’ (Jan. 4, 2014) (free via G+)
Piquant slang may have started in 1950 college talk.

The Words That Popped in 2013 (Dec. 28, 2013)
As a busy year rushed by, a spray of newly coined terms burst forth around us.

A Red-Letter Day for the Crossword (Dec. 21, 2013)
As the puzzle’s centennial spurs an inquiry into how it all got started, a daughter of the creator helps out.

Edison’s Other Invention: System ‘Bugs’ (Dec. 14, 2013)
Computer pioneer Grace Hopper’s note on a dead moth is not the first use of a famous term.

‘Zoned Out,’ From a Poem To a Tragedy (Dec. 7, 2013)
A phrase makes its way from the 1960s drug culture to the 1970s music scene, to a recent tragedy.

‘Daylight’ Has Its Day in the Political Arena (Nov. 30, 2013) (free via G+)
Historically, the answer lies in races—whether on horses, boats or racers’ own feet.

Jackie Started The Legend of JFK ‘Camelot’ (Nov. 23, 2013) (free via G+)
‘Camelot’ remains a potent myth-making metaphor for the Kennedy administration.

How Goldilocks Moved to Space and the World of Economists (Nov. 16, 2013)
The story is ‘just right’ for astronomers judging the habitability of other planets.

The Terrible Track Record of Negotiated ‘Grand Bargains’ (Nov. 9, 2013) (free via G+)
A phrase that gained currency during the Cold War has been revived for budget negotiations—to the usual lack of success.

Yiddish Meets High Tech in ‘Glitch’ (Nov. 2, 2013) (free via G+)
A word’s journey from Yiddish to ObamaCare, via the space project.

Apothecaries Lend a Phrase To Politicians (Oct. 26, 2013)
A method for making pills palatable becomes the standard metaphor for trying to make a situation seem more attractive than it actually is.

How Did ‘Intangibles’ End Up in Sports-Speak? (Oct. 19, 2013) (free via G+)
A concept starts out in Latin and ends up in the mouth of the Red Sox manager.

On the Brink With Charges of ‘Chicken’ (Oct. 12, 2013)
The game has played a role in movies like ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ before making an appearance in the shutdown showdown.

How ‘Death Spiral’ Became a Widespread Term (Oct. 5, 2013) (free via G+)
Phrase that started in aviation has a second life in finance, government and other areas.

Here She Comes, ‘Desi’ Miss America (Sept. 28, 2013)
“Desi” has become the typical way for people of South Asian ancestry to identify members of their diaspora.

The Journey of ‘Taper’ From Old English to the Fed (Sept. 21, 2013) (free via G+)
The economic buzzword of the day is derived from a word meaning wax candle.

Can ‘Bespoke’ Give iPhones British Chic? (Sept. 14, 2013)
Apple reaches back to a tailoring term to give the iPhone 5C a little elegance.

‘Slam-Dunks,’ From Wilt to Iraq and Syria (Sept. 7, 2013) (free via G+)
A remark of John Kerry’s prompts a look at a phrase that evokes Wilt Chamberlain and weapons of mass destruction.

How the Police Took Over Use of ‘Frisk’ (Aug. 31, 2013) (free via G+)
Amid the debate of ‘stop-and-frisk’ laws, a look at the history of the word ‘frisk.’

The Bubble for ‘Bubble’ Knows No End (Aug. 24, 2013)
The use of the word ‘bubble’ has a long history, back to Defoe and Swift.

Doping Gives Dutch ‘Sauce’ Nastier Tone (Aug. 17, 2013) (free via G+)
With several major sports embroiled in scandal, a look back to Dutch settlers and Washington Irving.

Chatter, From Shakespeare to al Qaeda (Aug. 10, 2013)
Chatter is defined by dictionaries as incessantly idle or trivial talk, but why do we use it for something so deadly serious as a 9/11-style terrorist strike?

Binges: Lost Weekends and ‘Lost’ Seasons (Aug. 3, 2013) (free via G+)
As the new season of AMC’s Breaking Bad approaches, how can you catch up on the show’s previous five seasons? By binge-watching.

The Flight of ‘Drone’ From Bees to Planes (July 27, 2013)
A 1930s homage to a British remote-control aircraft played a key part.

The Long History of the Phrase ‘Red Line’ (July 20, 2013)
Among those wary of red lines: racing fans, Israeli politicians and Sen. John McCain.

The Science That Uncovered J.K. Rowling’s Literary Hocus-Pocus (Speakeasy blog, July 16, 2013)
J.K. Rowling shocked the book world when she admitted she had written a book under a pen name, Robert Galbraith. The science that uncovered her sleight-of-hand was just as surprising.

The Epithet Nader Made Respectable (July 13, 2013)
Is Edward Snowden a whistleblower or a traitor? As the debate rages, it’s worth taking a look back at the roots of the word ‘whistleblower.’

‘Upset’ and Its Old Hoof-Prints (July 6, 2013)
The word has described come-from-behind races for more than a century and a half. Of horses, tennis stars and sportswriters.

‘Cyber’ Dons a Uniform (June 29, 2013)
“Cyber” is taking on new life as a stand-alone noun. (Debut of “Word on the Street” column.)