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.

2015 · 2014 · 2013

Musical ‘Covers,’ From Sinatra to Ryan Adams (Sept. 26, 2015)
‘Covers’ of hit songs have been a key part of the pop era.

The 2016 Campaign and ‘Authenticity’ (Sept. 19, 2015)
In Wednesday’s debate of Republican presidential candidates, one word kept coming up as a yardstick: ‘authenticity.’ Where does the word come from, and when did it enter politics?

‘Sock It to Me,’ From Twain to Aretha to Nixon (Sept. 12, 2015)
The death of Judy Carne, a comedian who made the phrase ‘sock it to me’ famous, prompts a look at the phrase’s history.

‘Refugee,’ From French Protestants to Mediterranean Immigrants (Sept. 5, 2015)
Tracing the word “refugee” from its origins in 17th-century religious strife to today’s immigration crisis in Europe.

‘Fall Guys’ in Sports, Crime and Politics (Aug. 29, 2015)
A phrase that necessitated an apology from sports broadcaster Cris Carter has its roots in the criminal underworld of 120 years ago.

The ‘Stacked Deck’ From Gambling to Politics (Aug. 22, 2015)
From a maneuver of shady gamblers to today’s politics, the phrase “stacked deck” gets a lot of use.

‘Alphabet,’ From Ancient Greece to Google (Aug. 15, 2015)
By betting on “Alphabet” as the name for its new parent company, Google is relying on a word that has only existed in English for about five centuries.

‘Gig’: Once a Word for a Joke, Now for an Economy (Aug. 8, 2015)
The phrase “the gig economy” shows how far the word has come from describing, among other things, a joke.

‘Oxygen Out of the Room’: From Clever Clause to Cliché (Aug. 1, 2015)
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is “sucking the oxygen out of the room,” political observers say. Where does the phrase come from?

Was the First ‘Southpaw’ a Boxer or Ballplayer? (July 25, 2015)
With the Jake Gyllenhaal film “Southpaw” opening, a look at the origins of the word southpaw to describe a left-handed athlete.

Timeouts, From a Football Manual to the Greek Debt Crisis (July 18, 2015)
A German minister’s debated use of the word timeout in the Greek debt crisis has its roots in American sports.

Comic-Con: How the Giant Fan Gathering Got Its Name (July 11, 2015)
The name of the giant pop-culture conference Comic-Con has a source in a prewar World’s Fair era.

Happy Barbecue—Or Whatever You Call It (July 4, 2015)
For much of American history, the word “barbecue” has sparked regional divisions about its meaning, its etymology and even its spelling.

Donald Trump and Others With ‘No Filter’ (June 27, 2015)
The origins of a term seemingly made for the coiffed mogul, as well as Joe Biden, Jennifer Lawrence and Robin Williams.

The ‘Passing’ Interest of Racial Identity (June 20, 2015)
The verb “pass” has been used to describe taking on another identity for centuries, and now its usage goes beyond race.

How ‘Grand Slams’ Conquered the Sports World (June 13, 2015)
From its origin in card games, the phrase “grand slam” has spread through sports: Serena Williams could notch one in tennis.

You Won’t Believe What Word This Column Is About! (June 6, 2015)
Neologisms like “clickbait” show how English continues to reinvent itself—even if one objects to the cultural practice that “clickbait” labels.

The Origins of ‘Bucket List’ (May 30, 2015)
The phrase “bucket list” made its way from a screenwriter’s bulletin board to usage by President Obama—but changed its meaning on the way.

Politicians Never Seem to Tire of ‘Baloney’ (May 23, 2015)
Governors and other politicians, present and many decades past, have used ‘baloney’ to describe nonsense and foolishness—far from its source as the name of an Italian city.

From Stage to TV to Screen, the Rise of ‘Tentpoles’ (May 16, 2015)
The entertainment term “tentpole” has persisted over a century, describing theater, TV and film productions.

Behind the Charge of ‘Depraved-Heart Murder’ in Baltimore (May 9, 2015)
The charge of ‘depraved-heart murder’ in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore stems from English common law and its archaic phrases.

The Rise and Fall of the Term ‘Third World’ (May 2, 2015)
Reports say the phrase ‘Third World’ had its start at a 1955 conference, but the words grew out of the work of French social scientists.

More Parents Opt In to ‘Opt Out’ (Apr. 25, 2015)
The phrase ‘opt out’ evokes controversies over school tests and vaccines—and poses a grammatical problem.

How Politicians Learned to Love ‘Everyday People’ (Apr. 18, 2015)
Once, ‘everyday’ was a pejorative word implying mediocrity. Now, politicians like Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul are reaching out to ‘everyday people.’

‘They,’ the Singular Pronoun, Gets Popular (Apr. 11, 2015)
Copy editors, dictionary officials and language experts seem to be coming around to using the gender-neutral ‘they’ in the singular, instead of ‘he or she.’

The Phrase ‘Glass Ceiling’ Stretches Back Decades (Apr. 4, 2015)
‘Glass ceiling’ is a phrase that may have originated out of a conversation between two women at a medical electronics concern. The history of the phrase.

Women Note the Minuses of ‘Plus-Size’ (Mar. 28, 2015)
The backlash against “plus-size” is the latest wrinkle in the history of a term that dates back to the flapper era of the 1920s.

How ‘Unicorns’ Became Silicon Valley Companies (Mar. 21, 2015)
The term unicorn used to refer to magical beasts. How did it come to describe a herd of young Silicon Valley companies?

A Gender-Issues Buzzword Takes Off (Mar. 14, 2015)
“Cisgender” and its variants are proliferating as sex-reassignment issues become more popular on cultural websites and pages.

Heads Up! The Origins of a Warning Phrase (Mar. 7, 2015)
The term “heads up,” used in recent tensions over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, originated in the military and baseball.

Harris Wittels’s Comic Legacy Includes ‘Humblebrag’ (Feb. 28, 2015)
Comedian Harris Wittels, who died last week, made the word ‘humblebrag’ famous with a Twitter account.

Just Don’t Call It a Stylus (Feb. 21, 2015)
The makers of a new breed of smartphones and tablets are reinventing the stylus—but avoiding the word.

For GOP Reformers, a Key Vowel (Feb. 14, 2015)
A new word is describing reform-minded conservatives—‘reformocon,’ or ‘reformicon’—but people are disagreeing how to spell it.

How ‘Secular’ Became a Word for Clerics and Economists (Feb. 7, 2015)
From Roman times, diverse meanings for clerics and economists.

Prop Bets, a Super Bowl Staple, Stretch Back Centuries (Jan. 31, 2015)
Wagers have ranged from election details to hair color.

Hero or Killer? The Ambivalence of the Word ‘Sniper’ (Jan. 24, 2015)
Debates around ‘American Sniper’ reflect longtime ambivalence about the term

A ‘Salty’ Word With a Promising Future (Jan. 17, 2015)
The American Dialect Society picks its Most Likely to Succeed word.

You Heard ’Em Here First: Words of 2015 (Jan. 3, 2015)
Candidates for the words we’ll be saying in 2015, from ‘textruption’ to ‘oxt weekend’ to ‘honkenbonkers’.

‘Ephemeral’ Is a Permanently Useful Term (Dec. 27, 2014)
The spread of disappearing-message services like Snapchat has spurred new interest in the word ‘ephemeral’.

The Phrase ‘Lone Wolf’ Goes Back Centuries (Dec. 20, 2014)
A phrase used to describe the culprit in the Sydney siege stretches centuries back to Native American chiefs, Kipling and Crane.

‘Die-Ins’ Hark Back to Strike in Depression (Dec. 13, 2014)
Current protests linked to ‘sit-in strike’ of 1936.

Among British, ‘Pleb’ Can Be Costly Epithet (Dec. 6, 2014)
A high-profile libel case shows the costs of the class-conscious term.

‘Door-Buster’ and Black Friday (Nov. 29, 2014)
The term ‘door-buster’ appears to stretch back to an 1890s department store.

The Term ‘Polar Vortex’ Goes Back to the Days of Dickens (Nov. 22, 2014)
Back in the news during the recent cold snap, the phrase “polar vortex” goes back to the days of Dickens.

The Muppets’ History Begins in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 15, 2014)
Where did the Muppets come from? Their history begins with college student Jim Henson, his future wife and Washington, D.C.

How ‘Ground Game’ Moved From the Gridiron to Politics (Nov. 8, 2014)
A term from 1920s football parlance became a standby in this year’s midterm elections.

Bootlegs From Smugglers to Superstars (Nov. 1, 2014)
A history prompted by Bob Dylan’s issue of ‘The Basement Tapes Complete.’

How ‘Genocide’ Was Coined (Oct. 25, 2014)
The word ‘genocide’ turns 70. Behind the word, the story of a lawyer’s crusade to prevent the crime.

Ebola Invokes Plague Term ‘Quarantine’ (Oct. 18, 2014)
The 40-day period that gave ‘quarantine’ its name may have had Biblical sources.

Spoiler Alert: How Spoilers Started Out (Oct. 11, 2014)
Do you hate spoilers? Read no further. Revealing how the term began.

Can the Word ‘Fracking’ Lose Its Bad Reputation? (Oct. 4, 2014)
Can the word ‘fracking’ lose its bad reputation? On an industry group’s attempt to stage a rescue despite a downbeat 2011 study.

‘Denialist’ Remains a Popular Epithet in Climate Battle (Sept. 27, 2014)
Calling someone a ‘denialist’ is far stronger than saying ‘denier.’

In Scottish Secession Battle, ‘Blether’ Played a Role (Sept. 20, 2014)
The word is a friendlier version of blather; ‘a wee blether’ means a nice chat.

As Phones Expand, So Does the Word ‘Phablet’ (Sept. 13, 2014)
Looking at the word “phablet” and finding that as phones have expanded, so has the word’s usage.

Nation That Coined ‘Uber’ Trips Up Firm (Sept. 6, 2014)
Via a court ban, Germany, the nation whose language gave the company Uber its name, has tripped up the ride-sharing service.

The Origins of the Term ‘Bum Rush’ (Aug. 23, 2014)
A term describing what would happen if a vagrant entered a saloon enters the debate over Ferguson.

‘Qajaq’ Floats Into Scrabble Dictionary (Aug. 16, 2014)
‘Qajaq’ (a way to spell kayak) and thousands of other words have just been permitted for North American Scrabble players.

New Republican Name-Calling With an Old-Fashioned Word (Aug. 9, 2014)
A battle over the Tea Party has led to new Republican name-calling with an old-fashioned word: grifter.

Filling in the Origins of ‘Blank Check’ (Aug. 2, 2014)
The political shorthand for unlimited freedom of action has its roots in mid-19th century British rhetoric—and chess.

The Phrase ‘Pariah State’ Has Its Source in an Indian Caste (July 26, 2014)
The phrase ‘pariah state,’ used in warnings about Russia’s policies, has its source in words for a low Indian caste.

The Gauche Origins of the Word ‘Tacky’ (July 19, 2014)
The title of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s new song parody comes from an old term for a scrawny horse.

Disinformation: A Deliberately Devious Word (July 12, 2014)
The latest edition of the CIA’s style guide, just made public, makes a careful distinction between misinformation and disinformation.

‘Yanks’: The Journey of a Word to Disrespect the Dutch (July 5, 2014)
Tracing the word ‘Yanks’ back to the days when the British wanted to disrespect Dutch settlers.

The Long Voyage of ‘Mission Creep’ (June 28, 2014)
‘Mission creep,’ a phrase with roots in the early ’90s, has been in the news, thanks to President Obama’s commitment to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq.

The Admiral Who’s Fond of the Word ‘Zorch’ (June 21, 2014) (via G+)
The Pentagon press secretary gets chuckles for reviving a naval aviation slang term that means ‘to move or propel rapidly.’

Following the Word ‘Slugfest’ From Boxing to Benghazi (June 14, 2014)
Hillary Clinton’s use of the word ‘slugfest’ about Benghazi controversies has its roots in a word often used in decades past in boxing and other sports.

A Supreme Court Case Spotlights Paramours (June 7, 2014) (via G+)
Thanks to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, journalists and legal observers have once again been flirting with an old-fashioned word for an illicit lover: ‘paramour.’

Misogyny: Has Its Meaning Shifted? (May 31, 2014)
In the wake of the Isla Vista shooting, a look at whether misogyny means more than hatred of women these days.

‘Dog Whistles’ Only Some Voters Hear (May 24, 2014)
A memoir by former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner brings up a phrase for coded language used by both Democrats and Republicans.

The ‘Trophy Wife,’ From Ancient Greece to a Song by Future (May 17, 2014) (via G+)
Looking at the phrase ‘trophy wife,’ from its origins in ancient Greece to its appearance in a song by Future and Kanye West.

Behind the Words for the Ruthless Boko Haram Insurgency (May 10, 2014)
Westerners have been wrong about the derivation of the phrase Boko Haram, the group that masterminded the abductions of hundreds of Nigerian girls.

Sanction, a Word That Includes Its Opposite (May 3, 2014)
This was a big week for “sanctioning”—a word that curiously can mean its opposite.

How ‘Affirmative Action’ Acquired Its Meaning (Apr. 26, 2014) (via G+)
Justice Sotomayor isn’t the only one to find the phrase ‘affirmative action’ problematic; it has always been a slippery designation.

‘Bicoastalism’: A Long Flight To ‘Mad Men’ (Apr. 19, 2014) (via G+)
The word ‘bicoastal,’ used this season in ‘Mad Men,’ goes back to the early days of transcontinental aviation.

Secrets of the Bright Orange ‘Black Box’ (Apr. 12, 2014) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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) (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.)