Games of “Chicken,” from Hot Rodders to Politicians
Oct. 18, 2013
With the government shutdown over and the default crisis averted, what many commentators called a “game of chicken” has finally ended on Capitol Hill. In my latest column for the Wall Street Journal, I take a look at how political stare-downs earned this appellation, and how chickens became animalistic symbols of cowardice in the first place.
“Septaper” and “Octaper”: Fed-Watchers Remake the Calendar
Sept. 24, 2013
By Ben Zimmer
Last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke foiled the predictions of many analysts that September would usher in tapering, or the gradual slowdown of the bond-buying policy that the Fed instituted to keep long-term interest rates low. Those analysts even had renamed the month Septaper, but now they’re looking ahead to a possible Octaper. After that, it gets a bit harder to come up with clever month-blends.
Of Pinpricks and Slam-Dunks: The Rhetoric of the Syrian Conflict
Sept. 13, 2013
The situation in Syria has revived a number of well-worn foreign-policy phrases, from “boots on the ground” to “slam-dunks” and “smoking guns.” As the American response to the conflict has involved far more in the way of words than deeds, it’s worth taking a closer look at the words used by officials and commentators, no matter how hackneyed.
The “Bubble” That Keeps on Bubbling
Aug. 27, 2013
“We have to turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality,” President Obama said in a recent weekly address. After the economic ruin of the housing bubble, it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But “bubbles” have long been with us — the metaphor of the bubble has been applied to fragile financial schemes for nearly three centuries, originating as a literary device.
The Straight Dope on “Doping”
Aug. 19, 2013
With endless drama swirling around disgraced baseball players like Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, the word doping has been firmly ensconced in American sports headlines, just as it has been in international coverage of cycling and track and field. How doping came to refer to taking drugs to improve one’s athletic performance, however, is a complicated story.
Keeping a Watch on “Binge-Watching”
Aug. 9, 2013
The eagerly anticipated final season of “Breaking Bad” has led to a lot of viewers catching up on past episodes marathon-style. For my latest Wall Street Journal column, I use this moment of mass-media consumption to dive into the history of “binge-watching.”
How “Drone” Got Off the Ground
August 2, 2013
For my most recent “Word on the Street” column in the Wall Street Journal, I consider the history of a word very much in the news: drone, referring to a pilotless aircraft guided by remote control. It turns out the term has been on a long, strange trip from early prototypes in the 1930s to the current controversial U.S. program of covert drone strikes.
A Whistlestop Tour of “Whistleblowers”
July 19, 2013
Edward Snowden’s leaking of National Security Agency information has put the term whistleblower back in the news. Since the early 1970s, whistleblower has come to be seen as a positive term, but before that it had been decidedly negative for many decades.
Debunking the Legend of “Upset”
July 12, 2013
Some stories about word origins recall the old Italian saying, se è non vero, è ben trovato: even if it is not true, it is well invented. One such too-good-to-check story involves the sporting usage of upset, which, it is said, came to be because an unfavored horse named Upset beat the great thoroughbred Man o’ War.
New Light on “Uncle Sam”
July 4, 2013
Last December I commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of what was then the first-known appearance of “Uncle Sam” as a personification of the United States, which turned up in a Bennington, Vermont newspaper. Now, just in time for the Fourth of July, comes new evidence that “Uncle Sam” was in use as early as 1810, more than two years before the phrase’s popularization in the War of 1812.
Words in the Courtroom, from Mobspeak to “Argle-Bargle”
June 27, 2013
American courtrooms can produce some fascinating linguistic specimens. Two high-profile court cases have put language on display. In Boston, the trial of mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger has provided testimony full of old-school crime lingo. Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion on the Defense of Marriage Act featured some “legalistic argle-bargle.”
Would You Prefer a “Cronut” or a “Dossant”?
June 14, 2013
In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I look at the recent craze for “cronuts,” which are a croissant-doughnut hybrid created by an upscale French bakery in Manhattan. It was such a hit that imitators have created their own hybrids using names like dossant or doissant. Regardless of these concoctions’ culinary qualities, is cronut a more appealing name than other combinations of croissant and do(ugh)nut?
How “Emo” Got Political
June 7, 2013
When Fox News host Megyn Kelly gamely took on Erick Erickson, a contributor to the network, for his provocative statements about gender roles last week, she was puzzled by one word in particular that Erickson had used to describe his ideological opponents. “I don’t know what the word is… some sort of liberals, eco-liberals, what did you call them?” “Emo liberals,” Erickson clarified.
2013 Spelling Bee: Arvind Mahankali Turns “German Curse” Into “German Blessing”
May 31, 2013
Much of the buzz leading up to the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee had to do with the first-ever inclusion of vocabulary questions in the off-stage portions of the competition. But in the end, it came down to a traditional spelling face-off over tricky words originating from other languages. Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York had been stumped by German-derived words in the last two Bees, but this time a German word was his salvation.
2013 Spelling Bee: 42 Make it Through Vocabulary-Infused Preliminaries
May 30, 2013
Two hundred eighty-one young contestants took on the new-and-improved preliminaries of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which for the first time included questions about words’ definitions along with their spellings. After the dust had cleared, 42 of them managed to make it to Thursday’s semifinals.
2013 Spelling Bee: Vocabulary Questions in the Spotlight
May 29, 2013
It’s time once again for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the big news going into this year’s competition is the inclusion of vocabulary questions along with the traditional spelling questions. Even though the new multiple-choice questions testing contestants’ knowledge of definitions will only appear in the off-stage computerized portions of the Bee, it’s still a controversial shift in format.
Leaning Back to Look at “Lean In”
May 23, 2013
“Lean in,” thanks to the title of a new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, has become “the idiom of the moment,” Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times, adding “the phrase seems to have taken on a life of its own.” But where did all of this “leaning in” come from?
An Army of “Strong” Slogans
May 17, 2013
In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I take a look at the rapid rise of the slogan “Boston Strong” in the month since the Marathon bombing. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but it’s only the latest in a long line of “strong” slogans.
How “Baloney” Got Phony
May 3, 2013
An Inside Higher Ed article recently quoted Duke University physics professor Steffen Bass as describing the foolish stance of some of his colleagues as “bologna.” Prof. Bass surely said baloney, a spelling that represents an Americanized pronunciation of bologna sausage, and it also came to mean “nonsense” in the 1920s.
Words from a “Surreal” Week in Boston
Apr. 22, 2013
What the city of Boston experienced last week was described again and again as surreal. It was the only word that seemed capable of encompassing the week’s unfolding events, from Monday’s deadly explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line to Friday’s lockdown of the city as SWAT teams zeroed in on the remaining suspect of the bombing.
Word on the Street: Sketchy Traffic Lingo
Apr. 12, 2013
In my latest column for The Boston Globe, I observed that Beantown has more than its fair share of local terms for sketchy traffic maneuvers: the Boston left, the Boston bump, the Boston block, and so forth. But these regional labels can be found all over the country, and new ones keep cropping up.
A “Scalawag” in the Family Tree
Mar. 15, 2013
Scalawag, “a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel,” is a fun word to say. It sounds like something a pirate on the high seas might call a rival. In fact, it originated in western New York in the 1830s, and a young genealogy buff recently turned up some fascinating early evidence on the word when he was investigating an ancestor.
Anointing the Crossword and Palindrome Champions
Mar. 11, 2013
For those who like their wordplay competitive, this weekend featured two high-stakes contests: the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the first-ever Symmys Awards for the year’s best palindromes. The top contenders at the ACPT were the same names that have dominated the crossword world for the past few years, while the surprise overall winner of the Symmys was a palindromic novice.
A Wordy Weekend, from Crosswords to Palindromes
Mar. 8, 2013
This weekend, it’s time once again for the best crossword solvers to gather in Brooklyn for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, another kind of wordy celebration is going on, as the winners will be announced in the first annual Symmys Awards, given to the best palindromes of the year.
The Return of the Grammar Haiku Contest
Feb. 28, 2013
National Grammar Day is just around the corner — it falls on Monday, March 4th (march forth, get it?). Among the festivities is the annual Grammar Haiku Contest, overseen by editor Mark Allen. In the contest, verbivores vie for glory by submitting grammar- or usage-based haikus on Twitter. This year, I’ve been asked to be a judge.
Letting “Sequester” Fester
Feb. 21, 2013
CNN Money has announced that it will “steer clear” of the word sequestration, along with its snappier cousin sequester, in reporting on Capitol Hill budget negotiations, branding it esoteric jargon. That might be a good move, considering that, according to a recent poll, two-thirds of voters don’t even know what sequester means. How did we get saddled with this bit of Beltway lingo?
Would You Go on a Date with “Whomever” Has Good Grammar?
Feb. 15, 2013
In advance of Valentine’s Day, the dating site Match.com released some survey results indicating that good grammar is something that both men and women on the dating scene use to judge their potential mates. That finding led to a joke on Saturday Night Live that was supposed to illustrate “good grammar” but, ironically enough, failed to.
A “Steep Learning Curve” for “Downton Abbey”
Feb. 8, 2013
Last year, Season 2 of the popular British TV series “Downton Abbey” yielded a bumper crop of linguistic anachronisms. In Season 3, now airing stateside on PBS, the out-of-place language has continued. There was a particularly glaring anachronism in the most recently aired episode: “steep learning curve.”
When Life Imitates the Movies: From “Gaslighting” to “Catfishing”
Jan. 31, 2013
If you’ve been following the strange saga of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, then you’ve likely come across the term “catfishing” to describe the type of prank he fell victim to, in which a romantic interest turns out to be nothing more than a fabricated online identity. The term comes from the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” but as I describe in my latest Boston Globe column, it’s not the first time that a cinematic depiction has spawned a new verb.
Obama’s Second Inaugural: Behind the Words
Jan. 22, 2013
The presidential inaugural address, that quadrennial high point in American political rhetoric, invariably attracts a huge amount of attention. President Obama’s address yesterday was the subject of meticulous scrutiny: his word choice, his rhetorical devices, and even his grammar all were analyzed by countless language kibitzers.
The Not-So-Fabulous “Phablet”
Jan. 11, 2013
Last week, the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year honors went to the Twitter-friendly hashtag. But another techie term emerged in a less prestigious category, Least Likely to Succeed. Finishing in a virtual tie with the much-maligned acronym YOLO was phablet, a blend of phone and tablet coined for new devices that are not quite smartphones and not quite tablet computers.
Tag, You’re It! “Hashtag” Wins as 2012 Word of the Year
Jan. 5, 2013
The American Dialect Society has selected its Word of the Year for 2012, and the winner was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t fiscal cliff, the ubiquitous term in the news from Capitol Hill. And it wasn’t YOLO, the youthful acronym for “You Only Live Once” that quickly rose (and just as quickly fell) this past year. No, the ultimate champion was that mainstay of the Twittersphere, hashtag.
Presenting the Nominees for the 2012 Word of the Year
Jan. 4, 2013
At the American Dialect Society’s annual conference in Boston, we took a break from paper presentations to select nominations for the Word of the Year. As chair of the New Words Committee, I presided over the nominating session on Thursday. Winners will be selected from the different categories on Friday evening, culminating in the vote for the overall Word of the Year. Here’s the list of nominees.
“The Whole Nine Yards” Hits the Big Time
Dec. 27, 2012
How often do you see an article about the search for the origin of a phrase on the homepage of the New York Times website? Just about… never. And yet the Times today has a story about the history of an expression that we’ve delved into a couple of times in this space: “the whole nine yards.” Diligent word-sleuthing has turned up a rather unexpected predecessor: “the whole six yards.”
Two Hundred Years of “Uncle Sam”
Dec. 21, 2012
Americans are approaching an auspicious anniversary: it has been two hundred years since the first known appearance of “Uncle Sam” as an initialistic embodiment of the United States. The earliest example of “Uncle Sam” was found in the December 23, 1812 issue of the Bennington (Vermont) News-Letter. But another town not too far from Bennington — Troy, New York — has maintained that it is the true birthplace of Uncle Sam.
The Year in Words, 2012 Edition
Dec. 14, 2012
It’s that time again, the annual look back at the noteworthy words of the year. Were you worried about dangling over the fiscal cliff, or did you have more of a devil-may-care YOLO attitude? Were you more interested in mansplaining or hate-watching? Here’s a roundup of words that’s not just a bunch of malarkey.
The Language of “Lincoln”
Dec. 7, 2012
For my latest Boston Globe column, I talked to screenwriter Tony Kushner about how he crafted the dialogue for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” I had been intrigued about Kushner’s script-writing process after hearing that he had consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to check any word that might have been inappropriate for the film’s 1865 setting. While the results of this painstaking work are admirable, it’s always possible to nitpick over possible anachronisms
From “Cyber Monday” to “Cyber Week”
Nov. 26, 2012
Retailers, not content with branding products, have lately taken to branding days of the week, as a way to hype the holiday shopping rush. “Black Friday,” the name for the day after Thanskgiving, was transformed from a negative to a positive by some clever etymological mythologizing (make that etymythologizing). Then the Monday after Thanksgiving was christened “Cyber Monday,” and now some marketers would like to extend that to a “Cyber Week.”
Falling Off the “Fiscal Cliff”
Nov. 16, 2012
Last February, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke warned the House of Representatives that “under current law, on January 1st, 2013, there is going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.” Now, with the election over, President Obama and the lame-duck Congress are trying to figure out a way to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” But where did the phrase come from? And is the cliff metaphor really so apt?
Not So “Razor-Tight”
Nov. 7, 2012
In the leadup to President Obama’s win over Mitt Romney, a number of political commentators described the presidential race as not just “tight” but “razor-tight.” Ultimately, the razor-tight description was apt in such battleground states as Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, but not so much in the overall electoral results. But wait a minute: why razor-tight?
Blending the Candidates: “Robama” and “Obamney”
Oct. 25, 2012
In the third and final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama ended up agreeing on many foreign policy points. Despite all the heated rhetoric of the campaign, both candidates are making a play for undecided voters in the middle of the political spectrum. But for those who are disillusioned with the two-party system, Obama and Romney seem interchangeable: you might as well call them Robama and Obamney.
Sketching Out a “Sketchy Deal”
Oct. 17, 2012
In last night’s presidential debate, Barack Obama said that Mitt Romney’s economic plan amounted to a “sketchy deal.” Soon thereafter, #SketchyDeal was a trending topic on Twitter (in part thanks to the Obama campaign’s own Twitter account), used to question or criticize various aspects of Romney’s proposals. With sketchy in the spotlight, it’s worth sketching out how the word came to prominence, and how it can mean different things to different people.
Where Did Biden Get His “Bunch of Malarkey”?
Oct. 12, 2012
In last night’s vice-presidential debate, there was one clear winner: the word malarkey. Joe Biden used it not once but twice against Paul Ryan. First, in responding to Ryan’s criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of last month’s attacks in Benghazi, he told Ryan, “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.” And then later, Biden euphemistically called Ryan’s rhetoric “a bunch of stuff” before clarifiying, “We Irish call it malarkey.”
Big Bird and the Wit of the Staircase
Oct. 5, 2012
The most memorable line in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, at least if social media is any indication, came when Mitt Romney vowed to cut funding to PBS but added, “I like PBS. I love Big Bird.” President Obama had a good comeback for the Big Bird line… except he delivered it a day later.
What’s the Matter with “Funness”?
Sept. 27, 2012
In my most recent column for the Boston Globe, I poke fun at new advertising slogans that Apple is using for its iPod line: the latest iPod Nano is “Completely Renanoed,” while the iPod Touch is “Engineered for Maximum Funness.” Whereas renanoed at least shows a modicum of creativity (turning Nano into a verb capable of taking the re- prefix), funness seems to be an unnecessarily cutesy elaboration on plain old fun. But hang on: can we make a distinction between fun and funness?
Emoticons at 30 (Or Is It 45? Or 125? Or 131?)
Sept. 21, 2012
This week, there have been many celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the emoticon, the now-ubiquitous use of punctuation marks to mark emotion in online text. On September 19, 1982, at 11:44 a.m., Scott Fahlman posted a message to a Carnegie Mellon bulletin board, proposing that be used for marking jokes and for non-jokes. Though Fahlman should get full credit for these pioneering smiley and frowny faces, there were in fact much earlier pioneers in expressive typography.
Why is Everyone “Doubling Down”?
Sept. 14, 2012
If there’s one expression that seems to have taken over the media landscape lately, it’s “doubling down.” Deriving from the game of blackjack, “doubling down” has taken on a figurative meaning over the past couple of decades: “to engage in risky behavior, especially when one is already in a dangerous situation,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. So why is everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Clinton talking about risk-taking in this way? And when is it considered a good thing?
Fixin’ to Get Folksy
Sept. 7, 2012
Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he nominated President Obama for re-election, has been hailed as a rhetorical tour de force. The press corps marveled at how Clinton used the prepared speech as a mere starting point, injecting his remarks with ad-libbed folksiness. The result was a speech that managed to elucidate wonky policy specifics in the homespun style of a Southern preacher.
How Did the Proof Get in the Pudding?
Aug. 30, 2012
Last week on NPR’s Morning Edition, sports commentator Frank Deford said in a piece about Serena Williams and her volatile style that “the proof is in the pudding.” After a listener questioned the usage, I was called in to be the arbiter on the idiomatic expression. Is the proof in the pudding? Or is the proof of the pudding in the eating?
Further Adventures of YOLO
Aug. 27, 2012
Can a simple slangy acronym mark a generation gap? YOLO, short for “You Only Live Once,” has emerged as an age-based shibboleth: all too familiar to members of the millennial set, and all but meaningless to their elders. In my latest Boston Globe column, I dissect the YOLOphenomenon, but there’s much more to say about those four letters.
When New Words Reach a Tipping Point, It Can Be a Game Changer
Aug. 14, 2012
If there’s one thing that dictionary publishers have learned, it’s that announcing new words added to their latest editions is good for generating some media attention — and also generating public hand-wringing over what the new entries say about the state of our society and our language.
Of Hipsters, Hippies, and Hepcats
August 10, 2012
In two recent articles, The New York Times has reported on culture wars involving “hipsters”: locals in the Long Island town of Montauk are suffering from “hipster fatigue,” while in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the hipsters are battling with new parents and their babies. All of this raises the question: where did the term hipster come from? Does it have something to do with hippies? And what about the even older term, hepcat?
Stretching Out “The Whole Nine Yards
August 3, 2012
“The whole nine yards,” meaning “the full extent of something,” remains one of the most puzzling idioms for word-watchers. Everyone seems to have their own explanation for where the expression comes from, and yet there is still no definitive origin story for it. This is surprising for a phrase that’s not terribly old: scattered uses can be found from the 1960s, and now it’s been pushed back a bit earlier, to 1956.
How We Talk About “Other” Men and Women
July 26, 2012
Via Twitter, theatre director Jen Bender posed a question that had recently come up in conversation: “A married man’s lover is his mistress. What’s the name for a woman’s illicit lover?” Searching for an answer to that question points to the many gender-related asymmetries in English.
In Praise of the Rolling Stones and Their Zeugmoids
July 13, 2012
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the first official performance of the Rolling Stones. When it comes to songwriting, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards usually don’t receive as much adulation as their counterparts in the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But Mick and Keith have churned out some wonderful turns of phrase over the past half century. Consider this, from the Stones’ 1969 single, “Honky Tonk Women”: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”
Celebrating the Fourth with a “Parade of Horribles”
July 4, 2012
Hot dogs, fireworks, pie-eating contests… the Fourth of July is the same all around the United States, right? Not quite: some Independence Day traditions are more localized. Take “the parade of horribles,” a peculiar procession that you can find in various New England shore towns. Even more peculiarly, “the parade of horribles” has become a legal metaphor, one that made an appearance in the Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling last week.
“Monster In-Laws”: A Monstrous Usage?
June 22, 2012
Recently on Twitter, Amanda Pleva vented, “I guess I’m too much of a language nerd, but the title of the show ‘Monster In Laws’ makes me cringe every time I see it.” Amanda was referring to the reality show on the A&E Network, “Monster In-Laws,” which encourages viewers to “follow married couples dealing with meddling in-laws as they try to make peace with the help of an unconventional, no-nonsense relationship expert.” So is the title of the show a linguistic faux-pas?
The Battle over Defining “Marriage”
June 15, 2012
The word marriage has been the subject of a huge amount of political and legal wrangling, and dictionaries have lately been caught in the crossfire. With major English dictionaries expanding their definitions of marriage to encompass same-sex unions, lexicographers have taken hits from liberals and conservatives alike. Those opposed to same-sex marriage would prefer that dictionaries maintain the traditional definition, while those on the other side of the debate argue that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be treated as secondary. Lexicographers find themselves in a no-win situation.
2012 Spelling Bee: San Diego’s Snigdha Nandipati Wins a “Miracle”
June 1, 2012
In the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee, the words were as diabolical as ever, but Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, California took it all in stride. When it came time to spell the final word, guetapens, a French-derived word for “an ambush, snare, or trap,” she wasn’t snared by its strangeness and calmly spelled it correctly.
2012 Spelling Bee: 50 Survive the Preliminaries
May 31, 2012
The 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee kicked off yesterday, with 278 spellers getting whittled down to 50 semifinalists who will compete in the nationally televised action on Thursday. A precocious six-year-old didn’t make the cut, but an old friend of ours, Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, will be back in the thick of it for his fifth consecutive year.
Backronym of the Week: “Ex-PATRIOT Act”
May 18, 2012
When news emerged that Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin was renouncing his American citizenship to avoid taxes related to Facebook’s IPO, two senators reacted by proposing legislation that would go after the likes of Saverin. Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Casey said it was time to “defriend” Saverin, and they announced a bill called the Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act, or the Ex-PATRIOT Act for short.
Wild Words of Children’s Literature, from “Runcible” to “Rumpus”
May 11, 2012
This week has seen many encomiums to the great children’s book author Maurice Sendak, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83. As it happens, tomorrow marks the two hundredth birthday of one of Sendak’s predecessors in playful children’s literature: Edward Lear. That got me thinking about the grand tradition of wordplay in books for children, from Lear and Carroll to Seuss and Sendak.
It’s Getting “Meta” All the Time
May 7, 2012
This weekend I had the opportunity to ruminate about the self-consciously self-referential word meta for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and for my language column in the Sunday Boston Globe. That’s an awful lot of meta-commentary, but I’ve still got some more thoughts on meta, or make that meta-thoughts on meta.
Tracking Down the Roots of a “Super” Word
April 23, 2012
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. So many of us learned that outrageous mouthful of a word at an early age, when it was truly a verbal milestone to be able to pronounce it without getting tongue-tied. And just saying the word is an invitation to start singing the song from the classic 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins. But how did the word come to be? When I heard the news that one of the Mary Poppins songwriters passed away last month, I set about to answer that question, taking me down many unexpected alleyways of 20th-century popular culture.
Unsinkable Vocabulary: Words for the Titanic Centennial
Apr. 13, 2012
This weekend marks the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, so let’s commemorate the occasion by looking back on some words and phrases that were particularly associated with the maritime disaster.
On Opening Day, Remembering How Baseball Begat “Jazz”
Mar. 28, 2012
Today is opening day for Major League Baseball, though the only game on the schedule is in far-off Tokyo, where the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics are beginning a two-game series. But let’s cast our minds back to opening day a century ago. On April 2, 1912, in a Pacific Coast League game between the Portland Beavers and the Los Angeles Angels, a pitcher uncorked his “jazz ball” — and possibly helped set into motion a chain of events that brought the word jazz together with the music it named.
(Mostly Human) Crossword Whizzes Head to Brooklyn
Mar. 16, 2012
This weekend, puzzlers will come together in Brooklyn for the 35th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, organized by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. The reigning champ, Dan Feyer, has been described as a crossword-solving machine. But he better look out, because this time there will be competition from an actual crossword-solving machine.
“Meh”? “Fail”? GOP Debate Elicits Words of Disappointment
Feb. 23, 2012
Last night’s debate among the four remaining Republican presidential candidates in Arizona was clearly underwhelming for some political pundits. On the website BuzzFeed, Zeke Miller gave out grades to the candidates in the form of trendy online lingo favored by the site. Rick Santorum earned a “FAIL,” while Mitt Romney, despite being declared the winner, nonetheless was awarded a “MEH.”
The Lin-guistics of Lin-sanity
Feb. 17, 2012
In a mere two weeks, New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has gone from an unknown to the most compelling story in sports. For basketball commentators, he’s been the gift that keeps on giving: turning in amazing performances night after night since coming off the bench and propelling the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak. His humble personal profile is in stark contrast to the over-the-top enthusiasm his play has generated, which goes by the buzzword (perhaps you’ve heard?) Linsanity.
“Downton Abbey”: Tracking the Anachronisms
Feb. 10, 2012
Are you hooked on “Downton Abbey”? The second season of the British period drama has been airing in the U.S. on PBS, and it’s been an addictive treat for Anglophiles. But just how accurate is the language used on the show? Though it mostly remains true to its post-Edwardian setting, at times the talk is a bit anachronistic.
“Not to Put Too Fine a Point Upon It”: How Dickens Helped Shape the Lexicon
Feb. 3, 2012
With the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens approaching (get your party hats ready for February 7th!), it’s a good time to gauge the enormous impact he had on the English language. By many accounts he was the most widely read author of the Victorian era, and no writer since has held a candle to him in terms of popularity, prolificness, and influence in spreading new forms of the language — both highbrow and lowbrow.
“Occupy” Named 2011 Word of the Year
Jan. 9, 2012
As the selection of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year approached, a certain air of inevitability had begun to surround occupy, the word revitalized by the Occupy protest movement. And sure enough, when the assembled throngs met in Portland, Oregon, where the ADS held its annual meeting in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America, occupy emerged victorious as the Word of 2011.
Now Presenting: The Nominees for the 2011 Word of the Year
Jan. 6, 2012
Greetings from Portland, Oregon, where the American Dialect Society is having its annual conference. As chair of the New Words Committee, I had the honor of presiding over the nominating session for the Word of the Year. On Friday evening, winners will be selected from the different categories, and then nominations will be made for the overall category of Word of the Year. What do you think the category winners should be, and what should be crowned the Word of 2011?
Passing Away or Kicking the Bucket? The Lexicon of Dying
Dec. 22, 2011
Death has been in the news lately, with the passing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and former Czech president Vaclav Havel within hours of each other. Despite the very different legacies of the two world leaders, most English-language news outlets used the same wording to describe their deaths: in obituaries, both Kim and Havel simply died. But English, like many other world languages, has a rich vocabulary of terms for dying, from the blunt to the euphemistic.
The Year in Words, 2011 Edition
Dec. 15, 2011
Yes, it’s time for that annual tradition: picking the words and phrases that best define the past year. Did occupy occupy your attention? Were you talking about tiger moms or tiger blood? Or were you paralyzed by the condition known as FOMO (fear of missing out)?
Trump’s “Apprenti”: The Return of the Bogus Latin Plural
Dec. 9, 2011
Earlier this week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich emerged from a powwow with Donald Trump, and they had an announcement to make. Trump told reporters that, at Gingrich’s request, he was starting a program for disadvantaged New York schoolchildren, modeled on his competitive reality TV show “The Apprentice.” “We’re going to be picking ten young, wonderful children, and we’re going to make them apprenti,” Trump said. That’s right, he said apprenti.
The Origins of “Black Friday”
Nov. 25, 2011
Today is the day after Thanksgiving, when holiday shopping kicks off and sales-hunters are in full frenzy. The day has come to be known in the United States as “Black Friday,” and there are a number of myths about the origin of the name. Retailers would like you to believe that it’s the day when stores turn a profit on the year, thus “going into the black.” But don’t you believe it: the true origins come from traffic-weary police officers in Philadelphia in the early 1960s.
Down Under, Obama Has a “Chinwag”
Nov. 18, 2011
Visiting Australia earlier this week, President Obama broke the ice by injecting some Australian slang into his public speeches. He used a selection of Aussie-isms like chinwag and ear-bashing for comic effect, but it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t go overboard by trying to mimic a broad Australian English accent (often called “Strine”). British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, wasn’t so lucky: he got into some hot water for an ill-advised attempt at Strine.
Little Commas Make Big Waves
Nov. 11, 2011
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of taking part in a lively panel discussion entitled “More than a Century of Style,” celebrating The Chicago Manual of Style. The event, held at the University of Chicago and sponsored by the public radio station WBEZ, brought out more than two hundred committed stylistas, with hundreds more tuning in to a live stream on Facebook. Here’s an indication of the type of crowd that braved that rainy Chicago night: when University of Chicago Press managing editor Anita Samen announced that she was “passionately pro-serial-comma,” she was met with rapturous applause.
Tracking Dialects on Twitter: What’s Coo and What’s Koo?
Nov. 4, 2011
In last Sunday’s New York Times, I wrote about how researchers are using Twitter to build huge linguistic datasets in order to answer all sorts of interesting analytical questions. Some are looking at the emotional responses of Libyans to unfolding events like the death of Qaddafi, while others are tracking the distribution of regional patterns in American English. This latter research area, Twitter dialectology, is just getting off the ground, but the results are already quite intriguing.
David Henry Hwang Traverses the Language Barrier in “Chinglish”
Oct. 27, 2011
A new play is opening tonight on Broadway, and it’s a treat for language lovers. It’s called “Chinglish,” and it was written by David Henry Hwang, who won a Tony Award for “M. Butterfly.” I had a chance to talk to Hwang about his comic exploration of the perils of cross-linguistic misunderstanding.
Now Pitching in the World Series: The Man They Call “Scrabble”
Oct. 21, 2011
In this year’s World Series, one name in particular will likely catch the eye of even casual baseball fans. In the late innings of the first two games, a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals came in to face the Texas Rangers: Marc Rzepczynski. The announcers were clearly ready for Rzepczynski’s appearance and pronounced his name smoothly (as “zep-CHIN-ski”), helpfully explaining that his nickname is “Scrabble.” So how does Rzepczynski stack up against other hard-to-spell baseball names?
Occupying Word Street
Oct. 14, 2011
The public protest over economic inequalities known as “Occupy Wall Street” has been going on nearly a month now, with the original demonstration in Manhattan’s Financial District spreading to cities around the world. Thanks to the success of the movement, the lingo of the protesters has spread quickly, with the verb occupy in particular becoming a kind of rallying cry.
“And One More Thing”: The Insanely Great Language of Steve Jobs
Oct. 7, 2011
After the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on Wednesday, the outpouring of sympathy on Twitter was overwhelming, with an estimated 10,000 tweets per second. Several of the top “trending topics” over the following day were Jobs-related, marked by the hashtags #ThankYouSteve, #iSad, #ThinkDifferent, and #StayHungry. Even in death, Jobs’s unique and spirited way with words was palpable.
The Art of the Self-Mocking Hashtag
Sept. 23, 2011
It’s fair to say that when it comes to online discourse we live in the Golden Age of Snark. (That’s snark as in “snide commentary,” not the imaginary animal of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.”) When every statement you make is open to sarcastic rebuttals, sometimes the best policy is to ridicule yourself before someone else has the chance. Nowhere is this more true than Twitter, where the convention of the “hashtag” has been pressed into the service of self-mockery.
Sept. 16, 2011
To be called a nerd these days isn’t such a bad thing — it can even be a statement of pride, a way of owning up to an all-consuming passionate interest, particularly in something technological or pop-cultural (or both). It has been reclaimed as a positive label in much the same way as geek has. The cartoonish ’80s movie The Revenge of the Nerds turned out to have some prescience, as nerdy types from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg have come to rule so much of 21st-century life. So it’s only natural to wonder, where did the word nerd come from?
Taking Issue with “Ground Zero”
Sept. 9, 2011
In a speech on Tuesday anticipating the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that it was time to retire the name “Ground Zero” when referring to the World Trade Center site. “We will never forget the devastation of the area that came to be known as ‘Ground Zero,’” Bloomberg said. “But the time has come to call those 16 acres what they are: The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.” That’s quite a mouthful.
Temblor Shakes the East Coast (or Was it a Tremblor?)
Aug. 24, 2011
Yesterday, the east coast of the United States was struck by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake — or, as it was frequently described in news accounts, a “temblor.” Fortunately, the damage caused by the quake was limited, so instead we can contemplate the question: what the heck is a temblor? Or should the word be tremblor?
Aug. 19, 2011
When I go on radio shows to talk about English language usage, talk inevitably turns to words and phrases that people find annoying. (The topic is sure to light up the call-in lines.) Among the top peeves I hear about are three expressions that get used in an inverted fashion: literally used non-literally to emphasize a figure of speech, irregardless used to mean regardless, and could care less used to mean couldn’t care less. What’s with all the flip-flopping?
“Downgrade” on the Upswing
Aug. 12, 2011
All this week, politicians and pundits have been busy reacting to Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. debt rating from AAA to AA+, the first such credit downgrade in American history. The word downgrade itself has taken on powerful significance, to the point that it has vaulted into contention for Word of the Year.
Nonplussed by Google Plus?
Aug. 5, 2011
Every technological advance brings with it new vocabulary, very often by taking old words and supplying new meanings. The age of social media has given us friending and unfriending, following and unfollowing, and so forth. Now Google’s foray into social networking, Google+, has introduced its own lingo: circles and hangouts, sparks and huddles. But with such a new system (Google+ is still in limited field trial), there’s naturally some initial confusion over basic terminology.
Does E-Mail Have Fingerprints?
July 28, 2011
In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, I took a look at how forensic linguists try to determine the author of an e-mail by picking up on subtle clues of style and grammar. This is very much in the news, thanks to a lawsuit filed against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by one Paul Ceglia, who claims that Zuckerberg promised him half of Facebook’s holdings, as proven by e-mail exchanges he says they had. Did Zuckerberg actually write the e-mails? Call the language detectives.
A Muggle’s View of Potter-Speak
July 15, 2011
With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, many are reflecting on the last legacy of J.K. Rowling’s oeuvre. In print and on screen, the Harry Potter franchise has been incredibly successful, and it’s only natural that such a mass phenomenon would leave its imprint on popular culture, including the popular lexicon. Rowling’s inventive use of language has been a key to conjuring the fantasy world of the Potterverse, and that language has seeped into real-world usage as well.
High-Definition TV: Do Viewers Need Pop-Up Vocab Assistance?
July 5, 2011
If you were watching “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” on ABC Sunday morning, you saw a high-minded historical discussion of the U.S. Constitution. But you also might have caught an unusual media moment, when Amanpour, responding to Harvard University professor Jill Lepore, commented that Ben Franklin “was amazingly perspicacious when this Constitution was signed.” As Amanpour spoke, a graphic popped up on the screen giving a dictionary definition for the word perspicacious.
Early Words from the Campaign Trail
June 23, 2011
The 2012 presidential election is still well over a year away, but the campaign trail is already in full swing. On Tuesday, Jon Huntsman, Jr. threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination, adding his name to a list that already includes Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain. (And that’s just the declared candidates.) The Republicans have been using some heated rhetoric toward President Obama, and toward each other. Here are some of the campaign’s early buzzwords.
Happy 50th, Webster’s Third!
June 17, 2011
Earlier this month, lexiphiles were glued to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, as Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township, Pennsylvania won a grueling 20-round contest. As the drama unfolded on national television, the viewing audience got to hear some incredibly obscure words, along with their definitions, all read aloud from a great American dictionary now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
2011 Spelling Bee: Sukanya Roy Wins a 20-Round Marathon
June 3, 2011
It took 20 grueling rounds, but Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township, Pennsylvania emerged victorious in the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 41 semifinalists had been whittled down to 13 for the prime-time finals, and the last handful of contestants kept the competition going with round after round of flawless spelling. Sukanya outlasted them all, winning with the word cymotrichous, meaning “having wavy hair.”
2011 Spelling Bee: The Fearless 41 Advance
June 2, 2011
The 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee got underway yesterday, as the 275 entrants faced the early rounds of spelling stumpers. Only 41 will advance to Thursday’s semifinal round, but we’re happy to report that two of them are familiar faces to us: Nicholas Rushlow and Tony Incorvati, both of Ohio, are returning spellers who have told us how they use the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee for practice. We wouldn’t want to play favorites, but, well… go Nicholas and Tony!
Code Name Watch: Obama the “Smart Alec”?
May 26, 2011
A few weeks ago, we reported on a mini-controversy stemming from the raid of Osama bin Laden, where the code name “Geronimo” was used. That drew the ire of some Native American groups who saw an unfortunate equivalence being drawn to a legendary warrior. Now we have a new code name controversy: for President Obama’s visit to the United Kingdom, Scotland Yard has used the code name “Chalaque,” which some newspapers have explained as a Punjabi word meaning “smart alec.”
Dylan the Prophesizer
May 24, 2011
Bob Dylan turns 70 today, and among the hosannas from his fellow musicians is this one from Emmylou Harris: “He changed the way we think about the English language.” Surely Dylan has vastly expanded the lyrical possibilities for songwriters who have followed in his wake, but his use of language has also left some more subtle fingerprints on the lexicon.
The “Arab Spring” Has Sprung
May 20, 2011
Yesterday, President Obama gave his much-anticipated “Arab spring” speech, setting out his foreign policy objectives in the Middle East in the wake of the revolutionary wave that has shook countries from Tunisia to Bahrain. But how did we come to call this moment in history the “Arab spring,” considering that the Tunisian protests that got the ball rolling started way back in December?
“Hot Dog”: The Untold Story
May 13, 2011
Hot dog. This all-American food term has long been shrouded in mystery, with many competing theories for its origin. But new research points to intriguing early evidence from an unexpected source, in the city of Paterson in New Jersey. Most intriguing of all, the original “hot dog man” may have been a Jamaican-born, German-speaking former circus strong man who plied his wares in Paterson in the late nineteenth century.
The “Geronimo” Code Name Controversy
May 6, 2011
One of the more unforeseen outcomes of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound is a controversy over a code name used during the mission: Geronimo. Native American groups have protested the use of the code name as a denigration of a heroic historical figure, by equating him with a modern-day terrorist and mass murderer. Strong opinions on the topic were voiced yesterday at a Senate Indian Affairs committee hearing on combating Native American stereotypes. It’s the latest unusual chapter in the long history of the name Geronimo.
Apr. 29, 2011
Much of the media narrative leading up to today’s wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has focused on Kate’s “commoner” background, particularly her mother’s family, hailing from the humble coal-mining country of northern England. In class-conscious British society, differences in social background come through in speech patterns — as anyone who’s seen “My Fair Lady” knows. So how have the royal family and the middle-class Middletons navigated this tricky linguistic terrain?
Eco-Speak: An Earth Day Glossary
Apr. 22, 2011
Today is Earth Day, the annual celebration launched 41 years ago to raise environmental awareness. What better time to get up to speed with the latest in “green” lingo? Here are ten eco-friendly words that have gained prominence over the last few years.
Apr. 15, 2011
It’s not every day that an obscure word like consubstantial becomes a topic of hot debate. But this week The New York Times reported that a new English translation of the liturgy used for the Roman Catholic Mass is prompting complaints about the difficulty of the revised language, and consubstantial is Exhibit Number One for the critics.
The Pitcher with a Thesaurus in His Locker
Apr. 8, 2011
The baseball season is in full swing now, and as a long-suffering fan of the New York Mets, I’ve learned to content myself with the small pleasures of the game. The Mets started the season with a road trip, going 3-3 — not bad, I’ll take it. Pitching in today’s home opener at Citi Field is R.A. Dickey, who has emerged as a fan favorite, not just for his way with a knuckleball, but for his way with words.
Gain’s “Gooder” Galls Grammar Grouches
Mar. 31, 2011
A television commercial for the laundry detergent Gain is getting under the skin of the grammatically minded. The commercial shows a man getting dressed and smelling his newly laundered shirt, as the announcer says, “Bill’s mornings have never been gooder thanks to something amazing we’ve added to Gain.” That one little word, gooder, has set off a storm of protests — which may be exactly what Procter & Gamble, the makers of Gain, are looking for.
How We Got an “App” For That
Mar. 24, 2011
When the American Dialect Society selected app as the 2010 Word of the Year, it was a nod to the tech term’s sudden ubiquity over the past year or two. And now it’s more contested than ever with Apple locked in litigation with two rivals, Microsoft and Amazon, in an attempt to hold on to a trademark for app store. How did we get to the point where, as the Apple slogan goes, “there’s an app for that” (regardless of whose store you buy it from)?
Back to Brooklyn: It’s Puzzlin’ Time!
Mar. 18, 2011
This weekend, the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott will once again host the 34th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament — the premier annual gathering of word nerds. Presided over by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, the ACPT promises to provide just as much competitive drama as past years.
Alteration We Can Believe In?
Mar. 11, 2011
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Obama administration is “urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling ‘regime alteration.’” That sounds like a kinder, gentler version of regime change, which itself has a euphemistic ring to it. If President Obama came into office riding a wave of change, why is that word suddenly problematic?
“Winning” Words: The Language of Sheenenfreude
Mar. 4, 2011
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you’ve witnessed the spectacular media meltdown of Charlie Sheen unfold before your eyes. The endless stream of over-the-top pronouncements in Sheen’s recent interviews has been captivating, and Sheenisms have quickly become inescapable online, especially on Twitter (where Sheen managed to attract a million followers in just over 24 hours). Tiger blood and Adonis DNA. Rock star from Mars. Gnarly gnarlingtons. Vatican assassin warlocks. And, of course, winning, the buzzword to beat them all. Does any of Sheen’s frenetic verbiage have a chance of being remembered beyond the current moment of celebrity Schadenfreude, or should I say Sheenenfreude?
How Watson Trounced the Humans
Feb. 17, 2011
The field of natural language processing doesn’t usually get showcased in a widely watched game show, but that’s exactly what happened on Jeopardy! over the last three evenings, as IBM’s Watson supercomputer squared off against the two best humans ever to play the game. IBM had sunk tens of millions of dollars in research money to develop Watson over the past four years, and a loss would have been highly embarrassing. Luckily for IBM, and unluckily for the carbon-based life forms Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Watson came through with flying colors.
Playing with Language, Egyptian Style
Feb. 11, 2011
This weekend, instead of an “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine, I’ll be contributing a piece to the Times‘s Week in Review section, on how Egyptian protesters have been playing with language to make their case that President Hosni Mubarak must go. (Given his defiant “non-resignation” speech Thursday night, he’s not taking the hint.) Though most of the wordplay in the protests is in Arabic, a surprising amount is in English.
Choice Words from the State of the Union
Jan. 27, 2011
Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by President Obama provided a fresh round of political phrase-making. As members of Congress went on a bipartisan date night, Obama called for investments to win the future and meet our Sputnik moment by doing big things. Here’s a look at some of the memorable words and phrases that came out of the speech.
When Autocorrect is Not So Correct
Jan. 14, 2011
My latest On Language column for The New York Times Magazine explores a topic that any owner of smartphone knows too well: the often bizarre behavior of autocorrect, which can “miscorrect” what you type into unexpected and outrageous output.
“App” Wins as 2010 Word of the Year
Jan. 10, 2011
Once again the American Dialect Society has performed its not-so-solemn duty in anointing a Word of the Year (aka WOTY), and the 2010 winner is app, as in, “There’s an app for that.” I’m just back from Pittsburgh, where the ADS held its annual meeting in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America, and I’ve got the full report.
The 2010 Words of the Year: And the Nominees Are…
Jan. 7, 2011
Greetings from chilly Pittsburgh! The American Dialect Society is having its annual conference here, and last night we met to select the nominees for various categories of Words of the Year. On Friday evening, winners will be selected from the different categories, and then nominations will be made for the overall category of Word of the Year. What do you think the category winners should be, and what should be crowned the Word of 2010?
What’s the Word of 2010?
Dec. 17, 2010
As 2010 winds down, word-watchers are reflecting on a year of vuvuzelas and robo-signers, gleeks and mama grizzlies. Let’s take a look back at some of the lexical highlights from the past year.
How the King Overcame His Stutter
Dec. 10, 2010
This weekend, the movie “The King’s Speech” gets its nationwide release in the United States, and it’s already getting talked about as a front-runner for the Oscars. It has also received a great deal of buzz in the speech therapy community for its sensitive and credible depiction of King George VI’s speech impediment and the methods that his therapist Lionel Logue used to overcome it. I take a look at the movie and the real-life story in my latest On Language column, appearing in the Oscars issue of the New York Times Magazine.
The Double Life of “Sanction”
Nov. 29, 2010
Sarah Palin’s political opponents made hay out of her gaffe last Wednesday, when she said on Glenn Beck’s radio show that “We gotta stand with our North Korean allies,” when she meant “South Korean allies.” Palin fought back with a Thanksgiving Facebook message that pointed to numerous slips of the tongue by President Obama. I don’t find her “North Korean” error particularly remarkable (she was swiftly corrected by Beck, and she didn’t confuse North and South Korea elsewhere in her remarks). I was more interested in what she said before that: “We’re not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do.” Was her use of sanction also erroneous?
A Brief History of the “Pat-Down”
Nov. 23, 2010
The outrage over new security procedures enforced by the Transportation Security Administration has thrust the word pat-down into the news. Airline passenger screenings in the U.S. now involve full-body scans, or if the passenger refuses the scan, a full-body pat-down. While the TSA faces backlash against these so-called “enhanced pat-downs” (an unfortunate term reminiscent of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo), plain-old pat-downs have been part of the lexicon of law enforcement for decades.
“Get Your Geek On” at Public Libraries
Nov. 19, 2010
There’s a new campaign to boost awareness of U.S. public libraries that goes by the curious name, “Geek the Library.” I’m all for the campaign’s stated mission of improving public perceptions of libraries by championing their importance to local communities. But what really fascinates me is the way they’re using geek as a transitive verb to mean “be geekily enthusiastic about.” I guess you could say I geek innovative uses of the word geek.
“The Web” at 20
Nov. 12, 2010
Twenty years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau authored the proposal that launched “the World Wide Web,” and the English language has never been the same. In my On Language column for The New York Times Magazine this Sunday, I take a look back at the inception of “the Web” and its many linguistic offspring over the years. As a master metaphor for our online age, the gossamer Web has proved remarkably resilient
The Story Behind Obama’s “Shellacking”
Nov. 5, 2010
Four years ago, when then-President George W. Bush surveyed the losses suffered by congressional Republicans in the midterm elections, he memorably called it a “thumping.” On Wednesday, President Obama used a similarly colorful term to describe his party’s electoral woes. “I’m not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like I did last night,” he said at his press conference. That comment led many to wonder, how did shellacking come to describe a thorough defeat?
“Man Up” Gets Political
Oct. 22, 2010
When I wrote an On Language column in the New York Times Magazine last month about the rise in popularity of the expression “man up,” little did I know that it would turn into one of the key catchphrases of American political discourse in advance of November’s midterm elections.
“Truthiness”: The Silly Word that Feels Wrong in Your Mouth
Oct. 15, 2010
This Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of the premiere episode of “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert’s endlessly entertaining sendup of political pundit programs. On that episode, Colbert introduced the word “truthiness,” which has proved so popular that it has entered the latest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary. For my On Language column in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I had the pleasure of interviewing Colbert (as himself, not his put-upon persona) and learned the inside story of “truthiness.” Here is an extended excerpt from our conversation.
Just Say No to Nosism!
Oct. 8, 2010
Last Sunday I wrote an On Language column for The New York Times Magazine about the editorial we, and all the sarcastic jokes that have been made about the presumptuous pronoun. “Nameless authors of editorials may find the pronoun we handy for representing the voice of collective wisdom,” I wrote, “but their word choice opens them up to charges of gutlessness and self-importance.” Since the column appeared, some of those voices of collective wisdom have risen to defend themselves.
Buzzword Watch: “Acq-hire”
Sept. 28, 2010
Earlier this month, a post by Dan Frommer on Business Insider had this to say about Google, Facebook and Apple: “Recently, all three companies have been making a lot of ‘acq-hires,’ where they buy a company to acquire its human resources.” You read that right: acq-hire. Where did this odd word come from?
All Aboard the “Chunking” Express
Sept. 20, 2010
This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine was a special issue on education, with a focus on education technology. I used the opportunity to write an On Language column that explored new theoretical approaches to language learning that are having important practical applications in the English-language classroom.
Torn Limn from Limn
Sept. 10, 2010
The Baltimore Sun raised a ruckus among its readers by printing a certain four-letter word in a front-page headline on Tuesday. Here is the offending headline:
Opposing votes limn differences in race
Limn (pronounced like “limb”) means “trace the shape of,” “make a portrait of,” or simply “describe.” It isn’t a word you see every day in newspaper headlines, and that bothered some Baltimoreans.
“Man Up” and Other Uplifting Imperatives
Sept. 6, 2010
My latest On Language column for The New York Times digs into the currently popular words of instruction, “Man up!” How you interpret it has a lot to do with what exactly you think it means to be a man. As I write in the column, it can mean anything from “Don’t be a sissy; toughen up” to “Do the right thing; be a mensch.” But the up is just as important as the man, since it connects the expression to a family of imperatives of the “X up” variety, many having to do with accepting responsibility for one’s actions.
The Origins of Text-Speak, from 1828?
Aug. 20, 2010
A new exhibit at the British Library on the evolution of English will feature some linguistic play that presages the age of “text-speak.” As reported by The Guardian, the exhibit will display a comic poem printed in 1867 with lines like “I wrote 2 U B 4″ (“I wrote to you before”). I’ve investigated this proto-text-speak and have found similar versified examples going all the way back to 1828.
“Mad Men” Word Watch: Get Over It!
Aug. 18, 2010
Ever since I wrote an On Language column for the New York Times Magazine about the authenticity of the dialogue on the AMC series “Mad Men,” my inbox has been full of questions about words and phrases that have appeared on the show. The most recent episode, set in early 1965, was particularly rich in expressions that set off people’s linguistic radar. Here I’ll take a look at four questionable examples from the episode.
Slaterisms: Have You Ever Wanted to “Hit the Slide”?
Aug. 12, 2010
The JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater became an overnight folk hero after news spread of his theatrical resignation: cursing out a passenger over the intercom, grabbing a beer, deploying the plane’s emergency slide, and sliding down to the tarmac in a blaze of glory. With a story so compelling, it’s no surprise that admirers are now coming up with Slater-specific expressions to describe “take this job and shove it” moments.
Dan Brown Lexicography: “Secret Vault of Non-Words!”
Aug. 10, 2010
A lot of silly things get written about the craft of dictionary-making, but a story that appeared last week in the London-based Daily Telegraph just might be the most nonsensical article about lexicography in recent memory. The breathless headline reads, “Secret vault of words rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered.” What a scoop! Has the Telegraph blown the lid off a cabal of Dictionary Illuminati worthy of a Dan Brown novel? Yeah, not so much.
Bennies and Shoobies and Caspers, Oh My!
Aug. 6, 2010
With everybody heading out to the beach this summer, my latest On Language column for The New York Times Magazine looks at the local lingo of shore towns. Beach-related regionalisms can get quite colorful, especially when it comes to epithets for the seasonal hordes of visitors.
In Defense of Harding the Bloviator
July 29, 2010
During my appearance on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” yesterday to talk about Sarah Palin’s much-ridiculed use of the word refudiate, I found myself in the odd position of defending Warren Gamaliel Harding, one of the least admired presidents in American history. In the commentary on Palin, Harding was revived as a point of comparison, particularly for his use of two memorable words: normalcy and bloviate. As I said on the show, I’d argue that Harding has gotten a bad rap on both counts.
“Refudiate” and Other Accidental Coinages
July 27, 2010
The dust has settled a bit since last week’s Refudiate-Gate, when the blogosphere went into a tizzy after Sarah Palin used the word refudiate in a Twitter update — and then defended her coinage by likening herself to Shakespeare. Now that we’ve gotten the predictably overheated reactions from the left and the right out of the way, let’s take a look at this particular Palinism with a calmer perspective.
“Mad Men”: Capturing the Sound of the ’60s
July 22, 2010
Just in time for Sunday’s season premiere of “Mad Men,” my latest “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine considers how authentically the show represents the speech of the 1960s. The creators of the show, led by head honcho Matthew Weiner, are obsessive about getting the details of language right, just like all the other details of the show. But fans can be equally obsessive, on the lookout for the smallest linguistic anachronisms.
Are the Kids “Alright” or “All Right”?
July 20, 2010
The new film The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, owes an obvious debt of gratitude to The Who, even though the band’s music doesn’t appear on the soundtrack. The title is lifted from a classic song from The Who’s 1965 debut album, which also served as the title of a 1979 documentary about the band. Discerning readers will notice a small but important difference: the song and the documentary were spelled “The Kids Are Alright.” Did Cholodenko “correct” The Who’s spelling?
Remembering “The Voice of God”
July 16, 2010
A great voice was silenced earlier this week with the death of Bob Sheppard, longtime public-address announcer for New York Yankees baseball games and New York Giants football games. Sheppard, who also worked as a speech teacher at the high school and college level in New York, had such a memorable way of announcing players’ names that he was fondly known as “the voice of God.”
Meet the Dinosaur with “Mojo”
July 13, 2010
What happens when paleontologists get together for drinks and brainstorm for names of dinosaur species? They come up with Mojoceratops, inspired by the mystical, magical mojo. And with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Paleontology this week, the name is official.
Rocking the English Language
July 9, 2010
The latest quarterly update of the Oxford English Dictionary’s online revision project covers the alphabetical range Rh to rococoesque, and it includes a fascinatingly complex entry for a seemingly simple word: rock, used as a verb. From the rocking of cradles in Old English sources to the rocking of microphones in rap lyrics, this entry has it all.
The Manute Bol Theory of “My Bad”
June 22, 2010
After former NBA star Manute Bol died over the weekend, tributes in the sports pages recognized his awesome shot-blocking skills (it helped that he was 7-foot-7) and his equally awesome humanitarian work in his native Sudan. Another frequently cited legacy is that Bol popularized (or even coined) the expression “my bad” as an athletic mea culpa. On the ESPN gabfest “Around the Horn,” Bill Plaschke even said of the supposed coinage, “Language experts have pretty much proven this.” Let’s investigate.
Let’s Prepone the Tiffin: I Have to Air-Dash!
June 8, 2010
Last Sunday I responded to an intriguing question from a reader of the New York Times Magazine “On Language” column, dealing with a meaning of the word revert that was previously unfamiliar to me. As I discovered, revert can mean “reply” in a number of varieties of world English, particularly the English of the Indian subcontinent. But revert is hardly the only English word that has moved on a special trajectory in Indian English.
2010 Spelling Bee: Three Cheers for Anamika!
June 5, 2010
At the end of the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio stood alone as the champion. Anamika, who tied for fifth in last year’s National Bee, showed poise throughout the competition as one contestant after another fell by the wayside. Though her ride was mostly smooth, the Spelling Bee itself saw some controversy.
2010 Spelling Bee: On to the Semifinals!
June 4, 2010
After the first day of competition at the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, the field of 273 contestants has been winnowed down to 48, who will move on to Friday’s semifinal round. They’ll all be looking to follow in the path of last year’s winner, Kavya Shivashankar. As usual, the preliminary rounds featured some fascinatingly obscure words, from famulus (a close attendant, as to a scholar) to nullipara (a woman who has never given birth to a child).
When “Cool” Got Cool
May 27, 2010
It’s hard to imagine the English language without the word cool as a colloquial description of someone or something first-rate. Over the past half-century of usage, the word has become so omnipresent that it has lost much of its slangy patina. Slang-watcher Connie Eble noted here that when she asks her students at the University of North Carolina to list items of slang, they don’t even think of cool, since “it’s just ordinary vocabulary for them.” How did cool first break through to the mainstream?
Of Fanboys and FANBOYS
May 19, 2010
On the tech site Technologizer, Harry McCracken has provided a lovingly detailed history of the term fanboy, as it traveled from the world of underground comics to become “the tech world’s favorite put-down.” It got me thinking about the development of the mnemonic aid FANBOYS, which every English composition teacher knows is an acronym for the coordinating conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.
Beware of Quants with Fat Fingers
May 14, 2010
During the global economic crisis of the last few years, previously esoteric financial jargon has worked its way into public discourse. One such term is quant, a shorthand term for “quantitative analyst.” They’re the subject of Scott Patterson’s new book, The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It, and I take on the term in my latest On Language column in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a timely topic, given the mysterious 1,000-point dip in the Dow Jones index last week, variously blamed on quants and “fat fingers.”
Counting E-mails (and Spams)
May 7, 2010
With new technology comes new language, and with new language comes new usage conundrums. Here’s a question that people have been puzzling over for a couple of decades now: if we don’t pluralize mail as mails, why should we pluralize e-mail as e-mails?
Watch Out for Etymythology!
April 30, 2010
Say you’re reading the “About” page on a company’s website, and they tell a little story about how they came up with a common word long ago, perhaps as part of an early advertising campaign or in the creation of a consumer product. Should you believe the story? Don’t count on it! That’s the lesson of my latest On Language column in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, exploring the tricky terrain of corporate etymology — or rather, etymythology.
Two Captain on the Porches, Please…
April 20, 2010
This past weekend I was pleased to take part in the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, held this year in Philadelphia. I was on a lively panel entitled “Your Grammar Questions Answered,” with Merrill Perlman, who managed the copy desks at The New York Times for many years, and Bill Walsh, multiplatform editor for The Washington Post. For an hour and half, the ACES crowd peppered us with all manner of grammar questions, from the well-worn to the unexpected.
Here’s to Your Wellness
April 16, 2010
For this Sunday’s “Health and Wellness” issue of The New York Times Magazine, I’ve contributed an “On Language” column looking at how we all started talking about wellness (as opposed to health) in the first place. The word has had an odd trajectory: from an occasional antonym of illness dating back to the 17th century, to an uneasy label for preventive and holistic approaches to health in the ’70s and ’80s, to an established element of our linguistic landscape in the ’90s and beyond.
April 2, 2010
In this Sunday’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, I take on some modern meanings of social and related words like socialize. (Have you been in a meeting where someone has suggested socializing an idea?) We owe much of the recent rise of social-ity to those trendy online terms, social media and social networking. How did we manage to get so social simply by staring into our laptop screens?
Stay Tuned for Language Mavenry
March 19, 2010
It’s been a whirlwind week since the official announcement that I would be taking over the “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, the old stomping grounds of the late lamented Language Maven, William Safire. I’m grateful for all of the warm messages of congratulation I’ve received, and I also remain cognizant that in taking over Safire’s column, I have extremely big shoes to fill.
“Kanye”: Rebirth of an Eponym
March 10, 2010
If you watched the Oscars on Sunday, like many other viewers you were probably left scratching your head when, after “Music by Prudence” won for Best Documentary Short, there was a struggle for the microphone between two of the film’s creators. Elinor Burkett snatched the microphone from Roger Ross Williams, in what was almost immediately dubbed a “Kanye moment.” Or you could say Burkett “pulled a Kanye,” or that Williams simply got “Kanye’d.”
At the Movies: Plumbing the Depths of “The Hurt Locker”
March 5, 2010
One of the frontrunners for Best Picture in Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony is Kathryn Bigelow’s tense depiction of a U.S. bomb squad unit in Iraq, The Hurt Locker. The movie’s official website says of the title, “In Iraq, it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to ‘the hurt locker.’” In fact, like so much American military slang, hurt locker (along with related hurt expressions) dates back to the Vietnam War.
Bridge That Gap!
March 2, 2010
During President Obama’s health care summit last week, Republican House Whip Eric Cantor suffered a bit of a misspeak, saying: “We have a very difficult bridge to gap here.” Whoops! It’s the gap that needs bridging, of course, not vice versa.
Owning the Podium (and the Lectern)
February 25, 2010
An oft-heard word of the Winter Olympics is podium, the raised platform where medalists stand. As I wrote about recently for The New York Times Magazine, during the Olympics podium even gets used as a verb, as in “The Canadian alpine skiers failed to podium.” The verbing of podium bothers a lot of people, but the noun presents problems too. Away from the Olympics, podium often gets conflated with another word, lectern.
Crossword Tournament 2010: Dan Feyer Wins!
February 22, 2010
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has come to an end, and with it the end of Tyler Hinman’s amazing five-year reign as champ. Meet the new alpha dog of the crossword world: the one and only Dan Feyer. Puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley joins us again with his wrap-up of the action from Brooklyn.
Crossword Tournament 2010: Saturday Report
February 21, 2010
Live from Brooklyn, puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley is providing exclusive commentary from the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Brendan’s got the scoop on all the action at the end of the first day of competition.
It’s Crossword Time Again!
February 19, 2010
It’s time once again for the cream of the crosswording crop to converge on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, New York. Last year the nail-biting final round saw Tyler Hinman emerge victorious for the fifth consecutive year (his thrilling first win was captured in the documentary Wordplay). Will Tyler manage to pull off #6, or is it time for a new winner — like, say, last year’s breakout star Dan Feyer?
SnOMG! It’s Snowmageddon 2010
February 11, 2010
Over the last few days, America’s Eastern seaboard has seen record levels of snow… accompanied by record levels of snow wordplay. There has been a blizzard of “portmanteau words” involving snow, with snowmageddon and snowpocalypse leading the way. On Twitter, the hashtag of choice has been snOMG, compactly joining snow with the online interjection OMG. We haven’t seen this much seasonal word-blending since 2008′s “summer of the staycation.”
The Legend of Cary Grant’s Telegram
February 4, 2010
After writing about “crash blossoms” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I’ve gotten plenty of responses from readers sending in their own favorite examples of unintentionally ambiguous headlines. I’ve also been hearing more about an anecdote I mentioned, relating to a legendary telegram long attributed to Cary Grant.
Crash Blossoms Keep on Blossoming
February 2, 2010
My latest On Language column in the New York Times Magazine is all about “crash blossoms,” a new term for a phenomenon that people have been noting for decades: newspaper headlines that can be read in unintended ways (like “British Left Waffles on Falklands”). I’ve already received a plethora of emails from readers who wanted to share crash blossoms that they’ve collected over the years.
Googling vs. Bing-ing
January 22, 2010
When google, a verb meaning “to search the Internet,” was chosen by the American Dialect Society as Word of the Decade (2000-09), my ADS colleague Grant Barrett wondered whether Google’s trademark lawyers might have preferred it if the runner-up, blog, had won instead. It is of course a tribute to the vast popularity of Google that it has become accepted as a generic verb for online searching, but the protectors of the trademark wouldn’t necessarily see it that way. Meanwhile, Microsoft, creators of the rival search engine Bing, would very much like people to use their brand name as a verb.
“Sleeping Beauties” in English and Dutch
January 20, 2010
When the New Oxford American Dictionary selected unfriend as its 2009 Word of the Year, Oxford University Press senior lexicographer Christine Lindberg was quick to point out that the verb long predates the Facebook era. As she explained in an NPR interview, the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation for unfriend from 1659. “I think it’s a remarkable resurrection,” Lindberg told NPR. “In a way, I look at unfriend as the Sleeping Beauty of 2009 words.” Now it appears that the Dutch language has its own Sleeping Beauty… or should that be Rip Van Winkle?
“Team Conan”: The Latest Pop-Culture Posse
January 13, 2010
In the newest chapter of the late-night television wars, “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien has announced that he won’t go along with NBC’s plan to bump his show to a midnight time slot to make way for Jay Leno at 11:30. After O’Brien made his announcement, he was the recipient of an immediate outpouring of support online. Thousands joined the Team Conan Facebook group, while thousands more expressed their allegiance on Twitter using the #TeamConan hashtag. Where did all this “Team” talk come from?
“Tweet” Named Word of the Year, “Google” Word of the Decade
January 9, 2010
After much good-natured debate at its annual meeting in Baltimore, the American Dialect Society has made its selections for Word of the Year and Word of the Decade. As proof that we’re truly living in a digital age, the winner of Word of the Year for 2009 was tweet (“to post an update on Twitter”) and the Word of the Decade for 2000-09 was google (the generic verb meaning “to use Google or another search engine”).
The American Dialect Society’s “Word of the Year” Nominees
January 8, 2010
Greetings from Baltimore, where the American Dialect Society is holding its annual conference. Along with scholarly presentations about American linguistic varieties, the ADS is also making selections for Word of the Year (2009) and Word of the Decade (2000-09). ADS members fixed on a final list of nominees for the different categories that will be up for a vote on Friday.
The Origins of “Eggnog,” Holiday Grog
December 24, 2009
Is there any drink more seasonal than eggnog, that Yuletide mixture of sweetened milk, beaten eggs, and (at least traditionally) liquor? As we head into the peak time for eggnog consumption, let’s put aside our mugs and stop to consider where the word eggnog actually comes from.
A New Political Eponym Barges in
December 15, 2009
This time last year, David Letterman was making jokes about Blagojeviching, playing on the name of disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Now we’ve got a brand-new political eponym on our hands: Salahi is being used as a verb meaning “to gate-crash an official event.”
At the Movies: “Airworld,” “Unobtainium”
December 9, 2009
The end-of-the-year movie rush is upon us, when the studios roll out their high-prestige projects. I’ve been thinking about words related to two major movies of the season: Up in the Air (now in theaters), adapted from the novel of the same name by Walter Kirn, and Avatar (coming soon!), the sci-fi extravaganza from James Cameron of Titanic fame.
Are You Esurient for New Words?
December 2, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, Merriam-Webster announced their top words of 2009 based on the intensity of lookups to its online dictionary and thesaurus. Now Dictionary.com has their own announcement of the most looked-up words of the past year. Though the main list is full of usual suspects like affect and effect (perennial stumpers even for native English speakers), the “top gainer” is a very unusual word: esurient, meaning ‘extremely hungry; desirous; greedy.’ What might explain the ravenous interest in this obscure term?
Is There a Problem with “No Problem”?
November 30, 2009
Visual Thesaurus subscriber “Curious Cat” has struck a nerve. Commenting on a Word Routes column last month about annoying words, “CC” wrote: My bugbear: “No problem” in response to “Thank you” in restaurants. “You’re welcome” is disappearing in this context. I assume that my business is not a problem.
Going Quant, Going Rogue
November 24, 2009
When I read in the New York Times recently that everyone is going quant in “the Age of Metrics,” my first thought was, “Is that anything like Sarah Palin going rogue?” What’s going on with these new ways of going, anyhow?
Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year: “Admonish”
November 20, 2009
The latest selection for 2009 Word of the Year comes from the good people at Merriam-Webster. Unlike other dictionary publishers that anoint an annual word, Merriam-Webster bases its winner and runners-up on actual user lookups to its online dictionary and thesaurus. So instead of the novelties selected by its competitors (distracted driving from Webster’s New World, unfriend from New Oxford American), Merriam-Webster’s choice is an old word that worked its way into current events: admonish.
NOAD Word of the Year: “Unfriend”
November 17, 2009
The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its Word of the Year for 2009: it’s unfriend, defined as “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.” Readers of this space will be quite familiar with the term, as I discussed it along with similar un-verbs on Word Routes in May and then again in September as a followup to my On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, “The Age of Undoing.” It’s nice to feel ahead of the curve on this one, but truth be told, unfriending has been going on for many years.
Happy Web Day!
November 12, 2009
November 12th isn’t a public holiday, but perhaps it should be. On this day in 1990, a memorandum was produced by the English physicist Tim Berners-Lee and the Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau while working for CERN in Geneva. Entitled “WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project,” it might not have seemed so earth-shattering at the time. But it set into motion the Age of the Web: it’s hard to overestimate the impact this document has had on our chronically wired culture — and on our language.
It’s Cadillac Time!
November 6, 2009
In this Sunday’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, I take a look at how the car brand Cadillac remains an emblem of luxury, even though Cadillac itself is no longer really “the Cadillac of cars.” In the health care debate on Capitol Hill, we frequently hear high-cost health insurance plans described as “Cadillac plans.” And there’s another area of American culture where Cadillac continues to have outsized linguistic importance: baseball.
November 3, 2009
Leave it to lexicographers to sneak a word like hypallage into a press release. The occasion is the Word of the Year from Webster’s New World Dictionary (yes, it’s Word of the Year season already). Webster’s New World chose distracted driving as its Word of the Year for 2009, defined as “use of a cellphone or other portable electronic device while operating a motor vehicle.” The press release notes that distracted driving features a “linguistic catch” that is “frequently seen in poetry”: hypallage. Say what?
Beware the Colophon! The Return of the Literary Spelling Bee
October 27, 2009
For the second year in a row, the Visual Thesaurus helped out the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses with its annual Spelling Bee to support the work of independent literary publishers. Once again, the VT supplied the words that challenged some of the leading lights of the New York publishing world.
More Ms.-teries of “Ms.”
October 23, 2009
In this Sunday’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, I delve into the history of the title Ms. used as a marriage-neutral title for women. As I revealed here on Word Routes back in June, the earliest known proposal for the modern use of Ms. appeared in the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican on November 10, 1901. And as the proposal reemerged over the ensuing decades, two nagging questions kept getting asked: how do you pronounce it, and what does it stand for?
No Soap (Radio): An Advertiser’s Little White “Lye”
October 20, 2009
My wife recently spotted the following perplexing line on Crabtree & Evelyn’s website, advertising their hand soap: “Our gentle cleansing liquid soaps are pH-balanced and soap-free.” That’s right, they’re selling soap-free soap. I’ve heard of a “nothing-burger,” but “nothing-soap”?
The Biggest Misnomer of All Time?
October 12, 2009
When Columbus arrived in the New World 517 years ago, this pivotal moment of cultural contact was fraught with misunderstanding. Upon finding the native Lucayans on the small Caribbean island where he made landfall, Columbus dubbed them Indians, under the mistaken impression that he had navigated all the way to the eastern shores of Asia. Explorers and cartographers quickly figured out that Columbus was utterly mistaken, and yet even now his monumental error lives on in the word Indian to refer to indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.
At the End of the Day, What’s, You Know, Annoying? Whatever!
October 9, 2009
It was all over the news yesterday: according to a new poll from the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, whatever is the word that Americans find most annoying. The poll asked respondents which word or phrase bothered them the most, and whatever easily swamped the competition, with 47 percent naming it the most annoying. You know came in at 25 percent, it is what it is at 11 percent, anyway at 7 percent, and at the end of the day at 2 percent. Despite the widespread media attention, we should ask: does this poll really tell us anything useful?
Do We Care Less About “Could Care Less”?
October 6, 2009
In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I take over the “On Language” spot to pay tribute to the man who originated the column, William Safire. (You can already read the online version here.) It’s not quite as personal as the remembrance I posted
Remembering the Language Maven
September 28, 2009
William Safire passed away over the weekend at the age of 79, and his loss is felt particularly strongly by those who loyally followed his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine for the past three decades. Safire retired from his Pulitzer Prize-winning political column for the Times in 2005, but he continued to relish his role as “language maven” to the very end. He was not simply a pundit on matters political and linguistic, however: he was also an extremely generous man, both publicly in his philanthropic work with the Dana Foundation and privately with friends and colleagues.
The Un-Believable Un-Verb
September 21, 2009
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to fill in once again for William Safire’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. This time I focused on how the prefix un- is getting pressed into service for all sorts of new verbs — particularly in the novel lingo of social networking, where following, friending, and favoriting can be instantly reversed by unfollowing, unfriending, and unfavoriting.
Hut! The Story Behind a Football Interjection
September 14, 2009
The National Football League kicked into gear this past weekend, accompanied by the usual hoopla from the sports media. In honor of the start of the football season, the television show “NFL Films Presents” put together a segment on the word hut, an interjection shouted by quarterbacks when initiating a play. They asked a number of NFL players and coaches their theories about the origin of hut, and then called upon a linguist to set the record straight. That linguist happened to be me, so I found myself unaccountably sharing air time with the likes of Don Shula and Tom Coughlin.
Celebrating the Beatles: Goo Goo Goo Joob!
September 9, 2009
Today is a big day for Beatles fans: the band’s entire catalog is being reissued in digitally remastered form, and the video game “The Beatles: Rock Band” is also set for release. And what better day than 09/09/09, considering the band’s love of the number nine (enneaphilia?), from “The One After 909″ to “Revolution No. 9.” In honor of the latest wave of Beatles nostalgia, I’ve been mulling over a bit of nonsense from the fertile mind of John Lennon: the timeless chant heard in “I Am the Walrus,” “Goo goo goo joob.”
Why Americans Celebrate Labor (and not Labour) Day
September 7, 2009
It’s the first Monday in September, when the United States observes Labor Day by avoiding labor. Today is a holiday north of the border too, but in Canada it’s called Labour Day. Labour, of course, is the accepted spelling in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries like Canada. Americans prefer labor to labour, just as they prefer color, favor, honor, humor, neighbor, and a few dozen other words ending in -o(u)r. How did the spellings diverge?
Mailbag Friday: “Regime” or “Regimen”?
September 4, 2009
Today’s Mailbag Friday question comes from Bob D., a doctor from Newton, Massachusetts. Bob asks: “What is up with the constant misuse of the word regime? It drives me crazy. It is like regimen never existed.”
Not So Mad Props: A “Mad Men” Anachronism
August 25, 2009
The makers of the critically acclaimed TV drama “Mad Men” pride themselves on their meticulous attention to authentic period detail, lovingly recreating the early 1960s world of Madison Avenue admen. The show’s prop masters are charged with getting every little thing right, from the prices on receipts to the secretaries’ restrictive undergarments. So it’s always a bit of a surprise to discover an anachronism lurking on the “Mad Men” set. The most recent episode featured one such historical goof, though only die-hard dictionary buffs would have noticed.
The Lexicon of the Health Care Debate
August 21, 2009
The fight over health care reform that has dominated American political discourse in recent months has often ended up as a fight about language. Let’s take a look at some of the highly charged terms used by the supporters and opponents of President Obama’s proposed health care initiatives.
Learning to Love the Semicolon
August 19, 2009
Yesterday, our Editorial Emergency crew Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner offered up a great antidote to semicolon-phobia. “Once you understand their appeal,” they advise, “semicolons can be addictive.” Simon and Julia aren’t the only ones singing the praises of this humble punctuation mark. Lately we’ve seen surprising expressions of affection for the semicolon, from New York to Paris.
Mailbag Friday: “Caveat”
August 14, 2009
Laura C. of Wantage, N.J. writes in with today’s Mailbag Friday question: Co-workers keep using the word caveat around work and it’s driving me crazy. People will say, “This is a great plan, but the caveat is…” (meaning ‘the hook or catch is…’). Sometimes they’ll use it as a transitive verb: “Let’s caveat that proposed media spend.” Is this really acceptable?
“Fail” for the Win!
August 7, 2009
In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, I’m the guest writer for the “On Language” column while William Safire is on vacation. I use my pinch-hitting spot to look at recent developments with the word fail, which in online usage has transformed from a verb to an interjection and a noun (and even sometimes an adjective). But truth be told, fail is only the most prominent example of a much wider phenomenon, with a whole series of expressive words getting similar treatment.
Word Power, People Power: English and the Philippines
August 4, 2009
The recent death of Corazon Aquino has stirred memories of her shining moment in 1986, when she became President of the Philippines after a series of protests against the oppressive Marcos regime. The uprising was known both inside and outside of the Philippines as “People Power.” The use of an English phrase for such a pivotal moment in national history is a reminder of just how important the English language has been to the Philippines since the advent of U.S. colonialism there more than a century ago. And the Philippines, in turn, has had an impact on English as spoken in other countries.
The Mystery of “Cronkiters”
July 27, 2009
Last week, after the death of Walter Cronkite, I wrote about how two words seemed irrevocably linked to the great newsman: avuncular and anchorman. Obituaries claimed that the term anchorman was first coined to refer to Cronkite, but as I wrote in Slate, this isn’t exactly true: there were earlier “anchormen” on television, even if they didn’t play quite the same coordinating role as Cronkite and his emulators. The Associated Press obituary, which was picked up by news outlets around the world, followed up the anchorman claim with another linguistic nugget about Cronkite, and this one is on even shakier factual ground.
Mnemonics, from Roy G. Biv to Mary’s Violet Eyes
July 24, 2009
Earlier this week in the Book Nook section of our Educators page, we featured an excerpt from Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher’s Learning Words Inside and Out, all about how teachers can use mnemonics to help students commit words to memory. Some of these memory aids are extremely well-known: most everyone knows Roy G. Biv spells out the initial letters of the seven colors in the spectrum, for instance. But there’s an endless number of other mnemonic devices that get passed down from generation to generation, covering just about every field of human endeavor.
The Avuncular Anchorman
July 20, 2009
In the outpouring of remembrances since the passing of Walter Cronkite on Friday, two polysyllabic words beginning with “a” have proved to be inextricably linked to “the most trusted man in America”: avuncular and anchorman. It’s hard to describe Mr. Cronkite without using one or the other, or preferably both.
Know Your Nunchucks!
July 16, 2009
An odd moment in this week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor came when Senator Orrin Hatch questioned her about a case involving martial arts weapons commonly known in English as “nunchucks” or “nunchuck sticks.” The exchange between Hatch and Sotomayor sounded like something you might encounter at a Bruce Lee fan club meeting, not in a high-profile Senate hearing.
Sarah Palin, from Pit Bull to Dead Fish?
July 9, 2009
When Alaska Governor Sarah Palin burst onto the national scene less than a year ago, she made a memorable impression with an animal-related witticism. In her speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination at the 2008 Republican National Convention, she asked, “You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” The answer, of course, was “lipstick.” Now, as Palin exits the political stage (at least for now), she has again used a metaphor drawn from the animal kingdom.
The United States Is… Or Are?
July 3, 2009
We’re coming up on the Fourth of July, when the United States is full of barbecues, fireworks, parades, and competitive hot dog eating. But why do we say “the United States is full of…” instead of “the United States are“? On Independence Day, there’s no better time to reflect on how the rise of America’s national unity was mirrored by its grammatical unity, as “the United States” turned into a singular noun.
Hunting the Elusive First “Ms.”
June 23, 2009
In the dictionary game, when you’ve found a historical example of word that is earlier than anything previously found, it’s called an “antedating.” Looking for antedatings in American English has been utterly transformed by the advent of digitized newspaper databases. Now, hot on the heels of my antedating of jazz in New Orleans, I have another early 20th-century discovery to report: from 1901, the first known proposal for using the title Ms. to refer to a woman regardless of her marital status.
Powers of Ten
June 11, 2009
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our decimal system and the way that exponential powers of ten capture our imagination. In part, that’s because I’ve been called upon by various news outlets this week to counter a claim that the English language is adding its millionth word. But it’s also because of a humbler, more personal milestone: what you’re reading right here is (drumroll, please) my one hundredth Word Routes column.
“Jazz”: A Tale of Three Cities
June 8, 2009
New Orleans is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of jazz. But is it also the birthplace of “jazz” — that is, the name for the music and not just the music itself? New evidence shows that the term jazz, also spelled jas or jass in the early days, was in use in New Orleans as early as 1916. However, that doesn’t beat Chicago, where the term was applied to music in 1915. And while many of the Windy City’s early jazz musicians hailed from New Orleans, Chicago likely borrowed the word jazz from another city: San Francisco.
The Story Behind “Hobson-Jobson”
June 4, 2009
I recently made my way to Bloomington, Indiana for the biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America, a sublime convergence of unabashed word-nerdery. There was a fascinating array of paper presentations, on everything from grand old men like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster to cutting-edge techniques in online lexicography. But one paper that I found particularly enjoyable had to do with a Victorian-era “Anglo-Indian glossary” that has had remarkable staying power over the past century or so, perhaps in part due to its memorable title: Hobson-Jobson. The paper, by Traci Nagle of Indiana University, took a look at exactly how the dictionary ended up with such a peculiar name.
Tracking Down “The Missing Link”
June 2, 2009
A 47-million-year-old fossil of a newly discovered primate species has been trumpeted in the media as “the missing link” in human evolution. Nicknamed “Ida,” the fossil is remarkably well-preserved, but paleontologists have scoffed at the “missing link” claim: it’s not even clear if Ida is a close relative of us anthropoids, and in any case, the whole metaphor of “the missing link” only really works in the outdated model of evolution as a linear chain or ladder. But all the hoopla surrounding Ida inspired Nature editor Henry Gee to ask (via Twitter), how long have people been using the expression “the missing link”?
National Spelling Bee: Kavya Triumphs!
May 29, 2009
In the grueling finale of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee, 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas emerged as the winner, beating out 10 other frighteningly good spellers. This was her fourth consecutive appearance in the finals of the Bee, and over the years she has gradually crept up to the top spot, moving from 10th to 8th to 4th to 1st place. She was inspired by Nupur Lala, winner of the 1999 competition (and one of the stars of the wonderful documentary Spellbound), and now she joins Nupur in the pantheon of great spellers. Congratulations, Kavya!
National Spelling Bee: 41 Survive Tough Words in Prelims
May 28, 2009
The preliminary rounds of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee are over! After a computerized test and two rounds of spelling on stage, 41 of the original 243 contestants have made it to the semifinal round. And even in these early rounds, the spellers encountered some tremendously difficult words.
Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee: Two Million Words and Counting
May 26, 2009
The 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee kicks off today, an annual celebration of America’s passion for competitive spelling. We here at the Visual Thesaurus know just how deep that passion runs: our own Spelling Bee, launched less than a year ago, has already attracted tens of thousands players who have tried their hand at spelling a grand total of more than 2,000,000 words. And all of the data that we’ve collected thus far is providing new insights into the mysteries of English spelling, pinpointing the words that are the most devilishly challenging — even for the very best spellers.
McDonald’s Puts the Accent on Advertising
May 21, 2009
McDonald’s has launched an ambitious marketing campaign for its new coffee line, McCafé. In one commercial currently saturating American airwaves, viewers are advised that you can “McCafé your day” by enlivening your daily grind. The ad extends the acute accent mark at the end of “McCafé” to various other words: a “commute” becomes a “commuté,” a “cubicle” becomes a “cubiclé,” and so forth. Will this wordplay work with American consumers, or will the exotic diacritics fall on deaf ears?
Which Words Do You Love and Which Do You Hate?
May 19, 2009
Sometimes our perspective on language isn’t exactly rational: we love some words and absolutely despise other ones. What inspires such deep feelings, and why does word hate often seem to run hotter than word love? In the case of words like impactful, discussed in yesterday’s Red Pen Diaries, the bad vibes may arise because of an association with vacuous management-speak or other institutional jargon. But other times a word is disliked because it just sounds, well, icky. A look at some of the favorite and least favorite words selected by Visual Thesaurus subscribers offers some insight on verbal attractions and aversions.
Mailbag Friday: “These Ones”
May 15, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Mailbag Friday! Carol B. writes in with today’s question: As an American living in Australia, I’m overwhelmed by the common use of “these ones.” I came across it yesterday in a British memoir! It grates on my nerves. Anybody else?
Of Clunkers and Junkers
May 12, 2009
Leaders in the U.S. House of Representative recently reached an agreement on a plan that would award vouchers of up to $4,500 to car owners who trade in older vehicles for more fuel-efficient models. The proposed legislation has a nickname that is memorably alliterative: “Cash for Clunkers.” How did clunker become the favored American word for cars that are past their prime?
The Language of Social Media: “Unlike” Any Other
May 7, 2009
Earlier this week I appeared as a guest on the NPR show “Charlotte Talks” (from Charlotte, North Carolina) to talk about language in the electronic age. Callers expressed a fair amount of hand-wringing about how English usage is under fire from new modes of communication, from text-messaging to social media sites. Rather than focusing on the negative, I’d like to celebrate some of the innovative linguistic forms that have been bubbling up online.
In Search of “Swine Flu”
April 30, 2009
“Swine flu is the new Susan Boyle of search terms,” announces a headline in Australia’s The Age. The Scottish singing sensation was last week’s news: people are no longer busy conducting online searches for Ms. Boyle (or for her favored expression,
Susan Boyle is Gobsmacked (and Poleaxed Too)
April 21, 2009
Unless you’ve been living under an Internet-free rock, you’ve probably seen the enthralling video of Scotland’s Susan Boyle singing on the television show Britain’s Got Talent. According to the latest numbers, the video of Boyle’s performance has already attracted more than 100 million online views. But it’s not only her singing prowess that is attracting worldwide attention: it has also been reported that “Web searches for the term gobsmacked spiked after Boyle used the British slang meaning utterly astonished when describing her reaction to newfound widespread acclaim.”
Mailbag Friday: “Texted”
April 17, 2009
Today’s Mailbag Friday question comes all the way from Dakar, Senegal. Jodi W. asks: “What’s up with texted? As in, ‘I texted her yesterday.’ Is it a real word?”
Plundering the History of “Pirate”
April 14, 2009
The recent hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship off the coast of Somalia serves as a chilling reminder that seagoing pirates continue to threaten international waters, from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca. For many of us, it’s peculiar to see the word pirate making headlines, since it seems so out of place in the 21st century — at least outside of Disney theme parks.
April 9, 2009
Yesterday I had the privilege of appearing on the WNYC radio show Soundcheck to talk about the origins of booing. The news hook was a recent Metropolitan Opera production of La Sonnambula that got booed by the audience thanks to its avant-garde staging. Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout discussed the booing incident, and I was there to provide some historical and linguistic context.
April 2, 2009
Yesterday in the Language Lounge, we took a look at what happens when a trademark ends up lapsing into generic use. The term genericide came up as a description for this loss of a trademark’s protected status. The word raised some eyebrows among our readers, as well it should.
A Brief Glossary of Recession-Speak
March 26, 2009
With the deepening of “The Great Recession” (or whatever we end up calling the current crisis), our language continues to reflect the tough economic times. Here is a primer on recession-related terminology that has been circulating in recent months, as we struggle to put the global financial uncertainty into words.
Where Did We Get “The Whole Nine Yards”?
March 25, 2009
Among the idioms of modern American English, few are as puzzling to unpack as the expression “the whole nine yards,” meaning ‘the full extent of something.’ Though it is of relatively recent vintage, etymologists have yet to discover a credible historical explanation for what the “nine yards” might refer to — there are a multitude of theories, some quite fanciful, but none are supported by documentary evidence. In the past few years, however, some significant progress has been made to unearth early examples of the idiom, which may eventually help to smoke out where those “nine yards” originally came from.
March 23, 2009
American sports fans are currently engrossed in the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, a.k.a. “March Madness.” Even President Obama filled out a Tournament bracket with his projected winners in the single-elimination format. So far, if you picked the favorites to advance (as Obama mostly did), your bracket is doing nicely: only one team (Arizona) has pulled off a significant upset to get into the “Sweet Sixteen.” In betting parlance, chalk has predominated in the Tournament. But how did chalk come to be the term associated with favored teams?
Mailbag Friday: “Reticent”
March 20, 2009
Maria C. of Jersey City, NJ writes in with today’s Mailbag Friday question: “My coworker always uses the word reticent when he really means reluctant. Isn’t he using the wrong word?”
Play It As It Lays
March 17, 2009
Yesterday, writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker offered a delightful lesson on the perils of learning grammar from rock and roll lyrics. Among the grammatical malefactors are Bob Dylan, whose song “Lay, Lady, Lay” uses the verb lay in an intransitive fashion instead of lie. Likewise, Dylan sang “If not for you, babe, I’d lay awake all night,” and “I wanna lay right down and die.” But he should get points for using lay in the transitive too, as in: “Lay down your weary tune,” or using lay as the proper past-tense form of lie: “I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay.” Still, if the foremost bard of American popular music can’t be consistent on this point, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Banks: the Good, the Bad, and the Zombie
March 12, 2009
As the recession worsens, we’re all learning far more than we ever wanted to know about the ins and outs of the banking industry, ground zero of the financial meltdown. And we’re learning new lingo too: the news these days brings word of good banks, bad banks, zombie banks, and even banksters.
Mailbag Friday: Feeling “Nauseous”
March 6, 2009
Last month a usage dispute broke out in the comments section here on the Visual Thesaurus. Our “Evasive Maneuvers” columnist Mark Peters described a friend who “started feeling nauseous.” Two commenters objected to this use of nauseous, saying that the word properly describes someone or something that is sickening, and that the word Mark should have used is nauseated. Who’s right?
ACPT ’09: A Last Look Back
March 3, 2009
The 2009 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held this past weekend at the Brooklyn Marriott, had it all: warm cameraderie of puzzle-minded word lovers, and high drama in the finals that left the audience alternately gasping and cheering. If you missed any of our coverage of the Tournament, here’s a handy recap.
Crossword Tournament ’09: Sunday Report
March 1, 2009
The finals of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament promised to be a thrilling event, and it did not disappoint. Tyler Hinman emerged as the winner for a fifth consecutive time, but only after a grueling and highly dramatic round against fellow finalists Francis Heaney and Trip Payne.
Crossword Tournament ’09: Saturday Report
February 28, 2009
The first day of competitive play at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament saw 684 contestants fill the main ballroom of the Brooklyn Marriott, solving six puzzles that ranged from breezy to downright fiendish. With the interim results tallied, the scoring leaders are mostly familiar faces in the crossword world — with one notable exception: Dan Feyer, in only his second year of tournament play, is sitting pretty in the number one spot.
February 27, 2009
Tonight the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament kicks off at the Brooklyn Marriott with “an evening of games and entertainments” — a night of conviviality before the Tournament proper begins Saturday morning. We here at the Visual Thesaurus are happy to help sponsor the Friday fun, providing complimentary VT subscriptions to the prize-winners. I’ll be attending tonight (in advance of competing in the Tournament in the “rookie” category), and I’m looking forward to meeting up with friends old and new in this collegial community of diehard verbivores.
How’s Your Crosswordese?
February 24, 2009
With this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament just around the corner, there is no better time to consider that peculiar, vowel-heavy brand of English known as “crosswordese.” Think you’re a first-rate cruciverbalist? Quick: can you tell an anoa from an unau?
When Typos are Set in Stone
February 18, 2009
Every writer knows the feeling: you’ve just released a carefully edited piece of prose into circulation, and when you take another look you cringe at the sight of a typo that you missed. With online writing, typos can very often be fixed without anyone even noticing. Printed errors usually require red-faced corrections. But don’t feel too bad: imagine if your typos were etched in granite for all to see!
Happy Lincoln/Darwin Day!
February 12, 2009
Today marks the bicentennial of two of the most influential minds of the modern age: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Besides sharing a birthday, Lincoln and Darwin also shared an eloquence with the English language, despite the very different prose styles of their work. In a new book, Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik argues that this shared eloquence allowed them to impart their world-changing visions. But what about on a more basic level, that of the individual word? What lasting contributions did Lincoln and Darwin make to the English lexicon?
Hold the Mayo!
February 10, 2009
Yesterday’s Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was mayonnaise, and the entry for it was a bit too terse for some readers: “This French word has enjoyed a handful of spellings since its first 19th-century appearance and merits an etymology of nearly 300 words in the OED, the gist of which is ‘origin uncertain.’” There’s nothing less satisfying in an etymological explanation than “origin uncertain,” so let’s explore what’s behind those tantalizing words.
Mailbag Friday: “Taking Your Lumps”
February 6, 2009
Greg H. of Boston, MA writes in with today’s Mailbag Friday question: “When President Obama was interviewed about Tom Daschle’s decision to bow out of the nomination process for Health and Human Services, he gave this mea culpa: ‘Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely. I’m willing to take my lumps.’ I understand he means that he’s taking the blame for the situation, but where do the ‘lumps’ come from?”
Buddy Holly, Wordsmith
February 3, 2009
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Rather than glumly mope about “The Day the Music Died,” as Don McLean dubbed the tragedy in the well-worn song, “American Pie,” I’d prefer to reflect on what a tremendously gifted singer/songwriter Holly was. He had a beautiful touch with the English language (sung in his signature hiccupy style), and in his lyrics he found ways to take familiar words and phrases and innovatively shape them into his own. Here are my brief thoughts on the language of four of his songs.
Mixing and Mashing Words (With a Little Moshing)
January 27, 2009
A blog commenter recently described the linguistic situation in her household as “a mixmash of English and German.” As she later explained, the word mixmash was invented by her daughters to describe their experiences growing up bilingual. Now, mixmash is not a word you’ll find in any dictionary, but it’s easy enough to appreciate it as a mash-up of mix and (mish)mash. It’s a wonderful example of how speakers of English are constantly mixing and mashing the lexicon, and yet somehow we manage to understand each other just fine.
Taking the Oath of Office… Faithfully
January 22, 2009
Last night an unusual event happened at the White House. Chief Justice John Roberts re-administered the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama, a day and a half after they had performed the same ritual rather shakily in the inaugural ceremony. White House counsel Gregory B. Craig explained: “We believe that the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. But the oath appears in the Constitution itself, and out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time.” What was that one out-of-sequence word? Faithfully.
“Enormity”: Monstrous Wickedness?
January 20, 2009
Barack Obama gives his inaugural address today, but on Sunday he gave a speech that previewed the main event. “Despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead,” Obama said, “I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.” This line echoed his victory speech last November: “I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.” Is Obama misusing enormity, or is he inaugurating a semantic change?
Winsome or Wistful?
January 16, 2009
In one of the final press briefings from the Bush White House, counselor to the president Ed Gillespie used some peculiar wording yesterday to describe the current mood of his boss: “You know, I would say that he’s gotten a little more winsome. I remember somebody asking me back in, like, September, you know, things must be — things must be getting winsome. And I thought, you know, those of us who work here wish it were a little more winsome sometimes.” Say what?
The Word of the Year is… “Bailout”!
January 12, 2009
Greetings, everyone! I’ve just come back from San Francisco, where I attended the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting (held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America). As is the custom, the linguists and lexicographers in attendance took a break from their scholarly presentations to have some fun selecting the Word of the Year for 2008. This time around, bailout emerged as a powerful frontrunner, and sure enough it ultimately proved to be the winner.
Get Your Shovels Ready!
January 8, 2009
The countdown is on for the American Dialect Society’s selection for 2008 Word of the Year, the oldest and most prestigious WOTY event in the land. The ADS selection will happen Friday, January 9, at the group’s annual meeting, held this year in San Francisco. The voting is open to the public, so Visual Thesaurus readers in the Bay area are welcome to drop in for the WOTY fun. I’ll be attending (I’m on the ADS Executive Council), and I have a few favorites I’ll be lobbying for. One of them is a word that offers a ray of light in our current moment of economic doom and gloom: shovel-ready.
That’s So Boss!
January 6, 2009
A New York Times article yesterday about Google Book Search features some research I did on the petulant phrase “You’re not the boss of me!” This is an expression that many people suppose is rather recent — some might have first come across it in the past five or ten years, while others might fancy that this bit of kid-speak is restricted to their own family usage. But using Google Book Search, it’s easy to find examples all the way back to 1883.
Here a Czar, There a Czar…
December 30, 2008
If you’ve been keeping up with the news about the Obama transition, you might have noticed an awful lot of “czar” talk. From “health czar” to “climate czar” to “urban affairs czar” to “technology czar” to “copyright czar,” it seems like there’s a czarship for every policy area in the new administration. And even though the proposal for a “car czar” stalled on Capitol Hill, expect that pirate-friendly rhyme to make headlines again in 2009.
Mailbag Friday: “Jerry-Rigged”
December 19, 2008
My mention earlier this week of the word gerrymander (after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, blamed for the tortuous redistricting in his state in 1812) inspired some free association. One commenter posited a connection to the jerry of jerry-built (“shoddy; of inferior workmanship and materials”), though it turns out that word only shows up about half a century after Gerry first gerrymandered. Jerry-built, in turn, led another VT subscriber to wonder, “What about jerry-rigged? I’ve heard that it’s really supposed to be jury-rigged.”
Eponyms in the Making?
December 16, 2008
Every now and then, a prominent person achieves so much notoriety that his or her name enters the language as an eponym. Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry gave us gerrymander, after carving a salamander-shaped electoral district that favored his party in 1812. Major Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian officer who collaborated with the Germans during World War II, so quisling came to mean “a traitor to one’s country.” And when Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was quashed in 1987, it was said that he got Borked by his opponents. Now there are a couple of names in the news that just might lend themselves to new eponyms.
The “Hipster Spelling Bee” (Sponsored by the VT!)
December 10, 2008
Now in its eighth year, the Williamsburg Spelling Bee has gained a reputation as the “Hipster Spelling Bee” (thanks to the ever-hip denizens of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn). But really, it’s just an excuse for some good old-fashioned spellin’ fun in a convivial crowd. On Monday night, Robert Moy was crowned the winner of this year’s Bee, and the Visual Thesaurus was happy to be a sponsor for the final event.
Happy Landings on the “Glide Path”
December 9, 2008
President-Elect Obama says we’re “now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq.” He also says we’re “on a glide path for long-term sustainable economic growth.” What’s up with all the gliding?
Mailbag Friday: “Brand-New” or “Bran-New”?
December 5, 2008
Dorothy G. of Teeswater, Ontario writes in with today’s Mailbag Friday question: “I have always used bran-new to imply “unused,” “just out of the package,” etc. But when I look it up, I also find brand-new. Entirely too many years ago, if I used brand-new, I was assured that it was merely a mispronouncing of bran-new. I’d appreciate knowing the difference.”
2008: The Year of “Oversharing”
December 2, 2008
Another week, another Word of the Year selection! The latest comes from the editors at Webster’s New World Dictionary, who have selected the useful verb overshare. They define it as: “to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval.” It’s certainly a word that captures the zeitgeist of the Age of Too Much Information.
Moving with Deliberate Haste
November 25, 2008
President-Elect Obama has begun to assemble his nominees for Cabinet posts — something he had promised to do, in his first post-election press conference, “with all deliberate haste.” If deliberate means “marked by careful consideration or reflection,” and haste means “overly eager speed (and possible carelessness),” doesn’t that make “deliberate haste” an oxymoron?
Mailbag Friday: “Meh”
November 21, 2008
It’s a special journalistic edition of Mailbag Friday! Today’s question comes from Molly Eichel, assistant editor at Philadelphia City Paper: “I was hoping you could help me out with a linguistic conundrum. I work at the Philadelphia City Paper and I wrote a blog post about the inclusion of the word meh into the upcoming edition of the Collins English Dictionary. I think meh doesn’t deserve a spot in a reference book; it’s slang at best and sound effect at worst. A blogger at Philadelphia Weekly disagrees. I would really like to hear your thoughts on the matter, so it becomes a legitimate discussion rather than a spat between two bloggers. What do you think about meh‘s inclusion into a dictionary?”
Perplexed by “Nonplussed” and “Bemused”
November 18, 2008
Yesterday, our “Editorial Emergency” duo of Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner launched a salvo against a common usage of the word nonplussed, a word they “wager more people get wrong than right.” That opens an interesting can of worms: if a word or phrase used to have Meaning A, but more people now use it with Meaning B, is it time for the Meaning A folks to stand aside?
NOAD Word of the Year: “Hypermiling”
November 11, 2008
The leaves have fallen and there’s a chill in the air, so that could mean only one thing: Word of the Year season is starting! This year, the New Oxford American Dictionary kicks things off with its annual choice: hypermiling, meaning “attempting to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques.”
Mailbag Friday: “Landslide”
November 7, 2008
Jon D. of King of Prussia, Pa. writes in with a Mailbag Friday question: ” There has been a lot of talk about a landslide victory during this recent presidential election. Not being sure if we actually experienced one or not, I was wondering if you could educate us on what the term actually means and its historical context in describing elections.”
The VT Helps Out A Literary Bee
November 4, 2008
Last night, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses held its fifth annual Spelling Bee in support of its non-profit efforts to help out independent literary publishers. The CLMP always attracts an all-star cast of spellers from the New York book world. This time around, the Visual Thesaurus joined forces with the CLMP Bee, supplying the words to stump the cream of the literary crop.
Drapes, Curtains, and an Old Political Standby
October 30, 2008
In the home stretch of the presidential campaign trail, John McCain has been saying that his opponent Barack Obama is so sure that he’s bound for the White House that he’s already “measuring the drapes.” It’s a durable political expression, though very often it’s said as “measuring for drapes” (which makes a bit more sense), and sometimes it’s curtains that get presumptuously measured (for), rather than drapes. What’s the difference, anyway?
Mailbag Friday: “Out-Physical”
October 24, 2008
Today’s question for Mailbag Friday comes from our own puzzlemaster, Brendan Emmett Quigley, who’s been watching a lot of football. “What gives with all these sportscasters saying ‘Team A out-physicaled Team B’? Physical, last time I checked, is an adjective and not a verb, right?” Brendan’s question reminds me of a saying attributed to the great philosopher Calvin (the one from “Calvin and Hobbes,” of course): “Verbing weirds language.”
Is Dr. Johnson Rolling in His Grave?
October 21, 2008
Last week, American lexiphiles celebrated the 250th birthday of Noah Webster — or his semiquincentennial, if you want to be sesquipedalian about it. On the other side of the pond, British word lovers recently had their own Dictionary Day, on the 299th birthday of Samuel Johnson. (Mark your calendars now for the big Johnsonian blow-out of September 18, 2009, sure to be a rollicking tercentennial!)
Mailbag Friday: “Phoning It In”
October 17, 2008
It’s time once again for Mailbag Friday! Marc T. of New York, NY writes: “John McCain recently said that he put his campaign on hold to work on the Senate bailout package because ‘it’s not my style to simply phone it in.’ Why do we talk about doing something in a lackluster or perfunctory way as phoning it in? Who originally did the phoning in, anyway?” The history of American slang is often illuminating, and this is no exception: tracing the origins of this expression tells an intriguing story about the intersection of the technological and the theatrical.
Green Behind the Ears?
October 14, 2008
What will persist in our collective memory from last week’s presidential debate, the second of three between John McCain and Barack Obama? The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that only two remarks will be remembered: McCain referring to Obama as “that one,” and Obama’s defense against charges of naivete, “that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears.” McCain’s “that one” has already become an ironic catchphrase, even generating a website selling “That One ’08″ T-shirts. But what’s the deal with “green behind the ears”? Didn’t Obama mean “wet behind the ears”?
Collins, Don’t Exuviate That Word!
October 7, 2008
It’s a dirty little secret of lexicography that for every new word or meaning that gets added to a revised edition of a dictionary, something usually has to come out. Only the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary has the luxury of never doing away with old entries. Smaller dictionaries are expected to introduce new words with every edition, but they’re usually mum about what is removed to keep the published work to a reasonable size. Collins English Dictionary, on the other hand, is taking a novel approach by announcing old words that are on the chopping block, in order to see which words the public thinks should earn a stay of execution.
Mailbag Friday: “Funner” and “Funnest”
October 3, 2008
Jennifer A. of Concord, CA writes: “Recently, Apple launched some new products, including the new iPod Touch. According to the slide shown at the keynote presentation, this is the “funnest iPod ever.” Ugh. I grew up with my parents correcting the use of funnest and funner so this is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Not only was the word used in the presentation, but it’s right there on the Apple.com homepage too.”
On the Trail of “Bailing Out”
September 30, 2008
The latest headlines are dominated by news of the failure of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a $700 billion “bailout” of the financial industry. As I explained on the Voice of America program “Wordmaster” last week, bailout in the financial sense, meaning the rescue of a bankrupt or near-bankrupt entity, is a figurative extension from the world of aviation. A pilot who needs to make an emergency landing bails out to safety. That part of the term’s etymology is relatively clear, but figuring out its ultimate origin is a bit trickier.
Swinging in the Battleground States
September 25, 2008
In a recent interview on the Voice of America radio program Wordmaster (a show that seeks to explain the vagaries of American English to an international audience), I was asked about a number of terms relating to the U.S. presidential campaign. We talked about red states (leaning Republican), blue states (leaning Democratic), and purple states (somewhere in between), a topic I discussed on
More Musings on “Myself”
September 23, 2008
Yesterday we heard from contributors Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner about a pattern they identify as an “epidemic”: using the word myself in place of a plain old personal pronoun like I or me. They were disheartened to see Merriam-Webster’s treatment of this use of myself as no big deal, writing, “Don’t you hate it when something you were so sure was absolutely wrong is reduced to the status of pet peeve?” I wanted to flesh out the myself story, since it’s been a point of contention for generations of grammarians and usage mavens.
Mailbag Friday: “Dude”
September 19, 2008
VT subscriber Kcecelia of San Francisco, CA writes in about yesterday’s Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day: dude. She observes that the word’s current usage has little to do with its more historical sense, “a man who is much concerned with his dress and appearance”: “Last month a 20-something man in an Oregon gas station punctuated his conversation with me with references to me as dude. I am a 55-year-old woman. Also, people say duuuude as an exclamation or interjection. I sometimes say dude myself in a more joking manner to people I am with who are sprinkling it liberally into their conversation. I do not mean that they are a fop or a dandy.” Especially now that Todd Palin, husband of Gov. Sarah Palin, is in the news as Alaska’s “First Dude,” this is a good time to reflect on the peculiar history of this all-American word.
Blaming Fannie and Freddie
September 16, 2008
As news from the financial world gets bleaker and bleaker, two scapegoats have emerged in the ongoing credit crunch: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Here’s a sampling of headlines from the Wall Street Journal opinion page: “Fannie Mayhem,” “Fannie and Freddie’s Enablers,” “Frantic Fannie,” “Fannie Mae Ugly,” “Freddie Krueger Mac.” Someone unfamiliar with the American economic system might think that Fannie and Freddie are the new Bonnie and Clyde, shooting up banks with reckless abandon. How did the crisis in the banking sector get so personal?
Of Pigs and Silk and Lipstick
September 11, 2008
The latest political kerfuffle revolves around an expression Barack Obama used at a campaign event on Tuesday: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Putting aside the accusation from John McCain’s camp that this had something to do with vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the saying has a fascinating historical background, and I had a chance to delve into this history for Slate’s “Explainer”.
Does Robert Burns Make You Feel Ramfeezled?
September 9, 2008
The 11th edition of the venerable yet idiosyncratic Chambers Dictionary has just been published. Unlike the 11th editions of its lexicographical rivals Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and the Concise Oxford (everybody’s going to 11 these days), the big news surrounding the latest Chambers is not about its new words. Rather, the British press has focused on some remarks made in the introduction to the dictionary, written by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. Paxman evidently likes to poke fun at all things Scottish, but he stepped over the line when he referred to the work of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, as nothing more than “sentimental doggerel.”
Mailbag Friday: “Widespreadly”?
September 5, 2008
For today’s Mailbag Friday, we hear from Barbara Z. of Norfolk, VA. She writes: “On the radio I was listening to the beginning of “The Thomas Jefferson Hour” in which Clay Jenkinson speaks as if he were Jefferson. I heard him say the following: “‘I happen to live in the first great era when books were widespreadly available…’” “Widespreadly? That one is new to me!”
The Summer of the “Staycation”
September 3, 2008
Summer’s not officially over, but now that Labor Day is past and the kids are off to school, it’s a good time to look back at the latest batch of estival vocabulary. Back in June I made a case for skadoosh, a fanciful word from the movie Kung Fu Panda, as a candidate for Word of the Summer. And in an interview in July on Wisconsin Public Radio, I discussed some other summery words, from skinterns (scantily dressed Washington D.C. interns) to lawnmower beer (light refreshing beer brewed for easy consumption after a day of yardwork). But like it or not, the one new word that has trumped all others in the Summer of 2008 is staycation, the media-driven coinage for a stay-at-home vacation.
A Little Learning…
August 28, 2008
Last time on Word Routes, we looked at a spelling error that’s common enough to show up frequently in edited text: using acclimation when you mean acclamation. That’s a case of battling homophones: the two words sound the same, but they have different meanings. The problem crops up with other sound-alikes, such as imminent vs. immanent, compliment vs. complement, principle vs. principal, and of course affect vs. effect. (We talked about that last pair recently in our interview with Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.) These mix-ups are particularly insidious because your spellchecker won’t bail you out — unless, perhaps, you are using a contextual spellchecker like the one that has been developed for Microsoft Office.
Getting Acclimated to “Acclamation”
August 26, 2008
Yesterday’s Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was acclamation, a timely word now that the Democratic National Convention has begun. Of course, the news out of Denver is that Barack Obama will not be nominated by acclamation (“a voting method in which shouts or applause, rather than ballots, determine the winner”). Instead, there will be a state-by-state roll call for the nomination on Wednesday night, with some votes going to Obama’s erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton, followed by some sort of a unanimous consent for Obama after the first ballot. Columnists Dick Morris and Eileen McGann wrote last week that Obama should have “blocked a roll call by allowing a voice vote to nominate by acclimation.” Whoops!
Mailbag Friday: “(Over)whelmed”
August 22, 2008
Welcome to Mailbag Friday, where we answer your burning questions about the origins of words and phrases. Ivete L. of New York, NY asks: “You can be overwhelmed, and I suppose you can even be underwhelmed. But why can’t you be just plain whelmed?”
Really! Truly! Literally!
August 19, 2008
Yesterday the always entertaining “Editorial Emergency!” team of Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner contributed a column on the misuse of the word literally. I keep tabs on people’s pet peeves about English usage, and this is certainly one of the most widespread complaints currently in circulation. There’s even a blog entirely devoted to “tracking abuse” of literally. I agree with Simon and Julia that using literally as an intensifier can often “strain credulity” when it’s emphasizing a figurative expression like “a handful of Jewish members.” But allow me to play devil’s advocate for the much-maligned hyperbolic extension of literally. Like many usage bugaboos, it gets a bad rap while other similar perpetrators get off scot-free.
Stumbling over “Synecdoche”
August 12, 2008
It’s happened again: Los Angeles Times readers are up in arms over vocabulary. Last time it was a contretemps over a letter to the editor complaining about tough words like, um, contretemps. This time it’s commenters on the LA Times movie blog, “The Big Picture,” who are slamming a post about the title of a forthcoming movie, Synecdoche, New York.
Mailbag Friday: “Mad Hatter”
August 8, 2008
Today’s question for Mailbag Friday comes to us from Valerie P. of Ottawa, Ontario. Valerie writes: “I was visiting a heritage village in Nova Scotia when a guide in a traditional tailor’s house told me the origin of the expression, mad hatter. He said that the beaver fur the popular top hats were made of was preserved with mercury. The workers gradually absorbed this mercury while making the hats and eventually became mad. The explanation seems a bit sketchy; can you fill in the details, or correct the explanation?”
August 7, 2008
On the Web you can find some well-traveled lists of medical malapropisms, supposedly collected from patients who misunderstand names of diseases and medications. So for instance, Alzheimer’s disease becomes old-timer’s disease, sickle-cell anemia becomes sick as hell anemia, spinal meningitis becomes smilin’ mighty Jesus, and phenobarbital becomes peanut butter balls. These lists are good for a laugh, but it turns out misunderstandings of medical terminology can sometimes have dangerous or even deadly consequences.
Don’t Be Eristic, Be Lapidary!
August 5, 2008
A little while back we reported on a Los Angeles Times reader complaining about difficult vocabulary words like contretemps and phantasmagoria appearing in the newspaper. Other L.A. Times readers (and our own commenters) vehemently disagreed, saying that newspapers should shun the old maxim, “Don’t use big words.” The New York Times Magazine clearly does not have a “No Big Words” policy, since Sunday’s edition featured an article with a favorite word of the late logophile William F. Buckley, Jr.: eristic.
Twilighters vs. Twi-Hards
July 31, 2008
It’s the biggest literary sensation since Harry Potter: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga is coming to an end with the fourth and final installment in her best-selling series of vampire romance novels. Breaking Dawn goes on sale a minute after midnight on August 2, and bookstores across the country are holding Twilight parties for fans who want to buy the book as soon as it’s available. The only question is: what to call this fervent fan base? Some want to be called twilighters and some prefer twi-hards. It’s an indication of just how enthusiastic the fans are that this terminological issue has become a point of contention.
Of Showdowns, Throwdowns, and Hoedowns
July 28, 2008
Last week we featured a debate over contemporary usage of whom, with Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre squaring off against Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky. To be honest, the exchange was a bit too civil and reasonable to live up to its billing as a “usage showdown” — at least based on the Visual Thesaurus definition of showdown as “a hostile disagreement face-to-face.” I was amused to see that on his copy-editing blog, “You Don’t Say,” John McIntyre facetiously referred to the debate with an even more inappropriate term: smackdown, which most people (in the U.S. at least) would associate with professional wrestling. Other violent confrontations ending in -down include beatdown and throwdown. And where do hoedowns fit into all of this?
Pushing to the Cloud: Weird Wireless Words
July 22, 2008
It’s hard to keep up with techie terms these days. Last week, Apple Inc. announced it would no longer use the word push to describe the way that its new online MobileMe service communicates to personal computers and electronic devices like the iPhone. Turns out the service wasn’t always “pushing” data to “the cloud” as quickly as users were expecting. To which non-technophiles would probably say, “Huh?”
Mailbag Friday: “Pipe Dream”
July 18, 2008
For today’s installment of Mailbag Friday, our question comes from VT subscriber Barry Francolino in Romania. (One of our many far-flung correspondents!) Barry writes, “Just interested to know where the word/phrase/idea pipe dream comes from.” The definition given by the Visual Thesaurus, “a fantastic but vain hope (from fantasies induced by the opium pipe),” gives a whiff of its origin.
Beyond “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”
July 15, 2008
Last Friday I was delighted to be a return guest on the Wisconsin Public Radio Show “At Issue with Ben Merens” (audio available here). Our ostensible topic was “words of the summer” (including skadoosh, of course!), but once we started taking calls from listeners, the floor was open to any topic of interest to word-savvy Wisconsinites. Much like what happened when I was on the show last December, conversation turned to perceived “gaps” in the English language that callers thought should be filled with new coinages. This time around, Robert from Coloma expressed dissatisfaction with the words boyfriend and girlfriend,
From the Subprime to the Ridiculous
July 10, 2008
If there’s one word that captures the zeitgeist of our current economic downturn, it’s subprime. The American Dialect Society named it the Word of the Year for 2007, and as I described in my last column it is among the new entries in the latest updates of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. But it’s a pretty odd word when you stop to think about it. The newly announced Merriam-Webster definition reads as follows: “having or being an interest rate that is higher than a prime rate and is extended especially to low-income borrowers.” Wait a minute: a loan with a rate that is higher than prime is called sub-prime? How did that happen?
Dictionaries Roll Out New Words
July 8, 2008
Dictionary publishers don’t get too many opportunities for creating PR buzz, but one surefire way of getting some attention is to announce the new words (and new senses of old words) that have been added in the latest update to a particular dictionary. In the past few days there have been new-word announcements for two major dictionaries, one in the US and one in the UK: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (also in its 11th edition, coincidentally enough). Let’s take a look at what they’re adding.
Mailbag Friday: “Hot Dog”
July 4, 2008
Welcome to the latest installment of Mailbag Friday, our new feature for answering readers’ questions about word origins. For this special Fourth of July edition, we have a very timely query from Jason B. from Wilmington, DE. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about the origin of ‘hot dog.’ What’s the frank truth? I await your answer with relish.”
Skedaddle, Scadoodle, Skidoo, Skadoosh!
June 30, 2008
In Sunday’s Boston Globe I fill in for Jan Freeman, who writes a regular language column called “The Word.” My topic is a silly new word that appears in the movie “Kung Fu Panda”: skadoosh. It came from the fertile mind of Jack Black, voice of Po the Panda, who was inspired by an equally silly old slang expression, 23 skidoo. And skidoo probably came from scadoodle, which in turn is a variant of skedaddle. Whew!
A Contretemps over Newspaper Vocabulary
June 25, 2008
The “Letters to the Editor” section of the Los Angeles Times has featured some heated discussion about what kind of vocabulary is suitable for printing in a newspaper. And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with the “seven dirty words” famously satirized by the late lamented George Carlin. Instead, it’s about some moderately challenging vocab items that you might expect to find on a Visual Thesaurus word list.
Mailbag Friday: “Bamboozle”
June 20, 2008
Welcome to a new feature on Word Routes: Mailbag Friday! This is where we answer your questions about the origins and evolving usage of words and phrases. If you’ve got a burning question, just and we’ll do our best to address it in a future installment of Mailbag Friday. First up is Lisa W. of Smyrna, DE, who writes: “Our youngest son earned the nickname ‘The Bamboozler’ at an early age, for his uncanny ability to outwit his unsuspecting parents. That got me thinking, where does the word bamboozle come from?”
Thinking about Tim Russert, Red States and Blue States
June 17, 2008
The untimely passing of Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, has led many to reminisce about his lasting influence on political reporting. Some obituaries mentioned that Russert has been credited with popularizing the terms “red state” and “blue state,” to refer to states favoring Republican or Democratic candidates. Though Russert’s memorable analysis of the twists and turns of the 2000 presidential election no doubt played a significant role in popularizing the “red/blue state” designations, the history of the color coding is surprisingly complicated.
Pluto: Once a Planet, Now Merely a Plutoid
June 13, 2008
Two years ago, the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto from planetary status, deciding that it was only a “dwarf planet.” There was great uproar among fans of Pluto, even spawning a group calling themselves The Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet. The IAU held firm to its decision, though, and moved on to other nomenclatural issues. A term was needed to encompass Pluto and all Pluto-like objects on the fringes of the solar system out beyond Neptune. This week the IAU finally came up with an official term: plutoid. It’s not the prettiest word, but it does the trick.
The Presumptive Nominee, I Presume?
June 10, 2008
Hillary Clinton suspended her presidential campaign over the weekend, allowing Barack Obama to claim the mantle of “presumptive nominee” for the Democratic Party. Of course, many in the media had already bestowed that title on Obama the previous Tuesday, after the vaunted “superdelegates” gave him an insurmountable lead in the delegate count. John McCain achieved the same feat on the Republican side back in early February when Mitt Romney pulled out of the race, though it took another month for Mike Huckabee to withdraw and seal the deal on McCain’s “presumptive” status. It’s a word we hear every election cycle, but Word Routes reader Courtney S. asks, where does it come from?
The Year of the “Superdelegate”
June 6, 2008
This past week saw Barack Obama clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, with the commitments of undecided “superdelegates” putting him over the top. Even though the term superdelegate has been kicking around Democratic circles since 1981, the word has achieved new prominence this year, when all eyes were on these unpledged party leaders to break the primary deadlock between Obama and Hillary Clinton. We’re less than halfway through 2008, but superdelegate has already emerged as a formidable candidate for Word of the Year.
A Big “Guerdon” for Spelling Bee Champ
June 3, 2008
A hearty congratulations from all of us here at the Visual Thesaurus to Sameer Mishra, winner of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee! Sameer, a 13-year-old from West Lafayette, Indiana, triumphed over his competitors by correctly spelling a very fitting word in the final round: guerdon, meaning “reward or payment.” His reward was $35,000 in cash and various other prizes. The second-place finisher, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, performed admirably on words like introuvable (“impossible to find”), but he eventually erred in spelling prosopopoeia, a personifying figure of speech.
It’s Spelling Bee Time Again!
May 29, 2008
The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee kicks off today, and every year there seems to be more and more public attention paid to this preeminent spectacle of word-nerdery. As in the past two years, tomorrow’s semifinal and final rounds are being broadcast live on national television (semifinals on ESPN from 11 am to 2 pm, finals on ABC from 8 to 10 pm). It’s always exciting to see middle-schoolers battle it out for the spelling crown, in a competition rife with dramatic “thrill of victory” and “agony of defeat” moments (most memorably depicted in the suspenseful documentary Spellbound). Adults can only marvel at the preternatural abilities of the young finalists to spell super-obscure words that most of us have seldom — if ever — come across. Where do they get those words, anyway?
How Nice is “Nice”?
May 22, 2008
In the United Kingdom, the “nice decade” is over. When Bank of England governor Mervyn King announced recently that “the nice decade is behind us,” he didn’t mean that British pleasantness was at an end. Rather, he was using an acronym, NICE, which stands for “Non-Inflationary Consistent Expansion,” a condition that King says has characterized the last ten years of British economic prosperity. One economist says the country is now heading into VILE years, playing off NICE with his own readymade acronym for “Volatile Inflation, Less Expansionary,” while another says things are going to be EVIL (“Exacting period of Volatile Inflation and Low growth”).BBC News greets the end of the NICE decade with the question, “What’s the point of niceness?” Was the acronym an appropriate one to label Britain’s sustained economic boom, or is nice just too… nice?
Who Are You Calling “Sweetie”?
May 20, 2008
Last week on the Visual Thesaurus, William Safire and Nancy Friedman both weighed in on “Bittergate,” the political furor that arose over Senator Barack Obama’s comments about small-town Pennsylvanian voters (“It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion”). Now Obama has found himself under the microscope again for his use of a particular word, but this time the context is more “sweet” than “bitter.” Responding to a question from television reporter Peggy Agar at an automobile plant outside of Detroit, Obama said, “Hold on one second, sweetie.” Later he left Agar a voicemail apologizing about using the word sweetie to address her, calling it a “bad habit of mine.” Lisa Anderson of the Chicago Tribune wryly wrote, “Welcome to ‘Sweetie-gate,’ a place paved with eggshells, where terms of endearment turn into political peccadilloes at the drop of a diminutive.”
That’s Unconscionable, the Mayor Maintains
May 15, 2008
Our two-part interview with William Safire about the new edition of his Political Dictionary focused on the lasting contributions of political talk to the English lexicon. But sometimes the language of politics is more idiosyncratic. High-profile politicians who are speaking publicly on a daily basis inevitably develop their own verbal mannerisms, their peculiar linguistic likes and dislikes. Take New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance. We’ve recently learned that he’s a big fan of the word unconscionable, but he’s got a problem with the word maintain.
“Procrastination”: Let’s Not Shilly-Shally!
May 13, 2008
Welcome to “Word Routes,” a new column where your fearless editor will chart a course through a sea of words. We’ll be looking at how new words emerge on the scene and how older ones have changed over time. Think of it as a series of dispatches from the frontlines of our dynamic and ever-shifting language. Often we’ll focus on a single word or phrase and tease apart the layers of meaning and usage, with the Visual Thesaurus wordmaps providing special insight. First up is a word near and dear to my heart: procrastination.