All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Take It Away

fishtakeawayBack in the day, the take away  we knew was a verb plus adverb combination that had something to do with subtraction — six take away three is three. In the 21st century, however, take away  has been compressed into a noun, like  carbon into a diamond. It’s now a sparkling word that has something to do with addition — something you get from a lecture, a performance, a meeting, a séance — some sort of event. No takeaway? No good.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest example of takeaway …

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Artisans and Crafts

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Pre-artisanal cheese

Unless you were there, it’s hard to imagine how different the United States was back in, say, the 1950s.

No, I don’t mean the differences that computers, smartphones, and the Internet have made since then, though they are considerable. And I don’t mean the civil rights movement and affirmation of rights and respect for diversity, though those have really made a difference.

But our everyday lives have been transformed. We are privileged to live in artisanal times, in the era …

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Theatricals

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Sign from the Franklin Theatre, Franklin, Tenn.

What’s the difference between a theater and a theatre?

At one city’s convention and visitors bureau, it’s not an academic question.

Recently a computer programmer at the bureau objected to the spelling “Movie Theaters” on the bureau’s website. “Theater is a made-up word,” he told the marketing manager. She explained that they use both spellings, “theatre for performing arts and theater for the place where one views a movie.” The programmer replied …

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Bias: Mark My Words

CareerWomanWe want our language to be free of bias, don’t we? Surely anyone of good will would want to be polite to others rather than unintentionally insulting them.

At first glance it seems simple enough. As the editor Malinda McCain writes on the ShareWords website, “bias-free language means using terms that treat people with respect.” And, she adds, this means also avoiding words that disrespect, “such as not describing someone’s physical characteristics when doing so serves no purpose.” In essence, as…

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Fit for a New Century

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The Fitbit, a tool for the fitness age (both kinds)

What’s your fitness age?

That’s a 21st-century question you can ask, thanks to the invention of the phrase fitness age. But what does this new term mean?

Here’s an answer provided by the lexicographer David Barnhart, editor of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly devoted to new words.

He defines fitness age as “a measure in years of age of a person’s physical condition and health relative to their chronological age, based on aerobic c…

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Revealing American Speech

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Sojourner Truth’s first language was Dutch.

If you want to become an expert on the English language in North America, and maybe teach it too, a good place to start is with the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech. The latest issue is Volume 90, Number 2, dated May 2015.

From its beginnings nearly a century ago (H.L. Mencken was one of the founders), American Speech has been accessible to readers with no special training in linguistics — at least in many of its article…

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Busy B’s at ‘DARE’

dareWhat’s new at the Dictionary of American Regional English?

Boneless cats, for one. Badgers and back-budgers. Beach-walks, bodegas, (cellar) bugs, and beelers.

The six-volume dictionary has a continuing updated online presence now, thanks to support from friends who saw the benefit of such updating in the print version — and thanks to some additional grants and very strict budgeting. Its postprint era is just beginning, but a sampling of new and updated entries is now available at the dictionary …

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The Dictionary on Trial

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 6.15.03 PMIn a court of law, a dictionary can be a blunt weapon.

It provides meanings, to be sure, and context for arguments. But by its very nature, a dictionary rarely cuts to the heart of the matter.

This is particularly true when a case turns on the definition of a word, and the word itself is acquiring new meanings. At the recent meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, in Vancouver, one of the speakers, Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California, told of his experience as an …

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Translation: A History of Synonyms

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William the Conqueror

When you take something from one language and put it into another, there’s a word for the activity: translate. It’s a nice carry-across from Latin by way of French, and its components amount to just that: “across” for trans, “carry” for late. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1300, in a history book known as Cursor Mundi: “This same book it is translated into English tongue to read.”

What did we say for “translate” before that? At the History of the English La…

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Killer Compounds

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 5.43.02 PMEnglish, like many other languages, abounds with compounds. Take two words and join them to create an inseparable unit, and you have a compound. There are compound verbs like undergo and overcome, compound adjectives like makeshift, compound adverbs like thereafter.

Especially abundant are compound nouns, like jumpsuit and strawberry, wristwatch and bookend. nutcracker and football. All those are noun + noun combinations, but you can have, among others, adjective + noun (software, greenhouse), …