All posts by Allan Metcalf


Half Time for WOTY

WOTY-scrabbleMonday, June 20, marked the turning point of the year — the solstice, when days stopped getting longer and started on their six months’ journey to long, dark nights. Now we can’t put off thinking about the rest of the year so easily:  back to school, Election Day, Thanksgiving. Maybe even a World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs.

So it’s also time to begin thinking about the Word of the Year, specifically the WOTY chosen by the American Dialect Society. The society had the first word, havin…


The Great Bloviators


Davy Crockett: A bigger bloviator than Donald Trump

Bloviator, and its companion verb bloviate,  is a 100-percent American creation, in the manner of other sesquipedalian inventions of ours in the exuberant early 19th century, words like rambunctious and splendiferous.

It might seem like one or another of the current presidential candidates is a bloviator, a fine word meaning just what it suggests, one who is a blowhard (another American word from the mid-19th century), that is, a pompous bragg…


The ‘L’ You Say


A Chicago ‘L’ train in the northeast corner of the Loop

Actually, the way you say it is never a problem. There’s only one way. But how you spell it — that’s another story.

The el, of course, is Chicago’s rapid-transit rail system, operated now by the Chicago Transit Authority and dating back to the 1890s. Eight lines nowadays, more than 100 miles of track, third busiest in the country, etc. The CTA writes it as ‘L,’ with single quotation marks.

However you spell it, its name was always pronounc…


Bully Pulpits and Pulpit Bullies

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Theodore Roosevelt

Bully is a word that has taken a beating in recent times. Look for its derivative bullying on the Internet and you’ll find a government-sponsored website called The site explains that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”

The site includes recommendations on how to respond to bullying, and how to prevent it in the first place. As it should be.

But a century ago, and more, bull…


Selfies With Sunnies

Back in the 1980s, the “post-punk” duo calling themselves Timbuk 3 looked like they were headed for popular success. (And they were.) According to Wikipedia, Barbara MacDonald said to her husband, “the future is looking so bright, we’ll have to wear sunglasses.” Pat MacDonald translated that as “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades,” and in 1986 their ironic hit song was born, which as it happened became their greatest success.

You can still watch their video of it on YouTube.

It begins:


DARE to Carry Guts to a Bear

DARE 03af27e0171c51712aee768a333b41abIn 1985, to much acclaim, Harvard University Press published an ABC of American English — the first volume of the monumental Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and covering the first three letters of the alphabet.

That was more than 30 years ago. And the fieldwork on which much of the dictionary was based (it also made extensive use of other studies and examples) took place in the 1960s, half a century ago. So what has happened since?

The last volume of the c…


The Good Old Teen Years

$_35Alas, where are the years of yesteryear? Gone with the wind, or at least gone with their poetic pronunciations, now that we have moved from the 1900s to the 2000s.

When it comes to the names we give to the years in the English language, the 21st century is simply not as mellifluous as its predecessors.

Try it yourself with the current year, 2016. How do you say it? Two thousand sixteen is clear but ponderous. Twenty sixteen could be momentarily mistaken for 26 when you say the third syllable. An…


Vivat Academia!

NumenLumen.svgAmong the relics of medieval Latin still venerated by modern American colleges and universities are the mottos inscribed or circumscribed on the great seals that adorn their diplomas. Long before mission statements were sine qua non at institutions of higher learning, their seals evoked their aims.

Harvard, of course, leads the pack with a coat of arms reading ve ri tas: One word for “truth,” in a trinity of syllables. Lest there be any doubt about the nature of this trinity, the coat of arms wa…


O Tempora, O Mores!

College_graduate_studentsIt’s that time of year when respectable denizens of colleges and universities don caps and gowns and assemble amid the groves of academe, some to confer academic degrees and some to be conferred upon. Their faux medieval vestments are vestiges of that time in western Europe when Latin was the lingua franca for all serious scholarship.

It isn’t anymore. But other vestiges of Latin remain, connecting the English-speaking colleges of today with their ghostly ancestors in the Middle Ages.

Alas, with…


Readability, Understandability, and ETS

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference

Donald Trump’s speech to Aipac scored above a grade-level 6 in readability.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the formulas available for estimating readability are less than foolproof. It doesn’t even take a linguist to notice that things are missing from the formulas.

Last week I offered a link to the website Readability Score, where you can take any text and paste it in for an instant estimate by half-a-dozen different formulas, all purporting to determine the grade level o…