All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Fool ‘Ish’ Ways

tumblr_lglk43DP9v1qzr2iro1_500It’s smart … ish. It’s cool … ish. It’s up-to-date … ish.

Well, ish!

No, I can’t claim that ish is new. In fact, ish has been in the English language since before there was an English language. Since time immemorial, -ish has been a suffix creating adjectives like English and Turkish, selfish and prudish, to give some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary. And it’s an integral ending for verbs like cherish, languish, accomplish.

But more recently, in the past 500 years or so, -ish has bee…

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Floating Along on Mardi Gras

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A pontoon wagon, progenitor of the parade float.

A week from today is Mardi Gras — “fat Tuesday,” on the eve of 40 lean days of Lent. And just in time comes Peter Reitan’s discovery of the origin of the name for a featured item in Mardi Gras parades, a name that we have adopted for all our parades: float.

Reitan’s investigation occupies all 17 pages of the January 2016 issue of Comments on Etymology, Gerald Cohen’s self-published journal focusing on American vocabulary. As usual for Comments, ci…

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W.S. Gilbert: Rhyme and Reason

pin1971Rhymes link words. In the hands of a master like Shakespeare, they gracefully tie together the disparate elements of, say, a sonnet. We admire a rhyme that quietly but firmly makes a bridge from one line or sentiment to the next.

One of the true masters of that aspect of the English language is W.S. Gilbert, famous for light verse but especially for “and Sullivan.” In operettas like H.M.S. Pinafore where Gilbert wrote the words and Sullivan the music, the latter’s perfectly straight and sometime…

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Take a Deep Breath

Arian is a favorite of mine. No, not the stand-alone Arian referring to a heresy in the early Christian church, nor the stand-alone Arian designating someone born under the sign of Aries, but the suffix -arian used to create so many schools of thought, going back four or five centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers dozens of examples, starting with abecedarian, one who is learning or teaching the ABC’s, that is, at the elementary level. If you’re a literarian, you can think of many more….

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So They Say

As readers of Lingua Franca know, they won big last year. First it was reported in The New York Times as a substitute for he or she for those who identify as transgender, and thus do not want to be pinned down as either he or she:

  • They took up their pencil and began writing their answer.
  • They got behind the wheel and drove off.

Second, and more widespread in its potential impact, a newspaper, The Washington Post, began to allow “they” (and “their” and “them”) as pronoun reference to a person…

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Thinking Swiftly

Tom_Swift_and_His_Wizard_Camera_(book_cover)Remember Tom Swifties?

I had forgotten that fad of the 1960s that took its inspiration unwittingly from the adverb-laden Tom Swift stories for boys earlier in the century. The challenge was to find an adverb that punned on a character’s remarks, as in these examples from Merriam-Webster:

“I can’t find the oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly.

“Don’t you love sleeping outdoors?” said Tom intently.

“Let’s gather up the rope,” said Tom coyly.

But I was reminded of them memorably when I had the pleasure o…

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Digital ‘DARE’ Update: Half-Price Holiday Special

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Illustration by Ellen Winkler for The Chronicle

OK, word lovers. Here’s the perfect gift for yourself, or any other logophile: A whole year of the complete online Dictionary of American Regional English at your fingertips for only $47.50, half the usual subscription price.

Yes, for that price you can leave the six monumental volumes of DARE reposing majestically on your shelf and access their contents with a few keyboard commands. And there’s much more in the interactive digital version. For a s…

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Why Early Etymologists Embarrassingly Err

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Martin Van Buren was nicknamed after his birthplace, but that wasn’t the first use of OK.

You would think that someone closest in time and place to the emergence of a new word would be the best authority about its origin. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Well, it may stand to reason, but in case after case it doesn’t stand to fact. Time and again the earliest etymological pronouncements about the origin of a word are just plain wrong.

Take the case of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word — …

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Here’s Your Very Own ‘Merry’

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to December! Yesterday was the first of the month, time for your Word of the Month: merry.

That’s right. As a member  of the Word of the Month Club, you’re entitled to use this month’s word on any and every occasion. Sprinkle it freely throughout your conversation, as in, “How merry are you, merry friend, on this merry day?”

Yes, there’s no limit on how often you can use it.

But wait a minute. You’re not a member? Then excuse me, you don’t have exclusive right…

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Giving Words

Friendsgiving

A Friendsgiving in Brooklyn, 2015. Photograph by Ethan Brooks.

When I saw an article on Friendsgiving in The Wall Street Journal last week, I knew I had a topic for the day before Thanksgiving: giving words. A long list, that is, of words ending in -giving, like those two. (Friendsgiving, we’re told, is Thanksgiving dinner with friends rather than family.)

To my surprise, however, the -giving words are scarce as turkeys’ teeth. A Scrabble website finds just 10, not all related to the Thanksgivin…