All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Waiting for the Word of 2014

For 2014 there seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year, as I said last week. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of candidates. Just last week, for example, the news from Washington was generously sprinkled with enhanced interrogation techniques, the disputed CIA practice for obtaining information, and cromnibus, the disputed Congressional practice for obtaining government funding.

The lack of an obvious WOTY 2014 doesn’t mean that the American Dialect Society won’…

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Vape-ing Till Ready

15495901505_202ae094cf_mSo on a rainy Monday in D.C. last month, at the Pavilion Café in the sculpture garden on the National Mall, I was lunching with Joan Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, and Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. That’s the committee that oversees the society’s annual choice of Word of the Year. And we agreed 2014 hasn’t been the greatest year for a WOT…

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Will ‘Selfie’ Stick?

Earlier this year I welcomed selfie as a new word that reflected the unselfish selfishness of the currently young millennial generation, epitomized by the Electronic Dance Music song “Selfie” by the Chainsmokers.

That, I thought, was my last word on selfie. But I was wrong. I had missed an important accessory, the selfie stick. This is a device that extends the reach of the camera to twice arm’s length (one arm, one stick, end to end) so the selfie can capture a wider picture. It’s not widely us…

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Acknowledging the Corn

It’s time to take a breather from rescuing the humanities. So in this week of Thanksgiving, let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the corn.

William Bradford (1590-1657)

Corn—Indian corn—was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621 along with waterfowl, wild turkeys, and venison, according to William Bradford’s memoir Of Plymouth Plantation. (Bradford didn’t mention the Thanksgiving dinner, but he did name the foods the colony had in abundance.)

And it is significant that thi…

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An Angel for the Humanities

Last week in this space I regretted the lack of an acronym identifying the fields of the humanities, an acronym that would be a counterpart to the scientists’ successful STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A hundred readers joined in the discussion, and one, I think, came up with the answer to our prayers: RAPHAEL.

It would signify:

R – Religion
A – Art
P – Philosophy
H – History
A – Aesthetics
E – English
L -Languages

Admittedly, the acronym isn’t perfect.

—If Art, why not Music and Th…

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Humanities Need a STEM

As long as I can remember, the humanities have felt neglected at our colleges and universities—underfunded, underenrolled, underappreciated by those who want a “practical” education.

Recently the sciences have felt neglected too, at least in the matter of enrollment. We have too few young people aiming for careers in science, they say. So, unlike the humanists, they did something practical about it. They created an acronym: STEM. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It…

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F.S.M.

FSM ButtonI’m looking at a little blue pin, the size of a quarter, with the words FREE SPEECH in two lines of capitals and below them the abbreviation F.S.M. in smaller capitals curving around the bottom. That’s all. But half a century ago, when I and many others wore it during the fall semester 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley, it made a significant contribution to the success of the most successful political campaign I have ever experienced: the Free Speech Movement. It was created, flouri…

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Two Dictionaries

When a mighty storm fells a great tree in the forest, it creates a clearing open to the sunshine where seedlings can flourish. And that, metaphorically, is what happened in the world of dictionaries in 1961, when the third edition of Merriam-Webster’s great New International Dictionary, the Unabridged, provoked a storm of criticism because it harbored a four-letter word, and not only harbored it but declared that under some circumstances it was proper to use. The word was ain’t, and the Unabridg…

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Ebola, the Word

There’s no mystery about Ebola—the word, that is, not the disease. We know exactly when and how it began, in 1976. The word lay dormant for most of the intervening decades, occupying a quiet corner of our vocabulary, until the resurgence of the virus in Africa and its arrival in the United States just a few weeks ago made the word highly contagious. By word of mouth and print and Internet, it has reached practically every household and hamlet in the land.

Fortunately, for all its fearsomeness, t…

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Looking at American Speech

If you read Lingua Franca, you might be among the select few who want to know what is really going on with our language, as opposed to the many who mainly want to change it to their liking. Nothing wrong with the latter, except that it’s like wishing for the good old days when chemistry involved just four easy-to-remember elements—earth, air, fire, water—as opposed to the notion promulgated nowadays by professional chemists that there are more than a hundred elements, while the original four…