All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Great Question!

Questions have muscle. That’s what I mentioned last week while praising the strongest question word of all, Why. Even the weakest of questions has strength not found in any declarative sentence: the strength to require a response. If someone makes a statement, you don’t have to do anything. But if someone asks you a question, you must answer.

Why is that?

(See, now I have to answer.) Well, it’s not because anybody passed a law. There are no language police eavesdropping on conversations and wr…

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Why?

My favorite question word is: Why?

Why?

Because, as journalists and children know, it’s the best way to get people talking.

Questions are different from statements. If you’re listening to a statement (I’m happy with this), you aren’t expected to do anything. But a question calls for a response.

The least response is to a yes/no question. (Are you happy? Yes.)

An interviewer can get more out of a person by asking a wh- question: who, where, when, what.

Who? (a person).

Where? (a place).

When? (a …

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First-World Problems

Matthew Good

Once upon a time, during the Cold War in the latter part of the 20th century, somebody pointed out that each of the nations of the earth belonged to one of three worlds. The first was ours, the world of the developed and more-or-less-democratic countries. The second was the world of our enemies, the Communist bloc, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and including its European satellites along with China, Cuba, North Vietnam and the like. The third world was the leftovers…

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What’s Your PGP?

It’s a question we didn’t have to answer in the 20th century. In fact, it’s a question that didn’t exist until recently.

We have this question now because we have a growing menu of gender identity. Last week I discussed it with regard to the abbreviations LGBTQQ2IA and Quiltbag. Nowadays we understand that anatomy isn’t destiny; it’s your choice to be called lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual—or something else.

That’s not a misstatement. It is your ch…

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LGBTQQ2IA

It continues to be an education. Back in the late 20th century, we learned (as we had kind of known all along) that people were not simply male or female but heterosexual or homosexual. The latter we learned to designate as gay, as opposed to straight. And then we learned to separate homosexuals by gender as gay or lesbian. So far, so good.

But then, as we investigated sexuality and gender identity more thoroughly, other types made themselves known. There were bisexuals, whose sexuality encompas…

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The Great Dog Robber

Among the celebrated actors who have died recently, James Garner deserves particular celebration for his charm, good humor, and versatility. If you’re nostalgic for what Southern California was really like in the 1970s, when real estate wasn’t yet sky high and there still were open spaces, look no further than the six seasons of The Rockford Files made back then. My excuse for celebrating him in Lingua Franca, however, is his use of an odd military term: dog robber.

Garner was cast as a dog robb…

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The Ultimate Dude: TR?

theodore_roosevelt_genealogyDude, there seems to be no end to curiosity about the word that began as a label for a sissified dandy in New York City but developed into almost the coolest label for a young man nowadays, as well as a cool form of address to persons of any gender. Dude was unknown in 1882 but swept the nation in 1883, thanks to the equivalent of the Internet in those days: newapapers.

And yet—did the meme really begin on January 14, 1883, with an 84-line poem in the New York World by Robert Sale Hill? Or was d…

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Boom. No, BOOM!

“Whenever I make a really bad joke,” Kaitlin Thomas wrote in TV.com on May 15, “I like to punch it up at the end by yelling, ‘Boom!’ It always makes me feel better, as if I’m my own one-woman self-confidence boost.”

TNT seems to have noticed booms like hers. May 15 was the day that network announced a rebranding from “We Know Drama” and plain “Drama” to “TNT Drama: Boom.” Here’s the official explanation:

“TNT’s marketing team chose ‘Boom’ not only for the ways in which it can be applied to d…

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When a Dude Is Not a ‘Dude’

Two weeks ago I triumphantly reported the apparent discovery of the Ur-dude, the original invention back in 1883 of the now-familiar word dude. Etymologists had previously known about Robert Sale Hill’s poem in the New York World of January 14, 1883, the one I republished in my post, but there had been several other apparent earlier instances. The news, reported in articles by Peter Reitan in the May 2014 issue of Gerald Cohen’s Comments on Etymology, was that the last of three supposed earlier …

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The Sylly Season

Yes, as the days of summer begin to wane, it’s time to get a bus out of its garage, refurbish the interior, and polish it up to convey the essence of a class for the fall. In other words, to prepare a syll-a-bus.

The syllabus is heir to a venerable tradition of typographical error. You might think it’s a simple Latin word like alumnus, but it’s not. It just looks that way.

In fact, its etymology is complicated. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary more than 150 words to explain that syllabus c…