All posts by Allan Metcalf

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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), …

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Nibbling Away

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 3.43.25 PMWhat’s a nibble?

You’d know the answer — or at least one answer — if you’d had the good fortune to attend the combined conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America and Studies in the History of the English Language this month, at the University of British Columbia. The first morning’s schedule specified, at 10 a.m., a Coffee & Tea Break With Nibbles. And those Nibbles turned out to be … various sweet rolls and breads.

In other words, a Nibble (at least this kind) is one possible answer…

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A Nation of Hackers

Hack, hack, hack!

What’s that?

It’s the sound of a nation of hackers. That’s us in the 21st century.

Not so long ago, in the previous century, a hack was just a term at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for an ingenious solution to a problem. Those who invented the solutions were hackers.  As computers came along, hacks and hackers came along too, spreading the terminology beyond MIT into general use. Hackers were those who found hacks for computers, ways to stretch their limits or detou…

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Spelling Out the Consequences

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In Shakespeare’s day, one could get by with spelling variations; not any more.
Image: Oli Scarff/Getty

A language is a dialect with an army and navy, as the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once supposedly said. We could update that to say a language is a dialect with an army, navy, and Silicon Valley, and it’s that, not any intrinsic merit, that makes English the dominant language of the world so far this century.

English certainly didn’t get there on the strength of its spelling system. On the con…

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A Really Bad Spell

bad_spellingThere are bad spellers, and then there are really bad spellers. Most of the time when we gripe about bad spellers we mean the first kind, who are actually for the most part pretty good.

It’s like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, with its motto “Wretched writers welcome.” Wretched they may be, but they actually have to be  pretty skillful to come up with parodies of Bulwer-Lytton’s fulsome 19th-century prose. Here’s the 2014 contest winner, by Betsy Doorman:

“When the dead moose floated into vi…