All posts by Allan Metcalf


Happy Birthday, Lingua Franca!

Slightly more than four years and a thousand posts ago, at the behest of the editor Heidi Landecker at The Chronicle of Higher Education, this Lingua Franca blog came into being. Since that time, day after day, our motley crew has mused, elucidated, queried, uncovered, advertised, challenged, and pontificated about language, more or less as Heidi and Liz McMillen, The Chronicle’s editor,  had envisioned. And you, dear readers, have responded with everything from dissertations of your own to com…


Papal Language


The Pope of Mope

The occasion of a papal visit brings with it an opportunity to consider certain comfortable words. I use comfortable in its earlier sense, “strengthening or  supporting (morally or spiritually); encouraging, inspiring, reassuring, cheering,” to which the Oxford English Dictionary archly adds, “Obs. or arch.” But then the papacy has something arch. about it, though it is certainly not obs.

What are these words? To begin with, pope. It goes way back beyond the origin of the papac…


A Million Missing Words: The Search Is On


Medal for lexicographic valor would look something like this, only more Wordnik-y (Image courtesy of Wordnik)

They are the dark matter of the lexiverse — a million words of the English language not yet recorded in any dictionary.

Words like these: farecasting, deanling, domainer, hyperloop, unfuckulate, anachronym, smokescreening.

About a million words are already on record in works like the Oxford English Dictionary, with 600,000 words, and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, with 470,000 (many overl…


Ice Cream, Iced Tea, and Sundaes

Ice_Tea_(2571858493)Now that summer is yielding to fall in the Northern Hemisphere, and the long days of summer are yielding to the long nights of fall, it’s a good moment to contemplate the distinctive language of certain staples of summer — in particular, ice cream, iced tea, and the ice cream sundae.

Ice cream came first. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest example comes from a 1672 history of the Order of the Garter: “The Soveraign’s Table on the Eve … One Plate of Ice Cream.” Another 17th-century example …


Top o’ the Morning

What o’clock is it? Breakfast perhaps. Drop the from of and enjoy your cup of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee, along with Land O Lakes butter on your toast.

Or maybe it’s midday in Salt Lake City, time to stop at the Bucket O’ Crawfish for “the best crawfish in Utah!” (Utah?!) If you prefer, there’s also a Bucket O’ Crawfish in Alameda, Calif.

In Clearwater, Fla., you can stop for a drink of Bone Daddy Pumpkin Ale at the Pair O’ Dice Brewing Co., #GetAPair. Fifteen different brews on tap.

At any ti…


Take It Away

fishtakeawayBack in the day, the take away  we knew was a verb plus adverb combination that had something to do with subtraction — six take away three is three. In the 21st century, however, take away  has been compressed into a noun, like  carbon into a diamond. It’s now a sparkling word that has something to do with addition — something you get from a lecture, a performance, a meeting, a séance — some sort of event. No takeaway? No good.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest example of takeaway …


Artisans and Crafts


Pre-artisanal cheese

Unless you were there, it’s hard to imagine how different the United States was back in, say, the 1950s.

No, I don’t mean the differences that computers, smartphones, and the Internet have made since then, though they are considerable. And I don’t mean the civil rights movement and affirmation of rights and respect for diversity, though those have really made a difference.

But our everyday lives have been transformed. We are privileged to live in artisanal times, in the era …




Sign from the Franklin Theatre, Franklin, Tenn.

What’s the difference between a theater and a theatre?

At one city’s convention and visitors bureau, it’s not an academic question.

Recently a computer programmer at the bureau objected to the spelling “Movie Theaters” on the bureau’s website. “Theater is a made-up word,” he told the marketing manager. She explained that they use both spellings, “theatre for performing arts and theater for the place where one views a movie.” The programmer replied …


Bias: Mark My Words

CareerWomanWe want our language to be free of bias, don’t we? Surely anyone of good will would want to be polite to others rather than unintentionally insulting them.

At first glance it seems simple enough. As the editor Malinda McCain writes on the ShareWords website, “bias-free language means using terms that treat people with respect.” And, she adds, this means also avoiding words that disrespect, “such as not describing someone’s physical characteristics when doing so serves no purpose.” In essence, as…


Fit for a New Century


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…