All posts by Allan Metcalf

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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…

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Dusting Off the Abacus

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Bruegel).
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

You can count on Comments on Etymology to dust off old arguments about word histories and offer a comprehensive and often compelling synthesis. That’s what you’ll find in the October 2014 issue of the monthly journal self-published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla, Mo. Half of the issue goes to China for an investigation of the origins of pagoda. But the other half…

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Smile, Smile, Smile

The centennial commemoration of the start of the First World War has brought to the fore some of the music of that war, including an unsung gem that could well be the greatest fight song of all time.
(Granted, it’s not exactly unsung, since it’s a song. And the BBC recently praised it for its musical qualities.
But the song, “Pack Up Your Troubles,” has yet to be appreciated for its matchless galvanizing effect as pure language. And not really matchless, either, since it calls for a match.)

Here…

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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…