All posts by Allan Metcalf


Boom. No, BOOM!

“Whenever I make a really bad joke,” Kaitlin Thomas wrote in 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…


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 …


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…


The First Dude

suit-19th-century-thumbNo, I’m not referring to the president of the United States. Instead, it’s the first known appearance in print of the great American word dude, newly clarified in the latest issue of the journal Comments on Etymology, published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

In 1882 dude was unknown. In 1883, it was on the pages of seemingly every newspaper in the United States, as a brand new label for a foppish young man. And it was all thanks to an 84-line poem in the New …


Like as the Waves Make Towards the Pebbled Shore


Una and the Redcross Knight

Whoa, that’s Shakespeare. (Sonnet 60.) But it’s the best description I know of the verse form invented by his contemporary Edmund Spenser for The Fairy Queen, a marathon of a poem set in an allegorical Fairyland full of “fierce wars and faithful loves” (in Spenser’s words) and populated by believable characters. If you get the olde fashyonde spelyng out of the way, and concentrate on the story rather than the complicated allegory, as I have argued in two previou…


Spenser’s Allegorical Trap

Spenser WeekLast week I regretted that modern editors use olde fashyondde spelyng for The Faerie Queene, the grand poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary Edmund Spenser. We modernize spelling for Shakespeare and just about every author of that time, but not Spenser. And that puts an unnecessary barrier between Spenser and the modern reader.

And as I noted last week, olde spellynge is not the only barrier for modern readers. To begin with, the title Fairy Queen (to use modern spelling) has connotations today tha…


Bad Spell

Rayse your hand yff you prefer reedying olde wrytynges in olde-fashionede spellyng. Anyone for Shakespeare’s Sonnette 73?

That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaues, or none, or fewe doe hange
Vpon those boughes which shake against the could,
Bare rn’wd quiers, where late the sweet birds sang. …

No, thank goodness we usually get it in modern spelling. Same words, different look:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those…


Language Anarchy

Twitter_logo_blueWhat happens when a language is cast adrift? When there is no one to keep the language in line?

As we all know, these aren’t idle questions for the English language today. True, there are countless software programs, books, websites, teachers, editors, and just plain busybodies straining to keep our language within bounds. They endeavor to make sure the sign in a supermarket reads “15 items or fewer” instead of “15 items or less; to make sure it is whom you are addressing, but who addresses; to …


Ketoohamohk Wuske Ketoohomaonk

So you’re ready to learn a new language. How about Wampanoag?

You’ll find it useful if you plan to visit Massachusetts. That is, if you’re traveling by time machine to visit the Massachusetts of about 350 years ago. That was when Wampanoag (aka Massachusett) was the principal language spoken by long-time inhabitants of the region, though it (and they) were being displaced by English invaders.

Poor Wampanoag! Back in the 17th century, it was important enough that some English-speaking politicians…


EDM and the Selfie

The Chainsmokers’ “#Selfie”

Last year I thought selfie, the generous posting of one’s self-portrait on the Internet for all to admire, deserved to be word of the year. Thanks to a canceled flight, I now know I was wrong; 2013 was merely the prologue for the grander opening of selfie in 2014.

I learned this from a 24-year-old, Nathan Solow, a consultant driving to a flight back to Washington, who gave me a fast ride from SPI to ORD in his rental car when our flight was canceled. He was eager to g…