All posts by Ben Yagoda


Pivoting Away from ‘Pivot’

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.41.46 AMHillary Clinton keeps trying to pivot to the general election. But Bernie Sanders — like a white-haired white Bill Russell — won’t let her.

I will let the pundits break down the politics involved. What interests me is pivot. Originally a noun meaning (in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words) a “short shaft or pin on which a mechanism turns or oscillates,” it was being used as early as 1841 to refer to the act of turning, as if on a pivot. That’s where the basketball maneuver, and that sport’s n…



It is no news that the person I call the presumptuous Republican nominee for president likes to use exclamation points in his tweets. Take a look at a tranche of his Twitter feed:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 9.44.05 AM

One might think this would be common punctuation on Twitter. One would be mistaken. Of the 50 most recent non-Trump tweets in my feed, only two contained exclamation points. (More commonly, a sort of humorous emphasis is added through ALL CAPS.) But for Trump, this is not only a trademark bit of Twitter punctuation; h…


The ‘Au Revoir’ Problem


Serena Williams after winning the world No. 1 title for the sixth time in 2013. A tennis genius’s instincts may be preternaturally aligned with best practices, but the rest of us need a lot of help.

Way back when I was taking “Introduction to French” during my freshman year in college, we were given a quiz a month or so into the term. At one point, the professor spoke some French words and we were asked to spell them. One of the words was the French phrase for “goodbye.”

This is what I wrote dow…


The Strange Saga of ‘Gobbledygook’

The other day, the website Futility Closet posted a reproduction of a document from the National Archives.


Greg Ross, proprietor of the site, observed, “This is the first known usage of gobbledygook to refer to obscure jargon.” He was almost certainly correct. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “Official, professional, or pretentious verbiage or jargon.” It offers as first citation a definition published the month after the memo, in an April 1944 edition of the journal American N…


State of ‘Lay’

As Robert Frost might have put it, something there is that doesn’t want to say lie. I refer to the present tense of the verb meaning to assume or be in a recumbent position, figuratively or literally. So: I want to lay down. He had to lay low. Don’t just lay there. And so on. I have weighed in on the topic before, as have my Lingua Franca colleagues Anne Curzan and Geoffrey Pullum. But I feel that a tipping point has been reached.

This Google Ngram Viewer shows that in American books (the sub-da…


‘Punter’s Chance’ or ‘Puncher’s Chance’? I’ll Punt

If [the Oklahoma City Thunder are] clicking on all cylinders, I give them a punter’s chance obviously to put the kind of firepower out on the floor to go head to head with the [Golden State] Warriors four quarters.

—Jalen Rose, quoted in The New York Times, April 15, 2016

As I have mentioned here before, I am the sole owner and proprietor of Not One-Off Britishisms (NOOBs), a blog devoted to charting British expressions that have become popular in the United States. And when I read the quote by …


Hillary Who?

Hillary-60-minutesNoting that I’ve written about the hip-hop/youth/New York trend of glottalizing (that is, “swallowing” the t before the last syllable) such words as important, button, and Manhattan, a reader recently e-mailed me, “I was intrigued by how Hillary Clinton glottalized her last name … as early as 1992. Not surprisingly, she changed it back to Clin’T’on in her campaign video last year.”

The reader included links to two YouTube videos. The first, a fairly amazing comedy bit at a 1992 roast of Ron Brow…


Don’t Speak!

In the funniest scene in Woody Allen’s last funny movie, Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the aspiring playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) tries to communicate his feelings to the stage diva Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest).

Throughout history, at various moments and by various people, not speaking has been recognized as an appropriate and perhaps necessary course of action. After being raped at the age of 8, Maya Angelou was mute for almost five years. In Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the chi…


Whoo-Hoo for ‘Woo Woo’

Woo-woo tips mingle with practical pointers. “Eat from heart-shaped bowls, and put heart stickers on your refrigerator,” Minich recommends. (Why? “To keep the spirit of love alive,” duh.)

The New York Times, March 27, 2016, review of Whole Detox, by Deanna Minich

… “Valley of Love,” a logy, woo-woo drama about a former couple who, at the request of their son, who killed himself earlier that same year, have come to find answers in the California desert.

The New York Times, March 24, 2016

“I f…


‘Huge’ Is Massive

64618100After Yale upset Baylor in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Bulldogs’ star player, Justin Sears, said, “It’s huge. Just to be among the first guys to get that first big win of the tournament is huge.” After reporting the quote, the New York Times article about the game observed, “It was another huge victory for the Bulldogs.”

As perfect is to goodness, so huge is to literal and metaphorical largeness: the hyperbolic adjective of the moment, supplanting big, grand,enor…