All posts by Ben Yagoda


And Loving It

5635292On my short list of core principles is this: Only good things can come from giving people (sincere) compliments.

I acted on it the other day, when I commented via email that I admired a friend’s writing. The person responded, in part:

I think that, as with lovemaking, you can’t really do it well unless you love doing it. I really enjoy coming up with an idea — any old idea, to start with — and writing about it, and tweaking what I’ve written until it seems just right, sometimes through dozens of…


Bring It

headWriting on language shibboleths a couple of weeks ago, I pooh-poohed the idea that one needs to be vigilant about not using bring instead of take, or vice versa. I argued:

No one would ever say “Take me the mail,” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with “Bring your shoes to the room.” You just … have to imagine the action from the point of view of the room. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says“A native speaker of English will hardly ever misuse bring or take; the problem ex…


Racists and Racialists — and What’s the Difference?

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.57.48 AMOn June 7, a New York Times editorial addressed Donald Trump’s remarks that Judge Gonazalo Curiel has “an inherent conflict of interest” in a lawsuit against Trump University because he is “of Mexican heritage.” “Republicans who say they disagree with Mr. Trump’s racialist statements,” the Times declared, “have tried to assuage the public by arguing that he doesn’t really believe those views.”

Racialist is the word that jumps out. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is equivalent to racist but…


My Favorite Shibboleth

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Early in the word-processing era, it was difficult or in some cases impossible to italicize words, and so one underlined them instead. When doing so, a colleague of mine always took special care not to underline the spaces between the words of a title. That is, instead of The Winds of War, he would write The Winds of War. He endured the chore of several additional keystrokes because he felt that a line under a space is meaningless. This was not unreasonable, but may have put too fi…


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 …