Category Archives: Dialects

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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Thugs Like Us

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.54.40 AM

A tweet by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots.

In a press conference a couple of days after the 2014 Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who had made rather obnoxiously boastful comments after the game, was asked if he was bothered by being repeatedly referred to as a “thug.” (The sports website Deadspin calculated that thug was uttered 625 times on American television the day following the Seahawks’ win.) Sherman, a Stanford University graduate, said he was,

because i…

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‘A Piece of Cake’

It started with an email from my eclectic friend Wes Davis. He said he’d been reading Tinkerbelle, by, he told me, “Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who, in 1965, took a leave of absence from his job and sailed a 13-and-a-half-foot wooden boat across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England.” He’d come upon a passage he thought would interest me. Manry is just starting out and it’s a beautiful day, “the wind strong enough to keep us moving along briskly.”…

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Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?

A forensic linguist once used DARE to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio. Image courtesy DARE archives.

Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, b…

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Oh, Man

I did a mental double take the first time I heard my wife, Gigi, say the word policeman. She gave the second and third syllables roughly equal stress and said -man with an ash sound (what was traditionally referred to as a short vowel), represented in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /æ/. It came out the way I would say Batman or milkman. To me, the -man in policeman has a reduced stress and a schwa vowel (/ə/ in IPA), as in woman.

I actually must have done a physical double take because…

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Mewling Quim

Loki

Loki

It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post…

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Lain, the Whom of the Verb World

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The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about…

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Comprise Yourself

wikipedia-globe-sans-textBryan Henderson’s hobby is eliminating comprised of  from Wikipedia articles. Just another quixotic purist struggling to retard linguistic evolution? That’s what people seemed to think I’d say, as they busied themselves sending me links to Andrew McMillen’s Backchannel article about Henderson. But the situation is subtle, and head-swirlingly complex. I’ll explain as clearly as I can. Comprise yourself—I mean compose yourself.

A 20th-century prescriptive tradition insists that comprise and compos…

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‘Dibs’: the Great Northern Parking Tradition

Say the magic word, and it’s yours.

Please? No, not please. The magic word that truly cements ownership, at least for a lot of us, is dibs.

If you’re not familiar with dibs, you can look it up. For this word, the grand new Dictionary of American Regional English has first dibs for lookup. There we find dibs (always plural) defined as “a claim; rights; right of priority—often used as exclamation.” And DARE presents examples of use going back to 1930 in South Carolina. Likewise,  the Historical Di…

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Nice Going, Genius

Scalia: Sarcastic

Scalia: Sarcastic

In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by…