Category Archives: Words

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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 …

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Word Pardons

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Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something els…

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Switchin’ It Up

Linguists sometimes get discouraged about the rampant prescriptivism in public discussions of language. This past week was no exception, as many of us watched with some dismay as both friends and strangers online delighted over Weird Al Yankovich’s new song “Word Crimes.” As this song showed yet again, it can take only the smallest spark to ignite a stream of invective about “abuses” in/to the language and about those who commit these perceived abuses.

There’s much to say about the attitudes a…

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dyl…

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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…

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The Languages of the World Cup

James Rodriguez’s “poem of a goal” against Uruguay. The English commentator likened it to the cream atop strawberries on a summer night.

Borges, in an interview, once said that he didn’t like soccer. “But it’s popular,” the interviewer said. To which the author of “Emma Zunz” replied: “Stupidity is also popular.”

Too bad. He was an hombre de letras attuned to the changing nature of language. Indeed, he once wrote an eloquent defense of Argentine Spanish that was prompted by a stilted argument pr…

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‘Quality’ Time

Strolling about London on a recent vacation, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:

quality

The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective …

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Legitly Legit

seems-legit-9A high-school Spanish teacher from the western parts of Michigan emailed me a couple of months ago about a new word. She felt bombarded by the word legitly. “I legitly left my homework at home!” a student would say, or “I legitly bombed that quiz.”

When I looked online to see if this new bit of slang was being discussed, I was surprised by the level of disdain I found. The first definition in Urban Dictionary reads:

used by idiots as the full word based on the abbreviation ‘legit’. these people …

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The Goldfinch and the Stewardess

dv2073195The literary world has been engaged in a hearty dialogue over the merits and deficiencies of Donna Tartt’s massive novel The Goldfinch, which spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Rave reviews of the book’s range and rich plot have confronted scathing condemnations of its cloying stock characters and overstuffed passages. We won’t rehearse the whole controversy. Let’s home in on a single word usage:

“I was asleep almost before the seat belt light went off—missing d…

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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 …