Category Archives: Words

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Orwell in Gaza

The New York Times’s hesitant foray into the question of language in this latest enactment of hostilities between Israel and Hamas made me long for the ringing tones of George Orwell. It’s hard to miss what the Times calls the “clash of narratives” being played out even as the clash of artillery continues with its tragic toll on human lives and suffering. The Gaza interior ministry recommends that every Palestinian casualty be referred to as an innocent citizen. Etgar Keret observes that these s…

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Overhypoed Typos

To spell-check or not to spell-check? Many people would find this question absurd: Of course you run spell-check on anything longer than a text message. Take some pride in your work! But I wandered away from that moral high ground recently after fiddling around with software called Lingofy that lets you run style-guide checks on your writing using The Associated Press Stylebook (or a style book of your own making).

It was tempting for me because I write for both British and American publications…

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You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso …

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik

“Weirdest” because, compared with less-fewer, literally, could care less, and Weird Al’s othe…

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Boom. No, BOOM!

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

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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…