Category Archives: Words

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Monday Is OK Day

Monday is the anniversary of the birth of the expression OK, 176 years ago, on the second page of the Boston Morning Post for Saturday, March 23, 1839. OK began as a joke, a deliberately misspelled abbreviation of “all correct.” And it remained a joke for the better part of a century, even as it was being put to serious use in OK-ing documents, train departures and arrivals, and wholesome products like Pyle’s O.K. Soap.

But that’s not the most important reason for celebrating OK. In all seriousn…

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Swinging for His Supper

Jeremy Clarkson, suspended from “Top Gear”

The Chronicle’s strict profanity policies, as I explained last year, bar mentioning offensive or obscene words, even in linguistic discussions where the details are crucial. Asterisk-respelling tricks are unapproved under the New York Times style guidelines that we follow. But let me try, despite having my linguistic hands tied behind my back, to tell you a bit about the latest high-profile free-speech crisis in Britain’s media.

Jeremy Clarkson is the l…

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Ineluctable Modality of the Visible

54447829I’m always coming late to the party. Over the weekend, traveling through Arizona with a clogged computer, I stopped in at the Apple store, 12 minutes late for my appointment at the Genius Bar. They hold the appointments for 10 minutes, after which you go into the queue. There were about 300 people in the store. Standing in line, I asked a roaming Apple person how long she thought the wait might be for those of us who had trouble making our way through the desert to this oasis.

“You need to tal…

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And Now ‘This’

I came upon this at an online question-and-answer site:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 1.59.56 PM

The most popular answer was this: “There’s nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with starting a sentence with ‘this.’  It’s essential,  however, that it’s clear what the ‘this’ is referring to.”

This sentiment is widely endorsed by writing authorities. The Penguin Handbook counts “Vague use of this” as a “common error” and counsels: “Always use a noun immediately after this, that, these, those, and some.… Remember: Ask yourself ‘th…

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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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Coming and Going

GrizzlyThe complexity of language mirrors the complexity of life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called deictic words, those that connect a particular situation in language directly to a situation in life. Consider this and that, for example. This is something closer to the speaker or writer; that  is something more distant.

Similarly, here and there depend on who or what’s closer, whether to the speaker or to something the speaker is discussing. Now and then require decisions about time. 

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Attending to Gender

plane copyI’ve been doing a lot of flying recently, which has me thinking about the term flight attendant. It is undeniably clunky. And yet here it is—an odd little success story in the larger narrative of nonsexist language reform.

Given overall trends in  these reform efforts, I don’t think it’s odd that American English speakers have found a gender-neutral alternative to stewardess and steward (the latter being relatively uncommon but possible). We’ve opted for gender-neutral terms over gender-specif…

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Lain, the Whom of the Verb World

lain_shot

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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Yolo, Try to Be on Fleek

on-fleek2They drop into our In boxes like mad, twitching flies, these contests apparently designed to make us feel either startlingly young or hopelessly old and out of it. It’s either “How many of these ancient pieces of technology did you use?” or “How well do you know 2014 Pop Culture?” I pass on most of them, but when our editor sent me The New York Times’s Language Quiz, I took the bait.

Designed to test “how linguistically en vogue you are,” the quiz provides multiple-choice definitions for var…

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OK: Konspicuous, Kurious, Komical

single-k-letter-green-mdAt last it’s March, a month to celebrate the arrival of spring and the anniversary of America’s greatest word. On March 23, three days after the vernal equinox, comes the 176th anniversary of the birth of that word: OK.

Among the many unusual qualities of OK is the fact that we know exactly when and where it was created, thanks to the indefatigable research of Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. It came from the pen and the newspaper of Charles Gordon Greene. On Page 2 of the Saturday, Mar…