Category Archives: Words

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Here’s Looking at You, Narcissist

narcissus

“Narcissus,” by Caravaggio

There’s one word that seems to doggedly follow the Republican nominee for president, and no, the word isn’t Whuuuuuuhhhh???????

Last week, on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Jon Stewart called Donald Trump “a thin-skinned narcissist.”

The author David Cay Johnston said of Trump in a Guardian article, “He’s a world-class narcissist.” (The title of the article was “Trump: The Making of a Narcissist.”)

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “There’s sort of a gravit…

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Making Work

works“You’re just making work for yourself,” said somebody’s mother, and possibly mine.

Making work for yourself  – the reflexive component is essential to the judgmental tone — was a phrase I remember from my youth. It meant, of course, an inefficient and unnecessary expenditure of energy. It could be a task that would have to be done again anyway, though more simply and quickly, or it could be an activity that never had to be done in the first place.

The hyphenated term make-work is apparently an A…

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Words Fail

I have been thinking a lot about the ways language isn’t sufficient — or feels insufficient — when we’re facing the kinds of tragic, horrifying, and deeply troubling events we’ve been facing this past week in the United States.

“Words fail,” we say.

Or, “There are no words.”

We cannot stop there. And I think we know it. Language has its limits, but language is also one of our most powerful tools for connection and for change.

There is good reason to measure our words. Language can hurt in powerf…

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Adviser Advisory

Letterpress StyleThe mark of a real journalist, I learned long ago, is knowing the proper spelling of adviser.

It stands out because until stepping into journalism, most neophytes have learned the other spelling. In high school, clubs and activities have advisors.  In college, more of the same, usually with academic progress monitored by a faculty advisor.

Against that background, adviser seems, er, a little undignified. But it’s an ironclad rule in journalism. The entry for the word in The Associated Press Styl…

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The Safe Space

one-hundred-years-of-solitude-coverIt has become a recurrent motif in academic parlance in the United States to talk about security, not as a discipline but in existential terms. This isn’t surprising given the superabundance of bloodshed today. Campus is frequently called a “safe space.” Violence — physical, emotional, and verbal — has no place in it.

The premise behind this concept is sound, though it sometimes verges on sanctimony. It envisions the classroom as Robinson Crusoe’s island, where it is possible to start from scrat…

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Verb-Forming for Fun and Profit

static.playbill.comI recently heard that a gay acquaintance of mine has gotten divorced. I mention his sexual orientation certainly not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s relevant to the matter of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls “two-part back-formed verbs,” aka 2pbfVs. Zwicky has been cataloguing examples of these, at Language Log and on his own website, since 2008, when he wrote about the verb form gay marry, which he had just encountered in a quote on someone else’s blog: “I did an in…

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Going Forward

Union Jack umbrella 2It is, let us agree, a semantically pointless Briticism: “Going forward, we will develop integrated, cross-platform systems that will respond to uncertain markets.” This is not a sentiment distinct from “We will develop integrated, cross-platform systems that will respond to uncertain markets.” But going forward sounds as if it adds something — a frame, a launch pad, a directional indicator, and a mark of authority. The decision has been well thought out.

Mark Seacombe wrote about the phrase in

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There’s Trump, OK?

MVBuren

President Martin Van Buren, to whom Donald Trump owes a rhetorical debt (Wikimedia Commons)

OK. It’s America’s greatest word, OK?

Anybody should know that. Born on a page in a Boston newspaper on March 23, 1839, and co-opted the next year for use in a presidential election campaign, “OK” has become the American way of reaching agreement (“OK?” “OK”), introducing or concluding a topic (“the lecturer’s OK”), marking approval, announcing that everything is satisfactory, or expressing a pragmatic, c…

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Is This the Right Moment?

speak-no-evil-monkeyLast month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.

I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + -al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.

I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head …

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Linguification: That’s the Name of the Game

Narendra Modi, peripatetic prime minister of India

The term linguification originated on Language Log in 2006. I coined it to denote a peculiar kind of rhetorical device: People saying things like “The words ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are always found together” to mean “The concepts X and Y are related,” or (to cite a recent headline on Quartz India) this sort of thing:

Three continents in 140 hours — Narendra Modi shows he doesn’t know the meaning of “jet lag”

Does Modi’s itinerary really show that? Of course…