Category Archives: Words

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I Am So Uber You

Action_Comics_1It began with Nietzsche. Now it’s about taxicabs.

We have entered the world of uberness, or possibly Überness. The Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is an alternative to divine authority, a model for living beyond what he regarded acidly as the restrictive values of organized religion.

Nietzsche’s early translators struggled to English the term Übermensch, and we’re still not really there. Overman, Superman — neither feels quite right. Both feel awfully 1938. On the …

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DARE to Carry Guts to a Bear

DARE 03af27e0171c51712aee768a333b41abIn 1985, to much acclaim, Harvard University Press published an ABC of American English — the first volume of the monumental Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and covering the first three letters of the alphabet.

That was more than 30 years ago. And the fieldwork on which much of the dictionary was based (it also made extensive use of other studies and examples) took place in the 1960s, half a century ago. So what has happened since?

The last volume of the c…

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‘Genderqueer’ and ‘Baconsphere’

I remember the moment when I lost my innocence as regards dictionaries. I was a teenager with bookish inclinations (I had been able to read since I was 3 years old), and I was used to being well acquainted with just about every English word I heard or saw in print. But at some point (I no longer remember the context) I encountered, in a clearly respectable source, the word charisma. I had never heard it or seen it. This disturbed me, so I turned to my 1951 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionar…

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Language Shrapnel

fbomb-e1378933217819When Joe Biden famously muttered an f-bomb-modified plaudit for the Affordable Care Act, many news outlets left his exact phrasing to readers’ imaginations. The New York Times reported his saying, “Mr. President, this is a big [expletive] deal.” The Atlantic referred to Biden’s “accidentally audible profanity” and mentioned T-shirts sporting the slogan, “Health Reform Is a BFD.” But the Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and New York Magazine reported the gaffe exactly as uttered.

Where do we…

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The Good Old Teen Years

$_35Alas, where are the years of yesteryear? Gone with the wind, or at least gone with their poetic pronunciations, now that we have moved from the 1900s to the 2000s.

When it comes to the names we give to the years in the English language, the 21st century is simply not as mellifluous as its predecessors.

Try it yourself with the current year, 2016. How do you say it? Two thousand sixteen is clear but ponderous. Twenty sixteen could be momentarily mistaken for 26 when you say the third syllable. An…

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The Strange Saga of ‘Gobbledygook’

The other day, the website Futility Closet posted a reproduction of a document from the National Archives.

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Greg Ross, proprietor of the site, observed, “This is the first known usage of gobbledygook to refer to obscure jargon.” He was almost certainly correct. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “Official, professional, or pretentious verbiage or jargon.” It offers as first citation a definition published the month after the memo, in an April 1944 edition of the journal American N…

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Famous Women, Banknotes, and Online Abuse

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Mary Somerville

Oxford, England — Last night, as I dined in Somerville College, my host during a visit to the University of Oxford, a chain of thoughts led me to reflect on the linguistic abuse women endure on social media.

Like Caroline Criado-Perez, for example. She was a victim of highly focused Twitter hostility in 2013.

“Die you worthless piece of crap,” said one tweet. “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do,” wrote a troll; “you’re pathetic, kill yourself befo…

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Readability, Understandability, and ETS

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference

Donald Trump’s speech to Aipac scored above a grade-level 6 in readability.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the formulas available for estimating readability are less than foolproof. It doesn’t even take a linguist to notice that things are missing from the formulas.

Last week I offered a link to the website Readability Score, where you can take any text and paste it in for an instant estimate by half-a-dozen different formulas, all purporting to determine the grade level o…

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‘Punter’s Chance’ or ‘Puncher’s Chance’? I’ll Punt

If [the Oklahoma City Thunder are] clicking on all cylinders, I give them a punter’s chance obviously to put the kind of firepower out on the floor to go head to head with the [Golden State] Warriors four quarters.

—Jalen Rose, quoted in The New York Times, April 15, 2016

As I have mentioned here before, I am the sole owner and proprietor of Not One-Off Britishisms (NOOBs), a blog devoted to charting British expressions that have become popular in the United States. And when I read the quote by …

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Introductions and Outroductions

thegoldrush1What’s the opposite of an intro? If outro comes to mind, you may be riding a trend. The word shows up in student papers. People say it. People hearing it don’t ask what you mean.

The term outro is now often used to describe the ends of things — music mainly, but other forms, too. “Sympathy for the Devil” has an outro, and we know this because there is at least one YouTube tutorial to help you master it.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates outro to 1967, providing the definition “a concluding s…