Category Archives: Words


Giving Words


A Friendsgiving in Brooklyn, 2015. Photograph by Ethan Brooks.

When I saw an article on Friendsgiving in The Wall Street Journal last week, I knew I had a topic for the day before Thanksgiving: giving words. A long list, that is, of words ending in -giving, like those two. (Friendsgiving, we’re told, is Thanksgiving dinner with friends rather than family.)

To my surprise, however, the -giving words are scarce as turkeys’ teeth. A Scrabble website finds just 10, not all related to the Thanksgivin…


The Unsuitability of English


Utrecht, Holland— My mission in this pleasant central Holland town: giving a keynote address at the 25th anniversary conference of Sense (originally the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors, now a general professional organization of anglophone editors in the Netherlands) in the palatial surroundings of the beautifully restored 16th-century Paushuize (pictured). Knowing that the editors and translators who belong to Sense are much concerned with …


Don’t Cuff Me

6357923692149811561460154598_new_cuffs.jpg_54b114b6542723fd2c6c2060536438b6.imgopt1000x70Happy start to cuffing season. Yes, folks, it officially begins today.

I just learned the term cuffing season four days ago, and already I know I cannot talk about it without showing my age. The phenomenon it refers to has been around, probably, for centuries: the tendency of humans to “cuddle up” as the weather turns colder and to seek freedom when the flowers come out in the spring. But its specific contemporary reference, and the advice that goes along with it, feels less anthropological …


A Day in the Life of a Lexicographer

David Barnhart comes from a lexicographical dynasty. He and his late brother, Robert, have both been in the profession of making dictionaries, following in the footsteps of their famous father Clarence L. Barnhart, author of the Thorndike-Barnhart series of dictionaries. David now works at home and in the local libraries, finding and defining words for his quarterly journal, The Barnhart Dictionary Companion.

So what is his day like? He starts by reading the paper and listening to news on the r…


Who That?


“By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!”

Last week, referring to Ben Carson’s (supposedly) terrible temper, Donald Trump said, “I don’t want a person that’s got a pathological disease.”

What caught my eye was that he didn’t say, “… a person who’s got a pathological disease.” For some years, I have been noticing that my students favor the choice of that over who as a relative pronoun; I did some grumbling about it here, lumping it with other popular usages (“one-year anniversary” inste…


Lectern or Podium?


Prof. Dumbledore stood on a podium to speak from his owl lectern.

Today’s investigation into the Oxford English Dictionary concerns two words, with a small hope that we can figure out what it is we talk in front of, or on, or near, when we’re before our students.

The handsome Latinate word podium originally referred to a raised platform that provided a protected seating area for the emperor. It is, of course, related to the root pod-, from the word for foot, and most senses of the word invoke t…


Broadcast(ed) News

An astute indexlanguage observer I know emailed me a few weeks back with the subject heading: “changing past tense form?” I was intrigued before I even opened the email. He knows how to hook a language geek.

The verbs at issue were cast-verbs, including cast, broadcast, fly-cast, and the like. The bit of journalism that had sparked the question was from a blurb on the Skimm from September 24, 2015:

Yesterday, Egypt’s president woke up and said ‘today’s a good day to pardon prisoners.’ He released 100…


WOTY Primaries Begin at Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries


Narcississtick, a less-than-kind word for a selfie stick, was one of last year’s nominations. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

As I mentioned here last week, the Word of the Year season is upon us. More than five-sixths of 2015 has gone by, time enough to think of the word (or phrase, or prefix, or abbreviation) that best reflects the interests, style, attitudes, and preoccupations of the year so far.

The American Dialect Society, meeting early next year in Washington, D.C., with the Lingu…


Prepositions as Conjunctions, Whales as Fish


Imagine that the national government controlled education down to fine details of what to teach and how to test it, and in your own subject the government required that modern research should be ignored, and unreconstructed 18th-century beliefs should be taught.

Welcome to my world. I’m not talking about the attempts of dull-witted US school boards to push creationism into the science curriculum. I’m talking about a sample grammar test published by the Standards and Testing Agency of the Britis…


Basic WOTY

WOTY-scrabbleAll of a sudden it’s November. And now that the end of the year is in sight, it’s time for WOTY season to begin.

What’s WOTY? That’s the convenient acronym (pronounced woe-tea) used by those of us who are intrigued by the notion of a Word of the Year — a word that captures the spirit, or concerns, or activities, or peculiarities of the year gone by.

It’s like Time magazine’s choice of a Person (formerly Man) of the Year. In fact, that was the inspiration when the American Dialect Society institu…