Category Archives: Words


Fool ‘Ish’ Ways

tumblr_lglk43DP9v1qzr2iro1_500It’s smart … ish. It’s cool … ish. It’s up-to-date … ish.

Well, ish!

No, I can’t claim that ish is new. In fact, ish has been in the English language since before there was an English language. Since time immemorial, -ish has been a suffix creating adjectives like English and Turkish, selfish and prudish, to give some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary. And it’s an integral ending for verbs like cherish, languish, accomplish.

But more recently, in the past 500 years or so, -ish has bee…


(Your Name), Enabler

arianne-glitter-geek-little-miss-trouble-enablerIt’s hard to tell exactly when the verb enable spawned the noun enabler. An 1825 issue of the Annual Register, per the OED, provides some hint in suggesting that “the word Habilitador might, if there were such a word, be translated Enabler.” A habilitador, or habilitater, was one who endowed something or someone with ability or capacity. For at least some period of time, an enabler did likewise. As recently as 1978, in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s publication Stimulati…


The New Science

matt-damon-martian-trailer-lands-well-2015Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted that it was his favorite line from the film’s trailer: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

It’s already the best-known line from Ridley Scott’s The Martian. You might have it on a T-shirt by now.

Vulgar, yes, but it’s also a good example of the rhetorical device called anthimeria, recently explored here.

The Martian is futuristic science fiction. But the education business has been sciencing for a long time.

Our word science  comes from Latin scientia…




So many words for dying, deceasing, expiring, succumbing, giving up the ghost, meeting one’s end, passing away, being taken from us, meeting one’s maker, going to a better place, breathing one’s last … If the numerosity of words and phrases for things really correlated with speakers’ degrees of interest in them (a dumb but extremely popular belief I have critiqued before), we would have to assume that English speakers are fascinated by death in all its forms and discuss it all the time in techn…


How ’Bout That Ass?

donkeyteethSo I’m writing my historical novel, minding my own business, when some sort of semantic bug bites me and sends me off on a language tangent. Does this ever happen to you? Last week, I was describing the building of a gristmill on a tributary of the Hudson River around 1700. Given the rough terrain at the time and the need to haul a lot of heavy stuff around, I thought the mill builders might have donkeys handy, rather than horses. This supposition occasioned a bunch of research into when certa…


Floating Along on Mardi Gras


A pontoon wagon, progenitor of the parade float.

A week from today is Mardi Gras — “fat Tuesday,” on the eve of 40 lean days of Lent. And just in time comes Peter Reitan’s discovery of the origin of the name for a featured item in Mardi Gras parades, a name that we have adopted for all our parades: float.

Reitan’s investigation occupies all 17 pages of the January 2016 issue of Comments on Etymology, Gerald Cohen’s self-published journal focusing on American vocabulary. As usual for Comments, ci…


The Soul of Wit

twitter_140I am one of thousands of nontweeters on Twitter, people who signed up for one silly reason or another (mine: my publisher told me to) yet have never found much to tweet about. Trying to work up my enthusiasm for this medium of communication, I asked avid tweeters what they loved about it. Their most common answer? “The messages are only 140 characters long.”

Now that Twitter is moving to a higher limit for tweets, let’s pause on this feature, with a nod to poetic form. Why 140 characters? Appa…


Them, Themself, and They

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati…


Stocking Up for the Blizzard

top of Wessex Road_3

Wessex Rd., Silver Spring, Md., on January 24.

It’s rare that I feel lucky to have Michigan’s weather in the winter, but this past weekend was one of those moments, as we Michiganders watched the coverage of snow piling up on the East Coast, from Asheville, N.C., up through New York City. And scattered through the coverage was advice about stocking up on foodstuffs before the storm.

In some cases, I think people were actually talking about foodstuffs in the historical or technical sense of the t…


Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!


The tiddly oggie is actually of English origin, but it typifies the Australian penchant for diminutives and abbreviations.

I’ve been in Australia for two weeks now, and all I can say is the people here must be extremely busy. Why else would they feel obliged to abbreviate so incredibly many words? I started to write down examples shortly after I arrived, and already my notebook is almost full.

A lot of the abbreviations are diminutives: Tasmania is Tassie, mosquitoes are mossies, politicians are…