Category Archives: Words

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The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery…

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Derp and ‘tude

Mr. Derp

Paul Krugman’s attempts at being hip end up landing, I suppose, like hipness attempted by any of us blogging here: midway between cute and cringeworthy. A few weeks ago, his column noted an increase in what he called derpitude, “useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong.”

Derp had a familiar ring to it, which grew louder as Krugman referenc…

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The Most Beautiful Word of All

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Henry James

Sitting on my patio the other day, listening to the birds, sipping a glass of raspberry seltzer, and admiring the contrast of the orange day lilies with the blue and pink hydrangea, I was reminded of Henry James’s remark that “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language.

The comment was attributed to him by Edith Wharton. The Master sketched out some of his reasoning in the opening of The Portrait of a Lady:

Under certain circumstances there are few hou…

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Killer Compounds

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 5.43.02 PMEnglish, like many other languages, abounds with compounds. Take two words and join them to create an inseparable unit, and you have a compound. There are compound verbs like undergo and overcome, compound adjectives like makeshift, compound adverbs like thereafter.

Especially abundant are compound nouns, like jumpsuit and strawberry, wristwatch and bookend. nutcracker and football. All those are noun + noun combinations, but you can have, among others, adjective + noun (software, greenhouse), …

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Nibbling Away

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 3.43.25 PMWhat’s a nibble?

You’d know the answer — or at least one answer — if you’d had the good fortune to attend the combined conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America and Studies in the History of the English Language this month, at the University of British Columbia. The first morning’s schedule specified, at 10 a.m., a Coffee & Tea Break With Nibbles. And those Nibbles turned out to be … various sweet rolls and breads.

In other words, a Nibble (at least this kind) is one possible answer…

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Whose Students?

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Tweaking how academics refer to students may be swimming against the current, says Anne Curzan, and the question is whether it would be meaningful.

A few years ago I stopped referring to my students in my writing. It’s not that I ceased talking about students; I stopped referring to them as mine.

Or at least I try. I am sure I still fall into the phrase my students sometimes in my written work (one of the astute readers of this blog probably will discover that I have done so here on Lingua Franc…

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36 Words

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You’re 72; a respected male biologist, fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2001 Nobelist in physiology and medicine, husband to a distinguished female immunology professor, knighted for services to science. You’re giving an informal speech at a Women In Science lunch, part of a conference of science journalists in faraway South Korea. With a twinkle in your eye, you risk revealing your human side with a candid 36-word admission about your experiences when young…

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Koo-Koo-Ka-Chu, Mx. Robinson

fig,white,mens,ffffff.u2Just when you thought it was safe to go out and play in the fields of gender, along comes Mx. The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary is considering adding this new honorific for those who are uncomfortable with assignment to one or another gender. Comparisons with Ms., another invented “abbreviation” that doesn’t really abbreviate anything, are inevitable. Commenting in The New York Times, Alice H. Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern, suggested that unlike Ms., which wa…

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Simile When You Say That, Partner

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Patsy Cline’s voice inspired a memorable simile.

When I lived in New York City as a young man, I used to like to wander over to Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, on summer evenings. What I found there—and what drew me there, it now occurs to me—was virtuosity.  The Frisbee players catching the disk in fancy ways, the skateboarders and roller skaters doing their tricks, and street musicians improvising with their instruments and voices were all, not to put too fine a point on it,…

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Scrabbling for Words

My Lingua Franca colleage Anne Curzan recently published a post about recent additions to the official Scrabble dictionary, of which there have been a surprisingly large number. (I guess that’s the way they’ve found to keep on selling Scrabble dictionaries.)

Naturally Anne didn’t object to this horde of new arrivals. We linguists always seem to be on the side of change, diversity, exoticness, and immigration, don’t we? But some people don’t like to see new additions. A few not only recoil at the…