Category Archives: Words

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Czars in Their Eyes

Boris Godunov, czar of all Russia, 1598-1605

It’s been a big month for the czars.

The White House has appointed Ron Klain as Ebola czar. Not capo or boss, but czar, the Russian term (also transliterated as tsar) related to Latin Caesar and German Kaiser.

What’s with American English and czar, concept and word? Is it ours now, or do we still need to mark it off in some way?

HuffPo and The Washington Times deploy the term in roman font without typographic qualification. NPR has taken a more circu…

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Two Dictionaries

When a mighty storm fells a great tree in the forest, it creates a clearing open to the sunshine where seedlings can flourish. And that, metaphorically, is what happened in the world of dictionaries in 1961, when the third edition of Merriam-Webster’s great New International Dictionary, the Unabridged, provoked a storm of criticism because it harbored a four-letter word, and not only harbored it but declared that under some circumstances it was proper to use. The word was ain’t, and the Unabridg…

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MooT Pursuits

MooTI have a soft spot for people who invent games, especially games with words. And by way of some random keystroke, I found myself on the mailing list of Jon Steeves, inventor of MooT, “the game of semantics, etymology, and grammar.” For almost two years now, I’ve received random emails with questions like In Greek it means “rules of the belly,” whereas in English it denotes “the art of eating and drinking well.” What word is it?*

red_wine_bottle_48679Finally, I caved and got a copy of the game. Two weekends ago, on a…

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Talking About Word Aversion on TV

Language Log has devoted occasional posts to word aversion since Mark Liberman first discussed it in 2007. The New Yorker took it up in April 2012, and the Huffington Post did likewise that December (though neither used the term “word aversion”). Slate magazine followed in April 2013, and then various British newspapers; and now I’ve been asked to discuss the topic on a BBC early-evening magazine-style TV program, The One Show.

You might think it’s a big strike against me that I’ve never researc…

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Noms de Guerre

Q: What do great poems and wars have in common?

A: They don’t need fancy names.

George-W.-Bush-Mission-accomplishedShakespeare didn’t title his sonnets, and I’m fairly sure that no one fighting in the Wars of the Roses thought of them in flowery terms. (The name came along 400 years later.) Now, though, we can barely roll out the tanks before we need to come up with a marquee name, something to blaze across the sky in block capitals and declaim in a stentorian baritone. The latest, our push against the Islamic State in Iraq a…

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The Meanings of Rape

A demonstrator at Amherst College wants the administration to admit its past mistakes.

A nod to the semantics of “rape” seems pertinent in the current climate. After all, this is a polysemous word, that is, a word with multiple connotations, some of which look like anachronisms.

In Middle English, “rape” was used when talking about haste, as in the proverb “oft rape rues,” or “haste makes waste.” Our contemporary use seems to be linked; “rape” entails an act done rashly and injudiciously—a…

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Ebola, the Word

There’s no mystery about Ebola—the word, that is, not the disease. We know exactly when and how it began, in 1976. The word lay dormant for most of the intervening decades, occupying a quiet corner of our vocabulary, until the resurgence of the virus in Africa and its arrival in the United States just a few weeks ago made the word highly contagious. By word of mouth and print and Internet, it has reached practically every household and hamlet in the land.

Fortunately, for all its fearsomeness, t…

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Amazeballs

“The most amazing thing about the Ford Fusion isn’t the way it looks,” goes an ad. “It’s the way it sees.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer references a guy who bought his daughter a house because “my daughter and son-in-law are amazing people.”

I read a Facebook comment:

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 8.47.37 AM

And a tweet:

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That’s just a tiny hint of the way amazing has become the word of the moment. Some more: In the movie of the moment, Gone Girl (and in the book as well), the lead female character was the model for a children’s book ch…

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The Intentional Fallacy

A fellow educator has brought to my attention the rise of intentional as a signifying term in academic life. If you haven’t noticed it yet, you will.

Intentional is a word with at least two categories of meaning.

The first sense of intentional may be found in the concept of intentional community.  Those who are part of a convent, a kibbutz, a commune— apparently things that begin with a k sound—might all be described as members of intentional communities.

I don’t love the phrase, but I get the…

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How About That?

world-of-abbott-and-costello-compilation-film-whos-on-first-skit

Abbott: “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.”

The New York Times made my day Monday with a great front-page story by Jonathan Mahler about how a “best-selling author and management guru” named Dov Seidman is suing the Chobani yogurt company for stealing his word.

It seems that for about 10 years, Seidman has been using the slogan “How Matters” to emphasize his belief in the importance of ethical processes and procedures in business. In 2011, he wrote a book called How: Why…