Category Archives: Words

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Best Linguistic Jokes of the 2015 Fringe

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Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about th…

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Take It Away

fishtakeawayBack in the day, the take away  we knew was a verb plus adverb combination that had something to do with subtraction — six take away three is three. In the 21st century, however, take away  has been compressed into a noun, like  carbon into a diamond. It’s now a sparkling word that has something to do with addition — something you get from a lecture, a performance, a meeting, a séance — some sort of event. No takeaway? No good.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest example of takeaway …

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Parenting, 1 and 2

1439911231007-300x169I hadn’t given Parent 1 and Parent 2 a thought before I saw the headline on Tennessee’s “reversal” of its “ban on ‘mother’ and ‘father.’” Huh, I thought. How had I missed news of a state’s banning mothers?

In terms of language, there’s a small, esoterically interesting story here that I’ll claim as part of what’s become sort of my bailiwick, writing about gender-neutral language. But the larger story has to do with the venues in which something becomes, or fails to become, news.

Here’s the dea…

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Artisans and Crafts

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Pre-artisanal cheese

Unless you were there, it’s hard to imagine how different the United States was back in, say, the 1950s.

No, I don’t mean the differences that computers, smartphones, and the Internet have made since then, though they are considerable. And I don’t mean the civil rights movement and affirmation of rights and respect for diversity, though those have really made a difference.

But our everyday lives have been transformed. We are privileged to live in artisanal times, in the era …

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Trump, Card

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“Donald August 19″ by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons

It’s difficult to read any standard definition of the word trump and not feel that the lexicographers had an eye on the contemporary political moment.

The word may have never been on our lips as often as in the past year. The Google Ngram Viewer demonstrates an enthusiasm for the word trump as peaking in the 1890s, back in America’s Gilded Age, after which it went into decline until the beginning of this century. Now it seems that the m…

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Theatricals

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Sign from the Franklin Theatre, Franklin, Tenn.

What’s the difference between a theater and a theatre?

At one city’s convention and visitors bureau, it’s not an academic question.

Recently a computer programmer at the bureau objected to the spelling “Movie Theaters” on the bureau’s website. “Theater is a made-up word,” he told the marketing manager. She explained that they use both spellings, “theatre for performing arts and theater for the place where one views a movie.” The programmer replied …

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These 3 Words Are the Telltale Sign of a Rubbish Script

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“South Park” used the catchphrase before it became a hopeless cliché.

There are actually, in my experience, two giveaways for crummy screenplays or teleplays. The first is the extent to which characters address each other by name. If  you’re writing dialogue with no ear for actual speech, it sort of makes sense to put down lines like “This isn’t about the money, Brian,” or “I long to see you, Ellen,” or “Let’s get one thing straight, Henry,” but that’s not the way real people talk.

The other tel…

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Crisis Management and Proper Usage

E.B. White

I learned something frightening yesterday. Just by chance, really. I happened to discover that in the syllabus for a course on crisis management at a noted law school (a sound and well-organized course as far as I could judge) students are informed that 60 percent of their grade will be based on a case study, and “because proper English usage is essential to effective communication, a portion of the final grade will be based upon compliance with the principles outlined in The Elements…

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From A to Z

imagesFolk etymologies are not unique to the age of Snopes. I discovered this amusing truth just after I’d signed my fellow writer Doug Preston’s letter to the Justice Department encouraging that arm of government to press forward with an investigation of possible monopolistic practices by Amazon.com Inc. First, I was curious about the opposition to Preston’s initiative, which turns out to comprise a small army of self-publishing authors. Their beneficent view of Jeff Bezos’ giant corporation, diametr…

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The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart: “If you smell something, say something”

August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivere…