Category Archives: Words


German for Beginners

Refugees arrive in Germany

Refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, arrive in Bavaria. (Photo by Falk Heller/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

MUNICH — Spende, reads the sign leaning against a tent outside Munich’s main train station. Donations. Items needed for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been pouring into Germany in recent months. Germany, the final destination — the refugees hope — of long, arduous, often heartbreaking journeys from Afghanistan, Somalia and, in greatest numbers, Syria.

Bottled water
Baby formul…


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…


Amid the Amidsts

First-year undergraduate writing leaves so much to be desired that it seems silly to get stuck on two letters. But as I grade my first set of papers, I’m struck by the sudden ubiquity of –st:

  • It is interesting to note that whilst the character is dreaming …
  • The true nature of his actions is unbeknownst to the reader.
  • Amongst his peers, Melville was the best at this.
  • Whilst we should not overly concern ourselves with that here …

What’s going on? Most language mavens see the –st forms of these w…


A Lesson in ‘Lessen’

quote-no-distance-of-place-or-lapse-of-time-can-lessen-the-friendship-of-those-who-are-thoroughly-robert-southey-174988A few months ago we at Lingua Franca received an email from a suffering reader. His eyes are hurting and his ears are subject to a terrible sound. That sound is the verb lessen. Whatever happened to decrease? our discomfited reader would like to know. And couldn’t we simply ban lessen?

As plenty of other readers remind us, there are more urgent problems in the world. But a complaint like this pushes my curiosity button. Contrary to our writer’s impression, the usage of lessen rather than decreas…


Papal Language


The Pope of Mope

The occasion of a papal visit brings with it an opportunity to consider certain comfortable words. I use comfortable in its earlier sense, “strengthening or  supporting (morally or spiritually); encouraging, inspiring, reassuring, cheering,” to which the Oxford English Dictionary archly adds, “Obs. or arch.” But then the papacy has something arch. about it, though it is certainly not obs.

What are these words? To begin with, pope. It goes way back beyond the origin of the papac…


A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singul…


On ‘Diversity’

the-great-seal-of-the-usaI have become allergic to the word diversity. It feels empty, or worse, like a chore. Words lose capital when they are overused or when the cultural climate that fostered their meaning changes. Diversity is a good example.

I am a Latino. I have strongly benefited from the drive toward diversity. I like to think of myself as fostering that drive as well. But the fervor behind it belongs to past decades. Our cultural moment is an altogether different one. America is already deeply, irrevocably div…


The Great Punkin Controversy

tumblr_nus05pehML1tg0kfio1_500Starbucks watchers were taken aback last month when the company made a surprise announcement about its standard-bearing fall beverage. This year, for the first time in its 12-year history, a Pumpkin Spice Latte will contain actual pumpkin, instead of merely spices associated with pumpkin pie.

I will not be able to report on the difference, regrettably. I never tasted the pumpkinless Pumpkin Spice Latte, so vile did it sound to me.

The PSL, as it’s affectionately known, has a cultlike following, …


Members Only


Hobbes’s Leviathan, an organization composed of limbs and other functional elements working together to accomplish something. Like a faculty.

If you want to speak of someone who has a teaching appointment you might refer to her or him as a faculty member or a member of the faculty.

If it were only that simple.

Since the 12th century, the term faculty  has denoted a group, and not any group: a faculty  is an indispensable aggregation and organization, the heart of any institution of higher educat…


A Million Missing Words: The Search Is On


Medal for lexicographic valor would look something like this, only more Wordnik-y (Image courtesy of Wordnik)

They are the dark matter of the lexiverse — a million words of the English language not yet recorded in any dictionary.

Words like these: farecasting, deanling, domainer, hyperloop, unfuckulate, anachronym, smokescreening.

About a million words are already on record in works like the Oxford English Dictionary, with 600,000 words, and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, with 470,000 (many overl…