Category Archives: Words

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Catfishing


A recent classroom experience left me with the exhilarating feeling of having found a new word usage, barely a few years old, that has become a fixture in how we approach the world.

This semester I’ve been teaching a course called “Impostors” that focuses on actors, spies, forgers, translators, plagiarizers, and other transgressors assuming someone else’s identity for commercial, political, psychological, artistic, or other purposes. Students read Plato, Diderot, Cervantes, and Freud, wat…

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Waiting for the Word of 2014

For 2014 there seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year, as I said last week. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of candidates. Just last week, for example, the news from Washington was generously sprinkled with enhanced interrogation techniques, the disputed CIA practice for obtaining information, and cromnibus, the disputed Congressional practice for obtaining government funding.

The lack of an obvious WOTY 2014 doesn’t mean that the American Dialect Society won’…

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Vape-ing Till Ready

15495901505_202ae094cf_mSo on a rainy Monday in D.C. last month, at the Pavilion Café in the sculpture garden on the National Mall, I was lunching with Joan Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, and Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. That’s the committee that oversees the society’s annual choice of Word of the Year. And we agreed 2014 hasn’t been the greatest year for a WOT…

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Ain’t It Awful?

Recently I was at a dinner party where people were using the words awful  and awesome, possibly as antonyms. Awful  was, I thought, used to describe something very bad, awesome something very good.

The words awesome and awful have been doing do-si-do with one another for a while. So are they the same word? And if so, what word is that, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary records awful as medieval. Since the ninth century, it’s been the high-toned term of choice meaning “awe-inspiring,” in…

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This Transatlantic Life

I’ll grant that it might have been my location at the time—sitting in a university clinic—that made the phrase “winding up in hospital” jump out at me when listening to a recent podcast of This American Life. But I put the jolt down to the lack of an article. This was This American Life, after all, and the speaker, Nancy Updike, sounded as Yankee as they come; shouldn’t it have been “winding up in the hospital”?

Well, yes, according to custom and Google’s Ngram viewer:

That’s looking in the Ame…

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Will ‘Selfie’ Stick?

Earlier this year I welcomed selfie as a new word that reflected the unselfish selfishness of the currently young millennial generation, epitomized by the Electronic Dance Music song “Selfie” by the Chainsmokers.

That, I thought, was my last word on selfie. But I was wrong. I had missed an important accessory, the selfie stick. This is a device that extends the reach of the camera to twice arm’s length (one arm, one stick, end to end) so the selfie can capture a wider picture. It’s not widely us…

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Super!

blurb_mparty6_mario_20080911One of the many casualties of spell checkers is students’ ability to describe their family rituals. Too frequently, recently, they seem to be having super in the dinning room. And from their emails, I infer that the typographical slip comes from the superfluity of the word super, which pops up everywhere, mostly as an adverb: super happy, super hungry, super fantastic. I noticed it particularly when I learned of the passing of a friend’s mother from a mutual friend who wrote to say that he was s…

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The List Lilt

Stephen Potter

Stephen Potter

I told you about vocal fry. And you know all about uptalk? The inflection that was first discussed by Robin Lakoff in 1976, that was given its name by James Gorman in a 1993 New York Times article, and that continues to rouse the ire of right-thinking people everywhere?

Well, here’s a new one, which I started noticing a couple of years ago, among friends, colleagues, students, and National Public Radio interviewees (basically, my audio universe). It’s a way of voicing a list as if…

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Acknowledging the Corn

It’s time to take a breather from rescuing the humanities. So in this week of Thanksgiving, let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the corn.

William Bradford (1590-1657)

Corn—Indian corn—was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621 along with waterfowl, wild turkeys, and venison, according to William Bradford’s memoir Of Plymouth Plantation. (Bradford didn’t mention the Thanksgiving dinner, but he did name the foods the colony had in abundance.)

And it is significant that thi…

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An Angel for the Humanities

Last week in this space I regretted the lack of an acronym identifying the fields of the humanities, an acronym that would be a counterpart to the scientists’ successful STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A hundred readers joined in the discussion, and one, I think, came up with the answer to our prayers: RAPHAEL.

It would signify:

R – Religion
A – Art
P – Philosophy
H – History
A – Aesthetics
E – English
L -Languages

Admittedly, the acronym isn’t perfect.

—If Art, why not Music and Th…