Category Archives: Words

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The ‘Girlfriend’ Experience

Paris Hilton and dog.

Paris Hilton and her tiny dog.

Certain books are so brilliant in idea and execution that they are deservedly and repeatedly revised, eventually coming to be referred to by the author’s last name long after his or her death. So we now have new versions of the 1743 A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist: Containing the Laws of the Game and Also Some Rules; the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language; and the 1926 Modern English Usage. We call them Hoyle, Webster’s, and Fowler.

I hope one d…

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Solecizing Roget

MadLibsI’ve already confessed my love of Roget’s Thesaurus, so I am not simply going to pile on with the current wave of complaints about its popularity among students. This popularity, dubbed Rogeting by the British lecturer Chris Sadler, is apparently a side effect of rampant plagiarism and professors’ efforts to curb it by means of software like Turnitin.

The idea is simple, and familiar to me from the research essays we were assigned to write long ago, in seventh grade, on topics like “China” o…

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Won’t You Guess My Name?

Melek_tausI didn’t know I was named for the devil until I studied on an exchange program in Belgium. There, I would be introduced as “Mademoiselle Luci Férriss,” and the people who had begun stretching out their hands would recoil. “Lucifer!” they exclaimed more than once. “Why would your parents have saddled you with such a name?”

The answer, of course, is that my parents hadn’t thought they were naming me after the Prince of Darkness. The origin of my first name is the Latin word for light. The origin o…

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Local Boy Makes Word?

431311Idea for a sitcom: The Big Lang. Theory. Premise is that a bunch of language nerds sit around and talk about their observations, obsessions, and pet peeves. Let’s say their names are Geoffrey, Lucy, Allan, and Ben, and that they’ve got some wacky neighbors, Bill, Anne, Ilan, and Rose. For the pilot episode,  one of the gang, scouring the databases and corpora, thinks she has found a use of a word published prior to the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it turns out to come …

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LGBTQQ2IA

It continues to be an education. Back in the late 20th century, we learned (as we had kind of known all along) that people were not simply male or female but heterosexual or homosexual. The latter we learned to designate as gay, as opposed to straight. And then we learned to separate homosexuals by gender as gay or lesbian. So far, so good.

But then, as we investigated sexuality and gender identity more thoroughly, other types made themselves known. There were bisexuals, whose sexuality encompas…

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The Great Dog Robber

Among the celebrated actors who have died recently, James Garner deserves particular celebration for his charm, good humor, and versatility. If you’re nostalgic for what Southern California was really like in the 1970s, when real estate wasn’t yet sky high and there still were open spaces, look no further than the six seasons of The Rockford Files made back then. My excuse for celebrating him in Lingua Franca, however, is his use of an odd military term: dog robber.

Garner was cast as a dog robb…

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Hard Facts

How long will the meeting last? I asked the caller. We had a visiting group coming to campus. They had a busy schedule. The meeting would end by noon, I was told, because the group had a hard out.

For a moment, the line went dead.  Seriously? A hard out?  Was a hard out  the equivalent of a really good excuse, like a sick aunt who needed to be driven to the clinic?  (“So sorry I can’t make the company rolfing workshop, but Aunt Tilda couldn’t do a thing without me.”)

But no, a hard out is an imm…

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Little Help, Please?

John Updike once commented in a letter to his editor William Maxwell, “It occurs to me that the world would not be significantly poorer if I stopped writing altogether. Only a bottomless capacity for envy keeps me going. That, and the pleasure of reading proofs and designing book jackets.”

I know what he meant, though I would never presume to design a book jacket, or, indeed, anything. One exercise I do get pleasure from is fussing with what to call a book. My forthcoming history of American …

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The Ultimate Dude: TR?

theodore_roosevelt_genealogyDude, there seems to be no end to curiosity about the word that began as a label for a sissified dandy in New York City but developed into almost the coolest label for a young man nowadays, as well as a cool form of address to persons of any gender. Dude was unknown in 1882 but swept the nation in 1883, thanks to the equivalent of the Internet in those days: newapapers.

And yet—did the meme really begin on January 14, 1883, with an 84-line poem in the New York World by Robert Sale Hill? Or was d…

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Folks, It’s Torture

gordian-knotThere probably is such a thing a scrutinizing a public speaker’s language too carefully—but not on this blog. Our radar screen lit up this past week as the Twittersphere ricocheted responses to President Obama’s August 1 one-liner: “We tortured some folks.”

The We here are the agents of the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. And while the words tortured and folks have received most of the attention, the rhetorical use of the first-person plural performs an interesting sleight of hand….