Category Archives: Words

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Back to Back ‘Back’

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“Walk back the cat”refers to  a boat’s cat-davit (crane in the bow).

When it comes to forming idioms and slang expressions, few words are more productive than back. It accounts for 12½ pages in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, from back (a weaker drink to go along with a stronger one, as in “a whiskey with a beer back”) to backyard (n. [US] the buttocks, esp. in the context of anal sex.”) In the Beatles catalog alone, there’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ll Be Back,” and “Get Back,” and, among other…

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What Are We Drinking?

Kool-AidI ran across a Facebook thread recently lamenting the insensitivity of the ubiquitous phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” The argument was that the phrase originated with the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978, when the cult leader Jim Jones called on (and in many cases forced) his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, resulting in more than 900 deaths in a remote jungle outpost in Guyana. Given its tragic origins, many felt, we should not be using it to describe, say, the followers of Dona…

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New in DARE: Bird’s Nest on the Ground

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The six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2012, continues to augment its coverage with quarterly updates by the chief editor, George Goebel, at the University of Wisconsin. The fifth update, for summer 2016, has just been published, with a dozen new entries and 40 revised ones. Most of the entries update or enrich the letter B, originally published in Volume I more than 30 years ago.

You can take a free look here.

What will you find? To begin…

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What’s the Matter With ‘Me’?

When did we decide that me was ungrammatical? Or if not ungrammatical, then maybe vulgarly self-promoting?

“Sally, who had given the keys to Jim and I, discovered that she was locked out of her office.”

“Congratulations from Susan and I on inheriting that time share!”

“Sadly, the carton of tangelos promised to Mildred, Juan, and I never reached Bushwick.”

The problem is hardly new,  and writers on usage, including Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), have gently admonished us to mind our I’s and m…

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In the Phonetic Jungle

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A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “…

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Obviously, That Is an Idiotic Question

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Zappa

Frank Zappa once said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” The same could be said for sports journalism. Except that in sports journalism, there is a whole lot more interviewing. Athletes are continually quizzed about their thoughts, feelings and reactions — in the locker room before and after games, on the field by “sideline reporters,” in more formal studio sit-downs. Coaches typically have presidential-style post…

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I Have No Word

A World War II-era service flag. (Library of Congress.)

The other day, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Karen Meredith, who, along with other parents whose children had died in the military, had signed an open letter to Donald Trump asking him to apologize for his comments about the parents of late Army Capt. Humayun Khan. Meredith observed:

Losing a child, you know — there’s not a name. If you lose your parents, you’re an orphan, but there’s no name for a parent who has lost a child, not…

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Sidestepping Haters

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-lyrics-maxresdefaultA year ago, Lucy Ferriss evoked two dozen responses to her Lingua Franca post “Be a Lover,” where hater and its antonyms (lover among them) were the focus of attention.

Now, a year later, hater is hotter than ever. In the words of Donald Trump, for example: “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump. A hater. He’s a hater.”

The recent prominence of hater and hate has been traced back in part to Taylor Swift, who two years ago sang, “The players gonna play, play, play, play, play, and the hat…

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Bad Optics

“Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious,” wrote Manohla Dargas in her review of The Legend of Tarzan in The New York Times.  This time around, the muscular white expanse of Tarzan is supplied by Alexander Skarsgard, who induces no eye strain. The use of optics is another matter.

Optics, the science of light and lenses and sight, has given way in popular use to the sense of “the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceiv…

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‘To Boot’

boot copyA friend was describing an eclectic coffee shop slash clothing store that he had discovered. He added, “They sell shoes to boot!” We laughed at his unintentional word play (shoes to boot — you get it). And then I got distracted. By “to boot.”

It’s a funny expression once you think about it (why a boot?), but that’s not actually what distracted me. I learned a few years ago where the phrase comes from — and that it has nothing to do with footwear. The boot in to boot goes back to the Old English …