Tag Archives: language

Waiting for the word of 2014

For 2014 there seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year. 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 […] … learn more→

Dumb writing advice, Part 1: Word prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would […] … learn more→

Dudgeons and Dragons

High dudgeon. No it’s not a charming village outside of Oxford, but it’s a place all right, and it’s where a lot of us academic types live. The Google NGram Viewer would suggest that dudgeon, meaning something like a fit of temper, enjoyed its heyday in the century or before World War II, a point […] … learn more→

Your brain on metaphors

The player kicked the ball. The patient kicked the habit. The villain kicked the bucket. The verbs are the same. The syntax is identical. Does the brain notice, or care, that the first is literal, the second metaphorical, the third idiomatic? It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have […] … learn more→

An unexpected english lesson

So I walk into the little dry cleaners near my office and these are the first words I hear: “Where were you? In bed with your—Polack!” For a split second I’m stopped in my tracks. I listened for a moment to the voice coming from some unidentified space between the full-length mirror and the ironing […] … learn more→

All set with that

I recently returned from a vacation to southeastern Massachusetts, where my wife grew up and I know of as the home of the greatest restaurant in the world (apologies to Calvin Trillin, longtime advocate of Arthur Bryant’s barbecue joint in Kansas City). I refer to The Bayside, in Westport, Mass., which claims the honor via […] … learn more→

‘Origins Unknown’

It’s such an American thing, an impartial observer might say: taking pride in an unclear ancestry. But as lovers of words know, etymology, like genealogy, gets mixed up in interesting ways. Most words have traceable origins. Sometimes, though, we have nothing to go on, and so we get the dictionary’s best guesses: • from Wolof […] … learn more→

Communicating with the public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published in Seven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than 1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a […] … learn more→

Goodbye, goodbye. . .

Here’s something we wouldn’t say nowadays. It’s in a “parlor ballad” published in The Social Harp (1855): Farewell, farewell is a lonely sound, And always brings a sigh, But give to me that good old word That comes from the heart, good-bye. Adieu, adieu, may do for the gay, When pleasure’s throng is nigh, But […] … learn more→

Pedal to the medal

Pedal to the medal

The manufactured snow has barely melted at the Sochi Winter Olympics, but I’ll take a moment to reflect on what I thought was the rise of the verb to medal, meaning of course to win gold, silver, or bronze in Olympic competition. If you’re an Olympic athlete, you want to medal. You want to medal […] … learn more→