Monthly Archives: June 2013



Sad news from Germany: the British Telegraph reported this week that the Germans are decommissioning what seems to have been the language’s longest word, the little mouthful that is the title of my post today.

The term, which the Telegraph translates as “law delegating beef label monitoring,” apparently arose during the 1990s in response to bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Spawned by a crisis, the R-word may now be the first linguistic fatality attributable to mad cow disease.

It is perhaps too…


A Trinity of Languages

Banja Luka, Bosnia — Here in the administrative entity known as the Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled part of the country properly called Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina, abbreviated “BiH” locally), they wave the Serbian flag in preference to the national flag of the country they reluctantly belong to; and the people pretend that their national language is three different languages. The mystery of the three in one.

Here is what it says on every pack of cigarettes in BiH:



Unabridged Online

Ever since the publication of its shocking Third Edition in 1961, foes and friends of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, familiarly known as “the Unabridged,” have wondered when the G. and C. Merriam Co. (now Merriam-Webster) would publish a Fourth.

Foes who were shocked by the Third’s inclusion of “ain’t” and “irregardless” without complete condemnation couldn’t wait. The New York Times, Life magazine, and the ABA Journal all suggested keeping copies of the Second on hand rather than…


Silence in the Mind’s Ear

images“Never make predictions,” Casey Stengel warned, “especially about the future.” But we can’t help ourselves. Now linguistics professor David Crystal (was his last name a self-fulfilling prophecy?) is telling audiences like the one at the Hay Literary Festival that Google will be changing our spelling habits. This development, he predicts, will be all to the good for the English language—not because we will start spelling with as iwth, but because we will drop all those irritating, unnecessary sil…


Dying Is Easy

Tobias Funke (David Cross) on "Arrested Development":  "This is ripe for parody. This is ripe!"

Tobias Fünke (David Cross) on “Arrested Development”: “This is ripe for parody. This is ripe!”

Last week I wrote a piece for Slate about how the TV comedy Arrested Development–canceled by Fox in 2006, now streaming a remarkable new season on Netflix–resurrected a long-demeaned sitcom trope, the catchphrase. That’s the tagline we’re always waiting for a character or performer to come out with: Jackie Gleason’s “To the moon!”, the Fonz’s “Ayyy,” Maxwell Smart’s “Sorry about that chief,” and so man…


1ce Upon a Txt

digitalAs usually happens when anyone in the academy takes seriously the kinds of communication that happen outside the academy, John McWhorter’s recent TED talk on texting as a new language has prompted a storm of controversy and a rush to the barricades. On the one hand, the promoters of new expressions, code-switching, and the democratization of language; on the other, the defenders of clear, concise prose written in standard English, on which the effects of texting become clear as soon as a student…


A Blog About Blog Blogs

I got a bang out of Forrest Wickman’s Slate article a couple of weeks ago decrying the trend of calling a blog post or blog entry a “blog.” Haven’t noticed the trend? You will; it’s a thing. Wickman points out that going along with this can make you sound silly. He correctly calls the late Roger Ebert a “terrific writer,” but quotes an unfortunate Ebert tweet from February: “Robin Roberts is back, and Tom Shales hails her ‘rousing return’ in his new blog, just now posted on my blog.” Brings to m…


When Fizzling Was Taboo

donkeyReviving obsolete meanings of words is largely a futile business, but with the verb fizzle, it just might be worth the effort. At least it’s worth a chuckle.

My own discovery of this word’s history happened two years ago with an innocent question. A friend called me up and asked me about the etymology of the word sizzle. (Yes, my friends really do call me up with these kinds of questions.) The answer to my friend’s question is not all that interesting: according to the Oxford English Dictionary,…


Getting In and Out (and Looked At)

Descriptive grammarians get mistaken for the grammar police—vigilant, judgmental, and punitive. New acquaintances who learn that I’m a linguist working on the grammar of Standard English often say nervously, “Ooh, I’d better watch my language then!” or something similar. Sometimes I just smile weakly; or sometimes, stifling a sigh, I will protest gently that linguists are not trying to catch them committing solecisms, that we do not seek to rule, that we’re interested in how language actually wo…



In 1961, the most shocking event in American lexicographical history took place: publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

Half a century later, it’s hard to imagine the shock and awe it engendered among those who held “The Dictionary” in reverence, and who took Webster’s New International Dictionary to be The Dictionary, not only because it was The Authority but also because it also was The Unabridged.

Its predecessor, the 1934 second edition of the International, certainly l…