Monthly Archives: November 2015


Professorial Parlance

Thomas_Nagel_teaching_EthicsLike my colleague Ben Yagoda, I was intrigued by Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times article on modes of speaking, but for a different reason. Toward the end of the article, Wayne observes that, unlike social-media writers or radio hosts,

In disciplines like academics, technology and finance, many speakers pepper long speeches with “right.” Their pitch does not rise on the word, which comes in the middle of a series of statements — “analytics are most valuable over long periods, right, t…


Broadcast(ed) News

An astute indexlanguage observer I know emailed me a few weeks back with the subject heading: “changing past tense form?” I was intrigued before I even opened the email. He knows how to hook a language geek.

The verbs at issue were cast-verbs, including cast, broadcast, fly-cast, and the like. The bit of journalism that had sparked the question was from a blurb on the Skimm from September 24, 2015:

Yesterday, Egypt’s president woke up and said ‘today’s a good day to pardon prisoners.’ He released 100…


American Stars and Hearts

(Image from

(image from

If Twitter users want to respond to a tweet, they have three options: reply to it, retweet it, or mark it with a symbol of approval. Over the past couple of weeks, Twitter has begun changing that symbol from a star to a heart, and the word the symbol represents from “Favorite” to “Like.”

On its blog, the company gave an explanation for the momentous shift:

We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, es…


WOTY Primaries Begin at Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries


Narcississtick, a less-than-kind word for a selfie stick, was one of last year’s nominations. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

As I mentioned here last week, the Word of the Year season is upon us. More than five-sixths of 2015 has gone by, time enough to think of the word (or phrase, or prefix, or abbreviation) that best reflects the interests, style, attitudes, and preoccupations of the year so far.

The American Dialect Society, meeting early next year in Washington, D.C., with the Lingu…


Prepositions as Conjunctions, Whales as Fish


Imagine that the national government controlled education down to fine details of what to teach and how to test it, and in your own subject the government required that modern research should be ignored, and unreconstructed 18th-century beliefs should be taught.

Welcome to my world. I’m not talking about the attempts of dull-witted US school boards to push creationism into the science curriculum. I’m talking about a sample grammar test published by the Standards and Testing Agency of the Britis…


So, NPR Voice, Ya Know …


Ira Glass at Carnegie Hall
(Photo by Brighterorange via Wikimedia Commons)

I was frankly a little disappointed to read Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times piece “‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves.” Not that I’m not obsessed with the way people talk on the programs carried by National Public Radio stations. (If you have any doubt on that point, you can read my extensive reflections on the matter here.) The problem — suggested by the singular in the title — is that there isn’t just one NPR vo…


Basic WOTY

WOTY-scrabbleAll of a sudden it’s November. And now that the end of the year is in sight, it’s time for WOTY season to begin.

What’s WOTY? That’s the convenient acronym (pronounced woe-tea) used by those of us who are intrigued by the notion of a Word of the Year — a word that captures the spirit, or concerns, or activities, or peculiarities of the year gone by.

It’s like Time magazine’s choice of a Person (formerly Man) of the Year. In fact, that was the inspiration when the American Dialect Society institu…


Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forg…



71ZjwgbXMAL._SL1500_I write this not long after New England’s first frost, when the temperatures have suddenly rebounded into the 70s. Everyone I know calls this Indian summer. Everyone I know loves it. And every year I wonder what to do about the potential racism.

Very few people say Indian giver; most preschool teachers now tell their 3-year-olds to sit cross-legged, not Indian style. These terms have been effectively identified as racist: a so-called Indian giver has purportedly given something only to snatch it…


Is [Blank]gasm a Thing?

On a recent Daily Show, Trevor Noah casually slipped the term nerdgasm  into his riff on the new Star Wars trailer.

Wait, what? Did Noah just deploy a term denoting a family-friendly eruption of delight not remotely connected with sex? Is  [blank]gasm now a thing? Is -gasm  the new like? 

Only last week I walked past a store called Shoegasm. This Manhattan retailer describes itself as “a trendsetting shoe parlor”  offering  “shoes you’ll want at prices you’ll love.” OK, so somethi…