Monthly Archives: October 2016


Trumptionary 3: Barnhart’s Never-Finished Dictionary of Politics

Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 12.55.10 PMWhatever fate the electorate has for Donald Trump next week, he has already gained such attention that he has inspired the media to unprecedented heights in devising new words. A lone lexicographer from the renowned Barnhart lexicographical family has undertaken to collect a heap of these words for posterity, giving each the documentation that befits a historical dictionary.

Last March I had the pleasure and privilege of reporting in Lingua Franca two excerpts from this burgeoning collection.



Nasty, Nasty, Nasty!

Brocken spectre over Glenridding

Oh, that nasty woman. Wait – isn’t Halloween about nasty women? A 1990 film released in English as The Nasty Girl was originally titled Das schreckliche Mädchen schrecklich here means something like awful or terrible, but it can also mean horrible in the Halloween-y sense.

Nasty  is rich with definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary dates nasty to the late 14th century and meaning filthy or dirty. Like a perfume with complex notes, nasty can also mean “offens…


Point of Order

What do we do when we revise, on a sentence level? The list of tasks to be performed is relatively short:

  1. Fine-tune the language so it is precise and clear and says what you want to say.
  2. Omit Strunkian needless words: unhelpful redundancies, extraneities, throat-clearing, and arm-waving.
  3. Impart, to the extent you can, elegance and grace, whether in the form of a fresh figure of speech, eliminating word repetition, substituting a simple word for a long one, inserting an unusual but apt word, or …

Just What the Politicians Need: 50,000 More Words of Slang

Greens6a01348772fa47970c01bb0941e428970dAs we approach the final days of an astonishingly acrimonious U.S. presidential campaign, it might appear that partisans on both sides are in danger of exhausting their supply of vitriol. How many ways can you insult women and immigrants, tax evaders and deplorables? Do you run the risk of putting voters to sleep when you repeat the same words again and again — bigot, racist, prejudice, paranoia?

Fortunately, just when we’re running low on labels to castigate the opposition, a new resource of un…


How’s ‘Hence’?

HENCEA few days ago a friend and I were texting back and forth about getting training in public speaking, and she wrote:

I think there will be more requests. Hence the value of strengthening skills now. (Does anyone use “hence” anymore??)

I would guess she meant this as a rhetorical question, but there are few if any rhetorical questions about language around me. I decided to look into the health of hence, outside the academy.

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that hence is one of the c…


An Ill Wind That No One Blows Good


It’s one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied, and perhaps the hardest to source. A search through the chaos of the web rapidly reveals that it has been speculatively attributed to at least a dozen people: Sir Thomas Beecham, Ambrose Bierce, Bennett Cerf, Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, Laurence McKinney, Ogden Nash, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. Even the musical instrument it describes is also in dispute: I have seen it confidently app…


Bye-Bye, Cursive

24036fc0ea26e7d3657786ab89f4602bA colleague of mine assigns one paper each semester that must be handwritten. He doesn’t just require students to hand-write a draft; they must write the whole paper by hand, and after he corrects it by hand, they must rewrite a final copy of the whole thing. I’ve expressed astonishment that he’s able to read his students’ handwriting. “I’m used to it,” he says. “And everyone who takes my classes knows, now, about the handwriting assignment. They ask, ‘When are you going to ass…


Orgies, Convoys, and Precision in Word Meanings

convoy-line-2 Apropos of whether the web is changing English, I discussed Choire Sicha’s writing, but not Katy Waldman’s example of it, which concerned the definition of orgy. Sicha riffs humorously on how many participants there must be, and I was reminded of two important but oft-forgotten facts about word meanings.

The first is simply that meanings change swiftly and radically over just a few decades. Fifty years ago dictionaries said orgies were ceremonies honoring ancient Greek deities with ecstatic sin…


-Gated Out

bXeDS7HaBCOa1X3PmYWhuwWith all the political news jamming the airwaves, I hadn’t been paying much attention to Bridgegate. But it came up on the radio the other day, and I found myself musing both on the appropriateness of the term and the exhaustion of the suffix –gate.

The term seems amusingly appropriate since in essence, that’s what Governor Chris Christie’s minions accomplished on the infamous week in 2013 when they blocked two lanes going over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan: They erected a “g…


Our Divided Nation

No one who hasn’t been living under a rock could be unaware that America is divided over a man who has been pushed — suddenly and improbably — to one of the pinnacles in the mountain range of fame.

His five-letter name has been known to us for years, yet only in 2016 have we been asked to think of him in an entirely new guise. Mention of his name is enough to provoke  stirring cheers and a sense of deep puzzlement, even disappointment. Shouldn’t it have been someone else?

The man’s name isn’…