Monthly Archives: November 2016


From N.H. to La.: ‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ Update No. 6

5827-dare-mapWhat do bob house, boo-hag, and bullnozer have to do with each other?

In case you’re not familiar with these terms, a bob house is what people in New Hampshire, some of them at least, call an ice-fishing shanty.  A boo-hag, in South Carolina, is a kind of ghost, by one account a “witchy  woman … who can unzip her corporeal body and hang it up like a coat.” And a bullnozer, in the Appalachians and vicinity, is just another name for bulldozer.

But what do they have in common? Maybe a story of a bo…


The Unoriginality of Orwell’s Critique of Language

PoliticsandtheEnglishLanguageI had always imagined that the ideas Orwell so tediously overstates and disingenuously defends in his megafamous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL), though impractical and dishonest, were original with him. But I discovered by accident recently that they aren’t.

The best-known theme of P&EL concerns how long words encourage intellectual laziness, cloaking thought in airy abstraction and lending a polysyllabic patina of respectability to obnoxious political and legal…


Can ‘Supercede’ Supersede?

Last March, I posted a spelling challenge here on Lingua Franca: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? Earlier this term, the graduate-student instructor for my introductory English linguistics course gave this challenge to students, and we got one suggestion that had not occurred to me. And I’m sold.

If one thing replaces another thing, it supersedes it

Is that how you spell supersede? Or do you want the word to have a c and be supercede?

The spellchecker on my computer just b…


Sexual-Abuse Gangs and Racism

Back in August, a huge public inquiry into child sexual abuse in Britain lost its third leader when Judge Lowell Goddard resigned as chair. The Times reported her as having remarked that the reason Britain has so many pedophiles is “because it has so many Asian men.” That assertion (which she firmly denies making) has been condemned as racist. I wish people would use the dictionary a bit more. racism_entry Racism is a thesis — the single greatest ideological evil in human history, in my view. It holds tha…


T Time: Real Money

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” That’s one of the best-known sayings around Capitol Hill, generally attributed to Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican who served as minority leader in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the researchers Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro have shown, however, Dirksen didn’t originate the saying, which goes back to the Depression of the 1930s. But he did popularize it as a way to satirize government extravagance.


Election Lexicon RIP

Dead WordsEvery election has its own lexicon, or sublexicon, a cohort of words and phrases that go beyond my opponent and interest groups. In 2008, we had financial meltdown, change, country first, aloof, that one, yes we can, and other tidbits that were mostly returned to the stacks once the dust had settled on the campaign. The same held true for lingo that has lingered only as historical slogans now removed from their context—Tippecanoe and Tyler too; rum, Romanism, and rebellion; morning again.



How Does It Feel?

ows_147681816330759I feel that today is a day when it’s incumbent on me to be newsworthy, so I’m writing about …

Bob Dylan. When the announcement came last month that he had been selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the ensuing hue and cry was, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano has noted, predictable.  The notion of Dylan-as-poet had been controversial for more than 50 years. Bobby Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minn., adopted a poet’s last name and over the years published a book of verse (Tarantula), a s…


Witticisms, Plagiarism, and Language History

Not the originator

Not the originator.

My post last week, wondering who first dismissed the oboe as an ill wind, elicited a slew of interesting comments and private emails. Let me try to pull all the information together in a more organized form.

Jeff DeMarco led off the comments, noting that the oboe jibe turned up in Laurence McKinney’s humorous poetic introduction to the orchestra, People of Note. (That’s a pun. Geddit?) Published January 1, 1940, that book would appear to predate “Anatole of Paris,” the song…


Girl Talk

mgid-uma-image-logotvMaybe it’s because I’m in the midst of teaching Mary Karr’s groundbreaking 1995 memoir, The Liars’ Club, but when I hear about studies that purport to determine the differences between how men and women speak, I want, in Karr’s inimitable lexicon, to earp.

Granted, these studies do not decree that biology is destiny. But they do claim to have sifted through thousands of language samples looking for language that is “aggressive” and language that is “tentative” and studying the parts of s…


Your Guys’: Opinion

poster-650849c3-e0a4-4c85-beaa-3700ba512613A small number of functions combine to account for the lion’s share of innovation to the language. There’s argot from a variety of subcultures, anthimeria, piquant grammatical solecisms (“One never knows, do one?”), the occasional neologism like gobsmacked, and, perhaps most productively of all, what I call creative redundancy. Thus listen gets juiced up to listen up, tweet to tweet out, “the most unkind cut of all” to “the most unkindest cut of all,” and “Raid Kills Bugs” to “Raid Kills Bugs De…