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’…


The Wisdom of the American People?


De Tocqueville: Flattery will get you elected.

The phrase “the wisdom of the American people” appears in The New York Times’ s archive precisely 50 times. The first iteration was in 1856 (five years after the newspaper’s founding), describing an address by Senator Sam Houston of Texas, on North-South tensions; read in the light of history, it is redolent with dramatic irony: “He hoped, however, and believed they would terminate without any fearful disaster to the Union, and that the wisdom …


Greetings and Salutations: Endangered Species

Dear readers:

No, that won’t do for an email nowadays. Try again.

Hello, all:

or should my greeting be less hellish? (A generation ago, a county in Texas adopted “heaven-o” as an alternative to “hello.” No, I won’t go that far. Just this — )

Hi, all:

Maybe that will get me off on the right foot. It’s hard to be sure, because in the world of email the salutations aren’t as fixed as they were for communications on paper. Before the internet, a business letter in hard copy would begin “Dear So&So,”…


Banter, Locker Room and Otherwise

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 11.38.35 AMI’ve been thinking about a word that came up in the context of the Trump Tapes.

No, not that word. (Or that one. [Or that one.]) It cropped up in a line of the candidate’s initial nonapology apology, when he said, “This was locker-room banter.”

Locker rooms all over America immediately spoke out in protest, but what caught my ear was banter. It seemed to have an oddly old-fashioned feel, and old-fashioned it turns out to be, having emerged in both noun and verb form in the late 17th century (ety…


The Perils of Being a Cubs Fan


The “W” flag means a win at Wrigley Field

Late this past Tuesday evening, a turning point came in a long and hard-fought campaign, a turning point that may well force a permanent redefinition of what it means to belong to a distinctive group of adherents.

No, nothing as trivial as the current presidential campaign, whose significance pales in comparison with what truly matters — being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. And what that means may be about to undergo a drastic revision.

It is well known that…


20 Things Students Say Help Them Learn

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Illustration by Jerome Corgier for The Chronicle

Near the end of August, the 2014 Business Insider article “10 Things Every College Professor Hates” started circulating on Facebook again. I had just finished the syllabus for my introductory English linguistics class and was feeling excited to be headed back into the classroom. Yet here was this article, which felt so negative. It didn’t come across as entirely respectful of all that students bring to the table. And the piece, aimed at students…


The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing langu…


Trumpadocious Apologies

tumblr_inline_mta1erMmj51qc7mh1How can a statement that begins “I apologize” not be an apology? Many have referred to Donald Trump’s initial statement following the October 5 revelation of a taped conversation featuring lewd and objectifying language about women as a “nonapology.” Having received plenty of similar nonapologies from rebellious teenagers, I’d like to take a moment to explain.

The statement at hand is from Trump’s press release of October 7: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” The syntax is familiar to m…