All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Truly Weighty Words

IMG_2138Once upon a time, way back in the 20th century, newspapers were not electronic but mechanical. Last week I reminisced about the mechanical tools used by reporters and copy editors: the standard manual typewriter, powered by the writer’s own fingers; half-sheets of newsprint rolled through the typewriter and taking imprints of the keys; and a No. 1 soft black Mirado pencil for marking paragraphs and making corrections.

But one big step was still needed before the marked-up typewriter copy, light …

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Weighty Words of Yesteryear

Vintage-40s-UNDERWOOD-Standard-Manual-Typewriter-Art-Deco-_57Nowadays, thanks to the internet (which has lost its capital letter in the AP stylebook, for becoming too ordinary) and our numerous computers, smartphones, and other devices, our words flit from device to device to publication as light as their weight in electrons.

But as we veterans of the 20th century know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, back before anyone had thought of cluttering our (literal) desktops with computers, when our words were always hard copy, beginning with ink on…

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Language Birthers

shakespeare

Shakespeare birthers believe that anyone but the Bard wrote the plays and sonnets.

Birther is an excellent word, invented about a decade ago to designate those who claimed, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Africa (or Asia — anywhere outside U.S. territory) and thus prohibited by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution from holding the office of president of the United States. (Nobody claimed that he had not attained the age of at least 35 years, or had not been a resident…

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You Say EEther, I Say AYEther

76019either or neitherSay what you will about it, either deserves a second look. Or a second hearing. And neither too, for that matter.

In a usage book like Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, you’ll see that in its written form, either presents usage experts with conundrums, having to do with meaning and verb agreement. Even to summarize those discussions would occupy more space than this entire column, so forget about that. What I’m interested in is a simpler yet more mysterious matter: how you s…

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Virginia Festival of the Book

VA-Book-Fest-2017-620x400-DLBooks are still alive and well.

I discovered this last weekend in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, at the 23rd annual Virginia Festival of the Book. Authors too are alive and well, and abundant. There were hundreds of them, surrounded by thousands of books, at tables filling the lobby of the Omni Hotel. Along with hundreds more of bibliophiles, browsing and buying.

Even the sun contributed to the festivities, shining benevolently through a cool sky on outdoor book displays.

T…

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OK, Okay, Happy 178th Birthday!

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 3.51.37 PMThis Thursday, March 23, 2017, is the 178th birthday of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word.

OK?

Yes, OK is the word. And it was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on Saturday, March 23, 1839.

Actually, OK was so successful from the beginning that its birthday couldn’t be discerned until more than a century later, when the Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read published a series of articles on OK in the journal American Speech. Perusing nearly every page of every newspaper…

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A Dash of Zhouzh

a4395f381cf4a0f070e8acd1cc5ca721I’ve been told that my posts could use a little more zhoozh. If only I knew what it means, and how to spell it! Is it zhush, zhuzh, tjuz, tjuzs, joozh, zoozh, or —? Is that a noun, or maybe a verb? Let’s see. …

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zhouzh. If Duke Ellington (right) had been a millennial, that’s the word he might have used in place of “swing” — though admittedly there would have been a problem with the rhyme.

The word became prominent a decade ago in the reality TV show Quee…

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Unicorns and Their Opposite

unicorn

Katie Workman, an independent retailer, wears unicorn leggings.

As James Thurber once explained in his fable “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the unicorn is a mythical beast. To argue otherwise labels you crazy as a jay bird.

But if you’re really looking for a real unicorn nowadays, you can find it at LuLaRoe. And for that matter, donkeys too. Who knew?

Not I, certainly,

It turns out that LuLaRoe makes, among other things for women, leggings — highly decorative pants that fit like tights. Suitabl…

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Ay Ay Ay

habanro-golden-pepperOne “ay” is a vote, a favorable vote. (It avoids the hissing of Yesssss.)

Two “ays,” “Aye Aye,” is a Yes sir, yes ma’am.

But three “ays” — Ay ay ay!

Here’s the scene. Last week Top Chef whisked its final three candidates to the Yucatan for their Quickfire Challenge. There they learned that their Quickfire dish was to feature the habanero — fruity, citrusy, and spicy, according to the show’s host, Padma Lakshmi. “If you think it’s hot outside,” she said, “this ingredient is going to make you swea…

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Bowery Dance With Boilo?

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Pennsylvania’s boilo

Boy howdy! The Dictionary of American Regional English has done it again — issued its quarterly online update, this one dated Winter 2017. It includes boy howdy as well as bowery, a place where you go for a bowery dance. And you can look it all up for free.

If you’re in the South, the central states, or the Southwest, chances are you’ve heard boy howdy. DARE has examples going back as far as a century ago, with the comment “The exclaim use seems to have arisen, or at least b…