All posts by Allan Metcalf


Words for a Year of Fear

WOTYwordThis week Time magazine announced its Person of the Year, the person who made the most news in 2016. To nobody’s surprise, that was Donald Trump.

But what about the Word of the Year 2016? That’s a little harder.

Trump certainly inspired neologisms. Witness, for example, David Barnhart’s “Trumptionary” that I have excerpted in previous posts.

March 7:

“The Trumptionary”

March 17:

“The Trumptionary, Part 2″

October 31:

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

Barnhart’s N…


Hey, You Guys! Listen Up!

you-guys-yall-mapGuys, are you listening? Let me tell you a story. A true story, in fact, about Barack Obama.

Obama has good rapport with the presidential press corps. Or so it would seem.

As White House photographers and reporters crowded in to hear Obama and Donald Trump tell how their first meeting went, two days after the November 8 election, Obama ended the session like this:

“Thank you, everybody. We are not going to take questions. Thank you, guys.

“Come on, guys, yeah, c’mon, guys.

“Thank you, guys, appr…


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…


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.


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.



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…


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,”…


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…


Welcome to Norwood University

longwood-debate-badge-dWhatever Mike Pence’s qualifications may be as advocate for the Republican presidential candidate, or for his own vice-presidential and presidential temperament, on Tuesday night he showed himself peerless as a comedian.

In his opening remarks at the vice-presidential debate, he declared, with solemn voice and countenance, “Thank you to Norwood University for their wonderful hospitality and Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s deeply humbling for me to be here.”

Humbling indeed. But he wasn’…


The Vocative in Crisis

Comma Peter Arkle

Illustration courtesy of Peter Arkle*

Readers can you pay attention for a moment?

I know there was a debate last night, but seriously readers wouldn’t you prefer to think about something less ephemeral than a presidential election? Something as durable as … vocatives?

I bet neither candidate mentioned vocatives. And yet there’s a vocative crisis, illustrated in my first two sentences above. Readers, lots of vocatives are losing their protective commas, the commas that set them off from their nei…