All posts by Ben Yagoda

by

The Half-Life of Metaphors

220px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_portrait

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a m…

by

The Ken Burns Effect

middle_02

Ken Burns is responsible for dozens of distinguished historical documentary films, most famously The Civil War (1990) and most recently The Vietnam War, a 10-part series co-directed with Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September. One characteristic of these films is zooming in and out of and panning across archival photographs. The device is so striking that it’s come to be known as “the Ken Burns effect”— not only informally but officially in Apple editing programs like iMovie and Final …

by

Comey, I Salute You!

gettyimages-632412476

Trump pressing Comey’s flesh the day after his inauguration. Photo: Andrew Harrer via Getty Images

Last week’s congressional testimony by James Comey was fascinating to anyone interested in politics, human relations, or, to the point, language. A monograph could probably be written about President Trump’s use of the word hope in his remark (in Comey’s recollection), “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” and in fact another Lingua Franca blogger may explore …

by

Brother, Can You ‘Anodyne’?

Thumbnail-No-104-Single-Shoe-Shoes

Sometimes a word is just ready for its close-up. My friend Jim Ericson commented to me that this is now the case with anodyne, and he was right. The Google News database charts 102 uses of it in the past 30 days, including six posted on June 2 alone:

  • A New York Times article called “How to Raise a Feminist Son” was ” … promptly excoriated by right-wing trolls, none of whom seemed to have actually read the article, which is filled with such anodyne nuggets as ‘let him be himself’ and ‘teach him…
by

Ain’t It Hard

WhiteClaw1-300x244

Plain words have rich histories and variegated trajectories. One of the plainest, hard, accounts for 75 separate Oxford English Dictionary definitions in its adjective form alone, and continues to go forth and multiply.

Consider some of the phrases in which hard appears. You can give someone a hard time, be hard of hearing, play hardball, do something the hard way, take a hard look, or go in for the hard sell. We speak of hard bargains, cheese (the British expression meaning “tough luck”), copi…

by

Are You Fed Up of Preposition Creep?

PJVOGTa757a7c0f67e11e58d840b4ac2dd4585_content_medium

P.J. Vogt of “Reply All”

Now that my kids are out of the house and I’m in the process of retiring from teaching, I have to be more creative in my efforts to find out how young people are using the language. One place I like to look, or listen, is the excellent “Reply All” podcast, specifically the talk of P.J. Vogt, one of the hosts, who was born in 1985. He says “off-ten,” he’s fond of super as an intensifier and like as, like, a qualifier, and in the most recent episode he used the word overth…

by

Fulsome Praisin’ Blues

170509_JURIS_yeats-testifying.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

Sally Yates (photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

My mother, the late Harriet Yagoda, was a language stickler in the best sense of the word. That is, she very purposefully declined to use loan as a verb, referred to”ant-ee-” (not “ant-eye-) biotics, answered the phone with “This is she,” and, rather magnificently, said “he became bar mitzvah” instead of “he got bar mitzvahed.” But, as far as I remember, she never corrected people who didn’t follow her example. Not even me. Or I.

I frequently think of anot…

by

Blogger Ben Yagoda on False Titles

henry luce

Time founder Henry Luce, friend to false titles.

 

A few years back, linguist and Lingua Franca contributor Geoffrey Pullum wrote a post on Language Log where he set out the first sentences of two books by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Geoff went on to observe:

This use of a person’s name preceded …

by

‘Whomever’ Revisionism

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.51.22 AM

I admit to being a whomever scold. As I observed in this space in 2014, most of the times one encounters the word, it’s used incorrectly. I am not alone in this feeling. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s second definition of whomever is: “Misused for whoever as subject of relative clause preceded by a preposition.”

An example is the headline at the top of this post, which appeared in the Pasadena Star-News on April 24. The editor who wrote the headline fell into this trap because for (like all pr…

by

Suffixery

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 9.48.21 AM

Letter to the editor, “The Guardian,” April 22, 2017

Kory Stamper, associate editor of Merriam-Webster and author of the new book Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air on April 19. I turned to the transcript of the interview to look up something I heard, and I found: “So in speech, I don’t police people’s speech. I think that’s jerkery (ph) of the highest order when people do that.”

I love the ph. It means that the transcriber was not familiar with jerkery, f…