All posts by Ben Yagoda


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 …


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…


Nudgy Down the Lane


Steven Pinker: No claims about what a word “means” or “doesn’t mean.” (Image by Rebecca Goldstein via Wikimedia Commons)

A verb my mother was fond of, especially in relation to me, was nudgy. I’ll use it in a sentence — “Stop nudgying me — we’ll go for ice cream as soon as I finish what I have to do.” It could also be intransitive — “If you keep nudgying, you’ll be in trouble.” There was also a noun form: “Don’t be a nudge.” You sense the pattern. (And by the way, nudge does not rhyme with budge…


Lies, Damn Lies, and Trump

Back in 2012, when presidential politics was sane, I wrote a Lingua Franca post called “The Word the Media Won’t Use.” The word was lie. And (speaking as a journalism professor), I approved of the media’s reluctance to use it.

To assert that someone has lied is to say that he or she has uttered, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The “false statement” part is the proper province of journalism, and the media is on that case. The…


Have We Reached Peak ‘Peak’?


Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot”

Show of hands: How many watched the Emmy Awards on Sunday? How many had seen even 10 percent of the nominated shows?

I thought so.

In 2015, no fewer than 409 scripted series aired on broadcast and cable TV and online platforms. That’s nearly double from 2009 (211 shows). And a lot of these programs are really good. For some time, the unprecedented combo of quantity and quality coming out of our sets has appeared unsustainable. Speaking to TV critics in August of last ye…


How Cliché Can You Get?


George Jessel in “The Jazz Singer”

I got the first crop of student writing assignments back the other day, and I tweeted out, as I do, some general observations. One was that 100 percent of youth now use cliché for the adjective form of cliché, as opposed to the traditional clichéd. E.g., “That’s so cliché.”

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, longtime language columnist for The Boston Globe, tweeted back, “Yep. I was resigned to it already in 2009,” and linked to a piece of hers that included a refere…


Surrogates on Parade


Bob Einstein as the Surrogate in  Arrested Development.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the Trump campaign was facing a “surrogate challenge” after an African-American Trump supporter, who had previously tweeted out a cartoon of Hillary Clinton in blackface, walked out of a TV interview when asked about misleading biographical statements on his website.

This was only the latest surrogate incident, Bloomberg reported:

A rash of “taco truck” memes broke out after Marco Gutierrez, founder …


‘Back’ Again


Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. (Photo: Doug Pensinger /Allsport)

Last week I wrote about the vogue for walking back statements. Ready for another back idiom? I got your back.

Right, that’s it, I got your back. It’s not a new thing — my Lingua Franca colleague William Germano took note of it in 2013 — but over the last year or so it has grown like Topsy. It is pretty much everywhere, and it is used in every possible context. A couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden said, “I want t…


Back to Back ‘Back’


“Walk back the cat”refers to  a boat’s cat-davit (crane in the bow).

When it comes to forming idioms and slang expressions, few words are more productive than back. It accounts for 12½ pages in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, from back (a weaker drink to go along with a stronger one, as in “a whiskey with a beer back”) to backyard (n. [US] the buttocks, esp. in the context of anal sex.”) In the Beatles catalog alone, there’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ll Be Back,” and “Get Back,” and, among other…


Brit Thesps Nail Yank Lingo


Hugh Laurie can talk the talk.

The American characters in Genius — screening earlier this summer in art-house cinemas everywhere — are played by the following actors.

Thomas Wolfe: Jude Law (English)

Maxwell Perkins: Colin Firth (English)

Aline Bernstein: Nicole Kidman (Australian)

Ernest Hemingway: Dominic West (English)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Guy Pearce (Australian)

Zelda Fitzgerald: Vanessa Kirby (English)

I didn’t see the film, but I don’t have to in order to know the American accents are …