Category Archives: Language history


‘Comity’ Tonight


“Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight!” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum


When do we need comity? Probably most when we’re facing tragedy.

The New York Times reports that the White House and the Senate majority leader seek to patch up their differences or, as the paper words it, pursue comity. 

Back in August, the Los Angeles Times titled an article “Will the Senate Return Us to Comity and Civility?” Like The New York Times, the West Coast paper consigned comity to a headline and …


The National Anthem and Me


It’s been years, now, since I stood up when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played. Mine has not been a protest akin to the controversial kneeling that’s got right-wing pundits’ knickers in a twist. Colin Kaepernick and the hundreds who have followed his examples are using the occasion specifically to call attention to the ways in which police brutality against black men is evidence that our country is falling far short of its goals. Fair enough, in my view. My own actions have attracte…


The Language of Enslavement

Since reading the novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge’s recent New York Times essay on historical markers of African-American women’s history in New England, I’ve been mulling over her use of enslaved. There’s been a debate about the language of slavery — or slaving, as some writers prefer to call the institution — for several years. The changes that many have proposed, and that Greenidge embraces in her essay, put the emphasis on the humanity of people who were brought to this continent against their…


Hell, Yes, I’m Judging You


I have a smart and popular Facebook friend named Carrie Rickey. I mention those two qualities because her status updates usually draw responses that are clever and many. That was the case recently, when she posted: “Can we please retire the word bespoke?”

One hundred thirty-eight comments ensued. A good number agreed with Carrie’s proposal; as one put it, “I think ‘bespoke’ is fine to use if you’re a British tailor. People assembling a museum exhibit can use ‘curate.’ Everyone else can get over…


Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language


Columbus monument in Barcelona, with helicopter bearing symbol of Catalonia (Photo by Carles Ribas, El País)

The violence surrounding the Catalan independence referendum on October 1 has put Spanish democracy under a microscope. Some scholars believe Monday’s holiday, which the United States calls Columbus Day and some localities celebrate as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, has an implicit link to the Catalan independence struggle, one that casts some doubt on the national origins of Chris…


Dear Right-Handed People


Remember jacks? It’s one of those rare games that lasted a couple of generations. My mother played jacks as a girl, and so did I. I still would, if I could find anyone to play with me. And I’d play it the way I always have: left-handed.

Left-handedness has a long history of being vilified, including its being sufficient evidence to condemn a person of witchery. Even today, 150 years after the first theories emerged on brain lateralization, we use left-handed to describe actions that are clumsy,…


A Child’s Garden of ‘Verses’


Middle schoolers playing soccer: “White versed red.”

You learn all kinds of things on Facebook. The other day, my friend Michael Regan, a suburban dad who in his other life is a journalist for Bloomberg News, posted: “Are my kids the only ones who use the word ‘versus’ as a verb? Like, ‘What team are we versing at the game on Saturday?’”

Uh, no. That was clear from the torrent of comments — 67, to this point. Here is the first bunch (names cut off on purpose):

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.34.00 PM

My own kids’ sporting days are lon…


Who’s Entitled?


Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the GI Bill in 1944


A word I’ve been thinking about recently is entitlement, a term that has played a role in the vigorous and painful American conversation about rights.

This past week has seen the federal government announce — with certainty but hardly with clarity — the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then Secretary of Education DeVos announced her department’s intention to rethink Title IX.

Both issues — the protection of thousand…


A Philosopher-Grammarian Gets Something Right


I have often excoriated the useless traditional definitions of the “parts of speech” presupposed by all usage manuals and dictionaries (see my “Being a Noun,” “Being a Verb,” “Being an Adjective,” etc.). I seldom praise popular grammar books; too many of them are unredeemed horse dung from cover to cover. But I am not implacable: I did have a kind word or two here for Edward D. Johnson’s treatment of the passive. Today I want to make a positive remark about a grammar book by a fine philosopher.


Not Everyone Calls It That?

ReynoldsWrap“Did you just use Reynolds Wrap as a generic?” my friend asked with surprise.

Like many American English speakers, I call facial tissues Kleenex, cotton swabs Q-tips, photocopying Xeroxing, adhesive tape Scotch tape, adhesive bandages Band-Aids, adhesive notes Post-Its, and searching the internet Googling. These terms are all still protected trademarks, but that hasn’t stopped American English speakers from using them generically in speech and unpublished writing.

This process of brand names com…