Category Archives: Language history

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Why a Ham Sandwich?

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When my brother and I were teenagers, we liked to practice non sequiturs, irrelevant statements that seemed to beggar any attempt at response. One of our favorites was “My father drives with both feet.” (This happened to be true, to the detriment of our car’s brakes.) Another was “I had a ham sandwich for lunch.” For reasons that elude me now, we found it hilarious to lob these tiny verbal grenades into conversations, particularly with elders.

The ham sandwich has made a recent appearance, than…

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Lollapalooza: a Modern Sockdolager

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A
t times the English language has seemed inadequate to express the expansiveness and exuberance of the American spirit … at times, that is, when the nation felt expansive and exuberant.

Words like expansive and exuberant wouldn’t do; they can be quite accurate in denotation, but too nicely tied to classical Latin roots to express this spirit.

No, for the American experience, a different kind of sesquipedalian nomenclature was needed. And in the early 19th century it emerged, breathing fire and…

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‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ Speaks!

Dare Image by Ellen

Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler

 

If you read my posts, you may be familiar by now with the grand six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2013, but continuing to live beyond that date in quarterly updates on the internet.

Now DARE  has come to life in another way. It’s not just in writing that the dictionary tells us about the different ways we talk in this vast country. DARE  is speaking up!

Now we can hear the recorded voices of some 1,800 people in 1,…

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Travel Ban

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When is a ban not a ban?

Executive Order 13780  (“Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”) and the White House’s stumbling pronouncements on the nature of travel restrictions leave many questions, none of which are clearly answered by the Supreme Court’s temporizing decision.

The word ban is related to banns, those public announcements of the intent to marry.

Banns date back to at least the 12th century, and offered the community an opportunity to object to th…

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The Half-Life of Metaphors

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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…

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Among the Old New Words

4.coverFor three-quarters of a century, the journal American Speech has watched for new words and reported them in a regular feature called “Among the New Words” (ATNW, hereafter). In a recent issue, in celebration of this 75th anniversary, the current authors (Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal, Charles Carson of Duke University Press, and Jane Solomon of Dictionary.com) looked back and selected one word from each of the years since that feature began. (The issue is Volume 91, No. 4, dated November…

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Lexicographers Luxuriate in Barbados

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What happens when you take 50 people who make or study dictionaries and land them on a remote Caribbean island?

The Dictionary Society of North America provided an answer to that question last week, when it held its three-day biennial meeting not within the United States or Canada, as it had all 20 times before, but in the Caribbean, on the island of Barbados.

And that made a difference. The distance from North America discouraged some North Americans from making the trip. On the other hand, th…

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Brother, Can You ‘Anodyne’?

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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…
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Ain’t It Hard

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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…

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Fake New Words?

noctes

Noctes Ambrosianae used “truthiness” in 1832.

How can you tell if a word or phrase is really new — or just new to thee?

Easy question. But it’s not easy to answer, especially in this digital age.

It used to be easier. Or so it seemed back in 1990, when the American Dialect Society first began choosing its Word of the Year. For the first year or two, we restricted our choices to new Words of the Year, based on a simple principle: A word was considered new if it was not to be found in the latest e…