Category Archives: Language history

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Suffixery

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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…

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Weighty Words of Yesteryear

Vintage-40s-UNDERWOOD-Standard-Manual-Typewriter-Art-Deco-_57Nowadays, thanks to the internet (which has lost its capital letter in the AP stylebook, for becoming too ordinary) and our numerous computers, smartphones, and other devices, our words flit from device to device to publication as light as their weight in electrons.

But as we veterans of the 20th century know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, back before anyone had thought of cluttering our (literal) desktops with computers, when our words were always hard copy, beginning with ink on…

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The Case of the Missing ‘Miss’

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Philip Roth: not the sort of person you would call “Phil.” (Photo: Joe Tabbacca, AP)

I recently RSVP’d for an event at my university and was asked to choose the “title” I preferred. No surprise in the choices that were offered, but I was surprised by a choice that was not.

Dr., Mr., Mrs., and Ms. were the options. Missing — no pun intended — was Miss. I was well aware that Ms. has been commonly used as a courtesy title since the ’70s, but I was a bit puzzled by this suggestion that one of the te…

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At the Coalface

AttheCoalfaceDo you work at the coalface? Do you have to work as a miner to feel the expression applies to you?

The coalface is the wall of coal, way down below the surface of the earth, where miners pick away at the poster child for fossil fuel.

The British expression to be at the coalface invites the listener to imagine  brutal, dangerous, and exhausting work. At the Coalface was the title of a memoir by one Joan Hart, a British pit nurse, who spent decades serving the mining community.

Cooked up in the 1…

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The New Clear Option

castle_romeo1_0I’ve heard it so many times my head hurts: the nuclear option. The Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, as we all know, invoked it last week in order to get a vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch, who has now been confirmed and sworn in as a new associate justice of the Supreme Court. And like many phrases you hear every 30 seconds or so if you’re listening to the news, it quickly becomes a word that you don’t think much about. Nuclear option: We know it can mean overriding, by a simple majority, the r…

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OK, Okay, Happy 178th Birthday!

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 3.51.37 PMThis Thursday, March 23, 2017, is the 178th birthday of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word.

OK?

Yes, OK is the word. And it was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on Saturday, March 23, 1839.

Actually, OK was so successful from the beginning that its birthday couldn’t be discerned until more than a century later, when the Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read published a series of articles on OK in the journal American Speech. Perusing nearly every page of every newspaper…

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The ‘Boom!’ Boom

I’ve been seeing this commercial a fair amount:

The thing that strikes me is how Neil Patrick Harris says, “They said it was impossible to have a great-tasting light beer. Boom!”

The onomatopoeic word boom has done an awful lot of service over the years: for example, the nickname of Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, David Rabe’s play In the Boom Boom Room, and the 1968 Liz Taylor-Richard Burton film Boom! In music, there’s Eddie Cantor’s 1929 novelty number “I Faw Down an’ Go Boom” and Randy Newman’…

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Thinking in Mayan

wicked-mayan-hieroglyphs-mexico-cityI am writing this in Mérida, Mexico, where my husband and I lucked out in avoiding the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. We are baking in the Yucatán sunshine and visiting nearby Mayan sites. Our second day here, in a city park, we bumped into a professor of Mayan studies at a nearby college who wanted to practice his English. Many of the edifices in Mérida were built from the five pyramids of the Mayan city that once occupied this site, and he pointed out to us a series of hierogly…

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‘Done and Done’

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Maria Edgeworth

I texted my wife the other day asking whether she had walked the dog. She answered, “Done and done.” I was like, “Wait — what and what??”

The truth is, the expression, indicating a task accomplished, did have a bit of a familiar ring to it. Going to Google News, I find these examples just in the last 10 days:

  • “I also believe it’s a particularly good match for the free-weekend treatment. You get in, you hopefully have a good time, and you get out. Done and done.” –Destructoid, on…
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Just Try That With Your Bootstraps

Dr_Martens,_black,_oldIdioms mean what idioms mean. I get that. So at this point, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” means to improve one’s situation or succeed through one’s own efforts, without outside help. But the fact that pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is, in reality, impossible, is too telling a part of this phrase’s origins to ignore.

I mean, try it. If you have boots with bootstraps, hold onto those loops at the top of the heel and try to launch yourself upward. You can’t do it. You need …