Category Archives: Spoken language

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Are You Fed Up of Preposition Creep?

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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…

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‘Crawdaddy,’ ‘Boomba,’ and a ‘Bounce-Around’: an Online Update of Regional Words

DARE9780674425071-lgThe eighth in what we hope will be an unending series of online updates for the Dictionary of American Regional English is now available, free, to all who wonder what else there is to say about the varieties of American English vocabulary already caught in the six massive print volumes of the dictionary.

This eighth update shows there is always plenty to be added, and always will be, as long as we continue speaking (or writing) American English in an endless variety of ways.

But first, some good…

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These Oftentimes Times

oftentimes_3My colleague Ben Yagoda predicted it a year and a half ago: Oftentimes is on the rise. I just returned from South Carolina, where I was struck by its ubiquity. A server at a restaurant told me that oftentimes people preferred their salad dressing on the side. In a nature preserve, a fellow walker told us he had oftentimes seen alligators sunning themselves on that patch of weeds. Most surprising, my son, who’s moved to South Carolina for work, peppered his speech with oftentimes, an expression I…

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Trump: Down to Earth but Not Dignified

Andrew Jackson was the first down-to-earth president.

When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, coincidentally both on July 4, 1826, half a century after the Declaration of Independence, they must have thought that the character of the presidency had been thoroughly established in the mold of George Washington. After Washington came Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and then the start of the next generation of college-educated, well-to-do gentlemen: John Quincy Adams.

Adams and Jefferson could…

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Who Really Said That?

???????????????????????????????????????????????????For a time in my 20s, I worked as “assistant to the publisher” at Schocken Books, now part of Random House. Like anyone with that sort of glorified-secretary position, I took on a lot of tasks that weren’t part of the job description. At one point, my boss realized that a charming “book of days” desk calendar, with clever quotes and illustrations — for which he had purchased publishing rights and print-ready films from a British publisher — lacked the permissions to reproduce most …

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The Many First Rules of Politics

Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer“The first rule of X is Y” is a cliché of the sort that Language Log calls a snowclone: a sentence frame with customizable parts, suitable for journalists who can’t be bothered to craft sentences from scratch.

There is, of course, never a unique first rule of X. The Y’s multiply. One of the many first rules of politics, attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, is “You can’t win unless you’re on the ballot.” Somewhat contradicting it is another, from The Gangs of New York (and Josef Stalin before that): “T…

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You Say EEther, I Say AYEther

76019either or neitherSay what you will about it, either deserves a second look. Or a second hearing. And neither too, for that matter.

In a usage book like Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, you’ll see that in its written form, either presents usage experts with conundrums, having to do with meaning and verb agreement. Even to summarize those discussions would occupy more space than this entire column, so forget about that. What I’m interested in is a simpler yet more mysterious matter: how you s…

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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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…