Category Archives: Words


How’s ‘Hence’?

HENCEA few days ago a friend and I were texting back and forth about getting training in public speaking, and she wrote:

I think there will be more requests. Hence the value of strengthening skills now. (Does anyone use “hence” anymore??)

I would guess she meant this as a rhetorical question, but there are few if any rhetorical questions about language around me. I decided to look into the health of hence, outside the academy.

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that hence is one of the c…


Orgies, Convoys, and Precision in Word Meanings

convoy-line-2 Apropos of whether the web is changing English, I discussed Choire Sicha’s writing, but not Katy Waldman’s example of it, which concerned the definition of orgy. Sicha riffs humorously on how many participants there must be, and I was reminded of two important but oft-forgotten facts about word meanings.

The first is simply that meanings change swiftly and radically over just a few decades. Fifty years ago dictionaries said orgies were ceremonies honoring ancient Greek deities with ecstatic sin…


-Gated Out

bXeDS7HaBCOa1X3PmYWhuwWith all the political news jamming the airwaves, I hadn’t been paying much attention to Bridgegate. But it came up on the radio the other day, and I found myself musing both on the appropriateness of the term and the exhaustion of the suffix –gate.

The term seems amusingly appropriate since in essence, that’s what Governor Chris Christie’s minions accomplished on the infamous week in 2013 when they blocked two lanes going over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan: They erected a “g…


Greetings and Salutations: Endangered Species

Dear readers:

No, that won’t do for an email nowadays. Try again.

Hello, all:

or should my greeting be less hellish? (A generation ago, a county in Texas adopted “heaven-o” as an alternative to “hello.” No, I won’t go that far. Just this — )

Hi, all:

Maybe that will get me off on the right foot. It’s hard to be sure, because in the world of email the salutations aren’t as fixed as they were for communications on paper. Before the internet, a business letter in hard copy would begin “Dear So&So,”…


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…


The Perils of Being a Cubs Fan


The “W” flag means a win at Wrigley Field

Late this past Tuesday evening, a turning point came in a long and hard-fought campaign, a turning point that may well force a permanent redefinition of what it means to belong to a distinctive group of adherents.

No, nothing as trivial as the current presidential campaign, whose significance pales in comparison with what truly matters — being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. And what that means may be about to undergo a drastic revision.

It is well known that…


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…


The Whaughts?

time-decade-from-hellI began advocating for the aughts 15 years ago. I was not alone — Google search finds the term used occasionally to describe the first decade of the 21st century as far back as January 2000 — but for many years it made people uncomfortable. When we were living through the 1980s, we could say things like “I can’t wait for the eighties to be over.” But in 2005, if you mentioned casually that you thought the aughts were becoming the decade of Iraq, people looked at you funny, not because th…


M22: Highway Sign and Trademark


Fickr photo courtesy of Kathleen McDonald

M22 is not just another pretty face. In fact, not only is it not a face, it isn’t particularly pretty, unless you think a plain black-and-white road sign with letter M and number 22 on a white diamond on a black background can be pretty. But it stands for all that is beautiful at the west edge of the Michigan mitten. And that designation and design, curiously enough, are private property — as you will discover if you try to sell a T-shirt imprinted …




It was her idea. We had met at a winter solstice, on the 21st of December, and subsequently, as our relationship developed, at some point we started treating every 21st as a kind of mini-anniversary. Except that anniversary wasn’t the right word. Anniversārius in Latin meant “repeated yearly” (ann- “year” + vers- “turn”); diēs anniversāria meant “day returning each year.” I was the linguist, so it was my job, she said, to come up with a better word. And I saw immediately what it should be. Just…