Category Archives: Words

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Folly!

Garden_Folly,_Thorp_Perrow_Arboretum_-_geograph.org.uk_-_68768

Trump’s wall along our southern border is not your garden-variety folly.

One of the most oft-misquoted lines in English literature is the three-word escape clause “ignorance is bliss.” You’ve heard it often, probably when the speaker wants to brush off some awkward fact or rumor.

Readers of Lingua Franca know, of course, that this famous observation by Alexander Pope does not endorse ignorance.

Also it’s not Pope. It’s Thomas Gray, whose best-known poem is “Elegy Written in a Country Churc…

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The Total Tell

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in WashingtonI have totally been thinking about this word.

No, that’s not true. I have been thinking about many other things: midterm grades, spring allergies, whether to freeze half the massive pot of chili I cooked last night, how proud I am of my March-blooming orchid. But in informal parlance, totally simply supplies emphasis. It’s not normal for a person to spend much time mulling over a single adverb; the space it’s taking up in my brain is surprisingly large. Hence, totally; or, were I under 35, like,…

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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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A Dash of Zhouzh

a4395f381cf4a0f070e8acd1cc5ca721I’ve been told that my posts could use a little more zhoozh. If only I knew what it means, and how to spell it! Is it zhush, zhuzh, tjuz, tjuzs, joozh, zoozh, or —? Is that a noun, or maybe a verb? Let’s see. …

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zhouzh. If Duke Ellington (right) had been a millennial, that’s the word he might have used in place of “swing” — though admittedly there would have been a problem with the rhyme.

The word became prominent a decade ago in the reality TV show Quee…

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On, and In, the Bubble

The_Boy_in_the_Plastic_BubbleContinuing on the subject of “>sports, March Madness, aka the Big Dance, aka the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, is nearly upon us, bringing to mind the subject of basketball catch phrases, buzzwords, and clichés. Each year, a new selection of these emerges. Most subside after a few seasons, while a few — such as go-to guy or buzzer-beater or knock down (a basket) from downtown — stick around for the long haul.

Some of these terms have an evident utility. A few years ago, announcers and pundit…

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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 …

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X-ing Out Excellence

in-pursuit-of-excellenceIn a former lifetime I served as director of publications for a small liberal-arts college whose ambitious president wanted to put it on the map. The word he asked me and others to promote in articles, in capital-campaign materials, in announcements of scholarship opportunities, and the like was excellence. I wondered at the time what was so special about claiming to be excellent. Were there liberal-arts colleges that claimed to be mediocre, or merely good? Perhaps, I thought, I was influenced b…

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Unicorns and Their Opposite

unicorn

Katie Workman, an independent retailer, wears unicorn leggings.

As James Thurber once explained in his fable “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the unicorn is a mythical beast. To argue otherwise labels you crazy as a jay bird.

But if you’re really looking for a real unicorn nowadays, you can find it at LuLaRoe. And for that matter, donkeys too. Who knew?

Not I, certainly,

It turns out that LuLaRoe makes, among other things for women, leggings — highly decorative pants that fit like tights. Suitabl…

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Heart of Smartness

Du BoisSo you think you’re so smart?

Somewhere in one of his novels, David Lodge gave us the game of Humiliation. You know, the one where people who are supposed to have read everything (yes, I’m talking about you people in literature) have to admit to what they haven’t read.

Think Truth or Dare, the Doctoral Edition.

There are lots of Important Books that we don’t read. And I mean those of us in the Reading Business (don’t worry, I’ll run out of capital letters soon), whatever our fields. But th…