Category Archives: Words

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M22: Highway Sign and Trademark

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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 …

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Mensiversaries

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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…

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Have We Reached Peak ‘Peak’?

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Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot”

Show of hands: How many watched the Emmy Awards on Sunday? How many had seen even 10 percent of the nominated shows?

I thought so.

In 2015, no fewer than 409 scripted series aired on broadcast and cable TV and online platforms. That’s nearly double from 2009 (211 shows). And a lot of these programs are really good. For some time, the unprecedented combo of quantity and quality coming out of our sets has appeared unsustainable. Speaking to TV critics in August of last ye…

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Scabby at the University

union rate[2]Unions are slowly making their way back into the news these days, perhaps because it’s a presidential election season, perhaps because graduate students are now considering their right to bargain collectively at several universities, primarily in the Ivy League. To mark this trend, a huge inflatable rat, nicknamed Scabby, has appeared at Long Island University, where stalled negotiations resulted in a lockout before faculty and administration agreed on a contract, and at Columbia University, whe…

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Good Night, September 22!

resize_1379695571We’re approaching that time next week when the earth under the sun reaches momentary equality with everyone and everything, a moment known to the cognoscenti as the equinox.

On the equinox, to put it simply, everyone on earth gets 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. To put it complexly, there are all sorts of minor exceptions, especially at the equator, where days and nights are close to equal anyhow all year round.

But this is a comment on the word itself, not a treatise on astronomy. S…

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How Cliché Can You Get?

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George Jessel in “The Jazz Singer”

I got the first crop of student writing assignments back the other day, and I tweeted out, as I do, some general observations. One was that 100 percent of youth now use cliché for the adjective form of cliché, as opposed to the traditional clichéd. E.g., “That’s so cliché.”

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, longtime language columnist for The Boston Globe, tweeted back, “Yep. I was resigned to it already in 2009,” and linked to a piece of hers that included a refere…

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Surrogates on Parade

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Bob Einstein as the Surrogate in  Arrested Development.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the Trump campaign was facing a “surrogate challenge” after an African-American Trump supporter, who had previously tweeted out a cartoon of Hillary Clinton in blackface, walked out of a TV interview when asked about misleading biographical statements on his website.

This was only the latest surrogate incident, Bloomberg reported:

A rash of “taco truck” memes broke out after Marco Gutierrez, founder …

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The Specter of the ‘Alt-Right’

Pepe TrumpI’m feeling a bit slimed as I type this post. Assuming you’ve come here in innocence, I hope you can finish the next few paragraphs without the slime’s smearing onto you.

It began, as many instances of sliming do, with curiosity, following Hillary Clinton’s August 25 speech denouncing Donald Trump’s ties to the so-called alt-right movement. Living as I do in a bubble, I had never heard the term alt-right before. In fact, my acquaintance with alt as a prefix was more or less limited to the Alt ke…

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The Two Voices of Trump

janusReams have been written about Donald Trump’s astonishing mendacity (see The Washington Post’s one-stop-shopping compilation of his Four-Pinocchio lies, from back in March; five months of shocking fibs and howlers have passed since then). But now some are trying to analyze not just his use of lying as a game plan but his curious bivocalism. Like a rhetorical Tuvan overtone singer, he seems to be able to issue two different messages simultaneously. Nathan Heller, in a September 1 New Yorker articl…

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Cover Up

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Photo: Getty Images

Burkini: If you’ve been in seclusion for the past month, you might be excused for wondering if Burkini were inhabitants of Burkina Faso, or maybe Italian devotees of the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke.

No less improbably, the burkini  — a new name for full beachside covering worn by observant Muslim women and others —  has become a flashpoint in (what else is new?) the regulation of women’s wear in public.

The term burkini — also spelled burqini — combines burqa and…