Category Archives: Words

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‘This Whirligigging Age’

WG815x260_Updated“This madcap world, this whirligigging age.” That’s Edward Guilpin, a minor Elizabethan satirist, observing that the world is a crazy place and it’s moving too fast.

That was in 1598.

What’s a whirligig?  A toy, a plaything, something that spins? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word’s etymology is what you might have guessed, essentially two words — the verb whirl  and the noun gig, here a toy that can be made to spin. There are wonderful old forms, too, as beautiful as old recip…

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Hunting Witches

1cb71bc07a4e05ec792f8b53f84a8065When my kids were small, we used to recite a little ditty about going on a bear hunt. The hunt involved a belief that there was a bear out there, “a big one,” only we couldn’t see it; we had to get past the obstacles and find it. (And, I suppose, capture or kill it, only we never found the bear; the rhyme was entirely about the obstacles in our way.)

Bears exist; witches don’t. That is, they don’t exist in the fairy-tale or medieval sense of a person (generally female) with magical powers. T…

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Among the Old New Words

4.coverFor three-quarters of a century, the journal American Speech has watched for new words and reported them in a regular feature called “Among the New Words” (ATNW, hereafter). In a recent issue, in celebration of this 75th anniversary, the current authors (Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal, Charles Carson of Duke University Press, and Jane Solomon of Dictionary.com) looked back and selected one word from each of the years since that feature began. (The issue is Volume 91, No. 4, dated November…

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The Speech Act of Hoping

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Last week millions of us were glued to our televisions or computer screens as James Comey, the recently ousted FBI director, was testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee about a conversation in the Oval Office with President Trump. Sen. James E. Risch, Republican of Idaho, was asking him questions about the meaning of Trump’s reported utterance: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

“OMG,” I texted a lin…

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A Lexicographical Bildungsroman

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I have just finished the most amazing astonishing intriguing edifying profound intense book about the making of dictionaries I have ever read encountered. I want to tell all lovers of words — no, not just that select group (likely including many readers of Lingua Franca), but all users of words — in other words, everyone in the world — about it.

Is that so difficult? In this case, yes. It’s a book of a lifetime about a life in lexicography. And instead of being casually written, as for example …

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Rapider Times

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On a quick trip to Minneapolis over the weekend, I noticed Southwest Airlines’ slogan, “Is ‘rapider’ a word?” Well, no, I thought. It’s not. That is, you do not find suffixes appended to the adjective rapid to form comparative and superlative forms. Fortunately, in English, you have other choices. You could say faster or quicker, for instance. But those words wouldn’t draw the busy traveler’s attention as easily, and of course they would have no resonance with Southwest’s Rapid Rewards fr…

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Brother, Can You ‘Anodyne’?

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Sometimes a word is just ready for its close-up. My friend Jim Ericson commented to me that this is now the case with anodyne, and he was right. The Google News database charts 102 uses of it in the past 30 days, including six posted on June 2 alone:

  • A New York Times article called “How to Raise a Feminist Son” was ” … promptly excoriated by right-wing trolls, none of whom seemed to have actually read the article, which is filled with such anodyne nuggets as ‘let him be himself’ and ‘teach him…
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Ain’t It Hard

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Plain words have rich histories and variegated trajectories. One of the plainest, hard, accounts for 75 separate Oxford English Dictionary definitions in its adjective form alone, and continues to go forth and multiply.

Consider some of the phrases in which hard appears. You can give someone a hard time, be hard of hearing, play hardball, do something the hard way, take a hard look, or go in for the hard sell. We speak of hard bargains, cheese (the British expression meaning “tough luck”), copi…

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How Much Covfefe Is Enough Covfefe?

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The hashtag #covfefe has spread across the Twittersphere, prompting some creative interpretations of the latest from the tweeter in chief.

For those who abstain from social media, President Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” on May 31 at 12:06 a.m. The message ended midmuddle, leaving us to scratch out heads and reach for our smartphones.

A “rosebud” for our time, or at least for our next 15 minutes, covfefe is already laying the groundwork to become Wrdo fo teh arYe, w…

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Clear Skies Acts Abounding

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The changes in language, under the current administration, come thick and fast. Even before George Orwell pointed out that “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” people paying attention noticed the distinct and often disturbing intertwining of political purposes and language manipulation. Prior administrations had their self-contradicting legislation, like George W. Bush’s ill-fated Clear Skies Act. But Chris Mooney and Lisa Rein, in The Washingto…