All posts by Allan Metcalf


Bully or Victim? Learning From ‘Rita’ (Part 1)

Mille Dinesen as the title character, a teacher, in the Danish TV series “Rita”

In a bullying situation, it shouldn’t be hard to tell the bully from the victim, should it?

Well, in our sensitive 21st century, it’s not always so easy. Here’s a case in point.

In Episode 4 of Season 4 of Rita, the acclaimed Danish television series focusing on an incorrigibly wayward but brilliantly successful elementary-school teacher, the first scene is about a new student named Liam and his classmate Knud.

To he…


Hearts and Ashes


Emperor Claudius II slaying Valentine, from a copy of Speculum Historiale, Vincent of Beauvais, c. 1335, Bibliothèque nationale de France

February 14, 2018, brings about the rare concatenation of two extreme perspectives on human life. One is love, on Valentine’s Day; the other is death, on Ash Wednesday. Both are the same day this year. And both are courtesy of the early Roman Catholic church, though the former has become secular, while the latter remains religious. It’s not hard to imagine wh…


The Most Diplomatic Word


Laugh-In’s Arte Johnson

It’s the most useful of words when we want to avoid an argument: “interesting.”

You may be asked to say whether you think something is good or bad, wonderful or terrible, lovely or disgusting, but you may not want to offer an opinion.

For example, someone at my college exhibited snapshots taken in Europe — the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum — and brightly said they would encourage students to travel abroad.

No one would mistake the traveler for a professional photographer.



January’s Lament


The Roman god Janus, Museum of Ferrara Cathedral, Ferrara, Italy.

We are at a moment in American history when the full extent of harm caused by isms, especially racism and sexism, but also others such as ageism and ableism, is becoming apparent even to many of the perpetrators, as well as self-evident to the victims. Some of the racism and sexism is deliberate, but the rest of us are learning that even our seemingly innocent or positive comments can be understood by some others as demeaning and…


The Voice of Chicago


Violeta Podrumedic at WGN-Radio

As far as I’m concerned, Violeta Podrumedic is the voice of Chicago. Between noon and 7 p.m. on weekdays at WGN Radio 720, she shares the microphone with John Williams, Roe Conn, and Anna Davlantes, among others, reporting Chicago traffic and anything else that comes her way.

When I say the voice of Chicago, I mean first of all that she was born and raised right in the city, and talks like it, with a native Chicago accent. Like so many Chicagoans, she has an ethni…


When Is a New Word New?

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 3.23.38 PMThat would be an easy question to answer, you might think. A new word is new when it’s new, even if the call can lead to a discussion of redundancy, as in Ben Yagoda’s fine post on that topic in yesterday’s Lingua Franca.

But it’s far from obvious when a new word is really new. And it’s even harder now that we have computer resources available to make such determinations.

“Among the New Words” is a column that has appeared in the journal American Speech since 1941. As of 1987, it was conducted b…


New Words of 1990

President George H.W. Bush: “Read my lips: no new taxes” led to “bushlips.”

No, the headline isn’t an inadvertent anachronism. The year is now really 2018, and the American Dialect Society, together with friends in the Linguistic Society of America, last week concluded a yearlong campaign by choosing “fake news” as Word of the Year for 2017. The vote took place with an audience of several hundred at the annual meetings of those groups.

It was a long way from the very first such vote, conducted b…


Utah: Talk Like a Native

Two weeks from now, hundreds of linguists will convene in Salt Lake City for the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America and affiliated groups like the American Dialect Society, the American Name Society, and others. It’s the big meeting of the year for experts in the study of language, including the next generation of would-be experts, who are now graduate students imbibing (or challenging) the wisdom of their elders.

If you’re a linguist, you don’t want to miss this opportunity to…


‘False News’ Is Safer Than ‘Fake’

As pundits agree, backed by none less than Potus himself, ours is the Era of Fake News. With so many political candidates for 2017 Word of the Year, fake news (or just plain fake, as in fake media), remains among the most likely.

Of course, since Potus wasn’t named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, but rather his sworn adversaries, the army of #MeToo “silence breakers” were, fake news might conjure up opposition rather than take the prize on January 5, when members and friends of the American…



So it came to pass on December 6, 2017, that Time magazine surprised the artful dealer finishing his notable first year in the White House, to light instead on a host of women given the name “silence breakers.” These, in Time’s view, were the real Persons of the Year 2017. This being the 21st century, Time also recognized them by the hashtag they were using: #MeToo.

It’s worthy of note that the term and symbol hashtag itself is barely a decade old, having spread from its beginning in Twitter to…