This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Political speech, feck, Shakespeare, and more

Welcome to this week’s Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news and culture.

In politics and language, Jen Doll at The Atlantic discussed linguistic crutches such as VP Joe Biden’s literally, while The New York Times explored President Obama’s English and other presidential speaking styles (or lack thereof).

Fritinancy’s words of the week were politically inspired: feckless, from John McCain’s statement regarding Obama’s “feckless foreign policy,” and arithmetic, from Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention (“What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: Arithmetic.”).

Lucy Ferriss and Ben Zimmer both examined Mr. Clinton’s folksy rhetoric, while Ms. Ferriss also took a look at pharaoh’s chickens and Mitt Romney, and Mr. Zimmer wondered why everyone from Bill Clinton to Mark Zuckerberg was doubling down.

At Language Log, Ben Zimmer discussed ambiguity in politics and advertising; Victor Mair examined censorship in China; and Mark Liberman delved into mommy and daddy parties and euphemisms and The New York Times. At Lingua Franca, William Germano interpreted signage in the UK; Ben Yagoda explained the nonsensical nature of idioms; and Allan Metcalf analyzed the nasal drawl.

At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Orin Hargraves decoded tech talk while Paul Cook hunted for lexical blends the computational way. Stan Carey put on a sock puppet show, and on his own blog, explored meanings and origins of feck and shared some animated etymology. Johnson told us about the best word ever and place names as shibboleths.

In words of the week, Erin McKean noted the fashionable smasual, smart-casual; Manhattanhenge, “the twice-a-year phenomenon where the setting sun aligns with Manhattan’s roughly east-west street grid”; swellegance, a blend of swell and elegant; and noodnik, “a Yiddish word that comes from a root meaning ‘to bore, to pester.’” Arnold Zwicky posted about micropolitans, “cities [that] do not have the economic or political importance of large cities, but are nevertheless significant centers of population and production.”

Word Spy spotted fiberhood, “a neighborhood that has Internet access via fiber-optic cable”; foodbaby, “a distended stomach caused by overeating”; and mansplaining, “explaining in a patronizing way, particularly when done by a man who combines arrogance with ignorance of the topic.”

Dialect Blog talked about this and that in foreign dialects and the South African ee. The Virtual Linguist looked at canny and uncanny, gender bias in job ads, and predistribution, “an alternative to the policy of ‘redistribution’ … meant to tackle the problem of inequality earlier in the process.”

Grammarphobia gave us a short history of the word wow. Sesquiotica explained around, about, and approximately; the origins of pissant and git; and peplum, “that skirt-like bit that some tops have attached to them at the waist.” Meanwhile, Lauren Conrad listed the ten most mispronounced words in fashion.

In the land of Shakespeare, we got excited about Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing and fell in love with these beautiful cut-paper illustrations of Romeo and Juliet. We were taken with these Scandinavian fairy tale illustrations and these science fiction visual interpretations. We squeed over the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time.

We were intrigued by the idea of a Chinese translation of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and were wowed by these bookstores repurposed from unused structures. We learned about the “hipsterfication” of Australian pubs, organic syntax, some diner lingo, and how to drink like Hemingway. We found out where letters come from. We chuckled over Charles Dickens’s library of fake books (Bowowdom sounds like a bestseller) and laughed out loud at this Fred Armisen-as-Penny Marshall book trailer.

That’s it for this week!

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Mars, Olympics, and more

Welcome to this week’s Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news and culture.

We start off this week’s installment with a guide to the language of the Mars mission. Wondering what “the pair of 2-megapixel color cameras on the rover’s ‘head’” are called? That’s the Mastcam. How about the radiation detector? That’s RAD.  And a Martian day? Sol, Latin for “sun.”

In Olympic word news, we learned about Zil lanes, “special Games Lanes for Olympic athletes and officials,” which “comes from the infamous traffic lanes in Moscow reserved for the most senior officials of the Soviet Union travelling in their black Zil limousines.” We also read up on Ping-Pong diplomacy, whiff-whaff, and Double Happiness Sports, as well as some athletic poetry. Sesquiotica taught us about the word swim, Fritinancy posted about a mix-up between medals and metals, and Liz Potter at the Macmillan Dictionary blog discussed the verbing of some Olympic nouns.

The New York Times had some taboo avoidance fail this week, as explained by Arnold Zwicky: “Ah, that wonderful English adjective cocksuckers (in its plural form, of course, and serving as the object of the preposition like). Adjective, noun, who really cares? Not Jim Rutenberg and/or his editors.” Also at The Times was 17th century writer Thomas Browne and the words he coined (with some corrections from Ben Zimmer). Meanwhile, James Gleick discussed the dangers and annoyances of autocorrect, and Ben Yagoda exclaimed about exclamation points.

At Lingua Franca, Geoff Pullum expounded on the uselessness of spelling bees and the riddle of frisney and frarney, while Ben Yagoda tested a couple of automated grammar checkers. Robert Lane Greene at Johnson told us why language isn’t like computer code, and like Yagoda, tested some grammar software.

At Language Log, Victor Mair addressed all the single ladies in Chinese, and Mark Liberman considered texting and language skills and some journalistic unquotations (Electric Lit rounded up seven more unquotationers). At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Michael Rundell had more issues around “issues,” Orin Hargraves got funky, and Stan Carey felt groovy. On his own blog, Carey compared different ways of writing OK and discussed contrastive reduplication.

Kory Stamper delved into defining colors; Jan Freeman whispered about X whisperers; and Sesquiotica got uglily and celebrated his 100,000th page view with lakh. The Virtual Linguist discussed toad-eater and the origins of weird.

In words of the week, Word Spy spotted Skypesleep, “to create a Skype connection with a faraway partner and then fall asleep together”; Applepicking, “snatching a person’s iPhone, iPad, or iPod”; greentape, “excessive environmental regulations and guidelines that must be followed before an official action can be taken”; salmon, “to ride a bicycle against the flow of traffic”; and do-ocracy, “an organization or movement where power and respect go to people who get things done.”

Fritinancy’s weekly highlights were wazzock, “a stupid or annoying person; an idiot,” and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, “a cognitive bias that causes unskilled people to mistakenly rate their ability as much higher than average.” Erin McKean noted bombfellow, “the male equivalent of ‘bombshell’”; gu gu gu, “a Japanese onomatopoeia that denotes a sticking sensation”; and ambo, “a platform usually reserved for priests” but used by the band Pussy Riot for their performance in a church. McKean also came to terms with fashion terms at the San Francisco Chronicle.

While Lynneguist discussed the British English and American English differences in bed linens and other bedding accoutrements, Dialect Blog wondered if it should take a bath or have a bath. Dialect Blog also considered the Belfast accent and the Pennsylvania question. Meanwhile, Stanford linguists are trying to identify the California accent.

In books and writers, Publishers Weekly gave us eight areas of culture that Moby Dick influenced, and Infinite Boston maps the real-life places in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In music, we learned 23 adjectives that modify rock and a glossary of Mariah Carey’s 10-cent words. In health, we got behind the scenes in the naming of a drug and learned of a disease that could literally scare people to death.

We loved these decoded culinary secret codes and these literary devices found in science fiction. We were surprised to learn that OMG is 100 years old. We agree that actually is actually the worst word on the planet, but think that Trampire is also pretty bad. Finally, if you like limericks and grammar, you’re in luck: Lingua Franca is holding a contest! The deadline is next Friday, August 17.

See you next time!


“It used to be my little secret, my secret that is until I found out that many of the writers I know practice the same habit. We love to read the dictionary. Many times I have pulled out the dictionary to look up the spelling of a particular word and then another word on the page catches my eye. Twenty minutes later I am still engrossed in the dictionary, browsing through the less familiar definitions.” —Creating Copy by William Ackerly

vacuum tube schematicIt’s true for more than just advertising copywriters: people love the serendipity of a dictionary. They like to get lost for a while, to be distracted, to learn something new.

We like to do that, too, so we’ve made many ways to explore Wordnik.

For example, you can explore another user’s lists. You can look at the related items for a word. You can check out zeitgeist and see what other words people are visiting right now.

But for my money, tags are the feature that offers the most subtle pathways to the unexpected. You can find tags on the right-hand side of a word’s main page.

There’s nothing particularly Linnaean about tags. They’re not meant to be universal. No governing body is going to insist on a hierarchy, a structure, or a form. Unlike Wordnik lists, which can have a mission statement (such as “words I found while reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens“), tags’ intentions are usually silent.

Tags are personal. They are a way of classifying a word in a way that suits you. Beyond “don’t be a knucklehead,” there aren’t really any rules. You can use short tags, long tags, tags in other languages. You can tag a lot or a little. You can let that basic human need to sort and organize take over. Tag like a maniac in any way that is useful to you or the world.

In lieu of rules, I offer two tag guidelines that have been helpful to me:

1. Make your tags true as far as you know.
2. Make your tags memorable to you.

That way, you’ll have left clues for yourself (if you forget the word) and for other serendipiters who come across the same word. (See, I used a new word there and then tagged it with “neologism.”)

Tags are so personal that often the only obvious intention behind a tag is to demonstrate a connection between two words. For example, if someone tags the word basilect with language, then there’s a pretty good chance that basilect has something to do with language. That’s about as much as we can glean.

However, if someone tags the word language with cvccvvcv, most people are going to be mystified. It doesn’t even look like a word! But there was indeed a connection there for somebody, and, it turns out, the tags are useful if you need to know something about the orthography of a set of words. (Hint: each “c” stands for “consonant” and each “v” stands for “vowel.” Full explanation here.)

Remember that a word can both be tagged and can be a tag itself. At the top of every word’s tag page you’ll see “words tagged” with the word you’re looking at and at the bottom you’ll see “the word has been tagged.” Check out the tag page for neologism to see what I mean.

If you want a bit of guided serendipity, you can browse the tags made by any user who has a public profile. Here are some of mine.

If you’re looking for a little more about tagging from an insider’s point of view, I recommend the book Tagging: People-powered Metadata for the Social Web.

Happy tagging!

Photo by Paula Rey. Used under a Creative Commons license.