This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Binders, Britishisms, 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 celebrated Dictionary Day on Tuesday with a fictional dictionary contest – congratulations again to all the winners! – while at The Atlantic, Jen Doll told us a few things about Noah Webster, the lexicographer the day honors.

In politics, Ben Zimmer discussed moochers, while in the aftermath of the first presidential debate, he examined President Obama’s after-the-fact comeback, or l’esprit de l’escalier, “the wit of the staircase.” Orin Hargraves, meanwhile, delved into the language of both contenders.

After the vice presidential debate, we heard a lot of malarkey, my friend, from Ben Zimmer, Jen Doll, and Nancy Friedman, while the second presidential debate gave us a sketchy deal, binders and barb words, binders full of women, and binder reviews (oh, internet, will you marry me?). We learned about interruptions in debates, Paul Ryan’s accent, and how to say Missouri.

In Australia, the prime minister’s speech prompted a dictionary to change its definition of misogyny, which, Fully (sic) explained, wasn’t so much a change but an update “to bring it up to speed with the last 30 years of common Australian usage.”

This week we also learned that Americans are apparently “barmy over Britishisms,” to which Jen Doll, Lynneguist, and Dialect Blog all responded. Perhaps part of that barmy-ism can be credited to the Beatles and their influence on the English language, as discussed by Michael Rundell at Macmillan Dictionary blog.

Also at Macmillan, John Williams wondered if there’s a case for publically, and Stan Carey took a look at some lesser spotted portmanteaus, and on his own blog, posted about Scott Kim’s very cool symmetrical alphabet.

At Language Log, Victor Mair pleaded against the butchering of the name of the winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Chinese writer Mo Yan, and Mark Liberman considered the pronunciation of the seemingly simple word, with. Johnson discussed the slang term, guys, and Grammar Girl taught us some Yoda grammar.

At Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf announced the winners of his latest contest, invent “a new bogus rule of usage,” and suggested that weird words won’t win in the game of neologism. Ben Yagoda talked about reaching out and had some fun with some puns.

In words of the week, Fritinancy selected hustings, “a place where political speeches are made; more generally, the campaign trail,” while Word Spy spotted sageism, “discrimination based on a person’s gender and age”; doorer, “a driver who opens a car door into the path of an oncoming cyclist”; tech-life balance, “the use of technology in such a way that it does not interfere with or reduce the quality of one’s personal life or relationships”; and digital dualism,“the belief that online and offline are largely distinct and independent realities.”

Erin McKean’s word selections included sundowning, a condition “in which the fall of darkness causes confusion and fear” in patients with dementia; boffo, Variety magazine speak for “excellent”; and ralli quilt, a “marriage blanket” from Pakistan or India. Erin also spoke with the ModCloth Blog about the awesome job of lexicography.

The Dialect Blog wondered if Received Pronunciation – or a “standard British accent” – was ever rhotic. Sesquiotica considered the whippersnapper and enjoyed the foliage. The Virtual Linguist told us about having a stiff upper lip, being on the ball, and the origins of the pomegranate.

We found out how British sign language is changing, that slang is the universal language, and about bigger, better Google Ngrams. We learned how New York City neighborhoods got their names, the origin of the dog ate my homework, and why people quit cold turkey.

We’re excited about this previously unseen poem from JRR Tolkien and this new volume of “spare words” from Douglas Adams, and are intrigued by the idea of a science fiction adaptation of Moby-Dick, which, by the way, celebrated its 161st anniversary yesterday.

We loved these photos of writers hanging out together, this letter from typewriter lover Tom Hanks, and these Halloween costumes based on books. We were in awe of these incredible libraries from around the world and that MythBusters host Adam Savage has a list of 17,000 palindromes (come to Wordnik, Adam! we love lists too).

That’s it for this week!

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: Lying, Eastwooding, YOLO

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 case you didn’t know, it’s election season. Robert Lane Greene at Johnson took a look at the intricacies of political speechmaking. At Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda discussed the media’s reluctance to call a lie a lie while William Germano deliberated on Eastwooding and talking to empty chairs. At Language Log, Mark Liberman tallied Chris Christie’s first person pronouns, and Victor Mair translated Jon Huntsman’s Mandarin statement about Mitt Romney.

Also at Language Log, Mark Liberman posted about sign language and weapons, and Victor Mair considered tattoos as communication and creeping romanization in Chinese. Meanwhile, Johnson discussed the Hinglish Project.

Ben Zimmer seized the day with YOLO and told us how the proof got in the pudding. Stan Carey clarified why people misspell just deserts. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, he dialogued on dialects, and Orin Hargraves was reminded of past participles and irregular verbs. At Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda dropped some f-bombs and other euphemisms; Geoffrey Pullum bemoaned more zombie rules; and Lucy Ferriss connected with the etymology of wifi.

In words of the week, Erin McKean noted benihana, a scooter trick; glamping, glamorous camping; and alexithymia, “difficulty identifying feelings.” Fritinancy’s selections included zombee, “a honey bee that has been parasitized by the ‘zombie fly,’” and smasual, “a portmanteau of ‘smart casual,’ a British description of a style of dress in which ‘smart’ means ‘stylish.’” Fritinancy also snacked on some chips – or is it crisps? – and the Awl served up some writer food from A to Z.

The Virtual Linguist mused on the origin of blue moon. Sesquiotica noodled on canoodle, floated supernatant, and shed some light on triboluminescence. Dialect Blog explored the aristocratic American accent, the speech of old L.A., and ow reduction; assured us that Canada has regional dialects; and wondered if Cockney rhyming slang is Irish.

Superlinguo recognized Tesla’s linguistic contributions, Brainpickings gave a nod to words invented by David Foster Wallace’s mom, and Flavorwire displayed some adorable school photos of famous authors.

We were creeped out by this list of literature’s creepiest devils. We immediately began using this list of 10 stinging British insults, and chuckled over these dirty etymologies and these 19th century synonyms for sex. We learned about the lives of punctuation marks, a brief history of the shortening of neighborhood, and what the Muppets’ Swedish chef is actually saying. We loved this ode to the list and agreed that these are 19 perfect moments in subtitle history (epic thrash metal!).

That’s it for this week! Until next time, trying some Eastwooding. After all, YOLO.

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!

Flowing into the river of English …

From this week’s “THE WORD” column in The Boston Globe, by Wordnik founder Erin McKean, about words related to the Mississippi River flooding:

The spillway (“a path designed to take away overflow safely”) was opened because the waters of the Mississippi are cresting at record highs, with a flow rate of 625,000 cubic feet per second, leading to worries that the river would overtop the levees that hold it back. The amount of water that the Army Corps of Engineers expects to flow past the barriers is the inundation estimate. Should the levees fail, especially on the west bank of the river, the Mississippi could leave the path it takes now — the one on which massive industries and the city of New Orleans both depend — and be captured by the Atchafalaya River, which offers it a faster, steeper shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico.

Read the whole column here.


“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.

The Audio Cyclopedia

vacuum tube schematicI used to work at the Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography, in a basement office within sight of where Alvin was built. The basement held another, less-heralded marvel: the free table. Whenever a lab was overhauled or a grad student moved on, they’d cull their detritus and dump it on the free table. Part of the pinko ethos that infects academia, no doubt, but a wonderful thing.

Usual fare ran toward outdated WordPerfect manuals, but you would sometimes find a collection of neatly piled Pyrex labware with a note saying “slightly contaminated.” Or a broken oscilloscope. Or five cartons of Hollerith cards. Pretty great to a technostalgic pack rat.

I especially loved finding specialized reference books. They’re usually de facto dictionaries, but the words are in situ, being put to good use as they’re being defined. One of my favorite free table gimmes was just such a book: The Audio Cyclopedia*, by Howard M. Tremaine. Probably bought in the seventies by someone working on sonar or recording whale songs, it’s a 1,700 page compendium of recording technology, in excruciating detail and with a weird Jeopardy! pose-everything-as-a-question prose style.

It is an absolutely tremendous source of of technicalese and audio industry terms of art, so yesterday I finally started a list I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time: Audio Argot, inspired by the Audio Cyclopedia. Please contribute, it’s an open list. Anything audio related fits the bill, I think—words needn’t come specifically from the Cyclopedia, but for those that do I’ll add a citation. Here’s the list.

* It seems to still be in demand. My scavenged copy is the 2nd edition, first published in 1969; the first edition was published in 1959 and it is not cheap.