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  • 12/16/13--14:25: A Bite of DARE
  • So what can the newly electrified cloud-based version of the Dictionary of American Regional English do that its paper antecedent can’t? If you’re lucky enough to have your own set of six volumes on your shelf, or have a nearby library that houses the print volumes that you can consult free, why would you pay $150 for a year’s subscription to the electronic version? Or why, in these times of tight budgets, should you ask your favorite library to subscribe for $1,200 a year?

    The answer is simple....


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    fireworksYour hint about the outcome of this year’s Word of the Year vote at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society (ADS) is right there in the headline.

    It was a lively gathering on a frigid Friday night in the Hilton Minneapolis, where we were all happy to have this very good excuse to be indoors. As always, we voted on other categories too, such as Most Outrageous, Most Useful, Most Creative, etc. You may have heard about other word-of-the-year votes over the past couple of months (e.g., O...


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    imagesA colleague sent me a contest offering from the venerable American Scholar, magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Titled “Lingua Americana,” it begins by setting out examples of “wonderfully expressive [English] words that defy translation,” including flaky, finagle, and hullaballoo. Remember those words; we’ll return to them.

    The contest then proceeds to list untranslatable words that it considers “a bit of a mouthful,” like schadenfreude, or simply unacceptably non-English, like frisson, sim...


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    6474918377_8869154114

    Remedies for a plogged nose.
    (Image courtesy of flickr.)

    It could be the fact that it is below zero outside here in Michigan or it could be the sniffles that I seem to have acquired in the past 24 hours. For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about the word plogged.

    I had a glimmer of hope that I could solve the mystery of plog  now that The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has gone digital. I knew that DARE did not contain plog  or plogged  as headwords, but I thought one of them...


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  • 01/22/14--21:01: Happy Otchig Day!
  • Moonack in the sun (courtesy of Wikimedia)

    On what we could have called Otchig Day, February 2, legend says the gopher rat will emerge from its underground burrow to look for its shadow. In case of shadow, this pasture pup will retreat underground, and we’ll have six more weeks of winter. But a cloudy day will encourage the johnny chuck to stay above ground, and winter will be over.

    Most of us know this subterranean dweller by the widely used names groundhog and woodchuck. The recently published...


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  • 02/06/14--21:01: Arrivederci! A Dopo!
  • 2417_do-you-want-to-learn-italian-628x366I’ll be taking a work-intensive book leave from Lingua Franca beginning next week. Just before I return, I’ll be relaxing for a week in Tuscany, where we chose a villa based on the reviews. The negative reviews, that is, the ones that said, “Wi-Fi here is really terrible.” Yes.

    I’m uncomfortable in countries where I don’t speak the language. My short-term experiences in Italy, which include two Italians playing a joke by helping me onto a train going south rather than north at 2:00 a.m., sug...


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  • 03/02/14--21:01: Weed Better
  • keep_calm_and_smoke_weed_by_maxwwy-d66xc24In a piece the other day about Ronan Farrow’s new MSNBC chat show, Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times noted that Farrow “made an effort to seem hip. He referred to marijuana as ‘weed’ and made an aside about the Ukrainian opposition leader, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who was recently freed from prison, saying that she ‘also has amazing hair.’”

    Yes, weed is apparently the broadly hippest current term for marijuana, that venerable fount of slang. (I’ll save for another day a discussion of the rela...


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  • 03/11/14--21:01: That NPR Sound
  • Scott Simon: "My word!"

    Scott Simon: “My word!”

    I don’t get it when people say or imply that people on NPR all talk alike. To me their voices contain multitudes.

    To be sure, there’s no question that, if the factors that determine dialect are age, ethnicity/race, class/education, and  region, NPR folk skew heavily oldish, white, overeducated, and from the U.S. quadrant that’s north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Minnesota-Dakotas line. It has to be that far west so as to include Garrison Keillor, whose voice is...


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    The alleged chasm that separates American from British English is often discussed in highly emotional terms. It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.

    People have being exaggerating the trans-Atlantic dialect distinctions ever since Osca...


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    The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

    If I had ever thought that ...


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    Upper_Peninsula_of_Michigan[1]Michigan was buzzing last week with the news that the word Yooper is going to be included in the new edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary this spring.

    For those of you who may not know, Yooper refers to someone who is from or lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (known as the UP, hence UP-er, or Yooper). Yooper is now a term of pride for many residents of the UP. According to Steve Parks (the man who lobbied for 10 years for the word to be included in Merriam-Webster’s), the te...


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  • 04/16/14--21:01: A Postcard From Salzburg
  • thugs

    Members of Golden Dawn break up a dictionary launch in Athens. Photograph by Victor Friedman.

    Salzburg, Austria—Mozart’s beautiful city provided an ideal locale for the conference I am attending here, where Slavicists and Balkanists have been discussing the role of ideology in grammar. Salzburg is close enough to allow scholars from Croatia or Kosovo or Macedonia to attend easily, without being actually in the Balkan region itself.

    Matters relating to the great Balkan laboratory for sociolinguis...


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  • 04/17/14--21:01: On Clarity
  • Screen-Shot-2012-10-25-at-3.29.22-PM

    What do John Boehner and Rachel Maddow have in common?
    Image: Screen shot from MSNBC, via The Blaze

    One cannot but be dismayed by the extent to which pollution of thought is endemic in our culture.

    The illness is ubiquitous: in Washington, in academe, on the radio and TV, among activists. Being clear, explaining oneself lucidly, seems to be an endangered form of human behavior. Was clarity ever better regarded? Or is the current attitude toward it a constant in history? One could blame the educat...


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  • 04/28/14--21:01: The Commas Suit Ya
  • William Burroughs

    William S. Burroughs

    An interesting Slate piece a few months back by Matthew J.X. Malady noted many Twitter users’ disdain for commas. It’s not just a matter of being frugal with punctuation in order to fit a thought into 140 characters. Punctuational minimalism has emerged as one of the hallmarks of casual online style—social media, texting, commenting, message boards. One inescapable example, which I’ve previously discussed, is the sea change in email greeting from “Hi, Name” to “Hi Name.” Thi...


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  • 04/29/14--21:01: There Was No Committee
  • britishempiremap

    British empire, 1919. Image courtesy Historic UK

    English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

    Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing the...


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  • 07/02/14--21:01: Bully for Them
  • Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

    Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

    If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the...


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  • 07/20/14--21:01: Switchin’ It Up
  • Linguists sometimes get discouraged about the rampant prescriptivism in public discussions of language. This past week was no exception, as many of us watched with some dismay as both friends and strangers online delighted over Weird Al Yankovich’s new song “Word Crimes.” As this song showed yet again, it can take only the smallest spark to ignite a stream of invective about “abuses” in/to the language and about those who commit these perceived abuses.

    There’s much to say about the attitudes a...


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  • 08/10/14--21:01: All Set With That
  • I recently returned from a vacation to southeastern Massachusetts, where my wife grew up and I know of as the home of the greatest restaurant in the world (apologies to Calvin Trillin, longtime advocate of Arthur Bryant’s barbecue joint in Kansas City). I refer to The Bayside, in Westport, Mass., which claims the honor via not only its chowder, fried clams, lobster roll, strawberry-rhubarb pie, and Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream, but also view from its dining deck of the Allens Pond Wildl...


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    Paris Hilton and dog.

    Paris Hilton and her tiny dog.

    Certain books are so brilliant in idea and execution that they are deservedly and repeatedly revised, eventually coming to be referred to by the author’s last name long after his or her death. So we now have new versions of the 1743 A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist: Containing the Laws of the Game and Also Some Rules; the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language; and the 1926 Modern English Usage. We call them Hoyle, Webster’s, and Fowler.

    I hope one d...


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    HT_arthur_chu_headshot_tk_140203_4x3t_384Arthur Chu is apparently best known as one of the top Jeopardy! winners of all time, but since I haven’t watched Jeopardy! since the last millennium, I have no opinion on his style of play or use of the Forrest Bounce. I came upon him, instead, in an essay on his current voice-over work. Born to Chinese immigrant parents in the 1980s, Chu grew up “translating” their “broken English” into perfectly formed phrases, with rounded Rs and articles in the right places, so they could be understood at cu...


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