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    Lynne Murphy

    First, a quiz. Choose the country in which the following words or phrases originated, by writing either a “B” (Britain) or “U” (United States) next to the number. Answers are at the end of this post.

    1. The bee’s knees
    2. Debrief
    3. Foodstuff
    4. Hinky
    5. Nitty-gritty
    6. Poppycock
    7. Quad (that is, square at a university)
    8. To ramp up

    The quiz is stolen — or, as Brits would say, nicked — from Lynne Murphy’s entertaining and enlightening new book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between A...

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    I could hardly believe my ears. The BBC, on a radio news program and then again on the 8 a.m. news, quoted a British politician as saying “I think we must also recognize that there are real economic reasons why people have played up the issue of the Irish border and the need to have the shibboleth of the Good Friday agreement,” and as an aid to listeners they explained that “shibboleth” meant “outdated or unimportant idea”!

    Staggering misinformation, I thought. But then just last week I happene...

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    Trump's Personal Lawyer Michael Cohen Appears For Court Hearing Related To FBI Raid On His Hotel Room And Office

    Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen appeared for a court hearing last week after the FBI’s raid on his hotel room and office. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)


    The commander in chief turned to Twitter the other day, as he does.

    Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 10.23.32 AM

    The pair of tweets was remarkable, even for him, containing misspellings (the word is “flunky,” the New York Times Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter is Maggie Haberman), a possibly actionable defamatory statement (the supposed “drunk/drugged up loser” is identifiable, accord...

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    The Canadian William Shatner pronounced the word civil-eye-zations, even though the character he played was from Iowa.

    I have in my repertoire one parlor trick. I do it when chatting with someone whose speech is generally unremarkable, but who employs a pronunciation like “global-eye-zation” (the vowel in the third syllable rendered /ai/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA) instead of the typical American schwa (“global-/ə/-zation”). I say, “I bet you’re from Canada, aren’t you?” And...

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  • 05/30/18--15:15: A Week on Language Twitter
  • Berra

    “You can observe a lot by just watching,” Yogi Berra once supposedly said. To which I’ll add, you can learn a lot about developments in the language by just hanging out on Twitter and Facebook. To prove the point, here are some highlights of a week just passed on those sites.

    To start out, I noted this tweet from John Dean (yes, that John Dean):

    Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 11.08.53 AM

    The link is to a photo of Meghan Markle’s dog peering out of a limo, but what interested me was Dean’s use of pix — traditionally slang plural for “pi...

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    Yogi Bear and picanic basket


    I have been living in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, southwest of Philadelphia, for coming on 25 years, and I am finally getting a handle on the way people talk around here. For example, if they say, “That drawling is mayan,” they are not referring to the way Southerners speak or to a Mesoamarican civilization, but rather claiming ownership of a pitcher they have made, possibly with a crown. (The Harvard Dialect Survey shows that while Southeastern Pennsylvania is ...

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    Fieldworkers compiling the “Dictionary of American Regional English” in 1972.

    Have you enjoyed the taste of a cabinet this summer? If so, unless you’re a termite, you are probably from Rhode Island or neighboring southeast Massachusetts. The entry for “cabinet” in the Dictionary of American Regional English will tell you: Most of us know it as a milkshake.

    That’s what you’ll find when you look in the pages of the print edition, a first resource for any word used only in certain parts of the Unit...

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    You-Guys-Youse-Yall-Map-Chart_408x408What do you think, guys? Is “y’all” in trouble?

    For some time, “y’all” has been assaulted by “you guys” aiming to replace it as the go-to second-person-plural pronoun in the South. Is the Solid South still holding firm at the Mason-Dixon line, or is “you guys” infiltrating and spreading like kudzu, as it is elsewhere?

    I wonder because I know some claim that it is. In the Dictionary of American Regional English, the usage note for “you guys” says “orig. chiefly North; now widespread; esp freq. am...

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    Across the street from the building that houses the linguists, philosophers, and computer scientists at my university (on the left in the picture above) is the city’s huge central mosque. Hundreds of Muslims stream out of its doors after lunchtime prayers on Fridays to socialize in the courtyard. Men with men, of course (women have a separate exit door round the back).

    A few yards away on the mosque side of the street is Maqbool’s, a grocery store run by Pakistanis (I’ll use that designation he...

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    Cuenca (002)

    Cuenca, Ecuador

    ¿Adónde van? Asked the bus-station clerk in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, yesterday morning.

    It’s a reasonable question. Where am I going?

    A few moments later from a rear seat I watch the dust and urban squalor along the River Guayas transition to miles of lush banana fields before we reach Puerto Inca, where the change really begins. After a left turn, the bus climbs 14,000 feet in an hour. In that ascent, languages and cultures transform like flora and fauna.

    As we appr...

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    U. of Barcelona

    Wireliz Soto-González recently completed her master’s in art history at the University of Barcelona. Jorge Fernández de Jesús received a master’s in biology at the University of Navarra at Pamplona and is a teacher of English with the Council on International Educational Exchange. Both graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. 

    What was it like studying at a Spanish university?

    Soto-González: The matriculation process went smoothly and classes were not as dem...

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  • 08/13/18--14:10: Shtraight Talk on S-Backing
  • I believe peak s-backing was reached on August 1, 2018. In a segment of NPR’s All Things Considered that day, the host, Audie Cornish; the NPR correspondent she was speaking with, Ayesha Rascoe; and the news figure being discussed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, all engaged in s-backing, which is a term for pronouncing the s in a word as if it were sh. It’s called s-backing because you move your tongue toward the back of your mouth in order to do it. Some linguists refer to the phenomenon as “retracted...

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    Jason Statham and Bingbing Li in The Meg, a bilingual Chinese/American movie.

    There was breaking news about foreign languages last Thursday afternoon: Chinese has now overtaken German in popularity as a subject among high-school seniors in England. (I would bet the same holds for California, but I don’t have the figures.) At “A-level” — the key determinant of eligibility for college, roughly like a U.S. high-school diploma — 3,334 students took Chinese this year (up 8.6 percent on last year...

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    “Correct” summerhouse


    “Incorrect” summerhouse

    Correct summerhouse Incorrect summerhouse

    I have a distinguished colleague who unceasingly tries to persuade me to see that my attempts at descriptive grammar really have a prescriptive subtext. We were both participants in a workshop on the history and philosophy of linguistics last week, and the dispute reared its ugly head again.

    Being a descriptive linguist has nothing to do with the crazy notion that “anything goes” or the absurd idea th...

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    Noam Chomsky: no Philly vowels
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    If you really want to know how people use the English language in North America, you will find one consistently reliable peer-reviewed source of information, four times a year: the journal American Speech, sponsored by the American Dialect Society and published by Duke University Press.

    And though it is scholarly and research based, there’s a surprising amount of information that is intelligible to anyone, even without special training in lingu...

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    Unpresidented tweet

    Donald Trump has a unique way of speaking and writing. But for a president his language is not unprecedented. Or not unpresidented.

    In 2004, after considering the speech of all 42 different presidents until then (Grover Cleveland, you recall, was both the 22nd and 24th president), I found two qualities that we the people look for in the language of our presidents: They should be dignified — but also down to earth.

    Dignity came first. George Washington, who knew he was establishing the model for...

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    Jonah Hill in his younger days

    Interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air on October 30, the actor and director Jonah Hill was talking about his childhood obsession with movies. “I had ran through so many films,” he said.

    In a 2017 interview also on NPR, the director Bryan Fogel talked about Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian doctor who masterminded the doping of athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics. “What happened at Sochi he was incredibly upset about,” Fogel said, “because he had went from being a scientist,...

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