Category Archives: Language

A very grievous loss

As the din of political combat intensifies all round us, and comity and goodwill vanish in the smoke and fires of battle, I thought it might be good to remind ourselves of what real statesmanship and patriotism look like, and to remember that even in the darkest times it is possible to rise, however briefly, […]


OK, logophiles: below the fold is a list of the words that, according to this item at Slate, David Foster Wallace had circled in his dictionary. (I would link each word to its definition, but it would take me hours, and I can’t be bothered. Looking them up should help you pass these long evenings […]

Is It Just Us?

A foible of the English language is our fondness for words that repeat a syllable (or two) with a different vowel. Some examples: Flim-flam Tip-top Flip-flop Hip-hop Mish-mash Zig-zag Pitter-patter Chit-chat Riff-raff I’m sure you can think of others. (There are also examples that are purely imitative of sounds, such as “ding-dong”, “tick-tock”, and “clip-clop”, […]

Racism And Murderism

Here is a brilliant piece by Scott Alexander on what we mean by ‘racism’. It’s long, but you should read it all. It also includes this gem, right at the end: I don’t want civil war. I want this country to survive long enough to be killed by something awesome, like AI or some kind […]

Word Of The Day

Two, actually: baizuo, and shengmu. They’ll come in handy. Learn more here. Update: I was remiss not to give a hat-tip to Nick Land for this.

Put Some Cant In Your Rant

If, like me, you often have trouble finding just the right word, perhaps these will help: A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, and the Dictionary of Cant and English Slang, A Collection of the Canting Words and Terms, both ancient and modern, used by Beggars, Gypsies, Cheats, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifters, Foot-Pads, Highway-Men, &c; […]


In my ceaseless foraging for blog-fodder, I ran across this clickbait today: 10+ Hilarious Reasons Why The English Language Is The Worst “The worst”? Au contraire, say I: what other language has such richness of idiom, precision and discrimination? Anyway, off to the linked item I went. It began: English is a mystery to all […]

Emotional Granularity And The Richness of Human Idiom

The range of human emotion varies widely not only among individuals, but also across cultures. There is a poignancy in an inexpressible emotion (there ought to be a word for that!) — but there’s a good chance that what is inexpressible in one language is pinpointed by a word or phrase in another. Tim Lomas […]

Defending The Keep

I’ve just run across an interesting and illustrative story about academic heresy. It’s by a dissident researcher who took on the high priest of linguistics, Noam Chomsky, and describes the storm of opprobrium that followed. In brief: a central tenet of Chomsky’s model is that a particular feature — recursion — is universal to all […]

A.K.A. Deplorable

Saw an unfamiliar acronym over at Maverick Philosopher the the other day: “SIXHIRB”. I had to look it up. It’s a coinage of Dennis Prager’s, and it stands for Sexist, Intolerant, Xenophobic, Homophobic, Islamophobic, Racist, Bigoted: the “basket” of cudgels routinely applied to anyone to the right of the Vox editorial staff. I’d have preferred […]

Bête Noire

I’m a bit of a stickler for language. One common locution that’s been bothering me, ever since I started noticing it a few years ago, is the habit of news reporters to use the word “after” when they mean “when”. (Now that I’ve pointed it out, you’ll start noticing it too, and you’ll see how […]

Rules Of Order

Here’s something interesting: Hyperbaton is when you put words in an odd order, which is very, very difficult to do in English. Given that almost everything else in the English language is slapdash, happy-go-lucky, care-may-the-Devil, word order is surprisingly strict. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote his first story aged seven. It was about a “green […]

Hold That Thought!

“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.” — Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Mantle Plumes

Here’s a piece from Jay Nordlinger on how hard it is to keep up with what we’re allowed to call things from one day to the next. (I’m old enough now that I’m simply refusing to play along anymore.) To find out what this has in common with the geology of the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll […]

Further Reading

In response to our quoting Chang Ch’ao the other day, our reader Alex Leibowitz, a scholar of Chinese literature, has kindly provided further translation of the piece from which our excerpt was taken. 少年读书,如隙中窥月;中年读书,如庭中望月;老年读书,如台上玩月。皆以阅 之浅深,为所得之浅深耳。 Shao3 nian2 du2 shu1, ru2 xi4 zhong1 kui1 yue4; zhong1 nian2 du2 shu1, ru2 ting2 zhong1 wang4 yue4; lao3 nian2 […]


It’s lousy out: chilly and raining. It occurred to me earlier, as I was taking note of this, that there are an awful lot of words for this sort of weather, all beginning with ‘d’: damp, dark, dispiriting, dreary, dull, dismal, disagreeable, drenching, dank, drab, doleful, dim, depressing, and probably some others I haven’t thought […]

Where Yinz From?

I’m working late, so all I have for you tonight is this little quiz. Give it a go.

Word Jam

Our friend Mangan has sent along a link to an online vocabulary test that I thought all of you, being of course among the upper echelons of the world’s cognitive elites, might like to have a go at. Here it is. Pro tip: check your answers twice before submitting; the test is hard on the […]

Have A Butcher’s

Here’s something you language weenies will enjoy: an online dictionary of British slang.

Raising The Bar

Move over, Tom Friedman! Here, from Sean Penn, is a late entry for Worst Writing of 2012. It really is just unspeakably awful. Enjoy!

Approaching The Bench

Here’s Stanford’s Peter Robinson, interviewing Antonin Scalia for the Federalist Society (in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Well worth your time, I think, and you might be surprised by some of what Justice Scalia has to say.

I Was Like

With a hat tip to Laura Wood, here’s Clark Whelton on the recent descent of English into content-free moosh. An excerpt: This deliberate descent into verbal bedlam first came to my attention when I was interviewing intern candidates for Mayor Edward I. Koch’s speechwriting office in New York City. Until the mid-’80s I had no […]


Can we stop saying “flat-screen TV” yet? You can’t even buy the other kind anymore.

Stress Relief

OK, a moment of relief from all the dismal news of the day — a tweet by @FunnyFacts. The sentence “I never said she stole my money” has 7 different meanings depending on the stressed word.

Talking Turkey

Here’s a nifty animation illustrating the spread of Indo-Euopean langauges.

Yellow Journalism

Last week ESPN used the long-familiar phrase ‘a chink in the armor’ in reference to the apparent invincibility of NBA sensation Jeremy Lin. Predictably, a ruction ensued, and as is usual in such cases, the network groveled, and two new heads-on-pikestaffs were mounted on the battlements outside the Ministry of Speech. We now have a […]

An Onomastic Conundrum

In medieval times, tradesmen took surnames that reflected their profession. If you were John, and you baked bread for a living, you’d be John Baker. A great many of these names persist, e.g. Archer, Bailey, Baker, Barber, Bishop, Bowman, Brewer, Carpenter, Carter, Cartwright, Carver, Chandler, Chaplin, Chapman, Clark, Collier, Conner, Cook, Cooper, Cutler, Dean, Dyer, […]


Bored? Then spend a few minutes contemplating this grammatically correct and semantically coherent sentence: “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Read all about it here, and here.

Enunciatory Modalities

With a hat-tip to Bill Valicella, here are some prize-winning examples of spectacularly bad writing.

It Depends

Here’s one for you, language weenies: can you think of an irregular English verb that becomes a regular verb when applied to a particular subject? (I’ll post the answer if nobody gets it in a day or so.)


When you’re launching a business, or bringing out a new product, one of the most important choices you have to make is what to call it. If, for example, Dodge had named its line of heavy-duty pickup trucks “Daffodil” instead of “Ram”, sales would surely have suffered. A cheesy snack called “Ratbait” will struggle for […]

Over To You, Steve

A story that’s been making the rounds the past few days (thanks to the indefatigable JK for sending along this version of it) has to do with recent research that casts doubt on a cornerstone of contemporary thought about human language: namely that we all are born with a “language module” that constrains possible grammars […]

Hope This Helps

The Arizona shootings have brought about a secondary crisis: massive overuse of the word “vitriol”. (The word appeared in nearly every letter published on the subject in today’s Times.) As a public service, then, and in a heartfelt spirit of bipartisanship, here are some substitutes that writers on the Left can use when describing the […]

Getting Petty About Larceny

My local news-radio station recently reported on a string of crimes here in Brooklyn in which cell-phones were being “robbed” by a man on a bicycle, his modus operandi being to ride up to distracted pedestrians and snatch the devices from their hands. This didn’t sit well with me; I’d have said it was the […]

Time And A Word

You may not have heard about the latest offering from Google Labs, but it’s impressive, and addictive too. It’s a simple user interface that lets you graph the varying rate at which words and phrases have appeared in books over time. Enter your word or phrase, and see a graph. Bada-bing! Read about it here, […]

Follow-up Question

Here in New York City, we stand in a lot of lines. The customary procedure — at, say, one of our archetypal delis, during lunch hour — has always been for the person behind the counter to holler “NEXT!!!” when it’s time for the queue to shuffle forward. It’s blunt, simple, and gets right to […]

More Is Less

Listening to Gotham’s news-radio station this morning as I performed my ablutions, I heard the following announcement in the business segment: “Consumers are cutting back this holiday season, but not as much as in recent years.” In other words, consumers are spending more this year than last year. How is that “cutting back”? Who writes […]

Death Nail

Following on yesterday’s item about the death of the great Richie Hayward, the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten gives us another decedent to mourn: the English language. Cause of death: email, texting, bloggers, and the decline of large-scale, professionally edited journalism. We read: The language’s demise took few by surprise. Signs of its failing health had […]


In the Andaman Islands are several small and long-isolated human populations, including one that is, as far as I know, the most isolated human group of them all: the few hundred people living on North Sentinel Island. One of these populations, as of last week, no longer exists. The last of the Bo-speaking subtribes of […]

New Word

Thoughtopsy: in which you try to determine what the hell you could possibly have been thinking.

Please Make It Stop

I don’t want to seem peevish, but will somebody please tell me when speaking “about” a topic became speaking “to” it? Does this preening, pompous little affectation bother any of the rest of you as much as it does me?


I am having terrible troubles with my computer (an HP dvr9000 series laptop), and it will need to be replaced. It crashes often — I can now expect to get only ten or fifteen minutes at a time out of it — and it it takes several attempts to get it to restart. So cranky […]

Know What I Mean?

A few weeks back there was an interesting article by Natalie Angier in the science section of the Times, about a familiar word whose meaning, as it turns out, is not at all clear.

Tower Of Babel

In grappling with persistent questions regarding key aspects of human existence and the natural world — intentionality, free will, morality, and so on — it is very easy to become entangled in terminological difficulties. Here’s a particularly contentious example.

God Help Us

New words appear in our language almost every day. Sometimes, like a lovely wildflower or sturdy oak, they are welcome additions to the lexical landscape, delighting the rambler who encounters them for the first time. Some of these neologisms, however, produce an effect more like rounding a bend in the trail only to find a […]

Exit, Pursued By A Bear

Today, according to this item, is Talk Like Shakespeare Day (i’faith, I had no idea). However, the clay-brained, knotty-pated flirt-gill who composed the headline for the link at CNN’s main page needs some remedial instruction, methinks. The text says, imperatively, “Speaketh Boldly on ‘Talk Like Shakespeare Day’” — but “speaketh” (and the ‘-eth’ suffix generally) […]

Endangered Speeches

It’s time to leave immigration aside, and get back to our usual business; the past few days have given us enough to mull over for quite a while. Here, then is a project behind which waka waka waka can throw its enthusiastic and unambiguous support: Save The Words.

Le Mot Juste?

Both John McCain and Barack Obama gave fine speeches last night. Mr. McCain gave an honorable and gentlemanly address that was untainted by bitterness, and Mr. Obama’s speech was both sober and uplifting. I must comment on one thing in particular, before I am scooped by all the language mavens out there: Mr. Obama’s phrase […]

A Tense Moment

There is a mode of locution known as the Sports Present: one hears it often, and almost exclusively, during broadcasts of athletic competitions. It is employed, when discussing some action that has just taken place on the field, to point out that had something in the execution gone differently, a different result would have ensued. […]

Comma Chameleon

With a hat tip to Kevin Kim, here is a wonderful example of the power of punctuation to alter the meaning of written English.