The takeaway language of slang

The sheer linguistic inventiveness and indestructible quality of slang can keep some of its terms in use for centuries James Sharpe In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson informed his readers that there was one aspect of his compatriots’ discourse that he was unwilling to engage with. “Of the laborious … Continue reading

Space Invaders

Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. By Farhad Manjoo The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out … Continue reading

Irony Is Good!

How Mao killed Chinese humor … and how the Internet is slowly bringing it back again. BY ERIC ABRAHAMSEN … In the decades following, China’s educational policy and official pronouncements did not stray far from this pattern of value statements mindlessly repeated and the discouragement of independent thought — hardly fertile ground for humor or … Continue reading

Gesturing While Talking Helps Change Your Thoughts

Sometimes it’s almost impossible to talk without using your hands. These gestures seem to be important to how we think. They provide a visual clue to our thoughts and, a new theory suggests, may even change our thoughts by grounding them in action. University of Chicago psychological scientists Sian Beilock and Susan Goldin-Meadow are bringing … Continue reading

You’ve Been Verbed

Friending, trending, even evidencing and statementing… plenty of nouns are turning into verbs. Anthony Gardner works out what’s going on … From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010 Mothers and fathers used to bring up children: now they parent. Critics used to review plays: now they critique them. Athletes podium, executives flipchart, and almost everybody Googles. … Continue reading

The Seven Deadly Sins of Student Writers

By Ben Yagoda I have been teaching college writing since 1992. The corrections I find myself making on student assignments fall into two general categories. The first concern problems of style — specifically, clarity and grace. So I mark the many places where my students commit wordiness, vagueness, awkwardness, banality, and so on. The other … Continue reading

The Elements of Clunk

  By Ben Yagoda Four years ago, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle Review cataloging "The Seven Deadly Sins of Student Writers"—the errors and infelicities that cropped up most frequently in my students’ work. Since then a whole new strain of bad writing has come to the fore, not only in student work but … Continue reading

Austerity Rules

What economists say about Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2010. By Annie Lowrey What does austerity really mean?Say what you will about its appeal (or lack thereof) as fiscal policy, but the Top Word of 2010, according to Merriam-Webster, is austerity. The distinction is based on its popularity on the dictionary’s Web site, and … Continue reading

China bans use of English — and Chinglish — in media

By Suzanne Merkelson Taking a page from L’Académie française, China’s state press and publishing body has banned the use of foreign words and acronyms – especially English – in newspapers, periodicals, books, and on the Internet. The General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) noted that the use of foreign languages, most notably the mix … Continue reading

A Click of the Tongue: Ultrasound Translates Dying Languages

Linguists have found a new application for ultrasound—decoding dying languages By Lisa Song  Amanda Miller sits facing an old woman in Upington, South Africa, one hand on a cylindrical probe that she holds underneath the woman’s chin. “Speak,” Miller says in the woman’s native language, N|uu, and as the words flow out, an ultrasound screen … Continue reading

Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?

John McWhorter   We are to bemoan that universities across the country are eliminating or scaling back their foreign language departments. Or, what seems to arouse critics most is the disappearance of French, German, and Italian departments—what with Goethe, Balzac and Dante being pillars of a liberal arts education and so on. Yet, former French … Continue reading

If I ruled the world

Viv Groskop  Britons should be banned from speaking English and made to use another language: French, Gaelic—or perhaps even Pictish Ah that’s more like it. Photo: Lee Jordan Someone must put a stop to the global domination of the English language. Its position is unjustified—English is not beautiful to hear, nor is it an easy … Continue reading

Seven questions for K. David Harrison

R.L.G. BY SOME estimates, half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century. K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College, has made a career documenting some of them—and advocating for keeping them alive. A film about his exploits (with a fellow linguist, Greg Anderson), "The Linguists", was nominated for an Emmy … Continue reading

Language May Help Create, Not Just Convey, Thoughts and Feelings

The language we speak may influence not only our thoughts, but our implicit preferences as well. That’s the finding of a study by psychologists at Harvard University, who found that bilingual individuals’ opinions of different ethnic groups were affected by the language in which they took a test examining their biases and predilections. The paper … Continue reading

I could care less

A loathed phrase turns 50 By Jan Freeman  It was 50 years ago this month — Oct. 20, 1960 — that one of America’s favorite language disputes showed up in print, in the form of a letter to Ann Landers. A reader wanted Ann to settle a dispute with his girlfriend: “You know that common … Continue reading

Research in the Crib

What happens when language scientists use their own children as test subjects? By Arika Okrent Portrait of Dietrich Tiedemann, one of the first philosophers to publish a study about his own child’s language acquisition.It’s become the norm in America for parents to capture their children’s smiles, tantrums, and impish shenanigans—sometimes cute, sometimes deeply embarrassing—on blogs, … Continue reading

Words That Shaped the Week: “Cabinet Parties,” “Javinelope,“ Etc.

by Juli Weiner For your edification, a look back at the phrases, nouns, and neologisms that have, for better or for worse, shaped the week’s national discourse. Cabinet parties [kab-uh-nit pahr-tees], noun: A social gathering of teens who ingest prescription medication and cough syrup in hopes of achieving a high; a mythical phenomenon native to … Continue reading

Das Lied der Deutschen

A new history of German shows how it came to be, and how it could have been German: Biography of a Language. By Ruth H. Sanders. Oxford University Press; 248 pages; $29.95 and £17.99. Buy from, MOST people regard grammar books and dictionaries as a codified set of rules prescribing dos and don’ts. … Continue reading

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Horacio Salinas for The New York Times By GUY DEUTSCHER Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science … Continue reading

Burying Molière (And reburying him)

BY STEVE MOYER Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of Albert Camus’s death, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the Nobel Laureate’s body be exhumed, brought to Paris, and placed in the Panthéon. This temple on the Left Bank, located near the Sorbonne, serves as the resting place for many of France’s greatest writers and thinkers. … Continue reading

A Ballsy Explainer

When did testicles become courageous? By Juliet Lapidos Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer "has the cojones that our president does not have," Sarah Palin rabble-roused on Sunday. Anatomically, the one-time vice-presidential candidate has it all wrong: The president has cojones, the Spanish word for balls, while the female Brewer does not. Of course, cojones also means … Continue reading

Creole: lost in translation

The debate about Creole as a language still fires up teachers and politicians by Axel Gauvin. In a recent survey (1), Reunionese parents were asked what languages they thought would be useful to their children for the future. Not surprisingly, French led the way (99%), followed by English (95%), but also Reunion Creole (85%). An … Continue reading

Sarah Palin’s struggle with English language

Sarah Palin’s ‘refudiate’ was a shocker, but Shakespeare and Carroll were at it too, says Philip Hensher. By Philip Hensher. Sarah Palin’s ongoing struggle with the English language entered a new phase this week, when she called on her Twitter followers to "refudiate" the proposal to build a mosque on the site of the World … Continue reading

Is English Special Because It’s "Globish"?

By John McWhorter. Most of the mainline reviews of Robert McCrum’s Globish – of which there have been so many so fast that I am in awe of his publicity people — are missing what is fundamentally wrong with the book. Herewith one linguist’s take on this peculiar book, within which all evaluators seem to … Continue reading

Language lessons: You are what you speak

By Christine Kenneally. LANGUAGES are wonderfully idiosyncratic. English puts its subject before its verb. Finnish has lots of cases. Mandarin is highly tonal. Yet despite these differences, one of the most influential ideas in the study of language is that of universal grammar. Put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, it is widely interpreted … Continue reading

Why Are Indian Kids So Good at Spelling?

Because they have their own minor-league spelling bee circuit. By Ben Paynter: This April’s North South Foundation bee in Shawnee, Kan., might seem like an obscure place to find the spelling world’s two biggest stars. Mostly, it looked like the sort of geeky local bee I might have attended as a kid—except everyone there was … Continue reading

David Foster Wallace’s Word List

David Foster Wallace’s Word List By Juliet Lapidos Until this week, I had no idea what pleach meant. I don’t recall ever having seen the word or having heard it spoken. Same goes for recrudesce and tabanid. I came across this new vocabulary while scanning the complete list of words that David Foster Wallace circled … Continue reading

What David Foster Wallace Circled in His Dictionary

A complete list, courtesy of the Ransom Center. Below you’ll find the complete list of words that David Foster Wallace circled in his American Heritage Dictionary. Many thanks to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin for providing us with the list. (To learn more about the Ransom Center’s Wallace archive, click here.) … Continue reading

They Get to Me

A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns. By Jessica Love I used to be a normal psycholinguistics graduate student. I wanted to study how the mind parses improbable metaphors, unintelligible accents, and quirky syntax. Sexy things. Things that would play out well at parties. I imagined myself magnanimously explaining how sentences like “The … Continue reading