waive, waif

To waive something is to voluntarily give up the right to that thing or to refrain from enforcing a rule or regulation, and a waif is an orphaned or abandoned child. But the two words are very much related etymologically. Both date to the thirteenth century and come into English from Norman French. The ultimate root is probably Scandinavian in origin, as there are Old Norse cognates, but the history of the word before the Norman Conquest is quite fuzzy.

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waif

See waive, waif.

2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year (WOTY)

Up until now, I’ve resisted jumping on the Word of the Year (WOTY) bandwagon. (I did come up with lists of significant words back in 2007 and 2008, but discontinued the practice.) Words of the Year have no linguistic relevance and are mostly marketing stunts pulled by the organizations that promulgate them. But I’ve noticed two problems with most of the other WOTY lists. First, they purport to come up with words or phrases to represent the entire year, but their selection is heavily weighted toward terms associated with events that occurred in October and November, within easy memory of the list compilers. Second, the lists start coming out in early November. I’m sorry, but you can’t legitimately select a WOTY when you’ve got 20% of the year yet to run. (Besides, it’s crass, like putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.)

So for this not-quite-first-ever Wordorigins.org WOTY, I’m doing things a bit differently. I’ve selected twelve terms, one for each month. Hopefully, this list will provide something of a more chronologically balanced review of 2016. And I’m publishing this in late December, so a selection for this month is possible. The list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and now a Texan to boot), them’s the breaks.

I’m interpreting word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily new, but they are (mostly) associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention during it or associated with some event that happened then.

So without further ado, here are the 2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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In Defense of Puns

This is about a year and a half old, but I just discovered it:

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throw the book at

To throw the book at someone is to sentence them to the maximum penalty for a crime or offense. The term is an Americanism dating to the early years of the twentieth century. The “book” in question, however, is a bit uncertain.

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book, throw the b. at

See throw the book at.

Internet Quotes: Molly Ivins on Flag Burning

“I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and then wrap himself in the flag.”

This quotation, attributed to the late, great journalist Molly Ivins, has been making the rounds of the internet lately, in the wake of Donald Trump’s tweet about outlawing the burning of the U.S. flag. The quotation has all the hallmarks of greatness, it’s pithy and clever, and it uses a classic rhetorical device, antimetabole (repeating words in reverse order, another example of this device is “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”). Unfortunately, the quote doesn’t come from Ivins, at least not originally.

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patient zero

The term patient zero is an epidemiological term for the person who transmits an infection into a population that had been free of it. The OED records the first published use of the term being in Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, a book about the early years of the AIDS pandemic. Shilts identified a French-Canadian flight attendant by the name of Gaëtan Dugas as patient zero, the man who introduced AIDS into North America. But, it turns out, Shilts was dead wrong. Not only was Dugas unfairly blamed for being the source of the disease, the term itself arose out of a misinterpretation of nomenclature used by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

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What English Will Sound Like In 100 Years

An online article by Michael Erard discusses the possible phonetic changes that English might go through in the coming decades and centuries. The best part of the article are three sound files of the opening lines of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, read in Old English, in modern Received Pronunciation, and in what English might sound like in a century’s time.

The article provides a good summary of the influences on English pronunciation and what kind of sound changes we might expect. But take any predictions, including the one in the audio file, with a grain of salt. While we know that English pronunciation will change, and we know what phonemes are more likely or less likely to change, we really have no clue what will actually change.

The other thing to consider is it is almost certain that there will be no single pronunciation for English. There will be hundreds of different varieties of English. English may not go the way of Latin and split into multiple, distinct dialects (i.e., French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), but even if it remains a global, mutually intelligible language, there will be considerable variation, just like there is today. There will be no single pronunciation of English in centuries time.

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Debunked: Students Can’t Write Anymore

I’m teaching four sections of first-year English composition this semester, so this subject is near and dear to my heart. Two Stanford researchers, Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, have conducted a longitudinal study of college freshman writing, comparing the results from students in 2006 with earlier studies from 1917, 1930, and 1986, and the results are quite surprising.

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