Word of the Month: Christmas
December is a month of holidays that have spawned any number of words and phrases that, while familiar, do not have obvious etymologies. Many are based on traditions that are quite old and the words survive only in their holiday incarnations. So, our word of the month for this December is Christmas, n., the festival, or mass, of Christ’s nativity, celebrated on 25 December, from the Old English Cristes mæsse, before 1123.
Language Death, Part I
The issue of language death is a hot topic among linguists. Language death is the disappearance of dialects from the globe, the reduction in the number of dialects that are spoken worldwide. Most linguists agree that we are in the midst of an era where languages are disappearing at an extremely rapid rate and that this will result in various dire consequences for humanity and culture.
In this short series of articles we’ll examine the question of language death, how large a problem it is, and what the consequences are likely to be.
Book Review: Grant Barrett’s Hatchet Jobs & Hardball
Grant Barrett’s Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang is the most recent of Oxford University Press’s collection of specialty lexicons. OUP is engaged in publishing a number of books that take advantage of its tremendous research files on the English language. Hatchet Jobs and Hardball takes on the subject of terms associated with American politics.
Word of the Month: Election
Tuesday, 2 November is election day in the United States. On that day we select the next president and vice-president (or more accurately select the people who will select them), one-third of the US Senate, all of the House of Representatives, and numerous state and local officials. So, our word of the month is election, n., the selection of a person to fill an office, usually by votes of members of a particular body, ca. 1270, from the Old French and ultimately from the Latin electionem.
As I write this on 2 October, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is the bestselling fiction book in America according to New York Times Bestseller List. This is the first week King’s new novel has been on the list, entering it at number one. The number one non-fiction book also entered the list at the top position this week, America (The Book) by Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.1 The New York Times also maintains separate lists for advice/self-help books, for children’s books, and for paperbacks.
The New York Times Bestseller List is probably the best known and most influential of numerous such lists. A place on the list is a guarantee of even greater sales and scads of profit. But how does the Times compile the list? Besides the questionable placement of America (The Book) on the non-fiction list, is the list accurate? Does it actually reflect which books are truly the best sellers?
Book Review: Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers
Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-By-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century has been sitting on my shelf unread for many months. Purchased long ago with the intent to review it here, I just never got around to it. When I finally pulled it off the shelf I was delighted in what I found. This is a real gem of word books.
Ostler focuses on obsolescent and obsolete words and phrases, terms that are associated with a particular era. It is a compendium of American culture seen through the vocabulary of the times. Each chapter of Dewdroppers deals with a decade of the 20th century and the words and phrases that are associated with that period.
Word of the Month: Alcohol
Usually our word of the month is linked thematically with a current or historical event or holiday that occurs during the month in question. This is not the case this time. Instead we selected a subject arbitrarily and that subject is alcohol, n., a class of compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, specifically ethyl alcohol, an intoxicating liquid; from the medieval Latin, ultimately from the Arabic al-kuhul. The Arabic word referred to powdered antimony, used in cosmetics; applied in English to mean any powder produced by sublimation (1543); later applied to any distilled product (1642); finally to distilled liquors (1753); the specific chemical sense is from 1850.
Book Review: Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular
This month we review a book that could have been included in last month’s “Summer Reading” review list (except I hadn’t finished reading it at that time).
It is Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Nunberg is a professor of linguistics at Stanford and the book is a collection of his radio commentaries on language that he gives regularly on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.
Going Nucular comprises some sixty-five short essays on language and usage. The essays were all delivered on the radio during the period from 2001 through 2003 and many deal with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and how we altered our use of language to describe the attacks and their effects. (Nunberg includes the date the essay was delivered on the radio. This allows the reader to associate the topical subject with the appropriate period. One only wishes that other authors of compilations, like William Safire, would do the same.) Individual essay topics include the history of the word appeasement, use of the word Gallic and French bashing, the use of the language of courtly love in business writing, whether infidel is used appropriately to translate from the Arabic, and, of course, the pronunciation of nuclear.
Prescriptivist’s Corner: The Subjunctive Case
The Prescriptivist’s Corner is back after a hiatus. This month, we are addressing one of the most misunderstood aspects of English grammar, the subjunctive mood. A mood is a form of a verb that affects the meaning of a sentence. English has three moods, the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive.
Sprechen Sie Fraulein?
The Langenscheidt publishing group, a leading German dictionary publisher, plans to publish a guide it says will help men translate the subtexts of female conversation. The guide is written by comedian Mario Barth, famous for his stage show Men are Pigs…but so are Women.
Langenscheidt, best known for its yellow foreign language dictionaries, will launch sales of a 128-page book to translate such baffling female banter as: “Let’s just cuddle” into “No sex tonight please!.”
“Each themed chapter offers men behavioral tips and exposes hidden messages transmitted by women in everyday situations, such as on holiday or during shopping trips,” said Silke Exius, chief editor at Langenscheidt.
Other examples in the German-Woman/Woman-German “dictionary” due out in October include explaining why a woman asks a man to take interest in the pair of shoes she may be trying on.
She wants him to look because he’s about to pay for them.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton