2004 Holiday Shopping List

What do you get the word lover in your family for Christmas? You get them a copy of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends by David Wilton (Hardcover, Oxford University Press, 2004, $21.95). But of course they ran out to the book store on the first day the book was available, so that’s no good. What other books are out there that the discriminating logophile will enjoy? Here is a list, culled from those we’ve reviewed over the past few years.

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Internet or internet

2004 was a year of many milestones, but one small one that passed unnoticed by most was that on 16 August Wired News ceased to capitalize the word internet. “Effective with this sentence, Wired News will no longer capitalize the ‘I’ in internet,” wrote Tony Long, Wired News’ copy chief. On that date, Wired News also ceased to capitalize web and net, although it retains capitalization in World Wide Web.

The reason for capitalizing internet in the first place was that their are in actuality many different internets, or networks of computers linked by TCP/IP protocols (the IP stands for internet protocol). The largest of these, the global network with which we are all familiar, was capitalized to distinguish it from the smaller networks.

But the growth of the global internet brought about this change. It assimilated many of the smaller internets and those that survived as independent networks have been relegated to insignificance in the popular imagination. To most people, there is only one internet.

So Internet started losing its capital I. Like radio and television, it became just another communications medium and like those earlier technologies did not deserve a capital letter.

Some still capitalize it, of course. But the significance of the Wired News style change should not be underestimated. The practice of capitalizing the word is clearly on the way out.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bestsellers

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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