Saturday, October 26, 2019

What's the Word? October 26, 2019

Of late I've been discontent with the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally. I've been feeling like I need to get out there more, to do more, to make sure I'm still connecting with my people and contributing something to the world. (This is the personal bit; feel free to skip down to the actual content below the break.) And I've been racking my brain for what new project I might undertake and perhaps find some fulfillment.

What I really want to do a podcast, but I think that'll take a lot more than I can give to do right. And I'd want to do it right. Maybe someday. (And maybe some other word nerd out there is looking for a podcast partner/co-host? Hit me up.)

But I realized there was something I wish I had that, it turns out, I can actually create for others: a weekly newsletter focused solely on words. Not editing, not proofreading, not grammar — just words, talk about words, news about words, people figuring words out. You know, the good stuff.

But those newsletter services cost cash, and I ain't got none. Besides, I have no idea whether anyone would even be interested in receiving such a thing. Or if I could collect enough stories every week to fill one out. Or if I would even find the motivation to follow through every week on something like that. Because, after all, "Followthr-Oh-Look-A-Puppy" is my middle name.

So here is test case of the compromise between my desire and my wallet: A weekly blog post that collects the week's wordy goodnesses. Who knows; maybe this could turn in to something. (And I'll probably be trying on some different names for it, too. Just watch for it on the weekends.)

Anyway, enough blathering:

On Capitalizing Black

race, style, capitalization

"Yes, 'Black' is capitalized when you're talking about race" writes George M. Johnson at Mic. We writers and editors may think of the choices we make as being purely editorial, but even small changes — like capitalizing one word — can have meaning beyond the text. "[Nikole] Hannah-Jones's work got me thinking about the capitalizing of the 'b' in the word 'Black' as a racial identifier. It's not always done, and that capitalization is important because the word is not just describing the color of skin, or of a car or a desk for that matter. It describes a race — one whose existence has historically been plagued by erasure." It's a short read but, I think, an important one.

Lexicographers Are Such Animals


Newsweek reports on a letter that Elizabeth McMillan, CEO of PETA, sent to requesting they modify the definition of animal "to reflect that humans are animals too." Proving that she doesn't know how dictionaries work, her letter states, in part, "You can help stop harmful supremacist attitudes and give animals the respect they deserve just by modifying your definition of 'animal.'"

Ms. McMillan points out that's first definition for animal is "any member of the kingdom Animalia" — which of course includes human beings. This definition PETA finds no fault in. But the remaining definitions, which record other ways English speakers use the word animal — which is, you know, what dictionaries do — PETA labels as misleading and speciesist.

The only way PETA could get this to happen in a legitimate dictionary is to get people to stop using animal in these other ways ... and then wait another hundred years or so.

Dancing in the Streets

podcast, portmanteaux

I mentioned in my last post, oh so very long ago, that Talk the Talk is my favorite podcast. This week's pod, "Decolonising the Archive," is mostly about efforts to preserve aboriginal languages in Australia — maybe not your cup of tea if you're focused on English words. As I was listening along, I figured I probably wouldn't include it in this week's list. But then everything stopped when Daniel Midgley got the "Word of the Week" segment and said this thing:


Come up with your own definition, and then go listen to see if you got it right.

A Dash of Salary Salt

etymology, self-promotion

You didn't think I'd do this without some self-promotion, did you? After all, I write a weekly column about word histories for the website of a national magazine, and I (and the people who sign my paychecks) always need more readers.

Titling these articles can sometimes be a pain. I always aim for something that sparks curiosity while telling readers what the article is about without giving too much info away at the start and that also, if I can pull it of, is kind of fun. (That usually means puns.) In this case, I wasn't sure enough readers would make the connection to "celery salt" as an ingredient.

So the official title is "Salary: Are You Worth Your Salt?" You've realized by now that salary and salt are somehow etymologically related (you're so observant!), and it's true. Click over to read the whole thing (it's a short read).

I won't put all my weekly columns in this weekly whatever-this-turns-out-to-be, just the ones I think come out rather well. (I think this one came out rather well.)

Headline of the Week

ambiguity, headline

Fit as a What Now?

idioms, corpus linguistics 

Hearing someone use the phrase "fit as a whippet" got Jeremy Butterfield thinking about what other animals people are described as being "as fit as" — curious enough that he dug through some corpora to see what he could find. His curiosity is our boon, as he found some rather unexpected idiomatic similes, including the ones mentioned in the title of his post, "As Fit as a Flea and a Trout and a Butcher's Dog."

Not the One from The Green Hornet

etymology, free speech

It feels weird to type this, but in the 1990s, "Death to America" was a meme before internet memes were a thing. It's hard to imagine "Death to America" getting laughs, but there's video proof:

Though the target was different, the sentiment (and the repetition) is nothing new. The Roman senator Cato the Elder, writes James Harbeck at Sesquiotica, was "famous for (among other things) ending every speech he made for some time, on whatever topic, with 'Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam'" — which means, essentially, "Death to Carthage."

What does this have to do with words? Harbeck uses an exploration into the etymological connections among censor, censer, and censure as a jumping-off point to write about what censorship really means and the rights and responsibilities of people who want to say things that incense others.

Words don't just exist in a vacuum; they have real meaning, real value, and sometimes, a real heavy price. "A person who says all speech should be free," Harbeck writes, "is a person who has never noticed the cost of their speech because they haven’t had to pay a noticeable amount for it – because other people have been bearing the cost."