Saturday, February 22, 2020

War of Wordcraft

Words can be dangerous, but so can silence. It's up to you to choose which is the better weapon.

They Are Still in the News

pronouns, gender

You may recall that Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year was nonbinary they, and that the American Dialect Society chose (my) pronouns as their Word of the Year and singular they as Word of the Decade. These choices were more than just brief, meaningless, year-end exercises. The whole topic of personal pronouns isn’t going away anytime soon, nor should it.

If you haven’t given the topic much thought, or if you are just looking for other takes or even some history on pronoun use, new resources are appearing all the time: On a smaller side, the Grammarphobia Blog yesterday responded to one reader’s momentary confusion from looking for a plural antecedent for a singular they in “A ‘They’ by Any Other Name.” At the larger end, Dennis Baron’s new book What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She was recently published. It takes readers through English-speakers’ search for gender-free and nonbinary third-person pronouns, including a long list of proposed pronouns (like idn, ip, hir, and hiser) that goes back to 1770.

That's not a typo: 1770.

You can also listen to an interview with Dennis Baron in this week’s Talk the Talk podcast.

If Lewks Could Kill

vocabulary, trends

How do I know I’m out of touch with young people? Merriam-Webster wrote up this whole post about lewk — a variant spelling of look with a more specific meaning — and I had never seen the word before. Apparently it’s used in fashion to designate someone’s individual look, and I need to watch more Queer Eye.

If, like me, this word is entirely new to you, before you click over to read more, you’ll also need to consult this Merriam-Webster post about the word zhuzh.

Try Not to Imagine Albert Einstein Cursing Like a Sailor

swearing, confirmation bias

I'll admit it: I included this story mostly because I want it to be true, in spite of any shortcomings of the study itself. That would be the 2015 study that concluded that, as brought to light by The Language Nerds, people who curse a lot are smarter and have a better vocabulary than those who don’t.

Interesting if true. And also fun. And it actually makes a certain amount of sense that people with more language proficiency and a larger vocabulary generally would also be more proficient at creative cursing. It also gives us all a reason — backed up by scientific research! — to shoot for Margo Hanson-level swearility in our daily lives.

Don’t know that reference? It’s to the SyFy show The Magicians. of which I just finished watching the fourth season. In spite of this show's plot holes, inconsistencies, and sometimes needless complexity, it’s still worth the time to watch it just for Margo’s creative cursing. Here’s a short compilation video of some of them, but I have no idea how whoever pulled this together could have left out “Jesus' tits.”

Guess That Body Part

swearing, literature

In other vulgarity news from the week, Stan Carey at Sentence First took a look at swearing as it is depicted in Antonio White’s 1933 novel Frost in May. In that story, the matrons at the convent where Nanda (the protagonist) is progressing have a rather severe idea of what constitutes cursing, including an apparently prolix list of verboten verbiage. Nanda talks about “a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.”

What’s the word? It's a body part, but it isn't the body part you think. And it's not your second guess, either. You’ll have to go read “A Word So Dreadful and Rotten” to find out.

My Name Is Mud

etymology, word history

In his latest offering at the Oxford University Press blog, “Muddy Waters,” Anatoly Liberman wades into mud — that is, the origin of the word. The etymological history of mud is, well, muddy, and as he takes us into the word’s past, we find ourselves knee-deep in morass, moor, and marsh. And there’s also some smut in there, too.

Chili con Carnival

self-promotion, etymology, word history

What do you call next Tuesday? If you aren’t a Christian, the answer is probably “next Tuesday,” but the rest of you have other choices: Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, and Shrove Tuesday. My latest word history column, “A Carnival of Names for Mardi Gras,” is all about where all these names for the last hurrah before Lent come from. I also touch on what for some is the meat of this season: carnival.

Featured image sourced from The Public Domain Review.