In an interview with NPR about his new book, It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches, Orin Hargraves acknowledges the utility of well-worn shorthand even as he counsels against its use. Clichés work because their prepackaged meaning is immediately accessible, making them ideal tools for journalists trying to convey information quickly but counterproductive for the creation of fresh, resonant prose....more
Posts Tagged: language
How many different words are there for “intoxicated”? Quite a lot, as it turns out—writers have been inventing new words to describe inebriation for just about as long as they’ve been drinking. A new book exploring the history of synonyms of wasted reveals the origins of some five hundred years of poggled language....more
No one holds a monopoly on cranky admonishments of popular parlance, but Lake Superior State University’s annual “List of Banished Words” does hold the distinction of admonishing longest. The 40th year’s list is now out, featuring words in the “get off my lawn” tradition (kids today, debasing the language with their “swag” and “baes,”), words suffering from topical overuse (LSSU is over the “Polar Vortex” and calling every innovation a “hack”), and words that are simply objectionable on principal (“enhanced interrogation techniques” and “Friend-raising”)....more
In his seminal book Ways of Seeing, critic and novelist John Berger deconstructed the framework of presuppositions through which we view visual images. Over at the Guardian, he reminds us that language is also a process, one in which layers of meaning combine with a writer’s own relationship to words:
This practice reminds us that a language cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases.
Most writers aspire to clarity in language. Politicians, of course, are the exception. Legislators are turning to language to obscure their intentions, claims Steven Poole over at the Guardian. Poole cites a trade deal between the EU and the United States that confounds the issue of tariffs known as TTIP:
One might be forgiven for concluding from this, and in general from the obfuscatory and often downright misleading bureaucratese in which TTIP’s aims are framed, that they are trying to hide something.
The Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year” has been announced, and young people around the world will be called upon to explain the word “vape”—and its significance as part of cultural shifts surrounding marijuana and tobacco—to their older relatives in the coming days....more
Pamela Munro on reviving a language no one speaks:
It’s hard to find information on Tongva. There are no audio recordings of people speaking the language, just a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings of Tongva songs. There are additional word lists from scholars, explorers, and others dating from 1838 to 1903, but Harrington’s notes are the best source of information on the language.
Everybody has that one friend who insists they know good grammar. They’re probably wrong—Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker insists strict rules just don’t matter because language is fluid. Mother Jones explains the grammatically anti-authoritarian position:
…language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions.
Writers often overuse a few unique words, creating a linguistic fingerprint. Vocabulary words are also exchanged between social groups. Some people contribute new words, while others adopt them. The process is not entirely random, though:
Diana Boxer, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in sociolinguistics, says that when we find ourselves in a situation where someone uses language differently than we do, or words we’re unfamiliar with, we usually respond in one of two ways.
The words we never think about reveal a lot about what we’re saying. Filler words—this, though, I, an, and, that, and there—are so common we never really think about them, but they give away a lot of information....more
Make your way to The New Yorker, where Elif Batuman makes an inquiry into what has become a dominant American disposition: awkwardness. “Awkwardness,” Batuman argues, “is the consciousness of a false position.”
Here is the top-rated definition of awkward in Urban Dictionary: “Passing a homeless person on your way to a Coin Star machine.” In other words, denying that you have any spare change while carrying a whole jar of change, a transparent column of money, right in front of the person.
The act of creating new words helps make language more precise. George Orwell once proposed a ministry responsible for inventing new words for precisely that reason, explains The Airship Daily. However, the shortcomings of language and the new words created for precision is the reliance on interpretation:
However, coining new words won’t change the fact that these spirits, these significant chunks of human existence, remain trapped inside our skulls, inaccessible fully to anyone but ourselves.
Neuroscientists are examining metaphors and finding that they’re essential to language. Modern brain scanning has allowed scientists to look at brain activity as the brain employs metaphors from language. What has been found is that the brain interprets metaphors literally. For instance, metaphors based on actions involving the body activate areas of the brain that normally activate when the body is in motion....more
Before the mid-1970’s, Somalia had no written alphabet to speak of. In 1972, the Somali government introduced a standard written alphabet, and literacy rates climbed from a measly 5% to nearly 60%. Unfortunately, as an effect of the civil war, literacy rates dropped below 30% at the turn of the century....more
The rules come so naturally to us that we rarely learn about them in school, but over the past few decades language nerds have been monitoring modifiers, grouping them into categories, and straining to find logic in how people instinctively rank those categories.
People have taken to using the terms “book” and “novel” interchangeably, but non-fiction books are not novels, Ben Yagoda explains over at Slate. The shift might be attributed to the post-modern zeitgeist that blends fact and fiction into a fuzzy truth, or it might come down to language:
I tend to view it more pragmatically.
THIS. THIIIISSSSS. And this history of “This.”
Can Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) save the crumbling ivory towers of higher education?
“Tech companies, in their many guises, always tell stories about the future of the world.”
Kids these days are not impressed with your old-fashioned writing devices....more
Amid all the meanings and uses that give a word its weight, it’s easy to forget that language is ultimately a system of arbitrary signs. Lexicographer Paul Dickson’s new book “Authorisms—Words Wrought by Writers” chronicles some of the most dynamic moments in a language’s history: those instances when writers endeavored not just to create with words but to create the words themselves....more
The phrase “little did she/he/they know” has plenty of history. The question is, when did it start being used for cheap suspense? The inversion of subject and verb sounds stilted and melodramatic, so the obvious culprit would be 19th century fiction.
In The World Exchange, Alena Graedon’s debut novel, language is in danger, and reading becomes a means of salvation. Over at the New Yorker, bibliophile Peter C. Baker explains the problem with the idea that reading could be a panacea. In his words, “practical urgency and literature have little business mixing.” Baker believes that reading “cuts against the grain of the everyday,” helping us to escape “the jobs we have to work” and “the bills we have to pay.” Reading is not about fixing the world around us, but about finding a way to escape it....more