All In a Word

  • Are old English words worth fighting for?

    In 2007, the editors of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary banished a bevy of terms describing the natural world.

  • Who put the ‘Indian’ in Indian summer?

    The term’s etymology is vexed. It was first used in the Northeastern United States in the 18th century, but that is all we can say with relative certainty.

  • How many ways to say ‘This stinks’?

    When tested, most people can name only about 50 percent of even familiar aromas such as coffee, cinnamon, and garlic. But we do know when something stinks. For bad smells, we have a fairly rich, if nonspecific, vocabulary.

  • Remembrance of all things smelly

    It is surprisingly hard for English-speakers to describe the odors that occasion strong emotions. English possesses almost no abstract smell words that pick out links or themes among unrelated aromas. 

  • The many ways ‘-ing’ makes a word

    A reader recently asked why a building is called a building. The answer has to do with the great variety of functions that '-ing' performs in modern English.

  • Why can’t the English ... speak as we do?

    Differences between British English and American English can often be worked out from context and are unlikely to offend. Some, however, have the potential to embarrass.

  • The return of the exclamation point!

    Like most students in the past 100 years, I was taught to employ exclamation points 'rarely.' Now, though, we are in a period of exclamation inflation, and I have succumbed.

  • Why we dread the deadline

    Deadline offers a rare case in which the popular etymology of a word turns out to be accurate. Originally it was a line that promised death if you went over it.

  • The surprising vitality of one small word

    A 1395 translation of the Bible demonstrates that the word 'sad' didn’t mean what it does now. 

  • When good words turn bad

    What do the words politicaster, mongrel, and braggart have in common? They end with a pejorative suffix, a few final letters that change a neutral or positive word into a negative one.

  • How we came to suffer our franchises

    In English, the right to vote itself is sometimes referred to as suffrage. There is a folk etymology on the internet that holds suffrage to be derived from to suffer, in the older sense of 'allow' or 'permit.'

  • So many words to talk about elections

    There are so many wonderful campaign words, I feel as if I could go on forever – just like campaign season.

  • Bending over backward to be wrong

    As the term 'prestige construction' hints, hypercorrection is intimately bound up with issues of social class.

  • When words get ‘girl cooties’

    A word that starts out as a neutral or even positive term for men feminizes (becomes exclusively identified with women) and often pejorates (gets worse).

  • Where did all the hoydens go?

    It is hard even to imagine hoyden as a meaningful term of reproach and criticism today. Why shouldn’t girls climb trees? What’s wrong with women laughing loudly and saying what they think?

  • Can the punniest also be the funniest?

    Why, as John Pollack writes in “The Pun Also Rises,” do we consider puns “the lowest form of humor?”

  • Must Dennis be a dentist?

    A group of psychologists recently published a paper claiming that nominative determinism actually works. They found that men named Dennis were more likely to be dentists, the theory being that 'people choose – or are unconsciously drawn to – careers that resemble their own names.'

  • Can comity and Comey coexist?

    The US Senate is – or was – strongly associated with ideals of comity. Many of the recent articles about former FBI Director James Comey, however, suggest that Senate comity is under threat or already destroyed.    

  • Exactly how often is that?

    Even if you decide to make a firm distinction between bi- and semi-, these words are used so interchangeably that it’s still confusing.

  • When plump was a pleasing word

    It was only at the turn of the 20th century that a high enough proportion of Westerners had so much food that thinness resulting from self-denial became the standard of beauty.