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All In a Word

  • Words worth distinguishing – and not

    Even though inflammable is a lovely word with the authority of history on its side, we should probably give it up.

  • Got a problem? Use ‘jugaad.’

    Jugaad is a Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi word for 'thinking outside the box' to find innovative, low-cost solutions to problems.

  • Borrowed words spice up English

    English tends to gobble up useful foreign words. Some wonderful words are not even knocking on the door of English, however.

  • Centuries of fighting over the apostrophe

    We now have a rough consensus that an apostrophe signals the possessive and a plain s the plural, although there is still debate about a few points.

  • The (impossible?) dream of a universal language

    Over the centuries, a surprising number of theologians and linguists have tried to 'reverse Babel' and create universally intelligible languages.

  • Out of the mouths of babes

    When they are around six to eight months old, babies begin to babble, experimenting with consonant-vowel combinations like 'da da,' 'bi bi,' or 'koy koy.' This babbling has produced the only two words found in a majority of the world’s languages: mama and papa. 

  • What’s your kitchen table lingo?

    English reportedly has by far the largest vocabulary in history. That’s double the number of its nearest rival, German. But does that satisfy Anglophones? Nope – we just invent more.

  • 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.