Category Archives: Language

Two new words for 2014

Photo by Flickr user miguelphotobooth.

If only a mind-reading device could read our feelings, too. Photo by Flickr user miguelphotobooth.

In 2013, the word “selfie” catapulted to fame. It happened organically at first, its usage jumping 17,000 percent in a single year, according to Oxford Dictionaries’ calculations. Then it happened officially, when that great keeper of human vocabulary declared “selfie” the Word of the Year.

Which word will light up the lexicon in 2014? That’s a tough call with so many months and pop culture phenomena still to come. I recently learned a couple of words I would like to share, though. Here goes:

Telempathy (n.) According to science writer Michael Chorost, telempathy is “the apprehension of another person’s feelings, rather than thoughts.”

As I mentioned before, I’ve been reading Chorost’s book World Wide Mind, and came across it there. This is a next step in interconnectedness begun by the Internet. We know the content of others’ thoughts through blogs and emails with astonishing speed. But what about the emotions behind them? That element lags behind, or never even makes it to the other side. Emoticons can only go so far.

A dose of telempathy would really come in handy for one of my email groups, not to mention Canadians.* Continue reading

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Filed under Language, On media

Code Switch

I recently met up for dinner with a few friends, including one who had just graduated from an ASL interpreter training program. As we gazed at a kaleidoscope of pictures outside an East Village restaurant, someone asked if the menu looked good to me. “I think so, but I’ve never experienced Japanese tapas,” I said. Suddenly, the interpreter friend declared that I had code switched.

Code switching is a linguistic term for moving between languages. And Code Switch happens to be the name of a new National Public Radio blog about race, culture, and ethnicity. Hearing a piece about it this morning brought me back to that night. Learning that NPR had chosen that title also warmed my wordy heart. Continue reading

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Filed under Humor, Language, New York

Cracking into the truth

walnuts in a boxSometimes you need to cover the truth to best expose it.  This is what I decided as I sat in the parking lot behind my apartment building, a hammer in my hand and a crackling paper bag sitting on the cold pavement. The truth, in this case, was black walnuts. Notoriously tough to crack, this bitter, perfumed species native to 15 states does not succumb to nutcrackers. They do, however, help me think about how I conceptualize good writing and what a metaphor fanatic I am.

A little background: I ordered a case of these things for a locally-sourced meal not realizing it would take a research mission just to taste them. The most common advice I found for the home cook is to use a vise. Yes, a vise. Because of course you have one in the drawer right by the lemon zester.

I didn’t have the equipment for that, so I developed a technique involving soaking the nuts, placing them in a paper bag, and then whacking the heck out of them. Stay with me here. The writing/metaphor part is coming.

This nut-busting technique was not easy. I couldn’t see what I was doing and had to feel blindly for where to bring down the hammer, then painstakingly loosen each bit of nutmeat with a fork. But I had to admit this was the best way to go. Continue reading

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Filed under Humor, Language, Teaching

Could you close those hatches?

Bolt Bus Interior
I’m working at an essay on an early Greyhound about to depart Washington for New York City. All of a sudden, the driver stands up.  “Close those hatches, folks. That stuff is going to jump out on you,” he says.

Despite the groggy hour, passengers pop up to stuff in their duffel bags and coats and close the gap-toothed smile of the overhead compartments. Soon, we’re packed in and speeding toward the land of fast walkers and clipped talkers.

Later, I started wondering—did the passengers do that because the driver made such a convincing argument? Or would a simple “Close the hatches, please” have sufficed? Continue reading

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Filed under DC, Humor, Language

Strunk and White debunked

IMG_0774

E.B. White first encountered The Elements of Style at Cornell in 1919, when it was self-published by the precise and aging hand of his English professor, William Strunk Jr. White revised the book in 1959, and commenced to counsel and derange generations of writers.

When I assigned the fourth edition of the slim silver volume to my class, I had to look closer. And I was surprised. Instead of acting as an extension of Professor Strunk’s knobby finger, explaining with cold clarity at which point to use “who” and when “whom,” many of the book’s supposed rules are merely suggestions. Perhaps even more delightful, the book rarely takes itself seriously.

So why do so many writers?

To straighten the record and lighten your mood, I give you:

Three myths about Strunk and White

Myth #1: It’s stuffy and outdated.

Au contraire. Some of the examples make me LOL, while others border on X-rated. Turn to the section “Misused Words and Expressions.” Look up nauseous vs. nauseating. The book counsels readers not to say you feel nauseous “unless you are sure you have that effect on others.” Continue reading

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My contribution to the English language, better late than never

Popcorn & Kernels
First, there were Sniglets. Published in a book that defines its eponymous title as “Any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should,”  these gave us such made-up words as “flopcorn” (n. The unpopped kernels at the bottom of the cooker) and  “phosflink” (v. To flick a bulb on and off when it burns out)*.  Then came the Urban Dictionary, legitimizing unofficial terms we actually use, like “WTF” and “friends with benefits.” The new cool thing is to make up compound words that contain one partial word and one whole word. Not sure what that means? Try this: “frenemy.”

Not one to let even a moment (but sometimes three years) go by without jumping on a trend bandwagon,  I have come up with my own version of this new generation of portmanteau words. Continue reading

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