Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Sept. 7 2016 1:48 PM

We Have Questions to Raise About the Insidiously Banal Phrase Raises Questions

At the center of one of this election’s latest kerfuffles isn’t another disparagement from Donald Trump or hedge from Hillary Clinton. It’s a common phrase.

Here’s what happened: The New York Times published an article by Eric Lichtblau called “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation Ties to State Dept.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie puzzled at the language in a tweet: “I don't quite understand how a denied request for special access raises questions about undue ties?” Amanda Marcotte also expressed her bewilderment on Twitter: “Really, if the best you can do is ‘raises questions’, that isn’t much of a story. Journalism is about answering questions.” At Vox, Matthew Yglesias quickly dispatched with raises questions: “[The email chain] certainly doesn’t raise the question of whether Clinton Foundation staff got special access to passports from the State Department. It answers the question. They didn’t, as the story says.” And Paul Krugman subtweeted the very newspaper he files his weekly column for: “If reports about a candidate talk about how something ‘raises questions,’ creates ‘shadows,’ or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.”

The issue with raises questions, for its critics, runs much deeper than any complaint about sloppy language. In spite of the implication teed up in the headline and lead, Lichtblau found no “pay to play” link between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department in this latest batch of emails. So, the headline and lead’s charge of raises questions doesn’t merely mischaracterize the facts but also presupposes a nonexistent crime. Echoing Krugman, journalist Paul Waldman finds much larger consequences for the presumption. As he argued in the Washington Post, this raises questions reinforces “a larger narrative” that Clinton is fundamentally “tainted by scandal, or corrupt, or just sinister in ways people can never quite put their finger on.” And what’s more, Waldman continues, the usage is downright unfair, for Trump’s affairs don’t go under the same question-raising scrutiny his opponent’s do.

We might make several counterarguments, of course. Linguistically, there is nothing terribly special about the New York Times’ use of raises questions. The phrase is boilerplate headlinese, clichéd almost to the point of meaninglessness. Changing technology and media habits have forced newspapers toward grabbier language; if we want free content, we have to tolerate some level of clickbait. And politically, some insist that language like raises questions treats Clinton not with brass knuckles but with kid gloves.

But consider the objections to raises questions in a larger context. We may disagree with Waldman or Krugman, but we can’t disagree that it’s an example of journalists calling out journalists, of people in the media calling out the media. And this—this tiny instance of self-accountability—feels rare and refreshing in a media environment of too much news and information, in a time of intense polarization, with a set of candidates of historic levels of perceived untrustworthiness, at a moment in democracy when we worry truth is becoming optional.

Sure, criticisms of the Times use of raises questions can seem like a quibble or overreaction, but they cry for clarity, order, reason, consistency. They clamor for words with shared meanings, information with a shared reality. The problem, then, with raises questions isn’t simply one of logic, language, or even reportage. It’s whether we’re all willing to listen to the same answers. 

Aug. 31 2016 12:21 PM

Is the Term Alt-Right a Euphemism?

Last week, Hillary Clinton gave a speech denouncing Donald Trump’s ties to the “alt-right” movement of reactionaries and racists that have been taken with Trump’s assault on “political correctness” and his promises to curb immigration. At this point, everyone that has spent a reasonable amount of time on the political internet knows the alt-right is made up of bigots and knuckle-dragging trolls. But where did the phrase alt-right actually come from?

Alternative right was perhaps first used as the title of a speech given by the intellectual historian Paul Gottfried at an annual meeting of the far-right H.L. Mencken Club in 2008. The speech was published in Taki’s Magazine, or Takimag for short—a publication with the kind of split personality disorder that now seems emblematic of the alt-right movement as a whole. Its tagline is “Cocktails, Countesses, and Mental Caviar,” words archly chosen to evoke cartoonish wealth and pretension. Alongside such highfalutin pieces as “Valhalla for the Inarticulate” are models of eloquence like the essay I’m Not a Racist, Sexist, or a Homophobe, You Nigger Slut Faggot” and “Is Hillary Clinton a Brain Damaged Invalid?” In that last one, readers are asked to probe such deeply intellectual questions as, “WHAT’S WITH THAT PSYCHOTIC CACKLE OF HERS?”

Aug. 30 2016 9:30 AM

Everything Is Weaponized Now. This Is a Good Sign for Peace.

In the 1950s, we weaponized uranium to make nuclear warheads. Today, we weaponize safe spaces at campus protests. What happened? The history of this word weaponize reveals the shifting anxieties of the past half-century. But in this violent metaphor, which has been bombarding our public discourse of late, there is actually something much more peaceful afoot.

Weaponize originated as technical jargon in the U.S. military. At the onset of the Cold War, scientists weaponized rockets, fitting them with nuclear material and equipping them for launch. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests weaponize in 1957, citing the controversial aerospace pioneer Wernher von Braun, who used the neologism in the New York Times with respect to ballistic missiles. That same year, Aviation Week wrote of weaponization as “the latest of the coined words by missile scientists.”

Nuclear weaponizing persisted through the arms races, missile crises, and fears of mutually assured destruction of the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, weaponize has expanded into new frontiers. In the late 1960s and 1970s, we see biological and chemical agents weaponized thanks to the Vietnam War. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, weighed weaponizing space in the 1980s. During the 1990s, the geopolitical focus turned from Russia to the Middle East and Asia over concerns of growing weaponization there. After the post-9/11 anthrax attacks thrust weaponize back into the spotlight, the word has since geared up on two new fronts: drones and cyberwarfare. Now, some fear future weaponization in viruses, DNA, insects, robots, geoengineering, and even marijuana.

Aug. 24 2016 9:30 AM

Why Is Colored Person Hurtful and Person of Color OK? A Theory of Racial Euphemisms.

With Good Morning America’s Amy Robach currently on the griddle for referring to black people as “colored people,” some might understand that the term has long been archaic but quietly wonder just what was wrong with it.

After all, “person of color” is considered perfectly OK, and even modern. Since “colored person” means the same thing, why is it wrong to say it?

Some would say that black people have a right to decide what they want to be called, and that that’s all there is to it. However, that answer is incomplete, and risks people merely classifying the matter as one more example of what Steven Pinker has artfully called the “euphemism treadmill.” We can do better than that.

Not that there isn’t such a treadmill. It’s that tendency that can seem designed to annoy us—how terms for groups and policies, especially, often turn over every generation or so. Crippled became handicapped became disabled became differently abled. Home relief became welfare became cash assistance and temporary aid.

Aug. 23 2016 9:30 AM

How ’80s Is the Slang in Stranger Things?

In Netflix’s hit sci-fi drama Stranger Things, a group of kids adventure to rescue their friend from the Upside Down, a parallel dimension inhabited by a gnarly monster. But fans are just as thrilled by its other parallel dimension: 1983. The story is set in fictional small-town Indiana. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer lovingly bring the 1980s back to life in the series, from the deft touches of Rubik’s cubes and wood-paneled basements to the sweeping homage to Spielberg and Stephen King. Children of the period, and observers of its culture, agree that the show successfully recreates the decade in its visuals, music, aesthetic, narrative, and even character names. But what about its language? How ’80s is the slang in Stranger Things?

Aug. 19 2016 9:30 AM

It’s Hot Out. But Is It “Hot as Balls”?

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

We’ve had yet another month of record-breaking temperatures—and a corresponding spike in Google searches for hot as balls, a phrase that’s gotten popular as balls (mostly in the U.S.) in the last ten years or so. Although Urban Dictionary has an entry for the phrase from 2001, it became undeniably mainstream five years later during the heatwave of 2006. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan created this video in response to the scorching weather that year:

Aug. 18 2016 12:37 PM

Gymnastics Events Involving Bars Are Confusingly Named

The men’s and women’s gymnastics competition in Rio has ended. Goodbye, gymnastics. You were a pleasure to watch.

Respectfully, though, before you go, we’d like to ask about your bar nomenclature?

We’ve noticed that you have three distinct, bar-centric events: the horizontal bar, the parallel bars, and the uneven bars. The first two are part of the men’s contest, and the third takes its place in the women’s rotation. (There is also a beam, which could technically pass for a bar, in the women’s rotation, but we will ignore that for now.)

We’re sympathetic to your need to differentiate these three events. But we find ourselves perplexed by the way you’ve labeled them. The horizontal bar, for instance. All of the bars in gymnastics are horizontal. Otherwise they would be poles. Calling a piece of athletic apparatus a “horizontal bar” makes as much sense as calling it a “vertical pole.”

We are just trying to understand. Do swimmers compete in a “pool of water”? Do soccer players kick a “spherical ball”?

We’d like to respectfully suggest that you rename the “horizontal bar” event the “single bar.” Doing so distinguishes it from the other two bar-themed contests, each of which involves, if not a plethora of bars, more than one bar.

We believe that clarity when it comes to proper bar taxonomy is in your best interest.

Moving along to the parallel bars, they are parallel, yes, but so are the uneven bars. We defer to your judgment, but that seems confusing to us.

We recommend that you call the two that are even “the even bars.”

And the uneven bars, they can just remain “the uneven bars.”

Those are all of our suggestions about bars.

Aug. 17 2016 9:30 AM

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers

The punctuation mark of the ellipsis is perhaps the most unusual mark in the English language, for punctuation marks are designed to convey meaning by indicating relationships between ideas, but the ellipsis does the exact opposite. It simply indicates that something has been omitted. Sometimes, this omission is poignant, as in J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament “I grow old...I grow old…” which invites the reader to imagine what has happened to the him in the spaces between him growing old. Sometimes, it is simply a placeholder, as happens when a fellow messager is typing on the other end of the line. (Personally, my favorite example of the ellipsis is Seinfeld’s infamous “yada yada yada,” but I digress.)

But where did the ellipsis come from and how did it end up being so unusual? The Guardian’s article on the history of the ellipsis draws on Anne Toner’s fascinating book Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission to explore ellipses all the way back to the drama of the 16th century. Both the article and the book do an excellent job of analyzing these earliest print records of the modern ellipsis.

But that story may not be the whole story, for the dot dot dot of an ellipsis was no stranger to English texts before the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson. It might have just been serving a slightly different function.

Aug. 15 2016 1:08 PM

From Jefferson to Donald Trump, a Brief History of Presidential “Temperament”

From President Obama to 50 GOP national security officials, leading politicians from both sides of the aisle have been charging that Donald Trump lacks “the temperament” for the presidency. Trump, meanwhile, boasts he has “one of the great temperaments,” a “winning temperament.” Thanks to an unprecedentedly temperamental Donald Trump, this word temperament has caught fire as a keyword, and central question, of the 2016 election: Do we want a president who is governed by temperament or who governs with temperament?

But temperament, that cool-headed, even-handed attribute so many consider a top qualification for the office, is a word long stamped with the seal of the president of the United States. And its history embodies a fundamental tension, if not contradiction, in our expectations of a president—as a person and as a leader.

Aug. 11 2016 2:05 PM

What the Ancient Epinikion, or Victory Song, Teaches Us About Olympic Athletes

Forget medals, Wheaties boxes, interviews on Good Morning America, or corporate sponsorships: The ancient Greeks celebrated their Olympic champions with poetry. “When anyone is victorious through his toil,” as Diane Svarlien translates a victory ode composed by Pindar, one of ancient Greece’s greatest lyric poets,

then honey-voiced odes become the foundation for future fame, and a faithful pledge for the great deeds of excellence. This praise is dedicated to Olympian victors, without stint.

OK, the athletes did enjoy cash prizes, free meals at city hall for life, front-row seats at the theater, and some tax exemptions—not to mention some pretty epic sex parties upon homecoming. But orgies, unlike odes, don’t last forever.