Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Sept. 27 2016 9:30 AM

Weird’s Worth

About 15 years ago, an independent bookseller in Texas went to battle against the specter of mega-bookstore invasion. His weapon of choice was something a purveyor of books knew best: a word. And the word was weird.

KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD was coined by the librarian Red Wassenich while on the phone with a local radio station. But the phrase was adopted when Steve Bercu, owner of the Austin, Texas, bookstore Book People, needed a slogan to rally objection to a planned Borders store a few blocks away. Bercu convinced John Kunz, the owner of nearby Waterloo Records, to join the keep-it-local cause. They printed 5,000 bumper stickers urging citizens to KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD and flanked the message with their business logos. The stickers flew off the shelves. And the Borders bookstore was never built in downtown Austin.

Sept. 23 2016 4:30 PM

Australian National Dictionary Reports Australia Invented an ... Interesting ... Curse Word

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

The recent launch of the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary gave me a chance to indulge in my longtime hobby of looking up the swear words. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my favourite homegrown colourful language in a future post, but I want to start with an entry that gives me the kind of pride that others expended on the Olympic Games last month.

The entry for fuckwit (p. 647) includes the note:

Used elsewhere but recorded earliest in Australia

That’s right. Australia is the home of the fuckwit. The earliest citation in the AND and the Oxford English Dictionary is from Alex Buzo’s 1970 play The Front Room Boys. The earliest non-Australian citation in the OED is from a 1992 article in Making Music magazine from America.

Sept. 22 2016 10:00 AM

Washingtonian, Lincolnian, Trumpian: Is Trumpian Destined to Become the Greatest Adjective in the Land?

How do you know when you’ve really made a name for yourself? Is it when your name is emblazoned in huge letters on gilded buildings? Or when it claims every column inch and chyron scroll? No, it’s when you’ve earned your own adjective: Trumpian, adj., “of or pertaining to Donald Trump.”

Trumpian isn’t exactly complimentary, though Trump may find flattery in the brassy, outsized swagger his adjective connotes. Nor is it new to this presidential election. One early use comes from a 1988 edition of Yachting magazine, which described Dennis Conner’s The Art of Winning as “well within the Trumpian vein.” In 1989, Sports Illustrated observed pleasant, modest communities along the route of the erstwhile Tour de Trump bike race as refreshingly “un-Trumpian.” Many other Trumpian gems bedizen the 1990s and 2000s: retail tumbles, affluent instigators, expense accounts, tabloids, noblesse oblige, conspicuous consumption, comb-overs, debt, and sadistic reality TV culture.

Sept. 20 2016 9:30 AM

Idina., Janet., and the in-Your-Face Glamor of the End-Stopped Title

Idina Menzel, the Broadway chanteuse best known for her irradiated turns in Rent, Wicked, and Frozen, chose a typically in-your-face name for her new solo album, out this week. It’s Idina., with the period, a typographical flourish that cries out at once “behold,” “look no further,” and “The press will almost certainly style this title wrong, but I care not.”

Self-titled albums are so common as to have lost any glamor, but the full stop feels like a rare power move. The mark shuts down discussion, offering up the definitive representation of Idina-ness in album form. It also turns punctuation into adornment, as if Menzel’s name couldn’t possibly swan onto the iTunes listings without a gem or two encircling its wrists. Like a feather or tiara, the period is there because the singer’s starry presence demands something extra. It is a placeholder for whatever dramatic accent one imagines should follow the utterance of “Idina.” (A burst of colored powder? A cymbal clap? A voluptuous slow-motion hair flip?)

It’s also an act of escalation. Idina. shows ups Beyoncé, Adele, Ciara, and other dot-less practitioners of the divalicious surname-drop. They want to say their one-word personal brands are all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know. But only Idina. drops the mic at the end of the broadcast.

In 1993, amid sneers that she’d ridden to fame on her family’s matching checkered coattails, Janet Jackson released her fifth album, Janet. The end-stopped title—“Janet, period”—unyoked the singer’s image from her brothers’. She’d co-produced the album and written all its lyrics. The matter-of-factness of her punctuation registered as cool confidence—not only was Janet. staking everything on its leading lady, but it wasn’t worried about it.

In movie titles, a period neither underscores an individual star’s charisma nor, alas, implies that you’re in for a period drama. Films salt their names with punctuation to add a tinge of character, whether it’s manic (Airplane!), spooky (The Next Voice You Hear…), or eccentric (Crazy, Stupid, Love). The parentheses in (500) Days of Summer speak to a sensibility that is wry, self-conscious, and full of asides to the viewer. But periods in movie titles are multivalent. The sober finality of Good Night, and Good Luck. intensifies the moral seriousness of Edward R. Murrow’s signoff. It also hints at the downfall of certain American ideals at the hands of McCarthyism. You can’t go back, that ineluctable mark warns. Meanwhile, there’s a deadpan quality to the punctuation in Comedy Central’s one-hour special Demetri Martin. Person. “Here I am,” Martin declares, perhaps a bit nervously. The air of resolution in the title suggests in its unexpectedness that the comic finds his membership in the “person” category ever so slightly improbable.

Then again, with its closing dot, the quirky Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. seems to be after a blend of unusualness and offhand frankness. This period feels understated, ironically conjuring the more exuberant punctuation the filmmakers could have used but didn’t. Like Dylan, the title comes off as reserved, a little off-kilter. It is also declarative, inarguable, and slyly self-contradictory. I’m not there, say the words, but the period mutters otherwise.

Sept. 16 2016 11:16 AM

A Biographer Got the Ultimate Revenge Against His Literary Foe

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a “hopeless mishmash”:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

Sept. 13 2016 10:39 AM

Forget the “Deplorables.” It’s the “Basket” That Makes Hillary’s Metaphor So Provocative.

Hillary Clinton caused quite the stir when she recently remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” Pundits picked apart the political impact of the gaffe, the internet had a field day with the gibe, and linguists looked at the unusual nouning of the adjective deplorable. “Basket of deplorables” no doubt stands out for its curious wording, but the expression also features a central metaphor of our time: the organizational container.

Basket, as a figure for “group,” isn’t new. In his 1916 novel The Dark Forest, English author Hugh Walpole affectionately bonded together a set of characters as a “basket” of “crazy romantics,” as the Oxford English Dictionary finds. Walpole’s turn of phrase, as does Clinton’s a century later, calls up basket case, though this pejoration for a “mentally imbalanced individual” doesn’t show up until the 1950s. The original basket cases involved rumors of soldiers who had lost all their limbs in World War I and thus, gruesomely, had to be transported in baskets.

Right after World War II, basket case was extended to countries unable to pay off debts, as if utterly maimed like those alleged soldiers. Finance took up the basket metaphor for other means around this time—and in ways that anticipate Clinton’s own basket. A basket of goods, commodities, or currencies, which take off during the midcentury, throw particular assets together for comparative evaluation. Stock traders also deal in market baskets and basket options. These financial baskets may ultimately owe some debt to the much older investment proverb, having all your eggs in one basket. And while some business people group items together in, say, a currency basket, the metaphor also works in the other direction: We sort out phenomena, such as regional markets or, in Clinton’s case, the electorate, into different baskets.

It’s another receptacle, though, that’s the go-to metaphor for such segmentation, especially in corporate jargon: the bucket. An executive may speak of divvying a budget up into sales and marketing buckets while an analyst, verbing the metaphor, will bucket brands for trend insights. Christopher Rhoads observed the buzzword back in 2007 for the Wall Street Journal: “the humble bucket has become a trendy fixture of corporate boardrooms and PowerPoint presentations,” “pushing aside other business-speak for describing categories or organizational units, such as silo and basket.” Companies may be favoring bucket over basket to obviate any confusion with actual baskets customers may be bringing up to the till.

Basket or bucket, the underlying concept of the metaphorical container is spilling over into broader political discourse, as Clinton’s use of baskets or Sasha Issenberg’s 2012 “voter buckets” suggest. And its stickiness is no accident. In fact, we can even put the reasons why into, yup, different baskets. First, receptacles like buckets and baskets are familiar and vivid. Everyone knows what a basket is and can easily conjure up an image of it. Second, the metaphor operates on a simple but effective analogy. Placing various bits into a basket or doling out fluid into buckets nicely maps onto the identification, classification, organization, and other higher-level cognitive tasks many of today’s jobs require. This points us to a third basket: utility. Modern work deals with abstract data, processes, behaviors, systems, epiphenomena; baskets and buckets help us contain, make sense of, or get control over all this complexity, making it as if we can literally manipulate and move these mental bundles around.

There may be yet deeper baskets, too. As more of our lives goes digital, new phenomena need names, and so we turn to our analog world to fill the gap with files and folders, with inboxes and desktops. Buckets and baskets work well in this space, semantic skeuomorphs whose ordinariness and domesticity lend a grounding sense of security and tangibility to our diffuse, mediated realities. The metaphor also resonates with a larger epistemological paradigm—of Freaknomics, Invisibilia, TED Talks, and the Malcolm Gladwell–ification of psychology and social science that is coming to privilege clever little “lifehacks.” Baskets and buckets also simplify, create order, and compartmentalize, picking up on our cultural obsession with productivity and decluttering. Metaphors like basket are not just woven into the very DNA of language, but, as linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson maintain in their seminal text Metaphors We Live By, into our very consciousness and lived reality: The “way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

Sure, calling a group of voters deplorables is politically problematic, in spite of the bigotry the comment was trying to highlight. But what we could be reacting to, on that more covert, subliminal level, is the metaphor itself. Though our government is polarized, our communities segregated, our everyday behaviors broken out into discrete data points for advertisers, in this era of identity politics, gender fluidity, and millennial self-invention, we no longer accept other people defining who we think we are. Only we get to decide which basket we belong in—or so we like to posture when we’re not busy categorizing everyone else. Clinton’s basket of deplorables doesn’t commit any crimes we don’t all do. It’s the reminder of this state of affairs that we find so deplorable.

Sept. 12 2016 11:36 AM

Where Did Hillary Get a Phrase Like “Basket of Deplorables”?

Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" is destined to become one of the lasting catchphrases of the campaign season.

Clinton's use of the phrase (which she says now she regrets*) appeared in a speech delivered at a fundraiser on Friday night:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.

Clinton had deployed the word deplorables at least once before, in an interview on Israeli TV on Thursday with phrasing similar to Friday night's speech:

If I were to be grossly generalistic, I'd say you can take Trump supporters and put them in two big baskets. There are what I call the deplorables.

Deplorables, whether or not they're in baskets, fit a pattern we've observed in the past: adjectives ending in -able or -ible that are turned into pluralizable nouns. Back in 2008, I looked at horribles and terribles as examples of this pattern:

More generally, many adjectives ending in -able/-ible have spawned related noun forms: think of collectibles, convertibles, deductibles, disposables, intangibles, perishables, and unmentionables. Sometimes the noun overtakes the adjective: vegetable comes from an adjective describing something that is able to vegetate, i.e., grow like a plant.

Pluralized horribles have most often occurred in the set phrase "parade of horribles." For a Boston Globe column in 2012, I traced the "parade of horribles" back to mid-19th-century New England, when austere parades of "ancients and honorables" held on Independence Day were spoofed, burlesque-style, as "antiques and horribles." Shore towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have continued the satirical tradition, holding "parades of horribles" every year.

Meanwhile, starting in the 1920s, the phrase entered legal usage as a dismissive term for imagined concerns about a ruling's negative effects. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg memorably referred to "the broccoli horrible" in her opinion on a 2012 Obamacare ruling. (For more, see my follow-ups to the Globe column on Language Log and Vocabulary.com.)

As Nancy Friedman observed on Twitter, there's a rhyming echo of "parade of horribles" in Clinton's "basket of deplorables." Given Clinton's lawyerly background, it's a good guess that "parade of horribles" inspired her turn of phrase. The plural noun deplorables, however, has far more scattered historical usage in English than horribles. The OED defines deplorables as "deplorable ills" and provides a single citation from the journal of Sir Walter Scott:

1828 Scott Jrnl. 10 Apr. (1941) 222 An old fellow, mauld with rheumatism and other deplorables.

From a few years later, here is an attestation in an 1831 journal entry by Thomas Carlyle, pairing deplorables with despicables:

Of all the deplorables and despicables of this city and time the saddest are the "literary men."

And here's an example from 1901, in a short story published in The Smart Set ("Brocton Mott, Realist," by Kate Jordan):

He turned to the east and took a Third avenue car down town. It carried a load of deplorables; all uninteresting, some offensive.

No word on whether the deplorables in that streetcar were Trump voters.

*As Bloix points out in the comments, Clinton didn't say she regrets using the phrase "basket of deplorables"; rather, she regrets saying that "half of Trump's supporters" could be put in the aforementioned basket.

Update: See this Boston Globe article for more on the spread of the "basket of deplorables" meme. And now Trump has created a commercial called "Deplorables" capitalizing on Clinton's controversial line.

Sept. 8 2016 5:31 PM

No One Cares How I Feel, According to Merriam-Webster

People who spend enough time on Twitter know that eventually, if they stick around long enough, hundreds of strangers will yell at them for fun. It’s the bargain you make when you sign up! And yet I have to acknowledge that I never expected my humiliation would come at the hands of a popular brand of dictionary.

Merriam-Webster is the company that publishes the widely used Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Its editors characterize their approach as “descriptivist,” which means they aim to reflect language as it exists, rather than to lay down the law, usage-wise. That orientation leads them to take a variety of admirable, progressive stances on lexicographic issues.

Take a look, for instance, at the entry for their in the company’s online dictionary. Merriam-Webster gives two definitions. The first is the uncontroversial use of their as it might appear in Slate or the New York Times:

1: of or relating to them or themselves especially as possessors, agents, or objects of an action <their furniture> <their verses> <their being seen>

With the second definition we see Merriam-Webster’s descriptivist boundary-pushing at work, as the dictionary endorses the use of their as a gender-neutral singular equivalent of “his or her.”

2: his or her : his, her, its —used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent <anyone in their senses — W. H. Auden>

Slate’s copy editors forbid this usage (over my strong and borderline-unprofessional public objections). How fearless, how forward-looking of the editors at Merriam-Webster to include it!

There’s a limit, though. Lots of English-speakers use their in a third sense: as an alternate spelling of they’re.


For all its broad-mindedness, its noisy pledges of fealty to language-as-it-is-used, Merriam-Webster somehow fails to include this common usage.

There’s a lesson there about authority: Even when it’s doing its best to come off as chill, sometimes it has to put its foot down.

* * *

The trouble began on Tuesday evening, when my eye was caught by a tweet from the @MerriamWebster account:

This is a typical tweet from Merriam-Webster, which likes to show off its descriptivist approach. Most famously, in April the account posted this all-time great tweet, an elegant rejoinder to conservatives moaning about the word genderqueer:

The team that runs the account is quick, clever, alive to the fast-moving conventions of online discourse. And I am all for descriptivism! I have no truck with hidebound rules. I believe that language evolves, and that a 2016 dictionary that doesn’t include genderqueer is failing as a dictionary.

And yet something about @MerriamWebster’s flaunting of its progressive credentials had begun to rub me the wrong way. The “use mad to mean ‘angry’ ” tweet, in particular, seemed lame, like a dad trying to sound cool by talking about the new Mumford and Sons album. Who doesn’t use mad to mean angry?

So I tweeted about it. Or rather, I started tweeting about it and then got sidetracked and started tweeting about something else, and then tried feebly to return to the original topic.

The next morning, whoever runs the @MerriamWebster account decided to respond to my muddled little tweetstorm like this:

Take a look at the retweet count. And the favs! Thousands and thousands of people, delighted at the fact that no one cares how I feel. In my Twitter mentions, people calling me “an abjectly disgusting creature” compete for space with people earnestly setting me straight about descriptivism. And still they pour in, letting me know that I got burnt or told or owned. “Wow, lots of folks here looking for blood,” as one onlooker put it.

On the scale of Twitter eruptions, this was big but mild. And, hey, we learned something, right? This was a fun day. Some new followers (hi new followers!) plus thousands of strangers laughing at me. Lots of fun. No one cares how I feel! Good one. See, I can laugh at myself.

Although, since we’re here, can I ask: What was the nature of this "own"? Was it a clever put-down? I don’t think it was. Coming from some rando, “No one cares how you feel” would hardly merit an RT count in the five figures.

No, the tweet’s power comes from the way it jars with the identity of its author—just as “Delete your account” is a banality until one presidential candidate tweets it at another. It’s not the words, it’s the shock of seeing them attributed to a well-known brand with 118,000 followers that’s usually associated with school and spelling.

As I survey the wreckage of my mentions, I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime. The brand is so much bigger than you, after all, that you can’t imagine it will hear you. Even if the brand were to become aware of your zingers, like a horse irked by a gnat, you assume it won’t turn on you—because, you believe, the brand is prevented by commercial imperatives from acting like a dick in public.

Merriam-Webster’s epic pwnage of me this week has revealed that sense of security for the fabrication that it is. It turns out that an aggressive, forward-looking brand—a venerable-but-staid brand that has turned to social media to add a bit of edginess to its image, perhaps—can indeed act like a dick in public, and will be rewarded with thousands of retweets, with celebratory gifs, with a BuzzFeed post chronicling its “iconic drag.” (Half a million views and still trending.) I worry that some previously unrecognized equilibrium has been toppled, and we’re about to enter a late-late-capitalist dystopia in which brands roam the internet taking down civilians for fun. And when that day comes, we’ll look back on @MerriamWebster’s tweet and rue our LOLs, but it will be too late.

Sept. 8 2016 10:08 AM

Total Sausage Party: How 20th-Century Meat-Lovers’ Dinners Became Bro-Fests

As far as strong language goes, sausage party is hardly spicy. It’s a mild slang term for a social gathering in which men greatly outnumber women, usually expressed with a sense of bro-ish disappointment by its male members, er sausages. But a new adult computer-animated movie, Sausage Party, is getting a big rise out of its ham-handed innuendo.

Sausage Party follows Frank, a phallic hot dog (voiced by Seth Rogen) on a dick joke-stuffed “quest to discover the truth about his own existence.” Its theatrical release posters relish in visual gags and puns.

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.