Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Aug. 7 2015 10:52 AM

Heebie Jeebies: The 1920s Dance Craze That Helped Launch Louis Armstrong

As lexicographer Ben Zimmer pointed out recently on an episode of Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast, the phrase heebie-jeebies was, as far as we can tell, coined in 1923 by cartoonist Billy DeBeck in his popular comic strip Barney Google. Before long, the phrase was popping up all over, as the title of a song recorded by Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders, as the title of a Chicago South Side magazine, and as the title of a movie. The phrase implied eccentric movement and vague associations with mental disturbance, which made it the perfect name for a dance that aimed to satisfy the mid-1920s fascination with cutting loose and stepping out of convention for a couple of happy minutes.

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Aug. 5 2015 2:46 PM

Assessing Jeb Bush’s Bilingualism

Jeb Bush gave a Spanish-language interview on Sunday with Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart. This is the first time since the launch of his presidential campaign that his functional bilingualism has been on full display.

Aug. 5 2015 10:35 AM

A Non-French Speaker Won the French Language Scrabble Championship. How Is That Possible?

While tiles clashed at the National Scrabble Championships in Reno this week, the Scrabble world was still buzzing about a seemingly superhuman achievement at the French-language championship held a few weeks ago in Louvain, Belgium. It was there that the New Zealander Nigel Richards, the “Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” bested all his Francophone opponents. Except that Richards doesn’t actually speak French, and he only set about learning the French Scrabble dictionary nine weeks before the event.

Aug. 4 2015 1:59 PM

Minions, Blocking Our Roads and Scarring Our Children

The maddening assault of Minions, the little yellow creatures starring in a film of the same name, continued this week when a giant inflatable likeness came loose and wreaked goggle-eyed havoc on a highway in Dublin, blocking traffic and leaving many to wonder, What next?!

July 31 2015 7:42 PM

Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!

At the Slate Political Gabfest's live D.C. show this week, Emily, David, and John tried to diagram a sentence uttered in Sun City, South Carolina, on July 21 by the ever-eloquent Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. They were defeated.

But, as this is America, the story doesn't end there. Readers and listeners, can one of you prevail where the Gabfesters stumbled? Below, we've posted a video of Trump speaking the sentence; under that, you'll find the written text. If you refuse to be stumped by Trump, send your best diagrammatic effort (in screenshot, JPG, or PDF form, please) to politicalgabfest@slate.com. Those who succeed can look forward to Donald-level bragging rights!

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

July 30 2015 2:09 PM

We’re Finally Winning the Battle Against the Phrase “Battle With Cancer”

When the iconic theater actor and director Roger Rees died earlier in July, many reports quoted a gently worded press release written, it seemed, by his family: Rees, the release said, had “passed away … after a brief journey with cancer.” The diction gave me pause, even as I admired it. It was a clear step away from the familiar description of a dearly departed’s “battle” with the disease. But did this euphemism attenuate cancer in a way that felt cruel to the victim or untrue to the actual experience of, well, dying? I imagined a man walking slowly into the sunset, hand in hand with an adumbral figure. It seemed strange that the two silhouettes were moving in the same direction.

A journey “through” cancer might have been easier to visualize. There goes Rees, gracefully picking his way across the changing landscape, its rocks and eddies of sand and occasional sloping idylls. You are now entering cancer, reads the road sign behind him. Do not expect to enjoy your stay. But that preposition might be inapt, given that not every itinerant reaches the other side of the imperial malady. With, then, not through.

While this was the first time I’d encountered a journey with cancer, such quests crisscross the Web. Bloggers relate their “Journey With Inflammatory Breast Cancer,” their “Personalized Journey With Ovarian Cancer,” their “far-from-perfect journey with cancer” and “healing journey with cancer” and “beautiful journey with cancer” and “brave journey with cancer.” Sometimes, cancer is not a fellow traveler or pilgrim but a modifier clarifying the nature of the trip. There are “cancer journeys” and “long cancer journeys” and “personal cancer journeys,” all arcing across our feeds to converge, perhaps, in what Clive James called “the empty regions,” the endpoint of every mortal trek.

July 29 2015 9:00 AM

Taylor Swift, Waka Flocka, and the Roots of #Squad

In the centuries before automatic weapons, when armies clashed along the Anatolian coast or at the base of medieval castles, foot soldiers fought in square formations. The compact shape repelled enemy forces on horseback, a desperate armor wrought from geometry. The Latin word for square gave us squadron­—a military unit—and then, in the 1640s, squad.

Squads, unlike divisions or battalions, contained a relatively small number of infantrymen, lending the term an underdog tinge. (It retains that echo; consider the upcoming Suicide Squad, a hyped-at-Comic-Con movie about supervillains conscripted to carry out hopeless assignments for the government.) And since they often formed for specialized tasks (rifle squad, first aid squad) or a one-time mission (rescue squad) the word acquired a glimmer of rakish expertise. (The Mission: Impossible crew, meshing spectacular skill with the breezy assurance that this will never work, could well be the Platonic form of the squad, if not the most mod.)

But squad has always meant solidarity most of all. When the rise of nationalism whipped Europe into a martial fever, army deserters, mutineers, and traitors were condemned, for symbolic reasons, to die by firing squad. The optics of those deaths—evil loners facing trusty comrades, us triumphing over them­—wouldn’t be out of place in a grim remake of Taylor Swift’s "Bad Blood" video.

July 23 2015 3:25 PM

Activists Want to Replace “Car Accident” With “Car Crash.” Not So Fast.

A campaign is under way to ban the word accident from descriptions of car crashes. The New York City nonprofits Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets have teamed up to create a pledge, a hashtag, and a series of vigils reminding people that, while wrecks and injuries on the road may be unintentional, they are far from random, unpredictable, or unavoidable. “Accident is the transportation equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯,” explained Gizmodo last week, “immediately [exonerating] everyone involved.” But if you want to reduce the 30,000 or so automobile-related deaths that stain American roadways each year, you can take concrete steps: Don’t drive drunk. Obey traffic laws. Governments can focus on enforcing those laws, pushing for safe and effective street design, regulating vehicle licenses, and lowering the speed limit.

Advocates say the shift from accident to crash prevents negligent or reckless drivers from absolving themselves of responsibility. (There’s a reason 16-year-olds tell their parents they were “in an accident”—the construction demands the passive voice, and sounds antiseptically vague—rather than that they “totaled the van.”) According to Vox’s Joseph Stromberg, newspapers in the 1910s and ’20s tended to paint street collisions in lurid terms: Cars were a relatively new and threatening technology, and they emerged in the media (and in novels like The Great Gatsby) as dangerous villains, the murderous lackeys of the heedless rich.

July 22 2015 3:58 PM

A Brief Interview With the Director of Do I Sound Gay?

Do I Sound Gay?—a documentary from director David Thorpe about what is sometimes called the "gay voice" and his own effort to change the way he talks—opened this month in New York, Los Angeles, and other select cities. J. Bryan Lowder reviewed the film in Slate earlier on July 10. I recently spoke with Thorpe about his insecurity over not sounding "masculine enough" and about training with a vocal coach. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

July 21 2015 10:00 AM

When Did Feminism Get So “Sneaky”?

Feminism has been sneaking around. Don’t believe me? A recent New York profile of TV host Katie Nolan hailed the “woman bringing a sneaky feminism to Fox sports.” A few days later, the New York Times went long on Amy Schumer’s boisterous feminism, which it characterized as her “sneaky power.” Like Broad City (another purveyor of “sneak-attack feminism”), Schumer’s work is something of a trysting spot for furtive sisterhood; last year in Slate Willa Paskin declared Inside Amy Schumer the “most sneakily feminist show on TV.”

Psst! Do you know what else is “sneakily feminist?” Showtime’s The Affair. Meanwhile the Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal flick Hysteria is “slyly feminist,” as is Pixar’s fable Inside Out (which, according to a separate review on Slate, accomplishes a “subtle but surprisingly feminist” swerve). Plus, the show Trophy Wife has bloomed, like some nocturnal desert flower, into “secretly one of the most feminist shows on TV.” Sundance chose the “top ten secretly feminist films” of all time (with Thelma and Louise at the mist-shrouded apex). Spy is “secretly a feminist attack on the patriarchy.” Not even academic books prove immune from such subtlety, secrecy, surprise: In a chapter on Ursula Le Guin’s invented folklore, scholar Jarold Ramsey notes that the “slyly feminist … appropriation of the mystique of ‘Old Man Coyote’ can be illustrated by the beginning of a Kesh myth about a war between bears and humans.”