Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

July 7 2016 1:03 PM

Elie Wiesel’s Profound and Paradoxical Language of Silence

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize–winning Holocaust survivor who died last week at 87, was a prolific author. He was an outspoken activist. He was a distinguished professor and lifelong student of long-standing cultural and religious traditions of storytelling.

Yet in a 2006 interview, Wiesel shared that when Orson Welles approached him about making a film adaptation of Night, his masterful autobiographical account of the Holocaust, he refused. He wrote silences between his words, he explained, and film left no room for those silences.

Silence was the paradoxical language Wiesel developed in complex ways throughout his work and life. “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence,” recalls his narrator and stand-in, Eliezer, in Night, “which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.” Wiesel didn’t speak to that nocturnal silence until 10 years after he was freed from Auschwitz. Writing and abandoning a 600-page thesis at the Sorbonne, he turned to a different form of testimony: journalism.

July 5 2016 9:30 AM

“Krup You!” No More: How Broadway Learned to Swear

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

When Stephen Sondheim was writing the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to be sung in the 1957 musical West Side Story, he was hoping to be the first person to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway show: “Gee, Officer Krupke—Fuck you!” This did not come to pass. Columbia records balked because obscenity laws would prohibit the recording from being shipped over state lines. In the end, the line was changed to “Krup you!”—Sondheim has since maintained that it may be the best lyric line in the show. Is there any doubt what the lyric would be if it were written today? In the 50-plus years since West Side Story, the expletive is not only fully accepted in the theater, but roundly applauded.

June 29 2016 11:48 AM

Branger. Debression. Oexit. Zumxit. Why Did Brexit Trigger a Brexplosion of Wordplay?

Stocks plunged. Political parties imploded. Fear flared. Europe as we know it quaked. The world freaked out last Friday after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, or “Brexit,” the now-household blend of British and exit the process is going by. And across the media, the shocking results triggered a paroxysm—a bravalanche, a mass brysteria—of Brexit-induced portmanteaus.

Welcome to Portmantexia, as linguist Arnold Zwicky has christened this brave new world: Many U.K. citizens who voted to Bremain bemoaned the brevastation this brexplosion detonated. Assessing the damage, some Brexiteers now expressed bremorse and bregret, or regrexit, over the results. These Bracksies wondered how the U.K. might stage a breturn. Brecriminations in Parliament began to fly. Some who were in-bretween wished they hadn’t skipped the polls on voting day. Dismayed and afraid, immigrants, urbanites, and businesses weighed a brexodus from the U.K. Plenty of brexperts weighed in. A number of tweeters have summed up this brexistential crisis with a tour de force take on Kübler-Ross’ classic five stages of grief: brenial, branger, brargaining, brepression or debression, bracceptance or even euukceptance.

Over on the continent meanwhile, right-wing separatists in the Netherlands felt a boost for their Nexit cause, in France for Frexit, in Italy Italexit. German nationalists turned to their native Deutschland for Dexit, Austrians to Österreich for Oexit. Spexit, Pexit, Fixit, Polexit, Swexit, even Czexit: Each country in the EU is getting the “-exit” treatment, inspiring other wry variations like Retireland or Quitaly. Stateside, some have joked about a Texit for the Lone Star State, a Trexit from (or by) the Donald.

But why did we collectively turn to the wordplay of these brortmanteaux  and portmanteauxits in the immediate wake of the EU referendum results? After all, Brexit, or Brixit as it appeared early on, is documented all the way back in May 2012 and was modeled after Grexit, or Greece’s hypothetical exit from the eurozone. A mix of linguistic and cultural reasons helps explain why.

First, the phonology of Brexit was ripe for proliferation. The consonant cluster [br] and vowel [ɛ], as phoneticians render the E in exit, are very common sounds in English. We can easily stack [br] onto an existing word, or stitch together -xit with the connective tissue of [ɛ], to yield a word that sounds new but English-y.

Second, Brexit needed no training as a new word, courtesy of the lexical load its familiar exit already carried. It welcomed prefixes and suffixes: post-Brexit and Brexit-esque. It took on agency: a Brexiter. It functioned as a modifier: the Brexit fallout. It doubled as verb: to Brexit. Novel but natural, Brexit easily set up shop in English grammar, open for the business of wordplay.

Third, Brexit is right at home in our current zeitgeist of new word formation in English: blending. Older blends, like brunch and smog, are common to the point of invisibility. More recent examples seem contrived and forced and, as such, are met with backlash: healthineer or sustainagility are good examples. Others, such as listicle, athleisure,  and bromance, prove successful because they fill a semantic gap in the language.

But blending has become such a common and productive process of neologism in English, woven into the very fabric of our mashup, niche-seeking, and self-referential culture, that we are breaking apart words in whole new ways. Like the libfix, a term coined by Arnold Zwicky. As Neal Whitman explained the phenomenon for the Week:

Sometimes a particular word gets pulled into so many portmanteaus that a fragment of that word becomes "liberated" to become an affix (i.e. a prefix or suffix) all by itself — but one that has a much more specific meaning than what you get with affixes like un-, -ly, or -ness. The best example might be the suffix -gate, which jumped free of the name Watergate to embark on a successful career turning any noun into a scandal.

Brexit is a natural candidate for libfixation. Br- quickly jumped free of the word Brexit to signify anything related to the political reality of Brexit. As warmed up by Grexit and predicted by several linguascenti, -exit or -xit lent itself to “a sudden, unexpected, or premature departure.” Scoxit has been revived to Scotland’s possible departure from the U.K. Indians dubbed Raghuram Rajan’s stepping down from the Royal Bank of India the Rexit. Lionel Messi’s retirement from international football is known as the Mexit. Yet earlier, South Africans were watching out for a Zumxit if President Jacob Zuma resigned. Some are even freeing brex from Brexit, if brexcringing and the Sun’s “How the Brex Was Won” are any measure.

So why did the Brexit blends spread so fast? The answer points us to a fourth  and fifth reason for the brinvansion. Many in politics, media, and, of course, the U.K. and Europe were long familiar with the 4-year-old Brexit. Oxford Dictionaries even entered Brexit into its online dictionaries. But many more around the globe, especially Americans, first tuned into the EU referendum right before or after the vote. And their point of introduction, their first impression was the unusual, playful, but still very English-y and topical coinage: Brexit. Radio hosts glossed the term at the top of their segments; podcasters remarked on its irksomeness. Facebook users likened it to breakfast. Linguists have discussed its pronunciation and syntax. In its coverage of Brexit, the New York Times still marks it as a novel formation. The language of the Brexitsphere was already marked and meta, primed for, welcoming of wordplay.

Finally, the victory of “Leave” was a massive surprise. Today, we turn to social media, that new public square, to process such big, surprising news. In this space, observers—and the residents directly affected, above all—searched for words and leaned on humor to understand, cope with, celebrate, or try to articulate such a dramatic and chaotic experience. Brexit wordplay was a way to participate in and make sense of this historic moment in real time. Like bringing chips and dip to a party, Brexit was already linguistically and culturally packaged, ready for us to rip them open and start snacking.

Brexit, as a word and phenomenon, isn’t going anywhere. It, and its family of variations, will likely contend as the 2016 Word of the Year in various dictionaries and associations. But as for brexplosion or Zumxit? As with so much of our viral memes and trending hashtags, we greedily and compulsively gobbled up all the chips and dip. We quickly reached peak Brexit, er, peakxit.

June 27 2016 12:34 PM

When Lyrics Were Clean, Almost

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Forms and rhythms in music are never altered without producing changes in the entire fabric of society.” He also said, “No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” so it’s better that we stick with his take on music. In twentieth-century America, ragtime, jazz, rock, and later punk and rap, all bristled against the accepted music of their times. Although the earliest indictments of these genres were aimed primarily at the music itself, it was not really until the 1950s that songs were being banned for their lyrical content. This content, though, was generally regarded for its subject matter and not necessarily for the language used in expressing the ideas. This is to say that although the songs were deemed vulgar or subversive, actual profanity—or “sweary” language, if you will—was still a rare bird. However anyone swore in real life, cussing, cursing, or just “potty-mouth talk” did not really begin to make its way into the recording booth until the late 1960s.

For example, the 1950s saw the birth of rock ’n’ roll. From its outset, rock was deemed rebellious, savage, and even ungodly. Just the mention of the term rock ’n’ roll provoked controversy because it was thought to imply the sexual act. As rock began to heat up, it was met with verbal assaults of it being “cannibalistic and tribalistic,” as well as a dangerous communicable disease with music appealing to adolescent insecurity that drove teenagers to do outlandish things. Try as you might, the closest you will probably get to finding actual swear words in songs of the 50s would be in suggestive references like Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.”

June 24 2016 10:58 AM

What Happened to All of Baby’s Articles and Pronouns?

“When it comes to breastfeeding,” author Shannon Payette Seip opens If These Boobs Could Talk, “people want to know: How is baby doing? Is she latching on? Is he eating well? How is baby’s weight gain?” Her wry lament continues: “Baby this, baby that. Baby, baby, baby.”

Baby indeed: Seip is onto something more than just the underappreciated toll nursing takes on a new mother. Note her usage of baby: “How is baby doing?” and “How is baby’s weight gain?” Not my baby. Not your baby. Not the baby. Not Baby with a capital B. Not even a baby with a name. Just the unmarked baby, a noun as naked as a newborn. What is going on with this—let’s call it “undetermined”—baby?

The undetermined baby is increasingly prevalent online. Take mom blogs. An article on Mom.me addresses “Why Is Baby Crying? There’s an App for That.” Circle of Moms takes up this question on its forum: “When is baby old enough for juice or other beverages?” On social media, tweeters ask new mothers, “How is baby doing?”

June 22 2016 9:00 AM

Donald Trump Is Really Maybe Dependent on This Verbal Cartwheel 

Donald Trump is not a master of oratory. Within speeches, he meanders. From speech to speech, he repeats himself. Nobody cares. The point of his performances is that you can see him thinking, acting, in real time. You can see the struggle and the exertion.

There’s one word, in particular, that he uses as a walking stick as he clambers up the rocky face of cognition: maybe. Nine times out of 10, he uses it like a normal person (well, a normal fascist person). It’s often placed at the beginning of a sentence, where it seems conversational, like the reply to a question. It can carry an air of mischief, provocation, or heresy. “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” This is a Level 1 Maybe. Many (nowhere near all) of Trump’s most heinous accusations, over the years, have been leavened with such a maybe. “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don't know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or he may not have one.”

A Level 1 Maybe is premeditated. A Level 2 Maybe may be—or not. After the shooting in Orlando, Florida, Trump suggested, as he often does, that Obama was soft on terrorism: “There are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn’t want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn't know what he’s doing. But there are many people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. He doesn’t want to see what’s really happening.” We’re still in the realm of the normal, but there’s something maybe a little anxious about these maybes. They are maybe a little cautious. They reflect the uncertainty of inventing fake thoughts and ascribing them to “many people.”

Which brings us to the rare Level 3 Maybe, my favorite maybe in the world. This maybe is so weak, so unexpected that it often requires an additional modifier to prop it up. It erupts in the middle of sentences, without regard to the surrounding syntax. It is a verbal fart. At the first Republican primary debate, Trump told Megyn Kelly, “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me.” It was like watching someone almost fall off a bicycle. Earlier this month, as he felt around in the dark for an opinion on whether people on the terror watch list should be able to buy guns, Trump said that he would talk to the NRA. “I understand exactly what they're saying. You know, a lot of people are on the list that that really maybe shouldn’t be on the list and you know their rights are being taken away so I understand that.” And at a rally in West Virginia, in May, he addressed coal miners: “I think your industry has probably been hit harder than maybe anybody.” In all these cases, Trump seems to be possessed midsentence by uncertainty.

And yet there is something graceful about the Level 3 Maybe. For one thing, it is so inept that is has a kind of sprezzatura. It is powerful in its condescension. That’s why it feels so threatening and mobsterish when he uses it against Megyn Kelly. Conversely, it can signal humility, reasonableness. At a March rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, Trump said that his political success was “something that has—maybe never happened and they’re saying it’s a phenomenon.” He wants to say that it has “never happened,” tout court, but he also wants to project modesty and caution. (He goes on to say that he’s not a phenomenon, it’s not about him, he’s just a “messenger.”) You can see the beast thinking. And in appearing to move forward and backward at the same time, he conducts a kind of oratorical moonwalk.

Trump is cognitive chaos. He’s careless. And he will lose in November—probably. Maybe. Really.

June 21 2016 9:00 AM

It’s Time We Got a Handle on Circle Jerks

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

Today we’re going to answer the question “What the fuck is a circle jerk?” so you don’t end up like Melissa Rauch’s parents.

To begin with, what’s the difference between a circle jerk and a clusterfuck?

That’s a reasonable enough question. They’re both sexual references applied more often to organizations than to orgasms. They have the same rhythm; they have rhymes or near-rhymes on the stressed syllables; they have (dare I say it) liquids—/l/ and /r/—and fricatives—/s/, /f/—plus two /k/ sounds each, one at the end. But clusterfuck doesn’t literally refer to a potential real-world occurrence—it just replaces a literal bomb with a figurative fuck—and it’s unpleasant for everyone involved, whereas circle jerk refers to something that various texts and anecdotes assure us that some people literally do, and at least some of those directly involved in it may find it pleasant. Which is why circle jerks exist in the first place.

June 14 2016 1:06 PM

You Don’t Care if Someone Is Black, White, Green, or Purple? You Should!

Last week, Fox sports reporter Emily Austen received an official reprimand for her “insensitive and derogatory” remarks during a live Facebook video. “I didn’t even know Mexicans were that smart,” Austen had marveled, reflecting on the undocumented Texas student who earned a full ride to the University of Texas at Austin. Then Austen issued the following disclaimer from her colorblind heart: “I don’t care if you’re white, yellow, brown, purple.”

It was the taunt about Mexicans that drew down Fox’s censure, but Austen (pale beige) was also participating in a tried-and-true tradition: The invoking of bizarrely hued people to demonstrate her tolerance. Rhetorical human Skittles are so widespread that comic Mitch Hedberg mocked them in a 2002 stand-up routine: “You know how when it comes to racism, people say: ‘I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple or green’? Hold on now—purple or green? You gotta draw the line somewhere! To hell with purple people! Unless they’re suffocating—then help ’em.”

The joke is funny, see, because well-oxygenated violet humans do not exist. Green humans do not exist. Yellow with polka dots on your head humans do not exist. When writers scroll through the rainbow in pursuit of ever more outlandish skin tones to assign to their hypothetical fellow man, they almost always end up equating minorities with aliens.

June 14 2016 11:18 AM

THIS. Why So Much This?

Recently in the New York Times, Alexander Stern posited an ontology of our rampant tendency to categorize even the most mundane minutia of our lives as “a thing.” For the paper’s Magazine, meanwhile, Jody Rosen examined our hyperbolic habit of extolling quotidian pleasures as “everything.” These two linguistic trends, which are particularly pronounced on the web, have company: THIS.

Take this: On Facebook, the Daily Kos posted “YES. THIS.” This prefaced a photograph of a protester brandishing a handwritten sign, “It Wasn’t About Water Fountains in the 60s and It Isn’t About Bathrooms Now. Stop the Hate.” Or this: On Twitter, @eobaltimore tweeted “Dear journalists: THIS,” quoting a tweet from Slate linking to an article on this very blog.

The internet is fluent in the grammar of this, in part because the internet is a visual and textual medium. On a functional level, this serves as a simple demonstrative. It points users to information that immediately follows: a link, photograph, video, tweet, GIF, meme. This bridges context and content, creator and user, sharer and surfer.

June 12 2016 5:51 PM

A Brief, Inglorious History of “Not Politicizing Tragedy”

In the wake of a horrific shooting—the deadliest in American history—at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday, our eyes turned to the prominent politicians of the day. How would they respond? Would they make meaningless noises or outline transformative policy proposals? Conversely, would they offer words of sorrow and empathy, or would they make the catastrophe all about them and their agendas?

On one end of the spectrum, Trump justifiably came in for criticism when he used the massacre as an occasion to accept (nonexistent) congratulations on his perspicuity in matters of Islamic terrorism. (“Donald Trump Needs to Quit Politicizing Post-Orlando Shooting and Get His Priorities Straight,” admonished Bustle.)

On the other hand, in a deeply felt but circumspect and ultimately anodyne speech to the nation Sunday afternoon, President Obama seemed too cognizant of the pressure not to politicize tragedy. His most politically charged statements alluded faintly to past slaughter, reminding Americans “how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or in a house of worship or a movie theater or in a nightclub.” Yet the President’s remarks focused on supporting the families and mourning the victims.