Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Feb. 13 2015 8:28 PM

KATCHOW! How to Write Sounds in Comics

If a tree falls in the forest in a comic book, but no one is around to write <krrrASH>, does it make a sound?

Comics are a visual medium, but sound is an essential element of the "imaginary space" its creators are building, at least according to Lee Marrs, author of the Pudge, Girl Blimp series and a "founding mommy" of Wimmen’s Comix. A comic with the sound effects removed might be a significantly different reading experience, almost as though a central character had been excised.

Marrs notes that representations of sound in comics are emblematic of the art form, and over time, a canon of onomatopoeia has developed. As with any transcription, these spellings are constrained by a language’s sounds and its writing system(s), so onomatopoeic words for the same sound, a barking dog or creaking floorboard, often differ from language to language. When comics are translated, the sound effects are usually converted as well.

Video Advertisement

Feb. 13 2015 9:00 AM

What I Learned About Language When I Titled My Novel The Book of Negroes

The title of my novel, The Book of Negroes, has undergone a series of changes since HarperCollins Canada published it eight years ago. The original name resurrects a long-forgotten British naval ledger used to document the exodus of 3,000 African Americans from Manhattan. These African Americans—their stories also form the subject of my novel—became known as the Black Loyalists because they served the British in Manhattan on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War. The Tories had enticed slaves to throw off their shackles and fight, promising freedom to any man or woman who would take refuge behind British military lines. But the British lost the war, so they rewarded the 3,000 Black Loyalists with free passage by ship from Manhattan to Nova Scotia (on the Atlantic coast of Canada) in 1783.

In 2007, shortly before the first printing of the novel in the United States, my American publisher (W.W. Norton & Co.) changed the title to Someone Knows My Name. I was told that American bookstores were reluctant to order a book with the word Negroes on the cover. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, where the Canadian title was translated quite literally to Het Negerboek, a small group of protesters of Dutch Surinamese descent was so outraged that they burned copies of the book cover in an Amsterdam park. When, back in the States, BET bought a six-part miniseries adaptation of the story (the first episode airs Monday), the network opted to use my original title, which persuaded Norton to re-release the book as The Book of Negroes. This back-and-forth made me wonder: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

Feb. 12 2015 3:26 PM

How Do You Spell the Abbreviation of Casual?

Here at Lexicon Valley we like to describe rather than prescribe, ruminate rather than ordain or decree. We are the contemplative cows chewing over the cud of language use, not the woodpeckers hammering our preferences home. And yet. Every now and then a linguistic puzzle presents itself that cries out for a definite solution. The abbreviation of the word casual is one such puzzle. How do you spell … that word?

We’re after answers, but we’re still a democracy, so we are going to tackle this pressing problem via roundtable discussion, after which you guys will tell us in the comments what you think. I’ll start. Because I’m right. The correct way to spell the shortening of casual is …


First, the abbreviation of a word should not be longer or more complex than the word itself. Second, it should embody something of the spirit of the word. Caj is simple, direct, and brief—Dress code: caj—but it also lends itself to languorous lengthening: The date was cajjjjjjjjjj. Thorny consonantal clusters (like in caszh and cajzh) don’t conjure the requisite frictionlessness and ease, whereas the J makes phonetic sense, has a storybook charm, and is distinctive. To be casual is to obey the rules when it suits you. To keep it loose, a little wild. That J—a little something different that nevertheless avoids fussy four-car pileups of letters—delights the eye without requiring you to dig around in alternate alphabets. (Also, fasten on a second J and the word evokes, logically, the rhyming hajj.)

—Katy Waldman, words correspondent


We native English speakers are a parochial lot. Many eschew learning foreign languages altogether, and our newspapers and websites rarely display characters from foreign alphabets. That’s why my ideal representation of the abbreviated version of casualcaж, using the eighth letter of the Russian alphabet—is a nonstarter, even though the sound ж signifies, the zh-ish s that appears in the middle of the word casual, is just right. As a second-place substitute I favor cajzh. The middle J might seem excessive, but it’s necessary. Without it, cazh is too soft and sibilant. It’s ironic that we can only form the easy-breezy version of an already casual word by creating such a clogged-up concentration of consonants that we have to clench our teeth to pronounce it.

—June Thomas, culture critic and Outward editor


Good abbreviations, needless to say, leave no room for alternatives. Natch. Poss. Totes. These are all perfectly intuitive word crops, straightforward shortcuts with clear meanings. But lopping off the second syllable of casual just doesn’t work in print. So if we insist on doing it, the only route is the practical one. No desperate clustering of letters to create an inexpressible sound. No invoking a non-English character to help out where our own language fails. No weird solitary J's. The best choice is to write the syllable itself, plus an apostrophe to stand in for the missing letters: the ugly but functional cas’

—Laura Bennett, senior editor


The problem with how to spell the commonly used abbreviation of casual is that there’s no letter, or letter combination, in English that perfectly represents the lovely sound in the middle of casual—the satisfying thick buzz, the aural smear, not a typical Z but a Z that’s been smoking pot all afternoon. It’s not zh, or jzh, or any of the other suggestions my misguided colleagues have made here. Smushing a bunch of letters together in hopes of evoking a simple phonetic sound is hopeless. Luckily, the international phonetic alphabet offers us the answer, and the Internet offers us the way to find it.

The sound is called the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant, and the way to spell the abbreviation of casual you say all the time is caʒ. Look how pretty that is! The letter, called an ezh, looks like the offspring of a Z and a G, which is just perfect. The next time you’re looking to type this word, just Google “ezh,” copy-paste, and you’re on your way. You may also shorten the usual to the uʒ, or “Kyrie Irving has excellent court vision” to “whoa his court viʒ.” Do not, however, shorten menopausal to menopauʒ; this is incorrect.

Dan Kois, culture editor


The obvious correct spelling for the single-syllable shortened form of casual so often used in informal speech is caszh. We need the S to hearken back to the spelling of the word we’re trying to abbreviate. (Caj, by contrast, might look like an abbreviation of cajun or cajole to the uninitiated.) However, cas alone looks like it sounds like caz or cass, so we also need the additional zh, which is already widely understood to represent the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant. Caszh is efficient, containing just enough letters to get the job done, without requiring any special characters. And there’s something appropriately pleasant about that cluster of consonants at the end, which seems to imply that you can draw out the zh sound as long as you like when you speak the word aloud.

—Laura Anderson, associate editor


This is America, where we go big and act haphazardly. We ignore problems, or we win by throwing everything we have at them, including consonants. My friends, spelling the shortened casual is an American problem. Maybe cascjzh looks foreign to you. Maybe as usual we’ve failed in our quest for perfection. But I will be damned if we roll over and grasp at a spelling as plainly wrong as cas like some idle Frenchman. I will be damned if we borrow a letter from another language like some leading-from-behind wimp.

Achieving the opposite of our wars' objectives is the American way; when we aim to correctly shorten casual, we can only hope to lengthen it. To win honorably, when we abbreviate casual, we need a surge—we must pile consonant upon consonant until we approximate the right sound. We will not go quietly into the night; we will not vanish without a fight. We're going to spell on. Because Americans are not casual. We spell with excess, or we do not spell at all. We are cascjzh.

—Seth Maxon, home page editor

Feb. 11 2015 2:35 PM

When Did Books Get Page Numbers—and Are They Even Useful Anymore?

Open any Western book, and one of the first right-hand pages will contain the title and author, along with the name of the publisher and maybe place and year of publication.

It didn’t use to be that way.

Feb. 4 2015 2:46 PM

Why We Shouldn’t Reclaim Slut

Since the Riot Grrrl feminist punk rock movement of the early 1990s, when Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill wrote SLUT on her stomach in lipstick, feminists have attempted to wrest control of the label “slut.” Instead of being shamed for our sexuality, the thinking has been, let’s take ownership of this label and subvert its meanings. It’s a brave, saucy move with doses of irony and humor mixed in, and one that’s been gestating for a while. Years before the SlutWalk movement erupted in 2011 and sought to rehabilitate the term, I had amassed a closet full of slut T-shirts given to me by campus groups after my lectures on slut-bashing. But I’ve never worn them. Simply put, most people aren’t in on the joke, which creates more issues than it solves.

Feb. 3 2015 1:09 PM

The Craptastic History of Sh-t Show

When my brother and his wife threw a birthday party last year for their youngest daughter, seven or eight preschoolers, along with most of their parents, arrived at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. As midafternoon merriment gave way to late afternoon and then evening, the kids, huddled in a Disneyfied trance in the living room, watched Frozen for a second consecutive time. The adults, meanwhile, found their own form of repetitive recreation.

"Everyone kept eating and drinking and by six o'clock I realized that no one was leaving, so we just made more food and kept the wine flowing," recalled my brother Matt, who, having exhausted his supply of 750 ml bottles, began corking the nine magnums that he kept as decoration in an antique tool cart turned bar. It would be near midnight before the impromptu bacchanal finally disbanded, when yawning children left for home with their wobbly mommies and daddies. "It was kind of a shit show," said my brother.

Until recently, the phrase "shit show" was part of my bubble vocabulary, a term invented by Slate's Seth Stevenson for words that skim the edges of familiarity and accessibility but remain "just out of grasp." A child's party that metamorphosed unexpectedly into 10 hours of boozy revelry sounded fun, I thought. Wasn't a "shit show" an unwelcome occurrence, acutely annoying and chaotic?

Feb. 2 2015 11:53 AM

How to Write Dirty Tongue Twisters

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

First off, let’s all agree that a big part of the fun of dirty tongue twisters is that you’re trying not to say a dirty word. The dirty word is just waiting there, impossible to ignore, magnetic, and you’re supposed to dance all around the rim of it without slipping into it. So while there’s something to be said for gleeful vulgarity, we miss the point a little if we write something like this:

She sits, shitting incessantly, and such shits as she shits sitting slip from her shitty seat like chic sliding shipside slippers.

So thing No. 1 in writing a dirty tongue twister is to find a vulgar word or expression to dance around. It should be a common one, one that springs easily to mind and mouth, so that habit will lead the speaker astray. And then everyone will giggle.

Obviously, this means you need to find words that are similar to the vulgar expression. But not all words are equally useful. There are a couple of factors to bear in mind:

Jan. 30 2015 4:44 PM

The Long and Fascinating History of Quotation Marks

The punctuation mark is a storied character. Its family tree extends all the way back to the second century BC, when its earliest ancestor sprang into being at the ancient Library of Alexandria. The so-called diple, or “double,” was an arrow-shaped character (>) named for the two strokes of the pen required to draw it, and it was just one of a clutch of proofreading marks devised by a librarian named Aristarchus to help edit and clarify the library’s holdings. Aristarchus drew inspiration from his predecessor Zenodotus, who had created the first such mark a century earlier: by marking superfluous lines of text with marginal dashes, or lines (—), Zenodotus had invented the field of literary criticism quite literally at a stroke. Named for the Greek obelos, or “roasting spit,” the image of a dash transfixing erroneous text was later said to be “like an arrow, [which] slays the superfluous and pierces the false.”

Finding the obelos to be necessary but not sufficient to the task at hand, Aristarchus took Zenodotus’s dash and created an array of additional symbols to aid his work. The obelos reprised its role of marking spurious lines, but Aristarchus allied it with a new symbol called the asteriskos, or “little star.” Alone, the dotted, star-like glyph (※) called out material that had been mistakenly duplicated; together with anobelos, it marked a line that belonged elsewhere in the text at hand. Lastly, Aristarchus placed diples alongside lines that contained noteworthy text, while the diple’s dolled-up sibling, the diple periestigmene (⸖), or “dotted diple,” was used to mark passages where he differed with the reading of other critics.

Jan. 30 2015 9:00 AM

Is It Kosher to “Drink the Kool-Aid”?

A fuller linguistic arsenal leads to richer, chewier, more diverse expression—but when is the usefulness of a piece of language outweighed by the pain it causes? In “Is That Kosher?” we reflect on certain words or phrases that lie in the margins of acceptability. 

One thing about starting a column on idioms that haunt the P.C. hinterlands is that you learn a lot about idiom origins from colleagues who are more well-informed than you are. Hence this recent exchange on an office chat channel:

Co-worker: Drink the Kool-Aid. Is that kosher?
Me: You’re asking whether Kool-Aid is kosher?
Co-worker: I’m asking if the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” is OK to use.
Me: Why on earth would it not be OK to use?

To drink the Kool-Aid, of course, is to unquestioningly accept someone else’s vision, program, or belief system. If asked to interpret the logic of the phrase, I would have ventured that, as Kool-Aid is sweet and delicious, drinking Kool-Aid moves you to agree with whoever provided it to you.

I was naive. As others have noted, drinking the Kool-Aid actually grew out of a heinous instance of mass murder-suicide in the 1970s, the Jonestown massacre. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of a religious cult led by charismatic madman Jim Jones were enjoined (and in some cases, forced against their will) to down cyanide mixed with grape Flavor-Aid.* Brainwashed mothers syringed poison into the mouths of their babies. Reluctant cult members were dragged out from under their beds. Jones orchestrated the bloodbath in response to a fact-finding mission by Congressman Leo Ryan, who gathered a team of reporters and aides to accompany him to Jones’ compound in Guyana after receiving coded pleas for help from some of Jones’ followers. Shot to death on an airstrip as he attempted to leave, Ryan is the only U.S. representative ever assassinated in the line of duty.

The tragedy at Jonestown planted the seeds of an analogy between blind obedience and drinking Kool-Aid, but it took a decade to grow. (Why Kool-Aid and not Flavor-Aid? People seem to have latched onto the more recognizable brand, perhaps helped along by its previous association with drug use.) Immediately after the massacre, imbibing Nebraska’s official state soft drink just meant going to your death, whether ragefully or in numb compliance. In 1982, AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland was the first to invoke Jonestown as metaphor: Ronald Reagan’s economic plan, he warned, “administers Kool-Aid to the poor, the deprived, and the unemployed.” Two years later, a Reagan administration official appropriated the figure for his own ends, advising civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan Jr., and Benjamin Hooks that black Americans “refuse to be led to another political Jonestown. … No more Kool-Aid, Jesse, Vernon, and Ben. We want to be free.”

Only in the ’90s did Kool-Aid begin its transition from simple murder weapon to symbol of cultish complicity. An online dictionary in 1998 defined “drinking the Kool-Aid” as surrendering to enthusiasm: “becoming a firm believer in something; accepting an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly.” In her L.A. Times call-to-arms against the phrase, Meghan Daum cited Bill O’Reilly, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as recent offenders.* “I drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone about Obama,” Schultz said in an interview, seemingly blaming himself for swallowing an intoxicating myth. And in a tasteless but wonderful feat of alliteration, Us Weekly cautioned that, 72 days into his marriage to Kim, Kris Humphries was “not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid.” (A pause to imagine the toxic beverage called “Kardashian Kool-Aid”: foamy, hot pink, smelling of rare massage oils, mascara, and chinchilla fur.)

These days, Kool-Aid guzzlers are more or less ubiquitous, especially at work, where Forbes named “drink the Kool-Aid” the most annoying business cliché of 2012. A flurry of tweets during this year’s State of the Union also compared the president to the Kool-Aid guy—and, by extension, to Jonestown’s creepy soft-drink shiller. (Indeed, some of the power of the formulation must draw on the archetype of the devil tempting poor fools with death-bearing fruit. Obama’s no stranger to those analogies either.) But in context, “drink the Kool-Aid” seems to have lost much of its sense of tragedy. We use it to talk about expectation management, not to impugn horrible motives to whoever is making the promises. Death appears to be off the table as an outcome; the worst case scenario is feeling punch-drunk, loopily optimistic. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid or you’ll wind up married to Kim Kardashian!

None of this has stopped people from calling for the phrase’s abolition. The most impassioned argument to date came in November of 2014, from an Episcopal priest writing in the Washington Post. “Many of us have not forgotten the nightmare of Jonestown. The rest of you need to clean up your language,” pleaded James D. Richardson, who knew several of the victims.

But, respectfully, what service does it do to expunge sad or loathsome events from our historical memory? One colleague told me that researching “drank the Kool-Aid” introduced her to the story of Jonestown—arguably a good thing from the perspective of victims and their families. What’s more, invoking a past evil to describe a present one is not necessarily trivializing. And though we do seem to have domesticated this expression, the group of people who suffered directly at the hands of Jim Jones is too small to preclude the use of an evocative and widely understood figure of speech, especially as it accrues new meanings, relevancies, and, um, flavors.   

Verdict: Oh yeahhhhhhh, kosher.

*Correction, Jan. 30, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of Howard Schultz and misstated that the Jonestown massacre happened on Feb. 18, 1978. It occurred on Nov. 18, 1978.

*And an update! Thanks to Ben Zimmer, who points out that Allen Ginsberg was quoted saying the following in a speech at Gettysburg College in 1981:

"We are all being put in the place of the citizens of Jonestown, being told by our leaders to drink the Kool Aid of nuclear power."

Jan. 29 2015 2:19 PM

Is a Hashtag a Word? The Case of #BlackLivesMatter.

Well, I didn't manage to get an emoticon of the year vote added to the American Dialect Society's annual awards ceremony for the word nerd set (there’s always next year!), but we did end up with a new category that's almost as interesting: Most Notable Hashtag.

The hashtag that won—and subsequently took the overall Word of the Year (WotY) prize as well—was #BlackLivesMatter, which exploded in the latter half of 2014 as a protest against the deaths of young African-American men at the hands of police. Here's a graph of search interest from Google Trends:

In the wake of the ADS vote, some have expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of a hashtag category in the first place and about the selection of #blacklivesmatter for WotY. After all, you might say, #blacklivesmatter—not to mention the other members of the category, including #icantbreathe, #notallmen, #yesallwomen, and #whyistayed—ought to be competing for Three-Word-Phrase of the Year, if such a category existed. But what exactly is a word, anyway?