A Blog About Language

Nov. 24 2014 2:30 PM

Sounding Gay, Punk, or Jock: What Language Says About Your Social Group

People tell me I sound gay. And I totally do.

Eh? What does "gay" even sound like? Really, when you think about it, how could there possibly be a correlation between who we sleep with and how we talk?

The way someone uses language can tell us a lot about who they are. When you hear a person talk, before you even see them, you can probably guess their age, gender, ethnicity, social class and level of education, and maybe even where they're from (or at least whether they're from the same place as you or not).

But what about sounding gay? 

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Nov. 20 2014 2:54 PM

Sorry Not Sorry: The Many Names for Non-Apologies

This week’s 14-tweet "apology, of sorts" from Uber’s Travis Kalanick is the latest reminder of public figures’ unhappy habit of putting their foot in it. It’s a familiar news cycle intensified by social media, which can focus attention on a story and sustain pressure on its players until the cycle of anger forces a public apology—too often reluctant or insincere.

Writing in 2012 about the nature of apologies, I said that being sorry is about more than just saying the words, "but the words, as an explicit admission of wrongdoing or shortcoming, can be an important part of reconciliation." With a non-apology the aims and effects are wholly different.

Nov. 18 2014 1:20 PM

Why Swearing Is Just Like Saying “Please” (Sort Of)

There's a memorable scene in Tarantino's cult classic, Pulp Fiction. It's just after John Travolta's trigger-happy character, Vincent Vega, ham-handedly shoots the kid in the car. "The Wolf" is sent to fix the mess, stalks in, and immediately starts firing staccato orders. But at some point, Vincent interrupts his volley of imperatives with a sullen "A 'please' would be nice"—and stops The Wolf cold.

Now this is the cool part, linguistically speaking. What could Vincent have possibly found so unpalatable? Not the content of The Wolf's orders, surely: They were clear as could be. Not the intent: The Wolf was there to save his ass, and he knew it! No, the real problem was The Wolf's no-nonsense and brusque tone.

Terms like "please" don't actually add more information to the sentence, they provide commentary on it.

Nov. 17 2014 2:28 PM

Selfie, One Year Later, Still Going Strong

There can be few people who don't know that a selfie is a photograph that you take of yourself, typically with your smartphone. The Editors at Oxford Dictionaries started tracking the word back in April 2012, at which time it was noted that there were 36 examples on the newspaper database Nexis "mainly in reference to recent use by Hillary Clinton," who had apparently used the word in a text message to the owner of a Tumblr blog consisting solely of images of her sending texts. Our own Oxford English Corpus featured only two instances of the word.

By the following spring, databases of language use showed that selfie was becoming increasingly common in mainstream media sources and it was chosen for inclusion in the August 2013 update of OxfordDictionaries.com. Three months later, the evidence on the Oxford Corpus reflected such a dramatic explosion of usage that we chose selfie as our Word of the Year for 2013.

Nov. 14 2014 1:44 PM

What Do the Glyphs at Chipotle Mean? They’re Mayan—Sort of.

Like most people, I enjoy burritos. Unlike most people, I also enjoy learning about ancient hieroglyphic writing systems, because I’m Indiana—er—Language Jones. A while back, I bought Andrea Stone & Marc Zender’s Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture, and checked out a number of similar books from the library. I skimmed and enjoyed them, and then returned them. Stone & Zender took a place on my bookshelf and I moved on to other things, not anticipating I’d be able to see the Mayan ruins in Mexico any time soon.

Then it happened.

I went to a Chipotle in Philadelphia, looked at the wall, and realized their design was more than just decoration. There, looking back at me, was K’awiil, also known as God K, the "most ubiquitous god in Classic Maya art."

Nov. 12 2014 11:42 PM

How a Crossword Puzzle Gets Made

The first question asked of many crossword makers: “Do you write the clues first?”

To help explain why that wouldn't make sense, Slate’s Mike Vuolo, an occasional crossword writer for the New York Times and others, walks us through the process of creating a new puzzle in the video above. The art isn’t very complicated, but you do have to follow a few rules.

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Correction, Nov. 14, 2014: Due to an editing error, this video originally contained a crossword puzzle that did not actually have rotational symmetry. A corrected version of the video has been uploaded to replace it.

Nov. 11 2014 1:40 PM

How Will Legalization Affect the Language Around Marijuana?

With Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia passing measures on Nov. 4 to legalize recreational marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington as U.S. regions where the sale of the drug is (or will be) legal, I thought it might be worth taking a look at the language surrounding the contested cannabis plant. Not unlike other much-discussed substances (see this previous entry on English's many terms for being drunk), marijuana culture has gathered around it a rich linguistic history, including a rash of slang synonyms—pot, hash, weed, dope, grassbud, reefer, ganjanot to mention its own specific lingo.

Nov. 10 2014 2:15 PM

Five Poems With Fantastic Wordplay

All poetry involves a certain facility with words—and often rhymes and meter—but a few poems kick it up a notch and really make us re-think what you can even do with language. Here are five of my favorites that'll bend your mind.

Nov. 7 2014 1:58 PM

Can John Leguizamo Put a Pretty Face on Fugly?

"F-U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi! You fugly! Fugly! Fugly as in ugly!" That's the chorus that greets young Jesse Sanchez in the new movie Fugly! when he tries to impress a bunch of girls by dropping his pants.

"The nickname stuck," the adult Jesse says in a voiceover. "Fugly. For the rest of my life."

Jesse is a fictionalized version of John Leguizamo, writer and director of Fugly! (which opens today in New York and will be available on video on demand on Nov. 25). Like his protagonist, Leguizamo was tormented by this particular F-word at a young age, growing up in Queens in the 1970s.

Nov. 6 2014 1:26 PM

“From Her Marriage to Her Dog”? What Went Wrong in Patchett’s Review.

A recent letter to the editor from Ann Patchett is making the rounds on social media:

I was grateful to see my book "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from "her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog" without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.

Patchett suggest that a comma would fix the offending phrase, like the classic ambiguities that hinge on lack of the Oxford comma: "I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God" and "We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin."

But does a comma really help in this case? I'm not so sure.

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