Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

April 29 2015 5:01 PM

Is Baltimore Beset by Protests, Riots, or an Uprising?

What do you call the situation in Baltimore this week? Riots? Protests? An uprising? As the city responds to the death of Freddie Gray, and the police respond to the city, the hashtag #BaltimoreUprising is ascendant among those with a left-leaning point of view. For these participants and onlookers, it is starting to replace #BaltimoreRiots as the verbal symbol of the past few days’ unrest. On Twitter, the #BaltimoreRiots feed contains a lot of “rule of law”–themed tweets:

Whereas you’re more likely to find commenters who are sympathetic to the protesters in #BaltimoreUprising:


It’s not just Twitter. On Linguistic Pulse, Nic Subtirelu compared the use of the terms riots (plus rioters, rioting, etc.) and protests (plus protesters, protesting, etc.) across a variety of news platforms. Here’s what he found:


via Nic Subtirelu


via Nic Subtirelu

As Subtirelu points out, venues that present themselves as conservative are more likely to opt for riots over protests, thereby “eras[ing] the political messages and purposes of people in Baltimore.” More “moderate and progressive venues” are likelier to reach for the terms that “imbue many of the people in the streets with political purpose.” (As seen in the chart above, Slate has used both terms.)

Here’s exhibit C. On Monday night’s live coverage of the fracas, CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill laid bare the reasoning behind such linguistic sleights-of-hand. “I’m not calling these people rioters,” he told Van Jones and Don Lemon. “I’m calling these uprisings and I think it’s an important distinction to make. …There have been uprisings in major cities and smaller cities around this country for the last year because of the violence against black female and male bodies forever and I think that’s what’s important.”

What exactly is at stake in the semantic tug-of-war between riots and protests, riots and uprisings? As both Subtirelu and Hill suggest, the second two options demand that we take the people involved more seriously, as agents with purpose and grievance. The verb protest especially carries intimations of virtue; in the mid-15th century, it meant “to declare formally or solemnly,” as in “to protest one’s innocence.” Today the word implies principled disapproval and moral fiber: The stalwart protester stands in the rain, picketing for equal pay. Indeed, one protests against something, not just for the hell of it. The act requires fortitude but—perhaps thanks to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.—it is an effort of will and ethical imagination, not arm and hammer. Protest’s connotations of self-discipline seem to counter the threat of wanton violence.

An uprising sounds, at least to my ear, slightly unrulier than a protest. Yet #BaltimoreUprising has the appeal of uniting what could be seen as disparate acts of chaos and provocation (riots) into a single movement. It adds legitimacy and shape to the events on the ground, even as its echoes of resurrection imply a renewal after (grave) injustice. An uprising evokes inequalities, oppression inflicted and then resisted. It confers on participants a sheen of romance or heroism, especially in light of history’s many idealistic rebels, from Shay to John Brown to the Haitian insurrectionists to the founding fathers themselves.

And then there’s riot. From the 12th-century French word for a “dispute, quarrel, tedious talk, chattering,” also a euphemism for sex. In medieval England, hounds that “ran riot” went in error, zigzagging helter-skelter after the wrong scent. “Riot grrrls” were punk iconoclasts. Conjuring up destruction without cause, the word often appears in proximity to senseless. As with thug versus protester, or senseless versus purposeful or directed, the emphasis in riot falls on lawlessness, chaos, disorder—not the long, moral arc of human affairs.

The motivations for deploying each of these terms aren’t hard to parse. Those who wish to express solidarity with people outraged by a police force that kills with impunity want to use language that rationalizes, even glamorizes, the widespread anger. Those horrified by the arson and the looting want to convey their consternation, to emphasize that scaring homeowners and brutalizing community businesses won’t help anyone. It is a delicate line to walk. We need a way to credit the intense frustration Freddie Gray’s neighborhood must feel in the wake of his death, without condoning the destruction of innocent people’s property. If a riot feels too pejorative, a protest feels too anodyne, an uprising overly noble and centralized. So what do we say?

Rabble-rousing? It captures the haphazard nature of the situation but seems dismissive, patronizing. Rally? Too Bring It On. Demonstration? That’s an awfully bloodless term for waves of violence that left windows shattered and a CVS in flames. Perhaps the problem is not so much that no English-language word occupies a happy middle between thoughtful civic gesture and nihilistic smashing. It’s that we demand a word that encompasses contradictions: behavior that is senseless and yet makes sense, that is at once unacceptable and understandable.  

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April 27 2015 10:00 AM

OMFG! Sweary Abbreviations FTFW!

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

That’s Oh my fucking god and for the fucking win, for the uninitiated. Sweary acronyms and initialisms are a BFD (big fucking deal) on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine everyday online discourse—especially on social media—without frequent encounters with, or use of, WTF (what the fuck)FFS (for fuck’s sake), and their semi-encoded ilk.


Concision is an obvious advantage: STFU and GTFO take far fewer keystrokes than the full phrases shut the fuck up and get the fuck out, saving the (ab)user time, effort, and—perhaps most importantly—the appearance of giving a shit. Sweary abbreviations also play a role in signaling group identity, expressing personal style, and so on, FYFI (for your fucking information). And they are extremely meme-friendly:


via Strong Language

Abbreviating swearwords like this also allows people to use a form of language they might not feel so comfortable with were it spelled out, or in contexts where the explicit forms may be too risqué. Abbreviations make it easier to say whatever TF (the fuck) you want and still not be really swearing—unless you’re the GD (goddamnNYT. Some may wonder WTF difference it makes—just say WTH (what the hell) if you’re feeling coy or you’re a euphemising FNG (fucking new guy) still figuring out what you can get away with.

WTF normally means what the fuck, but it can also mean why, who, when, where, or even whatever the fuck, because WTF not, and WTF would insist otherwise. (WTF it can mean whether the fuck is hereby resolved.) These alternative uses are less immediately intelligible but usually obvious enough in context. Besides, ambiguity comes with the territory: FTW, normally for the win, can also be fuck the world or for those wondering, FTW.

As Ben Zimmer’s post above shows, WTF has gained nominal and attributive uses, extending its reach still further. Its popularity has led to expanded forms such as WTAF( what the actual fuck), WETF (what even the fuck), WTGDMF (what the goddamn mother fuck), and WTFO (What the fuck. Over.). It’s also commonly intensified, normally by repeating the F —search Twitter for WTFFF, WTFFFF, WTFFFFF, etc. for a flavor.

There’s a downside to its familiarity, or at least there was if you worked at the Wisconsin Tourism Federation (now Tourism Federation of Wisconsin) a few years ago, before it changed its name and logo. If you ask me, the marketing department missed a trick by not embracing this happy coincidence. They could have been all like LMFAO DILLIGAF? IDGAF (Laughing my fucking ass off. Do I look like I give a fuck? I don’t give a fuck). Instead they went FML (fuck my life) and rebranded:


via Strong Language

The internet may have supercharged the spread of sweary abbreviations, but some are already generations old. Fubar (fucked up beyond all recognition) and snafu (situation normal, all fucked up) arose as military slang in the 1940s and soon spread to wider use, as Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word details. T&A (tits and ass) appeared a little later. OMFG (oh my fucking god) didn’t emerge until the 1990s—at least nowhere there’s a record of itbut OMG is almost a century old. JMJ (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), an Irish exclamation that typically marks exasperation or surprise, is a recent innovation, as is MILF.

Fubarmilf and snafu (and snefu, with everything in place of all) are unequivocally acronyms, pronounced like ordinary words as opposed to a series of letter-names. Others vary in this respect. Some people pronounce WTF as an initialism, whereas in my mind’s ear I tend to hear the full phrase: what [or whatever] the fuckGretchen McCulloch has heard “dubs-tee-eff,” while Language Log reader kip says “dub-tee eff.” Gretchen also cites “ohm-fog” as a pronunciation of OMFG. Upper or lower case is a further source of difference.

Some sweary abbreviations run the risk of being cryptic AF (as fuck), but if you’re stuck you can always JFGI (just fucking google it). A wise-ass might tell you to RTFM (read the fucking manual) ASAFP (as soon as fucking possible), but that’s NFG (no fucking good) and will teach you precisely SFA (sweet fuck-all) because there’s no MF (motherfucking) manual for this shit yet, FYVM (fuck you very much).

The set of sweary abbreviations keeps swelling and mutating, with new offshoots used impromptu and only sometimes recorded systematically. Few if any such coinages aim for longevity but are simply part of the rough-and-tumble recreation of informal language use, what I’ve described elsewhere as the instinctive inclination to play with words and letters as though they were an abstract kind of toy (e.g., VFNSFW, very fucking not suitable for work, which I used in a post on sweary old songs). They may not be elegant or estimable, but they were never meant to be: They suit their sweary niches.

Swears are abbreviated in lots of other ways too, like dafuqeffingmofo, and fuxache, but we’ll leave that for another GDMF day. AMF!

April 24 2015 1:46 PM

That Is Not How You Use An Exclamation Mark, Kim Kardashian  

On Friday morning, Kim Kardashian West tweeted the following:

Kardashian West, who has an Armenian father, surely meant to use her platform to honor the more than 800,000 political minorities who died in an Ottoman purge in 1915. And good for her. But the tweet makes “Armenian Genocide” sound like a novel published in the early 1900s, or a clothes-swap nonprofit celebrating its centenary. Her noble intentions were ill served by her terrible use of an exclamation point.


The exclamation point has come a long way from just expressing emphatic feeling or punctuating a command. Its informality (“Do not use in a business letter,” instruct the style guides, nor in “academic prose”) has made it joyous. It signals enthusiasm, bubbly excitement, and positivity, as in: Hey, check this out! or Here’s a cool thing! or I’m happy about this thing! Basically, if there is a category of sentiments that are as wildly incongruous as possible with the notion of historico-politically treacherous mass murder, it is the category for which you would use exclamation points.

What diacritical recourse might Kardashian West have sought instead? An ellipsis would have suggested apathy, world-weariness, or perhaps exasperation that others weren’t taking the past seriously. Or it would have implied that Kardashian West had far more to say than she could fit in a tweet. A period would have conveyed solemn, reserved contemplation—an awareness that the hour called for reflection, not emotive excess. It would also have imparted a sense of perspective, even humility. Because the exclam’s role is to add emotional color, it throws the spotlight on the way the speaker is feeling. In Kardashian West’s case, this reads as narcissistic, since how she feels about the genocide is so much less significant than the fact that it happened. (The exclamation-pointed sentence’s Kimcentric follow-up—“I am proud to now say I have been to Armenia”—doesn’t help, nor does a photo of the family posing, solemnly but in glamourwear, at a memorial.)

You can soooorrrrt of understand where Kardashian West went astray, given that exclamation marks have achieved a quasi-mandatory status as politeness indicators online. “Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile, I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period,” Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty told New York. Or maybe Kardashian West wanted her followers to know she was genuinely moved by the anniversary—in a world where “Thanks!” means “thanks” and “Thanks.” means “I hate you,” perhaps “A lot of people died a hundred years ago today!” means “please do not think I am being ironic about a hideous act of murder.” It is also possible that Kardashian West wished to underline her sense of shock, and to transmit that jolt of painful consciousness to her fans: Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide! Can you believe it? Or, she may have been employing what one of my colleagues has christened the “informative” or “child’s” exclam, which communicates daffy delight at the transmission of knowledge: George Washington was our first president! (FWIW, also totally inappropriate.)

Unlike some writers, I am not a die-hard exclam eschewer, but Kardashian West’s dissonant diacritical gives the whole tribe a bad name. And while it makes sense that we would be eager to inject verve and ginger into our toneless prose, the onslaught of exclamation points in online text can lead to a kind of punctuation arms race, whereby the genuine expression of enthusiasm requires crazy cataracts of marks. My personal bugbear in this vein is “emoji OCD.” That is, the condition in which your correspondent is psychically obligated to stick an emoji at the end of every line, as if no text were complete without a pictorial tag announcing how the sender feels about said text. At least Kardashian West didn’t wrap up her tweet with a cry face. Small blessings!

April 13 2015 10:00 AM

How the F-Word Became Our Least Sexual Swear Word

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

Plenty has been penned about the history, derivation, and usage of the word fuck, so there is no need to rehash it here. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of it that while mentioned is mostly glossed over. In English, at least, fuck is the most mercurial of swear words because it has escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root. While every other European language has its own word for fuck, English appears to be unique in its more universal application. Let’s take the following joke as an example:

April 3 2015 12:29 PM

The World’s Dirtiest Wine Names  

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

Wine brands, especially in the upstart, insecure New World, used to strain to sound serious and Frenchy-fancy. You had your Domains, your Clos, your Chateaus (“Pure Sonoma”!). Even $5 plonk could seem classy if it had a ridge or a mountain or a gate in its name. As James Thurber’s wine snob put it in the famous 1944 New Yorker cartoon, we may have been drinking naive domestic Burgundy, but at least we could be amused by its presumption.

If Thurber were cartooning today, he’d change that last word to presumptuousness. Because inappropriate language—from vulgarity to suggestiveness to scatology—is the hottest trend in wine branding.

Here’s a survey of rude wine names, in alphabetical rude-word order. (And, since you asked, I know a bunch of rude beer brands, too. I’m sticking to wine this time.)

April 1 2015 10:00 AM

Accidental CAPS LOCK and Its Discontents



The most mortifying typographical error of our modern digital moment, the bedevilingest faux pas, is of course inadvertent CAPS.  (Followed by autocorrect, which keeps insisting that I mean “bedevil ingest faux pas.” That is NONSENSE, autocorrect.)

As it did there, the intentional use of capital lettering adds vehemence, color, and variety to text. It conveys the intensity of your feelings but injects an underlying playfulness, almost as if you were writing in bubble letters. Caps are often a harbinger of joy (“GREAT NEWS”) or, at least, of the kind of sarcasm that brings fleeting joy to the recipient. (“GREAT NEWS. Wanda canceled again.” “LOL.”) They express outsize emotion, which—given the constraints of polite society—generally means positive emotion, unless it is feigned outsize emotion, often signaling a joke, in which case: also a positive. (Caps of pure rage are so vanishingly rare that it feels dubious, here, to even bring them up. Fact: You are likelier to suffer a shark attack than you are to encounter rage caps in the wild.)

That uppercase letters almost always traipse along under a large ethereal plus sign is what makes them dangerous. They are like a big, exuberant golden retriever, liable to escape and slobber all over somebody if the leash slips from your hand. Think back to the last time you popped a cap at a person by mistake. Maybe a co-worker informed you she had sent over some documents and you replied, “GREAT.” Or maybe a gentleman texted you asking about coffee and you answered, “SOUNDS FUN.” The squickiness of the predicament in which you then found yourself flowed not only from the fact that you came off as unnaturally enthusiastic. It also inhered in how correcting the error required, or would have required, you to communicate something like, “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m actually not as excited about the topic we’re discussing as I previously suggested.”

March 20 2015 4:31 PM

Are You a John Q. Public or a Joe Blow?

Meet John Q. Public. He also goes by John Q. Citizen and John Q. Taxpayer. He’s an upstanding sort who shovels the ice off his stretch of sidewalk, writes a check to his local ASPCA, and tries to be a loving dad to his 2½ kids. He sits in traffic. He has a particular order in which he reads the newspaper. Pace Hollywood, he looks nothing like Denzel Washington, though occasionally in the morning, freshly shaven, adjusting his tie in front of the mirror, he thinks to himself that he’s not too bad.  

A few miles away lives Joe Blow. His friends sometimes call him Joe Schmoe, Joe the Plumber, Joe Doakes, and Joe Six-Pack. He likes to unwind with a High Life or three after work, especially if there’s a game on, and he’s kept in touch with a few high school buddies who root for the same teams. Sometimes he finds a smushed piece of candy in his jacket pocket (score); sometimes he arrives at the bank after it closes (dang). Money’s tight but he and his wife, a self-described “Hockey Mom,” get by OK.

We know these Everymen by their names, because they have no faces. Generic and nondescript, they’re the “bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen the martyrs call the world.” But where do their monikers come from, and what happens when they go abroad?

March 19 2015 11:02 AM

Why Do We Call a Dongle a Dongle?

We are all adults, so I am sure nobody is already giggling at the headline to this post. Right? Oh, come on. Control yourself! Dongle is a useful word with a fascinating history, and … OK, OK. I’ll wait.

A Martian anthropologist would wonder what is so funny about “a small piece of hardware that attaches to a computer, TV, or other electronic device in order to enable additional functions.” First linked exclusively to software protection, now dongledom includes any “module that plugs in and sticks out of a socket.” Here is a dongle in a recent Google press release, describing a doohickey that converts a dumb TV into a smart one. On a technology blog, to denote a “port replicator” providing “HDMI, USB, and an additional USB type-C connector in a single adaptor.” In the illustrious archives of Slate, referring to Google’s Chromecast. (It’s “a little device you might call a dongle if your mother didn’t teach you manners,” says Farhad Manjoo.) Air cards, memory sticks, Bluetooth enablers—the doors of dongle open for them all.

March 16 2015 11:23 AM

Artificial Belligerence

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

What makes us human? Our innate curiosity? Our mastery of language? Or is it our astounding ability to be complete assholes to one another?

As an undergraduate student in the late 1980s, computer scientist Mark Humphrys programmed an ELIZA-like chatterbot and discovered that it could pass as human when he gave it a mean streak:

March 11 2015 10:46 AM

Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit!

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

Southern dialect abounds with colorful expressions, most rooted in rural life and relationships. Some, like “bless her heart,” sound benign but have a darker edge to them (she’s an idiot, but lovably so).

Others, like “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while,” and “Even a blind mule doesn’t trip over the same rock twice” have a bit of flexibility in them, such that other animals can be substituted for the usual ones, or they’ll overcome a different kind of obstacle. Regardless, the point will be similar to “Even a broken watch is right twice a day.”