Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Aug. 24 2016 9:30 AM

Why Is Colored Person Hurtful and Person of Color OK? A Theory of Racial Euphemisms.

With Good Morning America’s Amy Robach currently on the griddle for referring to black people as “colored people,” some might understand that the term has long been archaic but quietly wonder just what was wrong with it.

After all, “person of color” is considered perfectly OK, and even modern. Since “colored person” means the same thing, why is it wrong to say it?

Some would say that black people have a right to decide what they want to be called, and that that’s all there is to it. However, that answer is incomplete, and risks people merely classifying the matter as one more example of what Steven Pinker has artfully called the “euphemism treadmill.” We can do better than that.

Not that there isn’t such a treadmill. It’s that tendency that can seem designed to annoy us—how terms for groups and policies, especially, often turn over every generation or so. Crippled became handicapped became disabled became differently abled. Home relief became welfare became cash assistance and temporary aid.

Aug. 23 2016 9:30 AM

How ’80s Is the Slang in Stranger Things?

In Netflix’s hit sci-fi drama Stranger Things, a group of kids adventure to rescue their friend from the Upside Down, a parallel dimension inhabited by a gnarly monster. But fans are just as thrilled by its other parallel dimension: 1983. The story is set in fictional small-town Indiana. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer lovingly bring the 1980s back to life in the series, from the deft touches of Rubik’s cubes and wood-paneled basements to the sweeping homage to Spielberg and Stephen King. Children of the period, and observers of its culture, agree that the show successfully recreates the decade in its visuals, music, aesthetic, narrative, and even character names. But what about its language? How ’80s is the slang in Stranger Things?

Aug. 19 2016 9:30 AM

It’s Hot Out. But Is It “Hot as Balls”?

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

We’ve had yet another month of record-breaking temperatures—and a corresponding spike in Google searches for hot as balls, a phrase that’s gotten popular as balls (mostly in the U.S.) in the last ten years or so. Although Urban Dictionary has an entry for the phrase from 2001, it became undeniably mainstream five years later during the heatwave of 2006. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan created this video in response to the scorching weather that year:

Aug. 18 2016 12:37 PM

Gymnastics Events Involving Bars Are Confusingly Named

The men’s and women’s gymnastics competition in Rio has ended. Goodbye, gymnastics. You were a pleasure to watch.

Respectfully, though, before you go, we’d like to ask about your bar nomenclature?


We’ve noticed that you have three distinct, bar-centric events: the horizontal bar, the parallel bars, and the uneven bars. The first two are part of the men’s contest, and the third takes its place in the women’s rotation. (There is also a beam, which could technically pass for a bar, in the women’s rotation, but we will ignore that for now.)

We’re sympathetic to your need to differentiate these three events. But we find ourselves perplexed by the way you’ve labeled them. The horizontal bar, for instance. All of the bars in gymnastics are horizontal. Otherwise they would be poles. Calling a piece of athletic apparatus a “horizontal bar” makes as much sense as calling it a “vertical pole.”

We are just trying to understand. Do swimmers compete in a “pool of water”? Do soccer players kick a “spherical ball”?

We’d like to respectfully suggest that you rename the “horizontal bar” event the “single bar.” Doing so distinguishes it from the other two bar-themed contests, each of which involves, if not a plethora of bars, more than one bar.

We believe that clarity when it comes to proper bar taxonomy is in your best interest.

Moving along to the parallel bars, they are parallel, yes, but so are the uneven bars. We defer to your judgment, but that seems confusing to us.

We recommend that you call the two that are even “the even bars.”

And the uneven bars, they can just remain “the uneven bars.”

Those are all of our suggestions about bars.

Aug. 17 2016 9:30 AM

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers

The punctuation mark of the ellipsis is perhaps the most unusual mark in the English language, for punctuation marks are designed to convey meaning by indicating relationships between ideas, but the ellipsis does the exact opposite. It simply indicates that something has been omitted. Sometimes, this omission is poignant, as in J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament “I grow old...I grow old…” which invites the reader to imagine what has happened to the him in the spaces between him growing old. Sometimes, it is simply a placeholder, as happens when a fellow messager is typing on the other end of the line. (Personally, my favorite example of the ellipsis is Seinfeld’s infamous “yada yada yada,” but I digress.)

But where did the ellipsis come from and how did it end up being so unusual? The Guardian’s article on the history of the ellipsis draws on Anne Toner’s fascinating book Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission to explore ellipses all the way back to the drama of the 16th century. Both the article and the book do an excellent job of analyzing these earliest print records of the modern ellipsis.

But that story may not be the whole story, for the dot dot dot of an ellipsis was no stranger to English texts before the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson. It might have just been serving a slightly different function.

Aug. 15 2016 1:08 PM

From Jefferson to Donald Trump, a Brief History of Presidential “Temperament”

From President Obama to 50 GOP national security officials, leading politicians from both sides of the aisle have been charging that Donald Trump lacks “the temperament” for the presidency. Trump, meanwhile, boasts he has “one of the great temperaments,” a “winning temperament.” Thanks to an unprecedentedly temperamental Donald Trump, this word temperament has caught fire as a keyword, and central question, of the 2016 election: Do we want a president who is governed by temperament or who governs with temperament?

But temperament, that cool-headed, even-handed attribute so many consider a top qualification for the office, is a word long stamped with the seal of the president of the United States. And its history embodies a fundamental tension, if not contradiction, in our expectations of a president—as a person and as a leader.

Aug. 11 2016 2:05 PM

What the Ancient Epinikion, or Victory Song, Teaches Us About Olympic Athletes

Forget medals, Wheaties boxes, interviews on Good Morning America, or corporate sponsorships: The ancient Greeks celebrated their Olympic champions with poetry. “When anyone is victorious through his toil,” as Diane Svarlien translates a victory ode composed by Pindar, one of ancient Greece’s greatest lyric poets,

then honey-voiced odes become the foundation for future fame, and a faithful pledge for the great deeds of excellence. This praise is dedicated to Olympian victors, without stint.

OK, the athletes did enjoy cash prizes, free meals at city hall for life, front-row seats at the theater, and some tax exemptions—not to mention some pretty epic sex parties upon homecoming. But orgies, unlike odes, don’t last forever.

Aug. 9 2016 11:52 AM

Donald Trump Swears ... a Lot. What’s His Potty Mouth Really Saying?

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

Donald Trump swears a lot, perhaps more than any other major presidential candidate in history. I’m not sure that should bother us. Most Americans swear now and then and plenty of us swear more than Mr. Trump swears during his public appearances. I have no idea how much he swears in private; I’m pretty sure it’s none of my damned business.

His supporters like his swearing, even if they don’t approve of it. For one thing, because most of us swear, when Mr. Trump swears, he sounds more like us than he would if he didn’t, and we like our politicians to sound like us, though I’m not really sure what that means. I do know that Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore didn’t sound like enough people, so they lost big elections. I’m pretty sure they both lost.

Aug. 4 2016 9:30 AM

1/ Everyone Is Composing Long, Numbered, Slash-y Threads on Twitter. 2/2 Here’s Why.

This summer, Twitter has been awash in a certain enumerated discourse. It goes like this:

1/ Many tweeters are using the medium to share ideas longer and more complex than any single tweet can contain. This is known as a tweetstorm.


2/ Now, some of these tweetstorms unfold as a numbered sequence: 1., 2., 3., n., …

3/ But increasingly common is the use of the slash: 1/, 2/, 3/, n/, …

4/ While emerging as a space-saving device, the slash is also starting to act like a discourse marker, or a verbal signpost that helps organize our communication.

5/5 Let’s call it the “soapbox slash.”

First, the mechanics of the slash. As the last item above makes plain, the slash stands for “out of”: This is the fifth out of five tweets in total. Tweeters tend to specify the total number throughout for a shorter series, e.g., 1/3, 2/3. Here, the impression is that they’ve simply run up against Twitter’s 140-character limit.

For a longer thread, though, it’s harder for tweeters to map out precisely how many tweets they will need. At first, they turned to a mathier shorthand, 1/x: This is one of an indefinite number of upcoming, interconnected tweets. Then, users vanished the x, squeezing out room for an extra character.

But the slash has become more than a matter of economy and a way to coordinate and concatenate thoughts—it’s also marking discourse. With 1/_, the tweeter takes the floor, adjusts the mic stand, clears her throat, and prefaces: I’ve got something I’d like to say.

Why Twitter? Why take to a platform defined by restriction to wax polemical? Why not whip up and link to a quick post on WordPress, Tumblr, Facebook, Medium, or other outlets where the real estate isn’t at a premium?

Very often, a 1/_ issues a timely, impassioned response to a sensitive and controversial phenomenon in the news: race, class, gender, politics, or terrorism. This response is too political for Facebook, too expository for the image-heavy likes of Tumblr, and too pressing and extemporaneous to consign to an article or blog post. Think of it as a hot take, but one that features exposition and argumentation, trying to connect the more nuanced and complicated dots of some bigger societal picture. It is a think piece. It is a hot take. It is a live-tweeted hot-take think piece.

And Twitter has become the ideal home for this nascent, discursive misfit. The platform is urgent and conversational and alive to what’s happening in the world. When the tweeter at last steps off the digital soapbox, she triumphantly fills in that ghosted divisor: 17/17, pumpf, the final number evoking a visual mic drop. Like Twitter’s other wildly successful symbol, the hashtag, one can even imagine “one-slash” creeping into speech as an ironic, meta-reference.

Blame it on Trump. Blame it on Brexit. Blame it on what you will, but:

1/ 2016 has already been palpably, gloomily, fatiguingly over-newsed.

2/ While tweeters have long been taking to Twitter with tweetstorms,

3/ perhaps this year’s salvos of unpredictable, unprecedented events has pushed people to try to order the chaos

4/4 figuratively and literally.

Aug. 3 2016 11:51 AM

Can Mel Gibson Pull Off a Portrayal of OED Editor James Murray?

The news came as something of a shock to the dictionary world: As announced in the Hollywood Reporter, Mel Gibson is set to star as James Augustus Henry Murray, the first principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in an adaptation of Simon Winchester’s entertaining book, The Professor and the Madman, based on a true (but unbelievable) story.

Sean Penn is expected to play the titular madman, William Chester Minor, an American army surgeon who supplied Murray with countless citations for the OED from his cell in the Broadmoor insane asylum, where he was incarcerated after killing a man on the streets of London in 1872.


Penn as Minor is a reasonable bit of casting. But can Gibson pull off a portrayal of Murray, one of the patron saints of lexicography? Given his off-screen history of hateful comments, run-ins with the law, and alcohol abuse, he might strike moviegoers as more of a madman than a professor.

It turns out Gibson cast himself in the role, as he was the one to option Winchester’s book after it was first published in 1998. Even then, he saw himself in the role of James Murray. Dustin Hoffman was originally supposed to play Minor, and Luc Besson and John Boorman (who wrote a draft of the screenplay) considered directing the film.

Now that Gibson is reviving plans for the movie a decade and a half later, with backing from Voltage Pictures, he has tapped Farhad Safinia to direct. Safinia co-wrote Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto, which, you might recall, was shot in Mexico entirely in the indigenous language of Yucatec Maya. And before that he attempted to use reconstructed Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ. So this is hardly Mel’s first language-related pet project.

Gibson, an Americanized Australian, is difficult to picture as Murray, a mild-mannered Scottish philologist. In old photos, Murray grins wryly, framed by his academic cap and long white beard, typically surrounded by rows and rows of OED quotation slips in his Scriptorium.

Of course, when Gibson got the rights to The Professor and the Madman back in 1998, he was coming off a portrayal of another Scotsman, William Wallace in Braveheart. But Murray is no Wallace. You can’t imagine him bellowing, Braveheart style, “I am James Murray, and I see a whole army of my countrymen here in the service of lexicography. They make take our lives, but they'll never take our headwords!”

Regardless of how Gibson fares in tackling Murray, this will undoubtedly be the highest-profile depiction of a lexicographer in cinematic history. Granted, there haven’t been many. Linguists in general get the occasional film role, like the phonetician Henry Higgins portrayed by Leslie Howard in Pygmalion and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. More recently there was Julianne Moore in her Oscar-winning turn in Still Alice, playing Dr. Alice Howland of the Columbia linguistics department. (Let’s ignore the fact that Columbia doesn’t have a linguistics department.)

But dictionary-makers get even less attention on the silver screen. Thus far, the only major Hollywood role that I know of is Gary Cooper as Professor Potts in the rollicking 1941 Howard Hawks comedy, Ball of Fire. Potts is working on the slang entry for an encyclopedia and decides he needs to do some fieldwork to learn the latest expressions. He goes to a nightclub, where he gets mixed up with a slang-slinging showgirl named Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Hijinks, needless to say, ensue.

(And speaking of lexicographers gamely deciphering slang, none other than Noah Webster makes an appearance in the 1951 MGM cartoon Symphony in Slang, directed by Tex Avery. In heaven, Webster is called upon by a gatekeeper to interpret the life story of a man who talks in colorful contemporary idioms. Poor Noah is left dumbfounded.)

The Murray-Minor story is ripe for a cinematic retelling, however. As I observed in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2012, what gets peddled as “scandalous” or “controversial” in the dictionary world often turns out to be rather humdrum. But Minor’s involvement in the creation of the OED after being locked away for murder is a truly riveting tale, as Gibson no doubt realized as soon as he read Winchester’s narrative. Let’s hope that he can do justice to Murray, a beloved figure in the history of lexicography, when he dons the signature black cap and white beard.