Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Feb. 5 2016 9:50 AM

How to Spice Up Your Swearing Game

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

What the fuck has become so commonplace that, as our own Nancy Friedman pointed out, marketers are no longer shy about alluding to it.

Feb. 1 2016 10:43 AM

How Should We Refer to Our Significant Others? (Can I Ever Say “the Boyfriend”?)

After a humble piece of Internet threw Slate into disarray with its repeated invocations of “the boyfriend,” XX Factor staff writer Christina Cauterucci chatted with words correspondent Katy Waldman about the terms we use for romantic partners. Which are the most and least accurate, inclusive, and expressive? Which are sexy? Which remind us of white-shoe law firms? (And you thought “defining the relationship” was hard!)

Katy Waldman: Hey Christina! So, we have convened this summit to talk about what to call our significant others. A recent post on Refinery29 grated on people's nerves because the writer kept referring to her boyfriend as “the boyfriend.” First off, do you agree that this is unacceptable? And if so, what makes it so skin-crawly?


Christina Cauterucci: Yeah, that phrasing has always made me cringe, and until I took a long, hard look at myself after reading that post, I never knew why. I think it’s because it’s flippant and kind of demeaning in a jokey way—like how a man might call his spouse “the wife” or “the ol’ ball and chain”—which comes off rather smug, especially in a piece about how “the boyfriend” insists on buying meals. What do you think? Have you ever called a significant other “the boyfriend”?

Waldman: I shudder to admit this, but I have! And I agree with you that it sounds dismissive and patronizing—the contexts in which I’ve referred to a boyfriend as “the boyfriend” were when we had just started dating. I felt self-conscious, I think, and wanted to downplay his existence. So I tried to make a joke out of it. Terrible idea! Now I just say “my boyfriend,” but I know some couples that have been dating longer than we have find that epithet infantilizing or inadequate. A few of them have proposed “partner,” which also seems self-conscious, in a way, or at least politically charged. What do you think?

Cauterucci: I’ve definitely felt that the words boyfriend and girlfriend fall short when describing relationships that feel more serious than “dating.” The girlfriend (twitch) and I have been together for four years, and lived together for two of them. She’s in my family’s Secret Santa; I found the afikommen at her family’s last Seder. We’re about to buy a Prius together! Calling her my “girlfriend” seems to underplay how much our lives have intertwined, even though we’re not married. Also, some people, especially from previous generations, use the word “girlfriend” to describe platonic female friends, and I don’t want anyone to be confused about our relationship. We’re not “roommates, wink wink”; we’re romantic partners. But yeah, “partner” can sound like a holdover from a particular political moment, in the pre–marriage equality days. What about straight people who use that term?

Waldman: I’m of two minds about them! I like the theoretical idea of a term that doesn’t distinguish between straight and gay relationships. But (I hope this isn’t terribly uncharitable) when straight people talk about their “partners,” it scans to me as self-congratulatory, like “We are so progressive, despite our perfervidly traditional heterosexuality.” Then again, I’m not sure what a good alternative would be. Any ideas?

Cauterucci: Some people have suggested “fiancé,” which Hanna Rosin says conveys the idea of "something like spouse but not quite.” That sounds right, especially as more people delay marriage beyond their girl- and boyhoods, or decide against it altogether. But fiancé means a very particular thing in today’s world, and people who use the term might be forever fielding questions about when’s the ceremony and where’s the ring and all that. I’ve enjoyed using the term “boo,” because it’s nongendered, clearly nonplatonic, and wonderfully flirtatious. I guess it could read as infantilizing too, though. Do you have a preference?

Waldman: I love boo! For some reason I don’t think it quite describes my boyfriend, who can look tall and imposing and Serious. I’m also not sure I would feel comfortable introducing an S.O. that way in formal contexts—does that ever come up for you? To me, boo carries an erotic charge, and I don’t know that I want strangers or bosses in my business like that. Then again, “partner” sounds like such a bloodless administrative arrangement! Please expand on “boo.” (And congrats on the Prius!)

Cauterucci: (Thanks!) You’re right, I’ve never introduced my partner to serious, fancy people as my boo—just fun, conversational people. Another situation that makes me love that term, though, is when I'm asking after a friend’s new lover whose gender I don’t know, whether because my friend is queer or because I don’t want to assume how their lover identifies. “How’s your boo?" says it all.

Then again, why should people in love be forced to adapt around terminology that’s been commandeered by capitalism? I think businesspeople should give up using the term “partner” and stick to “associate” or something, so the rest of us can make “partnership” the warm, loving,  mutually supportive concept it can be.

There’s also “person.” Have you ever heard someone repeatedly call their lover their “person”?

Waldman: You’re so right! Let Wall Street cower before a renewed language of love. My issue with “person” is that it seems like such a floating, contingent designation. What’s the job description for a person? Isn’t your best friend sometimes your person, depending on the services required, or your sister, or your dog? This doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for “the boyfriend,” however! I’ve found humor pretty useful. I’ll say: “This is a random dude named [Redacted].”

What about just saying the person’s name and letting the world draw its own conclusions?

Cauterucci: That can work—if you say the person’s name enough times, or in the right context, your relationship will become clear. But when someone I work with, for example, does that, I get worried that I should know this name, that I’ve met this person or heard about her and forgotten. And it could lead to an uncomfortable situation for all parties if the listener gets it wrong.

Waldman: That’s true, and a part of me does want to clearly delineate—and celebrate!—the relationship.

As my companion in overthinking romantic terminology, do you agree that this is an ongoing conundrum, but workable solutions exist?

Cauterucci: Yes, workable solutions exist. Sounds like something for my associate and me to puzzle out.

Jan. 28 2016 11:26 AM

Taming of the Shrew: Maybe Not So Tame After All?

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

“ … She did call me rascal, fiddler, / And twangling jack, with twenty such vile terms,” a beaten-up Hortensio cries after a rough music lesson with the titular “shrew,” Katherine, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (2.1.155-6). To the delight of Strong Language readers, the comedy gives us much more than twenty vile terms. And I think they still have a lot of vim and vigor today.

Jan. 26 2016 2:19 PM

Ooh! Arrgh! How We Hear Emotion in Nonverbal Noises.

On May 10, 1915, renowned poet-cum-cranky-recluse Robert Frost gave a lecture to a group of schoolboys in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Sounds in the mouths of men,” he told his audience, “I have found to be the basis of all effective expression.” Frost spent his career courting “the imagining ear”—that faculty of the reader that assigns to each sentence a melodic shape, one captured from life and tailored to a specific emotion. In letters and interviews, he’d use the example of “two people who are talking on the other side of a closed door, whose voices can be heard but whose words cannot be distinguished. Even though the words do not carry, the sound of them does, and the listener can catch the meaning of the conversation. This is because every meaning has a particular sound-posture.”

Frost’s preoccupation with the music of speech—with what we might call “tone of voice,” or the rise and fall of vocal pitch, intensity, and duration—has become a scientific field. Frost once wrote his friend John Freeman that this quality “is the unbroken flow on which [the semantic meanings of words] are carried along like sticks and leaves and flowers.” Neuroimaging bears him out, revealing that our brains process speech tempo, intonation, and dynamics more quickly than they do linguistic content. (Which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: We vocalized at each other for millions of years before inventing symbolic language.)

Psychologists distinguish between the verbal channel—which uses word definitions to deliver meaning—and the vocal channel—which conveys emotion through subtle aural cues. The embedding of feelings in speech is called “emotional prosody,” and it’s no accident that the term prosody (“patterns of rhythm or sound”) originally belonged to poetry, which seeks multiple avenues of communication, direct and indirect. Frost believed that you could reverse-engineer vocal tones into written language, ordering words in ways that stimulated the imagining ear to hear precise slants of pitch. He went so far as to propose that sentences are “a notation for indicating tones of voice,” which “fly round” like “living things.”

Jan. 25 2016 9:00 AM

Claiming the Yid

I grew up in Moscow, speaking a surprising amount of Yiddish for a secular kid born in 1959. I could haggle with my grandmother about whether the weather required that a hat be worn, and I knew the meaning of the colorful insults my grandparents lovingly flung at each other.

Alas, somebody forgot to tell me that I was Jewish.

As far as I knew, my grandparents spoke a dialekt, and they came from a mestechko, the Russian word for shtetl.

In the streets, when I heard the insulting-sounding, albeit perfectly reasonable, Russian word yevrey and the derogatory word zhid, I had no idea that these words had anything to do with me, even when hurled in my direction and the direction of my parents. While Yiddish was spoken in our apartment, the word yevrey was often whispered.

Jan. 20 2016 4:04 PM

Palin’s Rhetoric Is an Enchanted, Perplexing Fever Dream and We Love It

Like a radiant molten meteor that narrowly missed us in 2008 but fell into Earth’s orbit and is, perhaps, scheduled to skim the outer layers of our atmosphere every four years, Sarah Palin has returned.

By now you have read or listened to her delirious, rambling, balls-to-the-wall endorsement of Donald J. Trump, which Slate’s Josh Voorhees compared to post-apocalyptic slam poetry. You have marveled at the gloriously mixed metaphors (“He’s got the guts to wear the issues that need to be spoken about and debated on his sleeve”), botched slogans (“We’re talking about no more Reaganesque power that comes from strength,” a bastardization of Reagan’s “peace through strength” motto), vivid coinages (“squirmishes”), acronyms nobody asked for (ABC: “anybody but Clinton” and OPM: “other people’s money”), strange condemnations of classical architecture (“Exactly one year from tomorrow, former President Barack Obama. He packs up the teleprompters and the selfie-sticks, and the Greek columns, and all that hopey, changey stuff and he heads on back to Chicago), and, best of all, the giddy flights of association, looping from rockin’ rollers to holy rollers to you with the hands that rock the cradle, all those Seussian internal rhymes and alliterations dancing in concert to tie up incoherence in an unassailable sonic bow.

Jan. 20 2016 9:30 AM

Principled Protesters or Y’all Qaida: A Guide to Naming the Oregon Ranchers

A group of men are still camped out in an Oregon wildlife refuge, eating snacks, waving guns, sweeping sex toys off tables, and trying to spark the overthrow of the federal government. One of the band’s leaders has announced that they will meet with the community soon to unveil their exit strategy. Until then, what should we call them? We’ve heard militia and occupiers and patriots, extremists and insurgents and insurrectionists and protesters. Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (their preferred designation). Anti-government ranchers. Armed activists. Criminals. Even terrorists.

Some wags have skewered the terrorist label by rechristening the men Vanilla ISIS and Y’all Qaida, or pronouncing them upholders of “Shania law.” (Our zeal to apply Southern-inspired terms to non-Southerners seems slightly icky, as if all lower-income white people hailed from the same 11 states, and all bumpkins spoke with a country twang.) Other commentators prefer generically dismissive insults: nudniks, chumps, goobers, and jamokes. Wringing our hands over how to describe these guys might seem frivolous, but at stake here are questions philosophical as well as semantic: Is it better—more correct, more politically responsible—to use a loaded and powerful term to summon the maximum amount of condemnation for bad behavior? Or should we be lobbying for sillier words that may not carry the same moral force, but undermine the targets through humor?

Jan. 13 2016 11:12 AM

That’s Just What They Would Say

This post originally appeared on Sean Carroll's blog, Preposterous Universe.

The announcement we wait for every year has finally come in, and the American Dialect Society has chosen their Word of the Year! That word is: they. It beat out other finalists such as ammosexual.


You might think that dubbing they as the Word of the Year is some sort of lifetime-achievement award, since the plucky pronoun has been part of English for quite a long time. But the prize has been given, not for the word itself, but for a particular usage that has been gaining ground for a while now: the singular they. We most commonly use the word to stand for the plural: “Jack and Jill went up the hill, but once there they realized they had forgotten their pail.” More and more, however, we’re seeing it used to denote one person at a time, when their sex is unknown to us: “The robber left no fingerprints, but they did leave a note to taunt the police.”

It would be somewhat more traditional, in some circumstances, to say “he or she did leave a note.” It’s a bit cumbersome, however, and to be honest, the real tradition is simply to act like women don’t exist, and say “he did leave a note.” The rise of “he or she” has reflected our gradual progress in remembering that human beings come in both male and female varieties, and our language should reflect that. (We can also try to make it reflect the full diversity of sex and gender roles, but while that’s an admirable goal, it might not be realistic in practice.)

Using they instead of “he or she” or just he is a very nice compromise. It sounds good, and it’s a word we’re already familiar with. Die-hard prescriptivists will complain that it’s simply a mistake, because when the God of English wrote the rules for our language, He (presumably) declared that they is only and always supposed to be plural. That view doesn’t accord with common sense, nor with the reality of the history of English. A long list of the best writers in the language, from Shakespeare and the authors of the King James Bible to Jane Austen and George Orwell, have deployed they as the correct pronoun to use when describing a single person whose sex is not known to us. Supporters of singular they are not revolutionaries twisting our language to the diabolical purposes of modern political correctness; we are just recalling a well-established and more correct way of speaking.

It’s long been argued that he served perfectly well as a generic singular pronoun, without any implication at all that the person being referred to is actually male. The problem with that view is that it is false. Studies have consistently shown that referring to unknown persons as he makes listeners envision a man much more often than a woman. To which one can scientifically reply, no duh. Pretending that he refers equally to men and women is just another strategy for pretending that sexism doesn’t exist—a tradition much more venerable than using he as a generic pronoun.

Minor fixes in our use of language aren’t going to make sexism go away. But they are steps in the right direction. I like to hope that, when the next young genius appears to revolutionize science, they will have had to deal with just a little bit less discrimination than their predecessors did.

Jan. 8 2016 2:30 PM

New Questions Swirl About Security Failure at Tech Giant Juniper Networks 

When tech giant Juniper Networks made the startling announcement last month that it had uncovered two mysterious backdoors embedded in software running on some of its firewalls, certain people in the security community praised the company for being honest about its discovery. Rather than silently removing the backdoors in a routine software patch sent to customers, Juniper said it was distributing the patch to eliminate “unauthorized code” that someone had placed in the source code of its software. This malicious code was particularly concerning because one of the backdoors, which had gone undetected in the software since 2012, could be exploited for the purposes of decrypting protected data passing through the VPN, or virtual private network, in Juniper NetScreen firewalls.

But since that revelation, Juniper—whose customers include AT&T, Verizon, NATO and the U.S. government—has refused to answer any questions about the backdoor, leaving everyone in the dark about a number of things. Most importantly, Juniper hasn’t explained why it included an encryption algorithm in its NetScreen software that made the unauthorized party’s backdoor possible. The algorithm in question is a pseudo-random number generator known as Dual_EC, which the security community had long warned was insecure and could be exploited for use as a backdoor. Whoever created the backdoor in Juniper’s software did exactly this, hijacking the insecure Dual_EC algorithm to make their secret portal work.

Jan. 4 2016 5:52 AM

The 1967 Revolution That Allowed Swedes to Finally Call Each Other “You”

Excerpted from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. Out now from Atlantic Monthly Press.

The year 1967 was the height of the hippie era. The Beatles, with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” are singing the praises of LSD. And, almost equally shocking, a top Swedish executive is calling for unprecedented levels of informality. Bror Rexed, the incoming director-general of the Medicinalstyrelse (Public Health Board), announces that he intends to address all employees by their first names and would like them to do the same for him. And he gets his way.


So, ever since July 3, 1967, Rexed’s name (particularly his surname, ironically enough) has been linked to the du-reform. Du, in Swedish as in German, is the informal version of the English “you.” French has the equivalent tu and English, between the 13th and 18th centuries, had thou. Which is not to say this was all Rexed’s doing. There had been signs already that the tide of public opinion was turning, and a short time later even Prime Minister Olof Palme endorsed the new trend: upon taking office in 1969, he publicly dealt with journalists on a first-name-and-du basis. Nevertheless, in Sweden’s collective memory, Rexed’s announcement has remained the symbolic turning point.


It was a turning point that was overdue, because the rules of linguistic etiquette that had been in use until then were extremely complex. The most formal variant consisted of three parts: herr (“Mr.”) or fru (“Mrs.”), followed by the person’s societal position (such as doctor, count, or lieutenant), and finally the surname. If Rexed had not taken his stand, his employees would have had to call him Herr Generaldirektör Rexed. And not as a term of address, mind you, as we might say “Mr. Rexed,” but instead of “you”: “Would Herr Generaldirektör Rexed like a biscuit?”

For someone less senior, herr or fru could be omitted: “Would Accountant Persson mind sending the invoices this afternoon?” Another variant was the use of surname only. That, for example, was how a boss would address his subordinates: “Did Almquist have a good weekend?” In communication with maids and servants, last names gave way to first names: “Has Agatha emptied the chamber pots?” And among the lower classes and in the country, the typical terms were simply he and, to a lesser extent, she: “When will he be harvesting the rye, then?” Note that he here in fact means you.

All these niceties—and there were many more, such as using “mother” when addressing an older woman (as in, “Would mother Brigitta care for a cup of coffee?”)—called for real precision. Mistakes were easily made, superiors quick to take offence. Swedes had to keep careful tabs on whose position or rank had changed, so as not to address as “lieutenant” the newly promoted captain. (If ever there was a need for LinkedIn ... ) Only spouses and lovers had it easy: They could simply call each other du. So could friends, but not until they had shared a so-called “du-drink.” These exceptions aside, du was acceptable with children only, and of course with people for whom one had no respect.

Little wonder the Swedes had long toyed with the idea of reform. In the early 20th century the word ni, previously used only as the plural of you, had enjoyed a measure of popularity as a formal singular, equivalent to vous in French. However, because its use aroused the suggestion that the addressee had no title, it was seen as insufficiently respectful. Another strategy was to avoid second-person pronouns entirely, by invoking cumbersome formulations such as “Would a biscuit be permitted?” instead of “Would you like a biscuit?” But this was unwieldy and even came to be seen as impolite.

When the revolution came, it came fast. In the early ’60s, prudence still reigned. But by the close of the decade, even the prime minister had been du’d, like anyone off the street. Only the royal family remained out of range.

And now? Nobody longs for a return to the old system, but the informal pronoun, du, seems to be losing ground to ni, its more formal counterpart. Gradually, these two words have come to symbolize opposing visions of society. Progressive Swedes do not like ni. It points to “the return of the class society,” writes the former social-democratic councillor Britta Sethson on her blog, Nyabrittas. As she sees it, this practice has become mandatory in shops solely because “employees should be made to feel, in their very bones, that they are just a little inferior.”

Excerpted from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. © 2015 by Gaston Dorren; first published in Great Britain in 2014 by Profile Books; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.