Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

April 3 2016 5:44 PM

The AP Stylebook Will No Longer Capitalize Internet. What a Shame.

Everywhere we go online, we are tempted. We are tempted to click, tempted to watch, and tempted to argue. Maybe most of all, we’re tempted to support websites and decisions that reflect the internet’s democratic ideal, and we’re tempted to reject ones that are inherently antidemocratic. This is, ultimately, why most people seem thrilled that the AP Stylebook now says it’ll lowercase the internet and the web.

I support the decision on web—it’s a nickname and a useful prefix—but for the internet, we should realize this glee for what it is: an emotional response to symbolism that feels right, and a confirmation of what we do naturally. When we write online, most of us rarely bother to use the shift key; capitalizing anything is more work than it’s worth, and much of the text we search and communicate with online remains uniformly lowercased. Words are words; who cares about the window dressing? Even when we do cap as a rule or in formal writing, many lowercase the internet as a matter of habit and history, as the New Republic’s Adam Nathaniel Peck recounted last July. The stylebook’s reasoning is a usage one: Lots of people don’t cap it, so we’re cool with not capping it.

But there’s irony in changing a rule simply to follow a trend: By reversing a decade-plus policy of capitalizing internet, the stylebook is damning itself; it’s ensuring that thousands of old articles that cap internet will look dated. (It also makes me wonder whether the high-profile switch is simply a flashy attempt to sell new, “up-to-date” AP Stylebooks.)

If we’re to have standards for capping anything, it makes sense to cap the Internet. We capitalize nouns when specific ones are absolutely singular. Kanye West, Oklahoma, Lake Shore Drive, Hamilton, Saturn, Glengarry Glen Ross … all of these deserve caps because they are extremely specific, individual entities. With apologies to Mark Joseph Stern, this reasoning also helps explain why the AP Stylebook lowercases the court when referring to the Supreme Court. Unlike the Supreme Court, there are many other courts that we’d reasonably refer to as the court—but we’d never refer to other saturns, or Yeezus forbid, other kanyes. There simply is no other Internet. There’s the dark web, and there are lower intranets. But there’s only one specific place where Google searches; where Slate lives; where Instagram changes its algorithm; and where we waste Saturday afternoons sating our desires on Tinder, Yik Yak, and Cornhub. It’s one place as proper and unique as Saturn. And it’s utterly reasonable to capitalize this realm’s name.

Styleguides are important for establishing consistency across a single publication. They clarify language and help give readers a sense of stability. But when standards become malleable based on usage alone, they start to lose their power.

The AP Stylebook is venerable in part because it’s committed to saying that there are standards, and for providing a steady hand for publications looking for an authority on how and why to stay consistent.

But the internet hates authority. It hates targeted ads and paywalls and data mining because they are difficult to avoid and erected from on high, without democratic consultation or assent. We want what we seek online to be easily accessible and transparent, and we don’t want to have to put in too much work. The Internet is supposed to be the land where it’s OK to give in to temptation, where our desires are fulfilled: a frictionless, wall-free haven from responsibility. We roam, discover, and acquire what we want nearly by willing it to be so. We want to lowercase the internet; doing so gratifies instantly. But like a Saturday spent staring at a screen, the change doesn’t represent our best selves. Deep down we know it’s wrong.

March 30 2016 12:25 PM

Primeval Profanity

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

On Facebook, Jay Dillon posted an intriguing verse that appeared in Prize Translations, Poems, and ParodiesReprinted From The Journal of Education (1881). Jay muses that the line “What the digamma?” might actually be a disguised form of “What the fuck?” since the archaic Greek letter digamma (Ϝ) strongly resembles the Latin letter F (even though it was originally pronounced as /w/). So was the author of this verse cleverly using Homeric Greek to express a proto-WTF?

March 29 2016 10:46 AM

How “Kumbaya” Went From Sincere Protest Song to Drippy Punch Line 

Rush Limbaugh won’t buy that preposterous tripe Hillary Clinton is selling about an America united by shared and everlasting values. On his show recently, Limbaugh expectorated: “This whole notion of working together, bringing the country together? We’re way past that. … There’s no candidate out there that can forge a kumbaya.”   

Hang on, forge a kumbaya? Like, in a smithy? “Kumbaya”—a spiritual first acquired by the Library of Congress in 1926 (though the song existed before then, in the Creole communities along the watery hem of South Carolina and Georgia)—has drifted far from its roots.

Limbaugh is not the only one making this staple of American folk music into a pejorative symbol. Former Apprentice contestant Omarosa threatened protesters at Donald Trump rallies not to expect “a hug or kumbaya.” And anti-kumbaya sentiment crosses the aisle: In 2015, President Obama challenged the insinuation that petty personal conflicts were preventing him from brokering a peace deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “This can’t be reduced to somehow a matter of let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Obama said, to illustrate the complexity of the situation. At outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s farewell dinner, the U.S. Ambassador John Bolton quipped that “no one sang Kumbaya.” (Annan’s retort, when he heard of Bolton’s joke: “Does he know how to sing it?”) Even in the Disney hit Zootopia, a jaded fox belittles the film’s naïve bunny hero for dreaming that in the titular city, “predators and prey live together in harmony and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ ”

March 25 2016 12:24 PM

From Cool McCool to Boaty McBoatface: An Investigationy McInvestigation

The U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council developed an adorable notion this week, prompting the kind of tempest British Internet users love to discover in their online teapots. The organization needed an “inspirational” name for its new $288 million polar research ship, so it thought it should maybe ask the Internet for suggestions. Good plan!  

Yeah, the top contender as of Friday morning in the public poll NERC set up is still Boaty McBoatface. The submitter, former BBC presenter James Hand, remains sorry-not-sorry,  perhaps because other entries include “Big Metal Floaty Thingy-Thing,” “Science!!!” “Its Bloody Cold Here,” and “Usain Boat.” (More sober or poetic voices have recommended “Pillar of Autumn” and “David Attenborough.”) All of this, as Sarah Larimer at the Washington Post points out, amounts to excellent publicity for NERC, though perhaps not of the kind it envisioned. “We are pleased that people are embracing the idea in a spirit of fun,” spokeswoman Alison Robinson told the New York Times. To which the Gray Lady replied: “Sure they are.”

Boaty has already launched a pair of hashtags— #TheInternetNamesSpace and #TheInternetNamesAnimals—that have further furnished the English language with such gifts as Starface Gassy McSmashy (for a supernova), Nopey McNoMyGod (for a spider), and Danger Noodle (for a cobra). But we at Contrarypants McSlatepitch got to wondering: Where did the naming convention Noun-y McNoun-erson, and its relatives, come from anyway? And why do we find the Internet persona it springs from, a College Humor–esque mix of exuberant immaturity and guilelessness, so delightful?

March 24 2016 11:55 AM

The Problem With “That’s Problematic”

The author of this piece won the second Slate Plus Pitch Slam. If you’d like to participate in future pitch slams, consider becoming a member. Visit Slate.com/plus to learn more.

As a women’s studies graduate student and college instructor, I often hear the phrase “that’s problematic” in my watercooler conversations: “Did you catch Broad City last night?”

“Yeah, but I thought a lot of it was pretty problematic,” a colleague might say.

Whatever this reply might have in common with right-wing caricatures of feminists and academics, it is actually a pretty great conversation starter. In my colleague’s comment, I hear: Is Ilana’s over-the-top infatuation with black culture intentionally offensive? Are we as an audience supposed to like her for it? And when viewers laugh at her, are we all laughing at the same thing?

But all too often, the word problematic functions not as an opening into these deeper questions, but as a buzzy shortcut. It can allow the speaker to leave out the most critical arguments the audience needs to hear.

March 22 2016 4:32 PM

Is This the First Great Work of “Facebook Fiction”?

On Tuesday, March 15, a mysterious letter appeared in the secure dropbox of the writer Robin Sloan—along with instructions to post the letter’s contents to Facebook, which Sloan did. The message unspooled the saga of an anonymous Facebook employee who’d accidentally discovered a curious property of an internal company application called Enchilada. The program—used to scrutinize the public and private posts of anonymized users for advertisers’ benefit—could predict the future. Specifically, it showed when forthcoming Facebook conversation would crest around particular words or phrases, like Volkswagen or Trump or Adidas footwear. “Conversation spikes,” the messenger explained, “when championships are decided. When companies combine or collapse. When politicians are engulfed by scandal. When people die.”

This Facebook employee did what many of us would do under the circumstances and teamed up with his co-worker, a woman named Julie Rubicon, to launch a covert insider trading operation. When the Facebook users of the future started murmuring about Puma or the Golden State Warriors, our protagonists knew that something dramatic was poised to happen—a merger or a win or a coup. They forged a rogue consultancy site on the deep Web. And then, a dark flick of destiny possessed them to query the algorithm about their own names. The messenger’s screen turned up empty, but Julie Rubicon’s revealed an angry spike a few weeks out, in the middle of March. Julie panicked. When the Ides drew closer, she disappeared.

March 17 2016 12:05 PM

Spectacularly Sweary Links


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

Unpresidential profanity, parental profanity, constabulary profanity, embroidered profanity, and more. Constant cursing (“bomb the shit out of,” “kick their asses,” and, most recently, “he’s a pussy”) isn’t hurting Republican candidate Donald Trump’s campaign—and it may even be boosting his appeal. Slang expert Michael Adams—whose forthcoming book, In Praise of Profanity, is already on our wish list—told Inside Sources that Trump’s swearing is “a sort of linguistic populism … a way to speak to a population that feels connected to the candidate because the candidate uses his or her language, the language of the people.” Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word, opined that “sexual and scatological terms are not really a big deal now.”

Speaking of pussy: No, it isn’t derived from pusillanimous, says Language Log’s Mark Liberman. Keene Winters, a candidate for mayor of Wausau, Wisconsin, is an equal-opportunity swearer, unleashing F-bombs at city officials and residents alike. Police in Ireland and Australia are told to police their swearing. (From the Irish Times: “I don’t tell people to fuck off. I don’t use that language with anybody.”) Speaking for ourselves we’re more offended by actioning in this quote from Victoria, Australia: “Victoria Police is committed to actioning all recommendations of the VEOHRC.”

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a man who was arrested after videotaping a cursing cop has been awarded a settlement of more than $72,000Inveterate swearer swears off swearing because “I don’t want a sweary son.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s OK to swear in front of children (audio). Is Icelandic fokk a Swedish loanword or a home-grown oath? (Hat tip: Patrick Cox.) Well, there go our chances of winning a National Magazine Award: “The word ‘cocksucker’ has never appeared in any story that has either won or been nominated for a feature writing prize.” (Read more about Sofa King company names.)

The Profanity Embroidery Group in Whitstable (UK): dedicated to the proposition that needlework can be fucking entertaining. Why did “Fuck It!” appear twice in the January 27 edition of Japan’s Nikkei, the largest financial newspaper in the world? (Hat tip: Rochelle Kopp.) Teresa Buchanan, formerly a tenured professor of education at Louisiana State University professor, says she was fired unconstitutionally for swearing.

March 14 2016 7:30 AM

Do Our Names Shape Our Destinies? Trump’s Might.

Donald Trump continues to ace the presidential primaries. He is proving quite adept at wooing states and groups of voters that were supposed to be easy victories for his Republican opponents. Whether winning over white evangelical voters in the Deep South or working class voters in Middle America, the New York billionaire routinely, well, trumps the rest of the field.

This phenomenon of a person’s name being a fitting description of their appearance, actions, or accomplishments is called an aptronym. Consider, for example, the felicitous fact that New York television personality Amy Freeze is a meteorologist. Or the famous example resulting from a Slate article that became a popular story in the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog a decade ago when they learned of a lawyer named Sue Yoo. Perhaps the most infamous instance is that of Anthony Weiner, a former congressman who resigned from office after pictures of his, ahem, “last name” showed up on his Twitter account.

The word trump is defined as a playing card of a particular suit that outranks cards of another suit. And in its use as a verb, it means to outdo or surpass. There is no question that every one of this year’s Republican candidates for president has been trumped. When Trump resorts to name-calling, holds raucous rallies that draw audiences in the thousands, and employs media savvy that makes him the subject of every conversation, he is playing the trump card. It’s a feat that none of the other candidates have been able to match, and not for lack of trying.

March 10 2016 1:35 PM

Carnal Conversations in Antony and Cleopatra

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

You want to hear a dirty joke? You don’t have to go to a schoolyard, locker room, comedy club, or even a Republican presidential debate. No, simply go to your bookshelf, theater, laptop, or wherever you consume masterpieces of English drama and check out one of Shakespeare’s most tragic—and erotic—love stories, Antony and Cleopatra.

I read the play for the first time a few weeks back as part of my ongoing effort, as you may now be well familiar, to take on Shakespeare’s corpus this year 400 years after his death—and boy, is this some hot stuff. The play, no doubt, continues to reward viewers and readers with its complicated and sexualized construction of power and politics in the “infinite variety” (2.2.241) of its leading lady, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Further developing this theme, the play also rewards audiences with some of its strong language—here, centered on taboo topics of sex and genitalia.

March 8 2016 9:30 AM

My Question Is the Following Statement

The president’s science adviser, the U.S. undersecretary of energy, and the heads of both NASA and the National Science Foundation sit at the front of a room, offering visions for the future of science from each of their unique perspectives. Their talks run a bit long, leaving only about five minutes for questions until the conference must move on to further sessions. An anonymous woman steps to the microphone in the audience. What an incredible opportunity! What a wonderful chance to probe the minds of these leaders of the scientific community! What would she ask?

So what did the woman say? I have no idea. I can’t remember, because instead of asking a question, the woman decided to ramble for four of the five remaining minutes without actually posing a question at all, and my brain melted a little. At that point, White House science adviser John Holdren — a man who has frequent direct contact with the fucking president — stood up and apologized profusely for having to leave to head back for a meeting at the White House. Damn it all.

“My question is the following statement” is the bane of any sane conferencegoer’s existence. Any conference, panel, lecture, seminar, symposium, and so on, in any possible field you can imagine, can be the setting for this crime against humanity. The tendency of audience members to stand up and speechify rather than simply ask is remarkably widespread — anecdotally, everyone I know says they see it all the time, and everyone says they hate it. (This raises the question of who exactly is responsible for the sin, but I just assume I only associate with reasonable, good people.) The effect, of course, is that the speakers the audience actually showed up to hear have less airtime; no one came to hear Mr. Loud and Long-Winded Audience Man talk, and yet talk he does.