Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Feb. 20 2015 12:58 PM

How Does a Celebrity Become a “Spirit Animal”?

I’m starting to suspect that the engine of the Internet runs not on outrage or FOMO but animal souls. Twitter and Tumblr in particular swarm with spirit animals, the disembodied essences once associated with shamanism and Native Americans, now linked to youngish people who want to manage their images ever more precisely. The new breed of spirit animal is an identity marker, a person or thing with which someone wishes to claim kinship. It can be a peanut butter sandwich. Or a farting hart. During a random midmorning hour this week, the following celebrities were claimed on Twitter as spirit animals: Taylor Swift, Johnny Weir, Dolly Parton, Kerry Washington, Laverne Cox, Sad Drake, and Dwight Schrute. Before them, Seth Cohen provided ghostly guidance to a generation of sensitive Jewish men. Mayor Bill de Blasio did it for PETA. Spirit animals have even leapt offline (like spirit ticks!): Women at Cosmo’s “Fun Fearless Life” conference were asked to write their celebrity Patronus shapes on their nametags. (Joanna Coles told fans hers was Tilda Swinton, but in fact, she confessed to reporter Noreen Malone, it’s actually John Oliver.)

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Feb. 18 2015 1:14 PM

How OK Became Our One True Universal Colloquialism 

Excerpted from Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, by Michael Rosen, out now from Counterpoint.

Is it OK to write OK, Ok, Okay, and ok? And should people who say, “Okily-dokily” be given a custodial sentence?

When zoologists looked at the duck-billed platypus, they had problems. They had their way of classifying animals, but this beast didn’t fit. What’s more, it looked like a hoax. The duck-billed platypus was fine—it’s still fine; it just goes on being a duck-billed platypus. It doesn’t wonder what kind of animal it is.

OK is a duck-billed platypus.

Feb. 16 2015 9:30 AM

The Winding Circumlocutions of Schitt’s Creek Reviews

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

Schitt's Creek. There. I said it. Which is more than David Bianculli, TV critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, was able to do on Tuesday in his review of this new sitcom. It’s a show about a rich family, the Roses, that loses everything except the deed to a town purchased decades earlier as a joke. Here’s Bianculli twisting himself into Federal Communications Commission–approved knots:

The name of the town also is the name of this TV series, and there’s a reason the deed to the town was bought as a joke. It’s a joke I can’t say on the radio, but the second word is creek. The first is spelled S-C-H-I-T-T-apostrophe-S and rhymes with spits. From now on, I’ll just call it Creek.

Schitt’s Creek had its debut last month in Canada, on the CBC, and made its U.S. debut Wednesday on the cable channel Pop, which is what the TV Guide Network has renamed itself. The famously taboo-averse New York Times took a bold stance and printed the title of the series in its (lukewarm) review. But on the primly and grimly patrolled airwaves no one can hear that expletive-sparing C.

Feb. 13 2015 8:28 PM

KATCHOW! How to Write Sounds in Comics

If a tree falls in the forest in a comic book, but no one is around to write <krrrASH>, does it make a sound?

Comics are a visual medium, but sound is an essential element of the "imaginary space" its creators are building, at least according to Lee Marrs, author of the Pudge, Girl Blimp series and a "founding mommy" of Wimmen’s Comix. A comic with the sound effects removed might be a significantly different reading experience, almost as though a central character had been excised.

Marrs notes that representations of sound in comics are emblematic of the art form, and over time, a canon of onomatopoeia has developed. As with any transcription, these spellings are constrained by a language’s sounds and its writing system(s), so onomatopoeic words for the same sound, a barking dog or creaking floorboard, often differ from language to language. When comics are translated, the sound effects are usually converted as well.

Feb. 13 2015 9:00 AM

What I Learned About Language When I Titled My Novel The Book of Negroes

The title of my novel, The Book of Negroes, has undergone a series of changes since HarperCollins Canada published it eight years ago. The original name resurrects a long-forgotten British naval ledger used to document the exodus of 3,000 African Americans from Manhattan. These African Americans—their stories also form the subject of my novel—became known as the Black Loyalists because they served the British in Manhattan on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War. The Tories had enticed slaves to throw off their shackles and fight, promising freedom to any man or woman who would take refuge behind British military lines. But the British lost the war, so they rewarded the 3,000 Black Loyalists with free passage by ship from Manhattan to Nova Scotia (on the Atlantic coast of Canada) in 1783.

In 2007, shortly before the first printing of the novel in the United States, my American publisher (W.W. Norton & Co.) changed the title to Someone Knows My Name. I was told that American bookstores were reluctant to order a book with the word Negroes on the cover. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, where the Canadian title was translated quite literally to Het Negerboek, a small group of protesters of Dutch Surinamese descent was so outraged that they burned copies of the book cover in an Amsterdam park. When, back in the States, BET bought a six-part miniseries adaptation of the story (the first episode airs Monday), the network opted to use my original title, which persuaded Norton to re-release the book as The Book of Negroes. This back-and-forth made me wonder: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

Feb. 12 2015 3:26 PM

How Do You Spell the Abbreviation of Casual?

Here at Lexicon Valley we like to describe rather than prescribe, ruminate rather than ordain or decree. We are the contemplative cows chewing over the cud of language use, not the woodpeckers hammering our preferences home. And yet. Every now and then a linguistic puzzle presents itself that cries out for a definite solution. The abbreviation of the word casual is one such puzzle. How do you spell … that word?

We’re after answers, but we’re still a democracy, so we are going to tackle this pressing problem via roundtable discussion, after which you guys will tell us in the comments what you think. I’ll start. Because I’m right. The correct way to spell the shortening of casual is …

Caj

First, the abbreviation of a word should not be longer or more complex than the word itself. Second, it should embody something of the spirit of the word. Caj is simple, direct, and brief—Dress code: caj—but it also lends itself to languorous lengthening: The date was cajjjjjjjjjj. Thorny consonantal clusters (like in caszh and cajzh) don’t conjure the requisite frictionlessness and ease, whereas the J makes phonetic sense, has a storybook charm, and is distinctive. To be casual is to obey the rules when it suits you. To keep it loose, a little wild. That J—a little something different that nevertheless avoids fussy four-car pileups of letters—delights the eye without requiring you to dig around in alternate alphabets. (Also, fasten on a second J and the word evokes, logically, the rhyming hajj.)

—Katy Waldman, words correspondent

Cajzh

We native English speakers are a parochial lot. Many eschew learning foreign languages altogether, and our newspapers and websites rarely display characters from foreign alphabets. That’s why my ideal representation of the abbreviated version of casualcaж, using the eighth letter of the Russian alphabet—is a nonstarter, even though the sound ж signifies, the zh-ish s that appears in the middle of the word casual, is just right. As a second-place substitute I favor cajzh. The middle J might seem excessive, but it’s necessary. Without it, cazh is too soft and sibilant. It’s ironic that we can only form the easy-breezy version of an already casual word by creating such a clogged-up concentration of consonants that we have to clench our teeth to pronounce it.

—June Thomas, culture critic and Outward editor

Cas’

Good abbreviations, needless to say, leave no room for alternatives. Natch. Poss. Totes. These are all perfectly intuitive word crops, straightforward shortcuts with clear meanings. But lopping off the second syllable of casual just doesn’t work in print. So if we insist on doing it, the only route is the practical one. No desperate clustering of letters to create an inexpressible sound. No invoking a non-English character to help out where our own language fails. No weird solitary J's. The best choice is to write the syllable itself, plus an apostrophe to stand in for the missing letters: the ugly but functional cas’

—Laura Bennett, senior editor

Caʒ

The problem with how to spell the commonly used abbreviation of casual is that there’s no letter, or letter combination, in English that perfectly represents the lovely sound in the middle of casual—the satisfying thick buzz, the aural smear, not a typical Z but a Z that’s been smoking pot all afternoon. It’s not zh, or jzh, or any of the other suggestions my misguided colleagues have made here. Smushing a bunch of letters together in hopes of evoking a simple phonetic sound is hopeless. Luckily, the international phonetic alphabet offers us the answer, and the Internet offers us the way to find it.

The sound is called the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant, and the way to spell the abbreviation of casual you say all the time is caʒ. Look how pretty that is! The letter, called an ezh, looks like the offspring of a Z and a G, which is just perfect. The next time you’re looking to type this word, just Google “ezh,” copy-paste, and you’re on your way. You may also shorten the usual to the uʒ, or “Kyrie Irving has excellent court vision” to “whoa his court viʒ.” Do not, however, shorten menopausal to menopauʒ; this is incorrect.

Dan Kois, culture editor

Caszh

The obvious correct spelling for the single-syllable shortened form of casual so often used in informal speech is caszh. We need the S to hearken back to the spelling of the word we’re trying to abbreviate. (Caj, by contrast, might look like an abbreviation of cajun or cajole to the uninitiated.) However, cas alone looks like it sounds like caz or cass, so we also need the additional zh, which is already widely understood to represent the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant. Caszh is efficient, containing just enough letters to get the job done, without requiring any special characters. And there’s something appropriately pleasant about that cluster of consonants at the end, which seems to imply that you can draw out the zh sound as long as you like when you speak the word aloud.

—Laura Anderson, associate editor

Cascjzh

This is America, where we go big and act haphazardly. We ignore problems, or we win by throwing everything we have at them, including consonants. My friends, spelling the shortened casual is an American problem. Maybe cascjzh looks foreign to you. Maybe as usual we’ve failed in our quest for perfection. But I will be damned if we roll over and grasp at a spelling as plainly wrong as cas like some idle Frenchman. I will be damned if we borrow a letter from another language like some leading-from-behind wimp.

Achieving the opposite of our wars' objectives is the American way; when we aim to correctly shorten casual, we can only hope to lengthen it. To win honorably, when we abbreviate casual, we need a surge—we must pile consonant upon consonant until we approximate the right sound. We will not go quietly into the night; we will not vanish without a fight. We're going to spell on. Because Americans are not casual. We spell with excess, or we do not spell at all. We are cascjzh.

—Seth Maxon, home page editor

Feb. 11 2015 2:35 PM

When Did Books Get Page Numbers—and Are They Even Useful Anymore?

Open any Western book, and one of the first right-hand pages will contain the title and author, along with the name of the publisher and maybe place and year of publication.

It didn’t use to be that way.

Feb. 4 2015 2:46 PM

Why We Shouldn’t Reclaim Slut

Since the Riot Grrrl feminist punk rock movement of the early 1990s, when Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill wrote SLUT on her stomach in lipstick, feminists have attempted to wrest control of the label “slut.” Instead of being shamed for our sexuality, the thinking has been, let’s take ownership of this label and subvert its meanings. It’s a brave, saucy move with doses of irony and humor mixed in, and one that’s been gestating for a while. Years before the SlutWalk movement erupted in 2011 and sought to rehabilitate the term, I had amassed a closet full of slut T-shirts given to me by campus groups after my lectures on slut-bashing. But I’ve never worn them. Simply put, most people aren’t in on the joke, which creates more issues than it solves.

Feb. 3 2015 1:09 PM

The Craptastic History of Sh-t Show

When my brother and his wife threw a birthday party last year for their youngest daughter, seven or eight preschoolers, along with most of their parents, arrived at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. As midafternoon merriment gave way to late afternoon and then evening, the kids, huddled in a Disneyfied trance in the living room, watched Frozen for a second consecutive time. The adults, meanwhile, found their own form of repetitive recreation.

"Everyone kept eating and drinking and by six o'clock I realized that no one was leaving, so we just made more food and kept the wine flowing," recalled my brother Matt, who, having exhausted his supply of 750 ml bottles, began corking the nine magnums that he kept as decoration in an antique tool cart turned bar. It would be near midnight before the impromptu bacchanal finally disbanded, when yawning children left for home with their wobbly mommies and daddies. "It was kind of a shit show," said my brother.

Until recently, the phrase "shit show" was part of my bubble vocabulary, a term invented by Slate's Seth Stevenson for words that skim the edges of familiarity and accessibility but remain "just out of grasp." A child's party that metamorphosed unexpectedly into 10 hours of boozy revelry sounded fun, I thought. Wasn't a "shit show" an unwelcome occurrence, acutely annoying and chaotic?

Feb. 2 2015 11:53 AM

How to Write Dirty Tongue Twisters

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

First off, let’s all agree that a big part of the fun of dirty tongue twisters is that you’re trying not to say a dirty word. The dirty word is just waiting there, impossible to ignore, magnetic, and you’re supposed to dance all around the rim of it without slipping into it. So while there’s something to be said for gleeful vulgarity, we miss the point a little if we write something like this:

She sits, shitting incessantly, and such shits as she shits sitting slip from her shitty seat like chic sliding shipside slippers.

So thing No. 1 in writing a dirty tongue twister is to find a vulgar word or expression to dance around. It should be a common one, one that springs easily to mind and mouth, so that habit will lead the speaker astray. And then everyone will giggle.

Obviously, this means you need to find words that are similar to the vulgar expression. But not all words are equally useful. There are a couple of factors to bear in mind:

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