A Blog About Language

June 19 2014 1:15 PM

From Promenade to#Prahm: an Evolution of the Night to Remember

2014 may be the year in which we, as a society, have reached peak prom. Whether you’re an active participant in, or just a casual observer of the prom-industrial complex, it’s almost impossible not to notice how rapidly and deeply "prom culture" infiltrated national conversation in the US this year.

While results from an early 2014 national spending survey (cum credit card promotion) have found that the average American household are expected to spend 14% less on prom-related activity than last year, there doesn’t seem to be any less time and effort spent on preparation for the "big night." From the newsworthiness of "promposals," those elaborate, proposal-style grand gestures that are equal parts moxie, ingenuity, and silliness, to the ever-complicated quests for the perfect outfit, whether it’s rented or hand-crafted, the social capital of the prom is as strong as ever.

How did we get here?

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June 18 2014 2:32 PM

New Vocal Fry Culprit: Butt Tension!

In the Huffington Post recently, theater enthusiast and educator Jen Olenizcak—under the headline "Are Spanx Causing Vocal Fry?"—wrote the following:

June 16 2014 3:39 PM

Holy Ish! Euphemisms Aren't As Versatile

Last week, I wrote about how -ish—as in I'm hungy-ish—has evolved from a lowly suffix into an independent, freestanding word—as in Are you hungry? Yeah, ish, what we might call "approximative ish." Many readers, however, wondered about an altogether different use of ish, as a euphemism for shit, which, depending on your demographic and taste in popular culture, you may or may not have encountered. So let's take a look at that ish

June 12 2014 3:02 PM

Worried that Vocal Fry May Harm Your Career Prospects? Don’t Be.

In a recent article in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, researchers at Duke University concluded that a speech characteristic known as “vocal fry” may be harmful to people's career prospects, with women being slightly more at risk than men. Which sounds alarming. After all, anything that is found to influence our potential for employment is sure to gain attention in such a competitive job market.

Predictably, the article was covered widely in various media, including in the Atlantic by Olga Khazan, who implied that women need to police how they speak for fear of being perceived as untrustworthy by a potential employer. On closer inspection, though, it turns out that self-policing may not be necessary at all, at least with respect to vocal fry. The original study contained a number of serious flaws, which, when considered, prevent us from drawing any conclusions at all about which specific acoustic characteristics sounded "untrustworthy" to the listeners who participated.

June 11 2014 11:20 AM

Germans Have a Really Hard Time Saying Squirrel

A few years ago, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson pointed out that the best way to expose a German spy would be to ask them to say the word "squirrel," because "no German, no matter how well they speak English, can say 'squirrel.'" So naturally, someone tested the premise and made a video of it. Here is that video (by Tamara Lenz) of 10 Germans trying to say "squirrel":

June 10 2014 3:39 PM

There Are Two "Th" Sounds. Here's The Difference. 

Put your hand on your throat and say "thing," elongating the th sound. Now do the same with "then." Notice a difference? In this video, YouTuber Tom Scott explains how your vocal cords vibrate when you produce certain sounds, such as the th in then or there, but don't when producing others, such as the th in thing or thick.

June 9 2014 2:16 PM

Ish: How A Suffix Became A Word

The canonical use of -ish is as a suffix meaning "approximately," as in bluish, tallish, sixish, or even hungry-ish. This is the definition—the only definition—that you'll find in Merriam-Webster, which notes that -ish derives from the Old English -isc, of Germanic origin, which in turn is related to similar such suffixes in Dutch (-isch) and Greek (-iskos).

For centuries now, -ish has been rather promiscuous in English, attaching to a wide variety of words and even phrases. Take the following architectural observation, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, from an 1894 article in The Daily News, a now-defunct London newspaper (of which Charles Dickens was briefly the editor!):

Some huge pile of building, generally much more Queen Anne-ish than the houses of Queen Anne's own time.

As a word by itself—which is to say, not as a suffix—ish means more or less the same thing: kind of, thereabouts, in a way. And imagining how it broke free to become syntactically freestanding isn't hard. The word "hungry-ish," say—as in, I guess I could eat. I'm hungry-ish.—often comes out more like "hungry [brief pause] ish." From there it's a short leap to:

Are you hungry?
Yeah, ish.

June 6 2014 11:46 AM

Pangrammatic Tweets!

Twitter has made possible in recent years, for both linguists doing rigorous research and lay people just having fun, a lot of wonderful text-mining projects. The Twitter bot @haikuinyou, for example, was designed to find accidental haikus, and, perhaps more impressively, @pentametron searches for rhyming tweets in iambic pentameter and then fashions couplets out of them. Talk about found poetry!

June 5 2014 9:52 AM

The Schwa Is the Laziest Sound in All of Human Speech

We all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to pronunciation. One big reason for this is the prevalence of schwa in the spoken language. That's why dictionaries and other written guides to pronunciation make use of a special symbol to represent the schwa sound. It looks like this: ǝ — an upside down e. But what is schwa anyway? Here are nine things to help you get to know this very important vowel.

June 4 2014 12:45 PM

Don't Print Stupid S%#t: Should Newspapers Censor The "Obama Doctrine"?  

The slogan "Don't Do Stupid Shit" has worked its way into numerous journalistic descriptions of the "Obama Doctrine," even when a publication is normally reluctant to publish profanity. For example, in Politico's Playbook, Mike Allen explains that "Playbook rarely prints a four-letter word—our nephews are loyal readers. But we are, in this case, because that is the precise phrase President Obama and his aides are using in their off-the-record chats with journalists."

The New York Times, on the other hand, has only printed the slogan in expurgated fashion—this despite the fact that late Times editor Abe Rosenthal created a presidential exemption from the ban on printing "shit" in the Nixon era. As Rosenthal reportedly said after including "shit" in quotes of Watergate tape transcripts, "We'll only take shit from the President."