Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Feb. 11 2016 9:57 AM

Sweary Snippets in Shakespeare: Henry V

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

In terms of plot, Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) is fairly straightforward

Feb. 10 2016 12:22 PM

How Gender Neutral Is Guys, Really?

The unlikely story of guy: It was originally an eponym for Guy Fawkes, then referred to someone dressed up in a grotesque costume. By the mid-19th century its meaning had broadened to denote a man, before extending further to become an informal, gender-neutral vocative or term of address, especially in the plural. Hey guys.

This use of guys to address a mixed group has been around for decades. It’s a pop-cultural favorite, propelled to catchphrase status by the exuberant “Hey you guys!” in The Goonies, itself a nod to The Electric Company.

But it’s not universally accepted. For some listeners, guys conjures the sexist male-as-default paradigm, and it has an androcentric flavor regardless of a speaker’s intent. Words can lose such connotations, of course—bollix has been thoroughly bleached in U.S. English—but it takes time.

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!)

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.