Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Aug. 26 2015 2:39 PM

Poignant Short Stories Composed Entirely of Example Sentences From the Dictionary

One of my favorite parts of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is when the contestants ask for a word to be used in a sentence. The sentences—which occasionally name-drop Drake or quote Kelis— are gems in their own right, but are rarely actually helpful when it comes to understanding how a word is used. This is often even more the case in the dictionary, which doesn’t have the added pop-culture amusement.

Jez Burrows, a British designer and illustrator, was looking up the word study in the online edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, where, among “all the plain, functional language used to define the word, there was this very intense, melodramatic example sentence—‘He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.’ ” He told me over email that “It just seemed like a piece of fiction that had gotten lost and wandered into a dictionary.” So he did what anyone would do in 2015—he started a Tumblr, Dictionary Stories, and wrote that story using other found explainer sentences from the dictionary.

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Aug. 18 2015 8:29 AM

What Is the F--kboy?

A good insult requires no elaboration. We feel it before we understand it. That’s why some slurs resonate even when we’re not sure who or what they’re defaming. Consider the strange case of fuckboy, which plays a central role in Nancy Jo Sales’ controversial article, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’ ” in this month’s Vanity Fair. Here are two true statements about the word: Everyone knows what fuckboy means. And no one knows what fuckboy means.

To be clear, fuckboy has plenty of definitions—so many, in fact, that the word is less interesting for what it means than for why it seems to welcome so many (often mutually exclusive) claims to meaning. And while some of those claims are older than others, none possess anything like universal authority, Sales’ perhaps least of all. Describing how smartphone apps have intensified the dynamics of hookup culture, Sales writes, “A ‘fuckboy’ is a young man who sleeps with women without any intention of having a relationship with them or perhaps even walking them to the door post-sex. He’s a womanizer, an especially callous one, as well as kind of a loser.”

Succinct and precise as this definition is, it has turned Sales into an object of condescension for some. “Fuckboy is not a dating style,” claims Alana Massey, “so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort.” Elaborating on this claim over the phone, she told me that, to her, a fuckboy is a man who wants a girlfriend without the attendant responsibilities. Fuckboys “become emotional vampires to women who aren’t even their girlfriends.

Aug. 12 2015 1:48 PM

I Uptalk and I Creak. Your Complaints Won’t Change That.

Articles with headlines like “Things Women Do When Speaking That Really Annoy Me” have appeared ad nauseam in recent years on blogs, in newspapers, and even on network newscasts. As if centuries of policing our bodies and our behavior were somehow insufficient, the precise pitch and vibration of our every utterance is now a subject of debate. An obsession with women’s voices is so common among radio and podcast listeners that some in that industry have struck back, defiantly and unapologetically, against their own audience. Don't like the way we sound? Then don't listen!

Aug. 11 2015 12:06 PM

Alphabet Is the Worst Name the New Google Could Have Called Itself

In a surprise Monday statement, Google announced it will subordinate itself to a newly created parent company named Alphabet, whose holdings will include former Google departments like its experimental research and fiber optics arms. The tech world immediately went aflutter in an attempt to explain the restructuring—while accepting with a straight face the craziest part of the whole deal: Alphabet? What kind of a name is Alphabet? “One of humanity’s most important innovations,” wrote Larry Page, the umbrella company’s CEO. Other considerations we should be thankful they didn’t go with: Wheel. Fire. Antibiotics.

But then those would never have worked—too small. Alphabet is undeniably a savvy name, larded with symbolism, freighted with meaning. What, exactly? Anything and everything: It’s the alphabet! It’s “the core of how we index with Google search!” Page added. “We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!” So many interpretations!

Aug. 7 2015 10:52 AM

Heebie Jeebies: The 1920s Dance Craze That Helped Launch Louis Armstrong

As lexicographer Ben Zimmer pointed out recently on an episode of Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast, the phrase heebie-jeebies was, as far as we can tell, coined in 1923 by cartoonist Billy DeBeck in his popular comic strip Barney Google. Before long, the phrase was popping up all over, as the title of a song recorded by Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders, as the title of a Chicago South Side magazine, and as the title of a movie. The phrase implied eccentric movement and vague associations with mental disturbance, which made it the perfect name for a dance that aimed to satisfy the mid-1920s fascination with cutting loose and stepping out of convention for a couple of happy minutes.

Aug. 5 2015 2:46 PM

Assessing Jeb Bush’s Bilingualism

Jeb Bush gave a Spanish-language interview on Sunday with Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart. This is the first time since the launch of his presidential campaign that his functional bilingualism has been on full display.

Aug. 5 2015 10:35 AM

A Non-French Speaker Won the French Language Scrabble Championship. How Is That Possible?

While tiles clashed at the National Scrabble Championships in Reno this week, the Scrabble world was still buzzing about a seemingly superhuman achievement at the French-language championship held a few weeks ago in Louvain, Belgium. It was there that the New Zealander Nigel Richards, the “Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” bested all his Francophone opponents. Except that Richards doesn’t actually speak French, and he only set about learning the French Scrabble dictionary nine weeks before the event.

Aug. 4 2015 1:59 PM

Minions, Blocking Our Roads and Scarring Our Children

The maddening assault of Minions, the little yellow creatures starring in a film of the same name, continued this week when a giant inflatable likeness came loose and wreaked goggle-eyed havoc on a highway in Dublin, blocking traffic and leaving many to wonder, What next?!

July 31 2015 7:42 PM

Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!

At the Slate Political Gabfest's live D.C. show this week, Emily, David, and John tried to diagram a sentence uttered in Sun City, South Carolina, on July 21 by the ever-eloquent Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. They were defeated.

But, as this is America, the story doesn't end there. Readers and listeners, can one of you prevail where the Gabfesters stumbled? Below, we've posted a video of Trump speaking the sentence; under that, you'll find the written text. If you refuse to be stumped by Trump, send your best diagrammatic effort (in screenshot, JPG, or PDF form, please) to politicalgabfest@slate.com. Those who succeed can look forward to Donald-level bragging rights!

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

July 30 2015 2:09 PM

We’re Finally Winning the Battle Against the Phrase “Battle With Cancer”

When the iconic theater actor and director Roger Rees died earlier in July, many reports quoted a gently worded press release written, it seemed, by his family: Rees, the release said, had “passed away … after a brief journey with cancer.” The diction gave me pause, even as I admired it. It was a clear step away from the familiar description of a dearly departed’s “battle” with the disease. But did this euphemism attenuate cancer in a way that felt cruel to the victim or untrue to the actual experience of, well, dying? I imagined a man walking slowly into the sunset, hand in hand with an adumbral figure. It seemed strange that the two silhouettes were moving in the same direction.

A journey “through” cancer might have been easier to visualize. There goes Rees, gracefully picking his way across the changing landscape, its rocks and eddies of sand and occasional sloping idylls. You are now entering cancer, reads the road sign behind him. Do not expect to enjoy your stay. But that preposition might be inapt, given that not every itinerant reaches the other side of the imperial malady. With, then, not through.

While this was the first time I’d encountered a journey with cancer, such quests crisscross the Web. Bloggers relate their “Journey With Inflammatory Breast Cancer,” their “Personalized Journey With Ovarian Cancer,” their “far-from-perfect journey with cancer” and “healing journey with cancer” and “beautiful journey with cancer” and “brave journey with cancer.” Sometimes, cancer is not a fellow traveler or pilgrim but a modifier clarifying the nature of the trip. There are “cancer journeys” and “long cancer journeys” and “personal cancer journeys,” all arcing across our feeds to converge, perhaps, in what Clive James called “the empty regions,” the endpoint of every mortal trek.