Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Oct. 21 2016 9:30 AM

The Strange and Searching Linguistic Experiments on Bon Iver’s 22, a Million

Bon Iver’s chart-topping new album, 22, a Million, is a dense, cryptic mashup. Musically, Justin Vernon qua Bon Iver overlays his earthy, aching melisma with processed, robotic-sounding samples. His lyrics leap from mundane acts of folding his clothes to religious images of folding his hands in prayer. The track titles are numerological riddles, the album artwork is marked with alienlike symbols, and yet its visceral core requires no decoding. These polyvocal textures tell of personal, relational, and spiritual breakdowns and reconfigurations—and, just as dramatically, linguistic ones, too.

22, a Million’s track titles are conspicuously strange. For instance, Track 1 is “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, Track 3 “715 - CRΣΣKS,” and Track 9 “____45_____.” Each reads like a line from a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem composed in The Matrix. The mélange of numbers, symbols, and typography suggest a relationship between signifier and signified that is unstable and slippery, as if to scramble what we can express with our words and the meaning we can access through them. As John Ashbery, whose poetry never rested in probing for a language to transcend the experience of individual consciousness, articulates this linguistic predicament in “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror”: There are “no words to say what it really is.” Vernon’s titles enact a breakdown of meaning, at once exposing a foreign code when our familiar letters have fallen away and hacking into our dull, ordinary language with an exotic cipher.

Oct. 20 2016 9:30 AM

Why Do People Keep Talking and Joking About Humans?

If you have a favorite human, the latest in GIF technology now allows you to let him or her know it in no uncertain terms. The “YOU ARE MY FAVORITE HUMAN” GIF delivers an all-caps message that shimmers over a disembodied alien head in stars. Meanwhile, the Wonka expresses the same sentiment, but for candy-tycoon-weirdo fans. In the physical realm, there are “favorite human” cutoff tanktops; you can also purchase “favorite human” mugs, greeting cards, and onesies, some of which are accented with aliens, hearts, and space-traveling cats to give your feelings some pizzazz.

Such webanalia comprises just one new use of humans among us. Nowadays, referring to a person as a human in the singular and to people as humans is spreading in popularity and into various conversational realms. I don’t have the anthropological studies to verify this phenomenon, but the cool kids around me keep wielding human as a term of endearment, in the “favorite human” sense, and they’re also using it to mimic the perspective of their pets, as in, my sweet tabby Lorenzo thinks I’m his human.

Every person who has ever uttered bleep bloop has known the pleasure of imagining themselves as a robot. Part of the fun is thinking about humans as a foreign species, one lower and weaker than your own. Poor little human. So feeble, so bogged down with emotions and technical flaws. This is classic stuff—allusive to Isaac Asimov and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and more—and referring to a human or humans in the second- and third-person is key to the game. But with artificial intelligence finally interacting with us in the form of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, robo-homo relations have crossed a new frontier.

The internet is probably inspiring more human use than any robot, though. Some people have grown fond of calling themselves or others human to acknowledge or scorn feelings of, well, inhumanity that can plague a life online. Get offline and be a human, the smugs chide. I finally went outside today, I had to feel like a human, honest people confess. I met someone in the meatspace Monday and remembered I am actually a human—OK, I made this one up. No one has met a human in the flesh in five years.

Life online is wondrous, but it can also feel cold, remote, and yes, alien. As the internet, smartphones, and A.I. have invaded more and more human hours and days, it’s only natural that we are using human to acknowledge and reckon with people as a species apart from this rapidly ubiquitous technology, and that we’re reaching for a word that emphasizes our physicality and biology. (It’s an instinct behind the trend toward natural, organic, handmade, artisanal everything, too.) The joke nods at our simultaneous familiarity with digital life—a new thing—and estrangement from what’s elemental, a very old thing. This astonishment at biology is funny; comedian John Hodgman uses it when he discusses his “human children.” I’m 30, people around me keep procreating, and some refer to their offspring as “human babies.” This always makes me laugh; it’s either acknowledging that this little baby is a bizarre creature that may as well be a robot or a monster or an alien, or it’s self-deprecating, hinting that we’re just normal folks living digital lives, and oh right, it’s the human baby that’s earthly and uncorrupted by technology. A human, how strange.

Oct. 19 2016 10:50 AM

Inside Locker Rooms and Other Male Spaces

Locker rooms have gotten a bad rap lately; one half-expects a forthcoming tweet from Lockers.com distancing itself from Donald Trump’s comments and avowing its corporate respect for all women.

First, let’s dispense with what should be obvious to anyone positioned outside of a certain basket: Trump’s claims to Billy Bush, if true, constitute an admission of sexual assault; even if they were said in private, with the disclaimer of their being hyperbolic “locker-room talk,” the sentiments and language are inappropriate for a potential president who would have the world’s most powerful bully pulpit; they’re of a piece with Trump’s countless public denigrations of women, despite his protestations that campaigning has changed him; and the same widespread horror should have greeted his equally distasteful opinions of Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, his political opponents, their wives, John McCain, etc.

What I suspect is most shocking to people isn’t Trump’s diction per se, but that his private self (or at least his performative private self) is not, in fact, a toned-down version of his stage persona. I long believed this, or hoped it was true; how else could he have survived in liberal-elite Manhattan social circles for so long?

Oct. 14 2016 11:40 AM

When Did Baked In Become So Baked In?

In what precious little downtime they have this pell-mell campaign, the commentariat is apparently relieving stress in the kitchen, gearing up for holiday sweets, or bingeing on The Great British Bake Off.

Consider a few remarks from last month. On RedState, Jay Caruso observed, “The people showing up to rallies are baked in supporters. They are people who are going to vote for Trump, no questions asked.” Appearing on The PBS News Hour, David Brooks noted that Clinton’s “e-mail story and the other stories are sort of baked in the cake.” The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson’s concluded “the great majority of the electorate’s support appears baked in.” And as a political science graduate student explained to the Wall Street Journal: “Partisan political preferences are so thoroughly baked in that voters may be impossible to sway.” As just these few examples suggest, baked in seems, well, baked into our political analysis these days.

Baked in—an expression that rests on the idea that an ingredient baked into a cake is like a part inextricably incorporated into the whole—isn’t exactly new. Quote investigator Garson O’Toole traces it to Walter Wriston, former head of Citibank, who used it to characterize the inevitable consequences of late 1970s monetary policy: “It’s baked in the cake that we’re going to have a recession in 1980.” Since then, the finance community has taken up baked in to name “projections, expectations, and other news items … already taken into account” in the market, as Investopedia explains. Here’s a recent example from MarketWatch: “Twitter is a stock that is priced to perfection if you consider that an acquisition by Google, if it happens, is already baked in.”

Oct. 13 2016 12:16 PM

How “Locker-Room” Became Synonymous With Dirty Talk

Donald Trump has slandered many people, places, and things during his presidential campaign. Last week, he added one more to the list: the locker room.

“This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago,” Trump said in a statement responding to the 2005 video in which he described the privileges a “star” like him can take with women. (“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”) Under questioning at Sunday’s presidential debate, Trump quintupled down on the locker room: “I don’t think you understood what was—this was locker-room talk. … Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker-room talk. … I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. … It was locker-room talk, as I told you. That was locker-room talk.” On Wednesday, in a New York Times story that described Trump making unwanted sexual advances on two women, the candidate said it again. “I don’t do it. I don’t do it,” he said, referring to, in the Times’ words, “whether he had ever done any of the kissing or groping that he had described on the recording.” He added, “It was locker room talk.”

While athletes and nonathletes alike have noted that techniques for assaulting women are not in fact common locker-room conversation topics, there’s no denying the locker room is synonymous with off-color words and actions. Merriam-Webster defines the adjective locker-room as “of, relating to, or suitable for use in a locker room; especially : of a coarse or sexual nature.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a similar two-part definition, one that specifies which gender is likely to perpetrate locker-roominess: “Designating language, attitudes, or behaviour associated with or considered typical of a (men’s) locker room, esp. in being vulgar or coarse.”

Oct. 13 2016 11:00 AM

Green’s Dictionary of Slang Comes Online

Love the internet or see it as the devil’s playground, there’s one thing for which it seems the dream home: reference. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, all those thick, square tomes of yesteryear, in my case the three volumes that made up the 2010 print edition of Green’s Dictionary of Slang are surely over. The mighty OED, halfway through its revision, would currently need 40 volumes. It’s not going to happen, any more than I or any publisher would consider an expanded print version of my own effort. The monster dictionaries might be good for propping up a misaligned table, but for information? We expect better and thanks to the web those of us who create reference databases can offer it.

When I signed on to write my dictionary in 1998, hard on the heels of its single-volume predecessor, I carefully inserted a clause in the contract: There will be an e-book. Back then no one quite knew what the term meant. For me it was everything that print couldn’t be: It was to be a website on which would be uploaded a facsimile not of the static hardback, but of my dynamic, constantly evolving research database. If I could ask for every word James Joyce uses for sex, Dickens for drunkenness, or Irvine Welsh for heroin, then so should everyone else. If I needed to see the first recorded use of a given term, then it should be openly available. All 1,740 words for sexual intercourse: no sweat. That was the plan.

Oct. 11 2016 9:30 AM

Roger Angell’s Love of the Word Tatterdemalion Is Contagious

On the July 21, 2014, edition of Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” Stefan Fatsis discussed the writer Roger Angell's affection for the word tatterdemalion. Last week, the 95-year-old Angell used the word again. An updated transcript of the recording is below, and you can listen to Fatsis’ original essay here.

In 2014, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote a glowing profile of the incomparable baseball writer—incomparable writer, really—Roger Angell, who was finally being honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Angell was 93 years old and, we learned, still showing up an hour or two a day at the New Yorker offices to peruse fiction submissions or write the occasional piece about baseball or aging or, let’s be blunt, death. His most recent effort—and with Angell they never seem like effort, but of course they’re Herculean, each and every one—was a brief eulogy for the bald, bowling ball-bellied baseball lifer Don Zimmer. It started thusly: “Don Zimmer, who died yesterday at eighty-three, was an original Met and an original sweetie pie. His sixty-six years in baseball were scripted by Disney and produced by Ken Burns.”

Oct. 10 2016 9:30 AM

The Other, Other F-Word

Donald Trump has a long history of disparaging women, but his recent comments on how Alicia Machado “gained a massive amount of weight” have sparked a national conversation on fat-shaming. Research, not to mention the lived experience of so many individuals, documents the serious damage weight-based abuse and prejudice can wreak, from clinical depression to employment discrimination. Our increased awareness of, and, if current discourse is any measure, cultural sensitivity to the effects of fat-shaming thus raises the linguistic question: Is fat becoming a swear word?

Opinions vary on whether slurs, such as fat, behave in the same ways swear words like fuck or shit do. But in his new book What the F, professor Benjamin Bergen views profanity more broadly as the taboo vocabulary a culture deems offensive. He organizes this vocabulary according to a useful heuristic: the “Holy Fucking Shit Nigger Principle.” Holy comprises swears that concern the sacred, fucking the sexual, shit the bodily, and nigger, the derogation of social groups. Different cultures find these different categories more or less taboo: Some of the strongest swears in Quebecois, as linguist John McWhorter observed in an interview with Bergen, favor the holy vein; in Taiwanese, it’s fucking.

Sept. 28 2016 10:51 AM

In Praise of Brangelexit

Angelina Jolie handed Brad Pitt the divorce papers and Twitter handed us #Brangelexit: the exit of the supercouple Brangelina. But for as much as it may make language-peevers and gossip-scolds bristle, this coinage doesn’t deserve our judgment like some botched Botox job. It should get a Hollywood star.

Let’s first admire the construction. Like a rare lexical double rainbow, Brangelexit is a portmanteau, or word blend, built on another portmanteau: It joins exit with Brangelina, which, as superfans have drooled over for the past decade, marries together Brad and Angelina. This construction shows off the wonders and complexity of English compounding as well as our incredible talent for so fluently decoding such Neapolitan neologisms as Brangelexit. The word also strides down the red carpet—that is, of the tongue—much more gracefully than an early competitor that turned heads on social media, #BrexPitt, for all its phonetic, door-slamming force of “Gather up your belongings and get out, Brad.”


Also unlike BrexPitt, Brangelexit preserves that key portmanteau, Brangelina, which came to embody all that is “extravagant, beautiful, sexy, romantic, exotic, adventurous,” as Vanessa Díaz explained in the Atlantic. Just as Brangelina signified something bigger than Brad and Angelina, so Brangelexit conveys the loss of something more than their high-profile marriage. It’s not just the breakup of Brangelina: It’s the breakup of the idea of Brangelina.

And Brangelexit isn’t just another vapid contrivance or hashtag hot take. It’s an informed and worldly lexeme, one that subscribes to, and can boast it actually reads, the Economist. The compound’s -exit alludes to Brexit, Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, the summer blockbuster of both news and Twitter wordplay. This makes Brangelexit a triple threat of glamor, cosmopolitanism, and intelligence, not to mention that the ex- in exit delivers the added punch of the ex- in ex-husband.

Who says celebrity gossip is simply a waste of time? Brangelexit is doing English word formation a valuable service. It’s proving the utility of -exit to convey “a sudden, unexpected, or premature departure” outside of political contexts (cf. Grexit, Czexit). This further establishes -exit as a so-called libfix, a kind of freed-up, word-forming element. It may even be generating a corollary meaning all its own: “the supercouple split.” Should George and Amal Clooney’s marriage take a bad turn, God forbid, we might be headed towards a Gamalexit. That’s a tad inelegant, but Brangelexit still opens up -exit for new uses.

Well-formed, rich in meaning, allusive, and potentially useful, Brangelexit has its lexical luster. But like so many word coinages, and celebrity marriages, the word will likely burn out. Its 15 minutes of fame will come and go, its hashtag will be cached online like some quaint memorabilia, its Hollywood star walked over by so many unknowing feet. In a year that gave us serious political realities like Brexit, Brangelexit is ultimately a trivial bit of wordplay. And yet it’s precisely the frivolity of Brangelexit that offers some much-needed escapism amid an over-newsed, over-Trumped 2016—just as, at least for the starstruck among us, the idealized romance and lifestyle represented by Brangelina spread some glitter over our tedious, workaday lives.

Sept. 27 2016 9:30 AM

Weird’s Worth

About 15 years ago, an independent bookseller in Texas went to battle against the specter of mega-bookstore invasion. His weapon of choice was something a purveyor of books knew best: a word. And the word was weird.

KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD was coined by the librarian Red Wassenich while on the phone with a local radio station. But the phrase was adopted when Steve Bercu, owner of the Austin, Texas, bookstore Book People, needed a slogan to rally objection to a planned Borders store a few blocks away. Bercu convinced John Kunz, the owner of nearby Waterloo Records, to join the keep-it-local cause. They printed 5,000 bumper stickers urging citizens to KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD and flanked the message with their business logos. The stickers flew off the shelves. And the Borders bookstore was never built in downtown Austin.