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  • “We come in peace,” or, how to talk to space aliens

    With increasing frequency we’re seeing headlines trumpeting “earthlike planet discovered”—for example, this announcement from NASA, or this, this, or this. These worlds may be inhabited by intelligent life forms, and that raises the question, “How on earth (as it were) are we going to talk to them?”

  • When you ask people for the words they hate, don’t complain when they tell you

    On August 24, Oxford Dictionaries launched a campaign to get people all over the world to report their least favorite English word. The goal was to create a global map of hated English words. Two days later, after more than 14,000 responses, Oxford suspended its #OneWordMap project because of “severe misuse.” The problem? Apparently, when you ask people for the words they hate, they tell you.

  • Going native: Brexit prompts linguistic cleansing

    Along with the predictable economic and political fallout, Brexit—the UK decision to leave the European Union—is generating a wave of linguistic purism. Well before the June "leave-or-remain" referendum, Germany’s president suggested making English the EU’s official language, as an incentive for the UK to remain in Europe. But right after British voters narrowly approved an EU exit, French politicians urged the EU to drop English as one of its twenty-four official languages, and Danuta Hübner, the head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, warned that the group’s charter might require dropping English, even though it’s the EU's dominant language.

    And now, a British group wants to erase French words from English passports.

  • Did Donald Trump just threaten the president?

    At a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, after warning the crowd that his rival, Hillary Clinton, planned to abolish the constitutional right to keep and bear arms, Republican candidate Donald Trump appeared to threaten Hillary Clinton’s life if she’s elected president:

    "By the way, and if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her [Supreme Court] judges, nothing you can do, folks, Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know."

    Trump’s rhetoric is frequently violent. He’s threatened protesters at rallies and encouraged chants of “Lock her up!” directed at Clinton. But since most people who drop the slightest hint of violence toward the president wind up in jail, this time the question in the air was, “Did Trump’s call for ‘Second Amendment solutions’ actually break the law?”

  • Emoji don't kill people . . .

    Apple is replacing its gun emoji with a water pistol, and a lot of people intent on clinging to their guns and their religion are up in arms.

    Responding to a campaign to disarm the iPhone, Apple will drop the “traditional” NRA-approved gunmetal grey revolver in its next iOS emoji update, replacing it with a colorful green squirt gun. The shooter's even tipped with an orange muzzle, to let law enforcement know that it’s not a real gun.

  • Trump University’s plagiarism policy

    Apparently Trump University had no plagiarism policy, because, when Melania Trump addressed the Republican National Convention Monday night, she copied several sentences from Michelle Obama’s 2008 “First Lady” speech. Initial responses to Ms. Trump’s speech were positive, but shortly afterwards the plagiarism came to light, and the Republican Convention got the dose of show biz Donald Trump had promised.

  • Politics and the English Language: 2016 Primary Edition

  • On National Grammar Day, stop acting like the earth is flat

    March 4th is National Grammar Day, time to remember that language, like the earth, IS NOT FLAT.

    On National Grammar Day, it’s traditional to pick up a red marker and go forth (it’s March 4th, get it?) to correct other people’s grammar, deleting those unnecessary apostrophe’s and turning ‘10 items or less’ into ‘fewer’ at the grocery checkout. But that would be wrong. Because language, like the earth, is not flat.

  • On the birthday of the (legal) generic masculine, let's declare it legally dead

    Today is the 145th birthday of the generic masculine, or to be more specific, it’s the 145th birthday of the legal generic masculine. On Feb. 25, 1871, Congress passed “the Dictionary Act,” which said, in part, that in all federal laws, “words importing the masculine gender may be applied to females” (Statutes at Large, 41st Congress, session III, ch. 71, p. 431).

    Before you light all those candles, remember that the generic masculine originated long before its legal birthday, and it’s not even English. It comes from Latin, and Latin is dead. Also, the generic masculine in English was supposed to be gender inclusive, but at best it only grudgingly accepted women. More often than not, it ignored them. And all too often it excluded women altogether from the protection of the law, as well as from most everything else, which is why English speakers don’t use the generic masculine any more. So maybe we should celebrate its birthday by finally declaring it legally dead?

  • It’s the birthday of a pronoun: heer, himer, hiser, born OTD in 1912

    Today's the birthday of a pronoun. On January 6, 1912, Chicago School Superintendent Ella Flagg Young began her talk at a meeting of principals saying, "A principal should so conduct his’er school that all pupils are engaged in something that is profitable to him’er" (Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 January, 1912, p. 7).

    According to the Tribune, the principals gasped. Ignoring murmurings from the audience, Young continued, "I don’t see how one can map out the work for the fifth or sixth grade when he’er has always done the work in the grades above or below."

    Young then explained that she had coined a set of what she called duo-personal pronouns, and she continued to use them throughout her speech. The principals reacted positively to these gender-neutral, nonbinary alternatives, resolving to introduce them in their schools.

  • Banishing the words you hate won’t help

    So, every new year brings a new round of word-shaming in the form of the banished words list. The list is put out by the PR department of a minor midwestern university, and it’s widely reported in the media. You can google the list, if you haven’t already, but don’t waste your time: banning words doesn’t improve language.

  • The politics of "he." Literally.

    There’s been a lot of talk lately about what pronouns to use for persons whose gender is unknown, complicated, or irrelevant. Options include singular they and invented, common-gender pronouns. Each has its defenders and its critics. Then there’s the universally indefensible generic he. We avoid it today because it’s sexist, but although generic he was the form approved by many early grammarians, there were some who objected to it. The gender politics of he has always been complicated, and it probably shouldn’t have become generic in the first place. But the politics of he turned literal in the United States when women sought, and won, the vote.

  • Singular they is word of the year

    Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.

  • Things are looking up :) -- It's Dictionary Day

    October 16 is Dictionary Day, Noah Webster’s 257th birthday. To celebrate the big day, I googled “dictionary” and got back 484 million hits in 0.25 seconds. Typing in “google” got me close to 7.4 billion hits, proving, in case you needed proof, that Google is bigger than the dictionary.

    The first four hits for google were links to the company, and the fifth linked to Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay, “Is Google making us stupid?” If there's a definition of google in the remaining 7,379,999,995 hits, I'm too stupid to find itBut a faster way to look up the meaning is to go to an online dictionary.

  • Some notes on singular they

    Singular they is in the news again, this time not simply as an alternative to the obsolescent generic masculine he, or the cumbersome he or she, but in discussions of what pronouns to use for trans or gender-nonconforming individuals. Although the high-profile Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner have publicly opted for the feminine pronouns she, her, and hers as they transition, not everyone feels included in the traditional male-female binary, and some people wish to avoid gender marking altogether, so they choose invented gender-neutral pronouns like hir and zie, or singular they, their, and them.