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  • Dictionaries are trending

    When people don’t understand something in the news, they no longer wait for the Sunday talk shows to tell them what it means, or the next issue of Time, or even the Daily Show. With just a click, they look it up in the dictionary.

  • Is the mother of all bombs sexist?

    “Is the mother of all bombs sexist?” That’s what the reporter who called me wanted to know. I couldn’t take that call, so I missed his deadline, and anyway, I didn’t have a sound bite, which is what reporters always want. But here’s my answer: “Yes. But sexism’s not its biggest problem.”

  • The Frozen Trucker v. The Bolognese Bloodletter: Why we read law sensibly, not literally

    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is catching well-deserved shade for favoring employers in legal disputes. As he began his Senate confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court, which Gorsuch hopes to join, unanimously overturned his decision siding with a school board against an autistic pupil in a special education dispute. But the Gorsuch opinion that interests me most, because it involves dictionaries, is “The Case of the Frozen Trucker.”

  • Let's eat grandpa: Commas are not a matter of life and death, even in the law

    There’s a pedant at my university who likes to stand on the Quad, wave a grammar book at passers-by, and warn them that a comma can mean the difference between life and death. He or she points an accusing finger at some poor soul and makes them fix the commas in their term paper.

    You’d better get those commas right, pedants like to warn, because “Commas save lives,” an eternal truth they illustrate with the life-and-death Parable of the Dinner Guest: 

        (1) Let’s eat, grandpa.

        (2) Let’s eat grandpa.

    Don’t let the pedants sucker you with their scary comma talk. There is no one in their right mind who reads the second example as an invitation to cannibalism. 

  • You lie: Dictionaries find truth in a post-truth world

    It’s a fact: politicians lie, and the news media exposes their lies. It may seem surprising, but lately dictionaries, not the media, have become the guardians of facts and the exposers of lies.

  • The oath of office in the post-truth presidency

    When it came time for Chief Justice John Roberts to administer the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, to use the language of political euphemism, mistakes were made. Roberts and Obama stumbled over mis-timed phrasing. Then, trying to recover, the Chief Justice misspoke the words that are specified in the Constitution. Following Roberts’ lead, the president-elect also made mistakes in wording. This led to a do-over the next day. The oath of office could take on a whole new life in the post-truth presidency.

  • The word of the year for 2016 is too terrible to name

    Of course it is. 2016 is the year that Britain declared its independence from the European Union—or at least it declared its intention to declare its independence. It’s the year the far right surged in France, Germany, and Austria, not to mention Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland.

    So it goes without saying that the Web of Language choice for Word of the Year for 2016 is too terrible to name.

  • Should ze be in the dictionary?

    Gender-neutral pronouns were in the news again this Fall, as more universities gave students the option of picking their own pronouns. (For last year’s university pronoun news, click here). In addition to the traditional binary he and she, options may include invented words like ze, jhe, sie, and hie, along with singular they. “Ask me about my pronouns” has become a way to recognize gender nonconformity.

    Not everybody likes these invented pronouns, but a lot of people are using them. The question isn't whether ze should be banned or promoted--that's something people will decide for themselves. The question is, Should ze be in the dictionary?

  • “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