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  • Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker

    A literal paradox: "literally" generally means 'figuratively'

    The English language is full of paradoxes, like the fact that "literally" pretty much always means 'figuratively.' Other words mean their opposites as well--"scan" means both 'read closely' and 'skim.' "Restive" originally meant 'standing still' but now it often means 'antsy.' "Dust" can mean 'to sprinkle with dust' and 'to remove the dust from something.' "Oversight" means both looking closely at something and ignoring it. "Sanction" sometimes means 'forbid,' sometimes, 'allow.' And then there's "ravel," which means 'ravel, or tangle' as well as its opposite, 'unravel,' as when Macbeth evokes "Sleepe that knits up the rauel'd Sleeue of Care."

  • A million English words, or only 600,000? Either way, it's a language packed with more words than you'll ever need

    Paul Payack, professional word-counter and the founder of Global Language Monitor and, claims that someone coins an English word every 98 minutes, which seems pretty fast until we consider that during the word-coining frenzy of the 1590s, when the pace of life was slower, about 10,000 new words popped up every year.  If Shakespeare and his contemporaries never slept, that comes to a neologism every 52 minutes.  

    With more than 326 million native speakers of English today, and only 2 million in 1600, today's neologism-per-person rate is only a fraction of what it was 400 years ago.  Given our perception that the pace of life has increased dramatically since the Renaissance, this suggests that while there are in fact more words in English now than there used to be, we have a lot less time to coin them (neologism, a word, coined in France in the 1730s and borrowed by English in the 1770s, meaning ‘a new word’; Renaissance, a mid-19th century word meaning the European revival of arts and letters of the 14th - 16th centuries). 

  • A modest proposal: Don't make English official, ban it instead

    Once again the House of Representatives is considering legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Supporters of the measure say that English forms the glue that keeps America together. They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth.

  • A new pronoun. Again?

    There’s a new gender-neutral pronoun in town.  Hu – an epicene replacement for he and shehas been in the news, but so far it’s not on many people’s tongues, and while hu has appeared in print, it’s not likely to catch on any time soon.  

    Most of our pronouns are gender-neutral: I, you, we,they, me, our, them, us,it.  But there are two exceptions: he and she.  Normally this is not a problem, since he and she are incredibly useful words.  But sometimes the lack of an epicene third-person pronoun causes us to produce sentences like these:  

    (1)  Everyone loves his mother.

    (2)  Everyone loves their mother.

    (3)  Everyone loves his or her mother.

  • A panda walks into a bar, or, why language self-help books help nobody

    Americans are convinced that theres a right and a wrong way to write something. We gleefully point out other peoples language mistakes, though many of us secretly worry that given half a chance, wed use who when we should be using whom, or put the comma in the wrong place. So we buy books to find the answer.

  • Portrait of the artist

    A portrait of the selfie

    Oxford Dictionaries has picked selfie as its 2013 Word of the Year (WOTY). Announcing your word of the year in mid-November guarantees a lot of attention from journalists and late-night TV comics, but it also suggests that not much is going to happen, linguistically, in the six weeks that remain in 2013. The Web of Language won’t make its annual WOTY pick until late December, and the American Dialect Society makes its announcement in early January. Nevertheless, judging from the attention it has gotten, selfie seems a good choice.

  • A spelling reformer writes to Mr. Lincoln

    In 1859, a Methodist minister named A. B. Pikard wrote two letters to former senator Abraham Lincoln -- Lincoln had lost his seat to Stephen Douglas in 1858 -- protesting the inhumanity of the fugitive slave laws. Its no surprise to find a northern abolitionist minister opposing the return of runaway slaves to the masters theyd escaped. But a minister who uses the phonetic alphabet to argue that the practice is both immoral and unconstitutional, well that is unusual.

  • Afghan government reaches impasse: can't decide whether to use the Pashtu or the Dari word for 'university'

    This week, as Afghanistan continued to outpace Iraq in the two countries' olympic race toward self-destruction, the Loya Jirga, or Afghan parliament, debated whether to use pohantun, the Pashtu word for 'university,' or daneshgah, the Dari word, in the new higher education law. Delegates also argued over which of the nation's two official languages should be used in class. 

    Pashtu, the majority language, is spoken in most of the country by the Pashtun, the traditional rulers of Afghanistan. Dari, related to Farsi, or Persian, is used mostly by those in the country's northwest who live closer to the Iran border.

    A reporter for a state-run newspaper was recently fined for using the Dari word for 'university' instead of the Pashtu one which is on Kabul University’s official seal.

  • All bloggers are liars

    The Cretan philosopher Epimenides is famous for his paradoxical statement, All Cretans are liars. The paradox is pretty clear. If hes from Crete and tells you that Cretans lie, then his statement is itself a lie. But if hes lying when he says that Cretans are liars, then.... As Gilbert and Sullivan put it, a paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox.

  • NDTV (New Delhi TV) reports on festivities at the Goddess English temple being constructed in the village of Bankagaon, UP. The three-foot high statue of the goddess, modeled on the Statue of Liberty, wears a floppy hat instead of a crown and carries the Indian Constitution in her left hand. Her right hand holds aloft a fountain pen instead of a torch. The statue's base is in the form of a personal computer.

    All hail goddess English?

    Global English may be about to go celestial. A political activist in India wants the country's poorest caste to improve its status by worshipping the English language, and to start off he's building a temple to Goddess English in the obscure village of Bankagaon, near Lakhimpur Khiri in Uttar Pradesh.

  • 1984 can still be viewed on Australian Kindles the copyright has expired there, and in other parts of the world as well

    Amazon Fail 2.0: Bookseller's Big Brother removes Orwell's Big Brother from Kindles everywhere

    In a move worthy of George Orwell's Big Brother, sent its thought police into Kindles everywhere to erase copies of "1984" and "Animal Farm."

  • Amazon Sales Rank: I'm being outsold by a book on tattoos

    My book "A Better Pencil" came out this month from Oxford University Press. It's not my first book, but it's the first one I've published since the internet went viral. Because my book is about the impact of computers and the 'Net on how we read and write, I checked the World Wide Web to see how the book was doing.

  • Speak the language of your flag

    America’s War on Language

    2014 is the centennial of World War I, time to take a closer look at one of its offshoots, America's little-known War on Language

    In April, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. In addition to sending troops to fight in Europe, Americans waged war on the language of the enemy at home. German was the second most commonly-spoken language in America, and banning it seemed the way to stop German spies cold. Plus, immigrants had always been encouraged to switch from their mother tongue to English to signal their assimilation and their acceptance of American values. Now speaking English became a badge of patriotism as well, a way to prove that you were not a spy.

    The war on language was fought on two fronts, one legal, the other, in the schools. Its impact was immediate and long-lasting. German was the target, but the other “foreign” tongues suffered collateral damage. Immigrant languages in America went into decline, and there was a precipitous drop in the study of foreign languages in US schools as well. 

  • Helping MI6 with their inquiries

    An inconvenient tweet: it's against the law in England

    At least six people have been arrested in England for tweets about the recent terrorist killing of a British soldier, and they’re only the latest tweeters to be punished because some tweets, in England, are against the law. In 2012, 653 Brits faced criminal charges because they crossed the line in one way or another while using social media.

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Espionage, obscenity, and fighting words are not protected, along with certain kinds of commercial speech. You can’t conspire with the enemy, shout fire in a crowded theater, lie about a product you are selling, or broadcast obscenity or profanity over the airwaves during hours when children might be in the audience. Other than that, anyone can say just about anything online or off, and the law will look the other way.

    But England has no free-speech guarantees. The English Communications Act makes it illegal for the 6.6 million active tweeters in the U.K, to tweet anything grossly offensive, obscene, or menacing. But it’s also against British law to send any electronic communication “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.” In England, it is illegal to send an inconvenient tweet.

  • An M.A. in Facebook: now you can earn academic credit and avoid schoolwork at the same time

    Birmingham City University, in England, is offering a Masters degree in Facebook and Twitter. Students can now pay £4000 (about $6000) to earn credit for doing what they normally do to avoid schoolwork.