The Web of Language

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  • Post on Facebook, go directly to jail

    Post on Facebook, go directly to jail?

    Can a Facebook post land you in jail? When is a threat a threat, and when is it just good, clean fun, or even art? If you write a song about killing your spouse, but you haven’t killed them, at least not yet, will the First Amendment protect you from prosecution? These are some of the questions that the U.S. Supreme Court considers as it decides the case of Elonis v. United States.

  • Red grouper: tangible or intangible?

    Can you touch a fish? A fisherman says you can’t.

    Can you touch a fish? One fisherman says that you can’t. John Yates, the ex-captain of a fishing boat, was convicted under a law that makes it illegal to destroy records, documents, or tangible objects in order to impede a federal investigation, and he’s asking the United States Supreme Court to reverse that conviction because fish aren’t “tangible objects.” He ought to know; he catches them for a living. 

  • 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. 

  • Europe expands the power of the delete key

    The right to be forgotten

    The internet is a place where, without even trying, words achieve immortality. Once posted, even the most frivolous thoughts are automatically copied, archived, and indexed. To be sure, the web can be ephemeral. Studies show that much online information is short-lived, with up to eighty-five percent disappearing within a year. And we’ve all had the frustration of failing to find something that we read online just the week before. 

    But words do have permanence. Back in the first century BCE, the Roman poet Horace advised young writers not to put their words out into the world too soon: nescit vox missa reverti, ‘the word, once sent, can never be recalled.’ Today that advice would be, 'an email once sent . . . .' There is simply no “undo.” Horace 2.0 would warn, ‘The internet never forgets.’

    But a recent decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) tries to do just that, make the internet forget, because, according to the Court, everyone has the right to be forgotten.

  • Thanks to Facebook, “Like” just means, “Uh-huh”

    Like has a new meaning. The word used to mean ‘feel affection for,’ ‘take pleasure in,’ or ‘enjoy.’ Now, thanks to Facebook, like can also mean, “Yes, I read what you wrote,” or just a noncommital “uh-huh.” 

  • My birthday word is "gobbledygook," the perfect gift for a writer

    The Oxford English Dictionary has an app that lets you find your birthday word: a word that entered English the month and year you were born. My birthday word is gobbledygook. The perfect gift for any writer.

  • fMRI of the lectulus tuberosus, the  brain's passivity center

    Humans hardwired to use the passive voice

    The human brain is hardwired to prefer the passive voice. A definite predilection for passive constructions has been found by a team of neuroscientists led by Elaine Bao Weiss and W. Strang-Ng, postdoctoral researchers at Cornell University’s Neurosyntax Imaging Laboratory. 

    “This was totally unexpected,” Bao Weiss said of the findings. “Generations of writers have been advised to prefer the active to the passive, but that’s not how the brain works.”

  • Tim Berners-Lee's first web browser was called WorldWideWeb

    Is there free Wi-Fi? The Web @25

    The World Wide Web turns 25 this week. On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper called “Information Management: A Proposal” that invented the web. Berners-Lee was prompted to do this by the need to make things more efficient at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) atom smasher where he worked. The complexity of projects, combined with frequent staff turnover and general human inefficiency, meant that things got lost. Large-scale experiments were difficult to coordinate, files hard to find, information, sometimes, just plain gone. As a result, work had to be repeated and atoms resmashed, sometimes more than once.

    To fix this, Berners-Lee sketched a non-hierarchical system of files stored on linked computers. Anybody could access any file, any time, or jump from file to file, not following predetermined pathways, but in any order. The system would be open and unregulated, and since the goal was to share information, not hide it, Berners-Lee didn’t care that much about locking-up the data or protecting intellectual property:

    [C]opyright enforcement and data security…are of secondary importance….information exchange is still more important than secrecy.

    Berners-Lee initially called his system “the Mesh.” He later changed that to the World Wide Web, a name which stuck. It took a couple of years for the web to leap off the page and become an actual information storehouse. CERN’s first web site went live in 1991. Before the decade ended, the web had become indispensable, not just to atomic scientists, but to everyone.

  • Take the National Grammar Day Quiz

    Once again it’s National Grammar Day, a day when ordinary citizens grab red pens and correct other people’s grammar (they correct spelling on Dictionary Day, punctuation on National Punctuation Day, and pronunciation on Talk Like a Pirate Day).

    Even if you celebrated National Grammar day last year or in 2010, you must celebrate it again today. Most important, or most importantly, if you live in a state that is adopting the Common Core, you are required to take the National Grammar Day Quiz today. If you took the National Grammar Quiz in 2011, you must retake it, because those scores are no longer valid.

  • Facebook multiplies genders but offers users the same three tired pronouns

    For years Facebook has allowed users to mark their relationship status as “single,” “married,” and “it’s complicated.” They could identify as male or female or keep their gender private. Now, acknowledging that gender can also be complicated, the social media giant is letting users choose among male, female, and 56 additional custom genders, including agender, cis, gender variant, intersex, trans person, and two-spirit.

    Facebook users now have so many gender choices that a single drop-down box can’t hold them all. And they’re free to pick more than one. But to refer to this set of 58 genders Facebook offers only three tired pronouns: he, she, and they. A Facebook user can now identify as a genderqueer, neutrois, cis male, androgynous other, but Facebook friends can only wish him, her, or them a happy birthday.

  • Report fraud, waste, or abuse

    Nobody likes a whistleblower, wrayer, snitch, narker, denunciator, quadruplator, or emphanist

    law firm that specializes in defending whistleblowers has started a petition on to persuade dictionaries and thesauruses to ditch their derogatory synonyms for whistleblower in favor of positive terms:

    [W]histleblowers are increasingly stepping forward on behalf of the public good. Yet that old school-yard mentality of “nobody likes a snitch” persists. It's high time for a change.

    The lawyers want the definers of English to replace negative synonyms like betrayer, fink, and snitch with uplifting ones like watchdog, truthteller, and fraud-buster. All these negatives “mean fewer people coming forward to protect us when they see something wrong.” And that, in turn, means fewer whistleblowers fired, disciplined, or fleeing to Russia, which equals fewer clients for the firm.

  • Plain English: It’s the Law

    In 1998 Pres. Bill Clinton sent a memorandum to federal agencies telling them "the Federal Government's writing must be in plain language." Twelve years later the plain language policy became the law. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 seeks “to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly,” and requires federal agencies to “use plain writing in every covered document of the agency that the agency issues or substantially revises.” Legislators could have said all that more clearly, with fewer words, and in the active voice, but they felt no need to follow the plain language guidelines the law calls for.

  • John Hancock wrote the biggest and most famous signature ever

    On National Handwriting Day we celebrate handwriting because it’s no longer important

    Once again it’s National Handwriting Day. The Romans had Carve on a Clay Tablet Day, Gutenberg had Paint on Papyrus Day, we have National Handwriting Day. That’s because, while writing remains important, handwriting is an obsolete technology worth remembering only once a year.

  • Ban selfie or make it word of the year?

    Banning words for the new year

    In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions like quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, each January brings new calls to ban words, the linguistic equivalent of losing weight. . . . Instead of learn a new word every day, the New Year’s resolution of this crowd is ban a new word every day. This year’s banned words include selfie, twerk, and hashtag.


    The phrase of the year for 2013 is "invasion of privacy"

    Peeping Toms, reporters, and door-to-door salesmen have always done it. The Stasi, the SAVAK, and the KGB were notorious for doing it. Photographers do it. So do hackers, identity thieves, and wearers of X-ray Specs. Employers and school principals see it as a normal part of their job. But now Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ, and the DGSE in France are doing it as well. And that’s why, thanks in part to Edward Snowden’s leaks, which technically invaded government privacy to expose the widespread practice of invading individual privacy, the phrase of the year for 2013 is invasion of privacy.