Sunday, September 13, 2009

September 13: New Words for People Day

Today is the anniversary of the appearance of a new word in a letter to the editor in The Tampa Tribune on September 13, 1995. The word is gater, meaning a person who lives in a gated community, is an example of one of many neologisms that pop up each year to describe people in new situations in the ever-changing world in which we live.

The website Word Spy, founded by Paul McFedries, searches out all kinds of new words and phrases that have appeared in print but not yet in the dictionary. McFedries site documents hundreds of the neologisms, several of which are defined beginning with: "A person who . . . ." Here are a few examples:

-mucus trooper (MYOO.kus troo.pur) n. An employee with a cold or the flu who insists on showing up for work.

-salad dodger (SAL.ud daw.jur) n. An overweight person; a person who shuns healthy foods.

-thresholder (THRESH.hohl.dur) n. A young person on the threshold of adulthood, especially one who is anxious or depressed about leaving home or taking on adult responsibilities.

-zinester (ZEEN.stur) n. A person who writes, edits, and publishes a zine; a person who reads only zines (1).

Today's Challenge: A Visit to the -er
The words below are all examples of neologisms that refer to different types of people. See if you can match up each word with the definitions below.


1. A person who donates five percent of their income to charity and/or spends five hours per week doing volunteer work.

2. The person for whom a ghostwriter writes a book.

3. A fastidious, detail-oriented person.

4. An adult son or daughter, particularly one aged 30 or more, who still lives with his or her parents. From kids in parents' pockets eroding retirement savings.

5. A person who uses phrases or quotes that were coined by other people.

6. A person who uses a wireless Internet connection without permission.

7. A chess player of limited skill.

8. A person who registers one or more Internet domain names based on the most common typographical errors that a user might commit when entering a company's registered trademark name (e.g., (1).

Quote of the Day: One company, Amsterdam-based, has a global network of more than 7,000 "springspotters" who troll their own neighborhoods and report back which trends, products and behaviors are brewing. --Shawna Vanness

Answers: 1. fiver 2. fleshwriter 3. i-dotter 4. kipper 5. phrasemoner 6. piggybacker 7. woodpusher 8. typosquatter

1 -

Saturday, September 12, 2009

September 12: Suffix Day

On this day in 1896 the first Olympic marathon was run in Athens, Greece. The origin of the word marathon comes from Greek legend. According to the story, a Greek foot-soldier Pheidippides was sent as a messenger from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persian army. As he approached Athens, having run a distance of nearly 25 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died. He did not die, however, without completing his mission; with his last gasp he uttered “niki,” the Greek word for victory.

Incidentally, the word niki is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of victory: Nike – a name that would later become the trademark of a running shoe manufacturer in Oregon.

The word marathon evolved over time to mean more than just a long distance race. Beginning in the 1920s, dance marathons became a fad. The term dance marathon then became blended to become dancethon. Later –thon became a popular suffix for describing a variety of activities that people do for long periods. According to Geoffrey Nunberg in The Way We Talk Now, the first telethon was held in 1949. Milton Berle spent 16 hours on air, and one of his guests was a young comedian who would raise the telethon to an art form, Jerry Lewis. Telethons were followed by pledgeathons, callathons, bikeathons, bowlathons, walkathons, and swimathons (1).

Word of the Day: Toponym
Marathon is an example of a toponym: a word that began as a specific place name (a proper noun) and evolved into a common noun. Like the word marathon, many words we use in English have attachments to specific places and events from the past, such as afghan, bikini, bourbon, and angora.

Quote of the Day: The starting line of the New York City marathon is kind of a giant time bomb behind you about to go off. It is the most spectacular start in sport. –Bill Rogers

1 – Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Way We Talk Now. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: Words from 9/11 Day

The simple mention of the term 9/11 immediately evokes images of smoke rising from the Twin Towers. On this day we remember the attack of 2001 and the 2,752 lives that were lost.

Just as the date and the images associated with it have changed us, the events of 9/11 and the post-9/11 world have also changed our language.

Not since December 7, 1941 and Pearl Harbor has a term so quickly entered the English lexicon. And 9/11 was not a term that would disappear soon; it was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by the American Dialect Society in 2001, meaning lexicographers predict that the term will be used long past its origin (1).

In addition other terms have entered the common lexicon since 9/11, such as:

Axis of Evil
Shock and awe
WMD (2).

Today's Challenge: New World - New Words
The definitions below are for two-word expressions that have become a part of our everyday vocabulary since 9/11. Some are new -- others were around before 9/11, but have taken on added meaning since the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the events that followed it.

1. The United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.

2. Site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

3. Plainclothes law-enforcement officers on airplanes.

4. Alternative name for French fries promoted when France resisted military force against Iraq.

5. British national Richard Reid tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic airplane in December 2001 with explosives in his shoes.

6. The prison noted for mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces.

7. A conventional bomb that disperses radioactive material.

8. Massive collecting of information that is then sifted for specific information.

Word of the Day: asymmetrical warfare
This noun is a neologism, which according to Word Spy means, “Warfare in which the combatants have markedly different military capabilities and the weaker side uses non-standard tactics such as terrorism.”

Quote of the Day: America is not like a blanket -- one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt -- many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. --Henry M. Jackson

Answers. 1. Patriot Act 2. Ground Zero 3. air marshal 4. freedom fries 5. shoe bomber 6. Abu Ghraib 7. Dirty Bomb 8. Data mining

1 -Paul McFedries. Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

2 - Latazio, George. "New World Requires New Vocabulary." The Seattle Times. 10 Sept. 2006, A15.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 10: Sibboleth Day

On this date in the year 2000, the television show The West Wing won nine Emmys, including outstanding drama. In doing so, the show broke the record for most Emmys earned for a show in its first season -- the record was previously held by "ER" and "Hill Street Blues." The West Wing continued its successful run for six more seasons, ending in May 2006. In each of its seven seasons it received an Emmy nomination for outstanding drama, winning a total of four times.

One West Wing episode in particular is of special interest to language lovers. It was called "Shibboleth" and appeared in the show's second season.

In the episode President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) must determine whether a group of Chinese stowaways should be given asylum in the U.S. or be returned to China. One key to his decision is determining whether their claim to be Christians is true or just a ploy to stay in the U.S. When President Bartlett tells his staff that he will find out the truth by employing a shibboleth, everyone in the room is puzzled (1).

A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password, where a person's pronunciation or language usage indicates his or her background. It originates in a story from the Old Testament in the Book of Judges, Chapter 12. In the story two tribes, the Ephraimite and the Gileadites, are at war. The Gileadites use the word shibboleth (which means "ear of corn") as a password to tell friend from foe. In ancient Hebrew dialects some groups pronounced it with an 'sh' sound while others pronounced it with an 's.' Using the shibboleth, the Gileadites where able to identify and kill the Ephraimites, who did not have an 'sh' sound in their language.

President Barlett's use of a shibboleth is probably more cultural than linguistic. In his interrogation of the Chinese Christian representative, he asks questions about the group's religious practices and knowledge of the Bible. He comes to the realization that the Chinese are true Christians when they turn the tables on him, saying that faith, not knowledge, is the true test of the Christian faith: "Faith is the only Shibboleth."

Shibboleths used in these kind of life or death circumstances are rare today; however, pronunciation and word choice can be an especially telling marker of a person's background. The writers of The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) attempt to document the varieties of American English in the different regions of the U.S. Because "standard" English is most common in written language, the bulk of regional differences are found in oral language.

The following are some of the regional terms recorded by DARE:

-While most people recognize poached eggs, dropped eggs is a regional term used for these eggs in New England.

-The game of hopscotch is sometimes referred to as Sky Blue in Chicago, Illinois.

-In the Gulf States and Texas, a chill or shiver is known as a rigor (3).

Today's Challenge: From Shibboleth to Shining
Shibboleth Visit the website for PBS's series Do You Speak American? and take their quiz on regional terms for food, health, and recreational terms used throughout the U.S. Are there any special regional words or expressions that characterize the people who live in your region of the country?

Word of the Day: opprobrium
This word, which originates from Latin, is a noun that means “disgrace arising from exceedingly shameful conduct; ignominy.” Notice how H.L. Mencken uses it in context in the quote below.

Quote of the Day: In small things as in large [the American] exercises continually an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into arresting parts of speech. Such a term as rubberneck is almost a complete treatise on American psychology; it reveals the national habit of mind more clearly than any labored inquiry could ever reveal it. It has in it precisely the boldness and contempt for ordered forms that are so characteristically American, and it has too the grotesque humor of the country, and the delight in devastating opprobriums, and the acute feeling for the succinct and savory. —H. L. Mencken

1 -

2 -

3 -

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

September 9: Val Speak Day

Today is the anniversary of California's admission as the 31st state of the Union. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused its population to explode, and in 1849 settlers applied for admission to the Union after drafting a state constitution that prohibited slavery. Because making California a state would upset the balance of free and slave states, statehood was delayed until September 9, 1850, when the Compromise of 1850 opened the door for California statehood.

In addition to a state constitution, Californians adopted a state seal in 1849 with the motto "Eureka," (The Greek word for "I Have Found It.") an appropriate interjection for a state whose reputation was made on gold strikes (1).

Today, many things make California distinctive and influential in regard to the culture of both American and the world. Two huge examples of this influence are Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Another influence comes under the category of language. Val Speak, the speech pattern of the California "Valley Girl" has captured the imagination of linguists and lexicographers and has crept into the lingo of people who speak English all over the world.

In 1982, Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of Frank Zappa, recorded the hit "Valley Girl" with lyrics that mock the frenetic patter that was first used by California surfers and gradually moved inland to the California's suburban shopping malls:

So like I go into this like salon place, y'know
And I wanted like to get my toenails done
And the lady like goes, oh my god, your toenails
Are like so grody It was like really embarrassing
She's like oh my god, like bag those toenails I'm like sure...
She goes, uh, I don't know if I can handle this, y'know...
I was like really embarrassed... (2)

Certainly some of the lyrics of Valley Girl are a exaggerated for effect and humor, but there is no denying the fact that Val Speak is having an impact on American English, especially among people below the age of forty.

The website for the recent PBS series Do You Speak American reports that one interesting target for linguists is the speech of young white Californians, particularly their use of the discourse marker "I'm like." Known as a quotative, "like" is used to report quoted speech, such as: He was like, "Where do you wanna go?" Unlike the word "said," "like" allows the speaker to paraphrase what was stated instead of making a literal, exact rendering.

"Like" is the offspring of an earlier quotative "goes" that appeared in the 1940s: He goes, "Do you know the make and model of your phone?" The like quotative was once the exclusive jargon of young Californians, but in the short span of the last twenty-five years it has so rapidly spread throughout American and beyond that sociolinguist William Labov has called it a linguistic "tsunami." But whether or not it is here to stay is uncertain; just as "like" replaced "goes," it appears that the word "all" may replace "like" as the hip quotative, used in sentences like this: Then, after a while, I was all, “See you later, good luck!” (3).

Today's Challenge: Like, Gag Me With Youth Speak
The words below are from the "Track That Word!" section of the Do You Speak American website under the category of Teen/Youth words and expressions. See if you can match up each of the ten words/expressions below with its correct definition.



Chop it up








1. Major preoccupation, concern, obsession
2. Worrying.
3. To Steal
4. Talking with friends with great interest, enthusiasm
5. Strong, solid, loyal
6. Twenty, pertaining to twenty dollars
7. Old, wrecked automobile
8. Confusion
9. Shoes
10. Everything is going well (4).

Word of the Day: Slang
Language that is non-standard, informal, and – depending on who you talk to – either novel and vivid, or coarse and vulgar. The word originally referred to the “special vocabulary of tramps and thieves,” and later evolved to include the “jargon of a particular profession” (5).

Quote of the Day: Nothing is wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure. --Ross MacDonald

Answers. 1. Drama 2. Buggin' 3. Chalk 4. Chop it up 5. Firme 6. Dubs 7. Hooptie 8. Jargon 9. Kicks 10. Jake

1 -

2 -

3 - Singler, John. "Like, Quote Me." Do You Speak American?

4. Track That Word - Do You Speak American?

5 – Online Etymology Dictionary

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

September 8: International Literacy Day

Today is International Literacy Day sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). First observed in 1967, International Literacy Day calls attention to the need to promote literacy and education around the world as an antidote to poverty.

According the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, more than 100 million girls and boys never enroll in school. At the minimum 860 million adults worldwide are illiterate.

Education and literacy are central to the stability, prosperity, and well-being of any country. As explained by Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General:

Literacy is not merely a cognitive skill of reading, writing and arithmetic, for literacy helps in the acquisition of learning and life skills that, when strengthened by usage and application throughout people’s lives, lead to forms of individual, community and societal development that are sustainable.

According to UNESCO figures, 32 countries have literacy rates smaller than 50%. These include Bangladesh 35.3, Afghanistan 29.4, Somalia 24.1, and Nepal 20.1 (1).

Today's Challenge: Read All About It
The eight quotes below each say something important about literacy. See if you can match up each quote with its speaker.

John F. Kennedy
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
Carl Sagan
Alvin Tofler
Abraham Lincoln
Isaac Asimov
Thomas Jefferson
Kofi Annan

1. Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in. That everyone may receive at least a moderate education appears to be an objective of vital importance.

2. Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.

3. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.

4. We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education. We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul. Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse.

5. One of the greatest gifts adults can give -- to their offspring and to their society -- is to read to children.

6. The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

7. Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.

8. True literacy is becoming an arcane art and the United States is steadily dumbing down.

Word of the Day: Peruse
This word, originally from Middle English, once meant “to use or to wear out.” Today it means “to read carefully.” Some people mistakenly use it to mean “to skim-read” or “to glance over" (3).

Quote of the Day: Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. --Kofi Annan

Answers. 1. Abraham Lincoln 2. John F. Kennedy 3. Thomas Jefferson 4. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. 5. Carl Sagan 6. Alvin Tofler 7. Kofi Annan 8. Isaac Asimov

1 - UNESCO - Education - Literacy Day -

2 -

3- Online Etymology Dictionary

Monday, September 07, 2009

September Seventh: Univocalic Day

September Seventh is Univocalic Day. A univocalic is a piece of writing where the writer may use only a single vowel. Because September Seventh has nothing but the vowel 'e,' it's the perfect day to celebrate this rare but interesting writing form.

As Richard Lederer points out in his book The Word Circus, some of the longest common univocalic words use the vowel 'e':




Lederer also cites a univocalic translation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" by Paul Hellweg from Word Ways magazine:

Meg kept the wee sheep,
The sheep's fleece resembled sleet;
Then wherever Meg went
The sheep went there next;

He went where she needed her texts,
The precedent he neglected;
The pre-teen felt deep cheer
When the sheep entered there.

But 'e' is not the only vowel for constructing univocalics. Dave Morice in his book Alphabet Avenue quotes a univocalic haiku by Howard Bergerson that uses only the vowel 'i':

The Haiku of Eyes

In twilight this spring
Girls with miniskirts will swim
In string bikinis (2).

Today's Challenge: One Vowel Howl
Pick a vowel and make a list of words that contain only that vowel. Then, put those words together in a sentence or a Haiku in which you only use a single vowel. Here's a famous example concerning the Ten Commandments:

Preserve these perfect tenets, men;
Ever keep these precepts ten.

Word of the Day: effervescent
This univocalic adjective derives from Latin. An effervescent liquid is bubbling. An effervescent person is lively and vivacious.

Quote of the Day: Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry. --Bill Cosby

1 - Lederer, Richard. The Word Circus. Springfield, Massachusetts, Meriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1998.

2 - Morice, Dave. Alphabet Avenue: Wordplay in the Fast Lane. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997.