I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
“Controversial terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism,’ tend to shut down dialog because they mean different things to different people.” The AllSides Red Blue Dictionary defines these hot-button terms across the political spectrum: “Until we fully understand what a term means to someone else, we don't know the issue and can't effectively communicate.”
I’m enjoying (and learning from) the short essays Susan Orlean publishes on Medium, especially her stories about the writing craft. Here she is on beginnings and on endings.
My new post for Strong Language (the sweary blog about swearing) asks: When the old swears no longer shock, what’s an advertiser to do? One answer: swear-ify inoffensive words by inserting asterisks into them.
Speaking of dictionaries, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has compiled a new historical dictionary of science-fiction, and it’s out of this world. Read about it in Wired (Adam Rogers calls Sheidlower “a lexicographical mad scientist”) and in theNew York Times (Jennifer Schuessler calls Sheidlower’s 1995 book, The F-Word, “a cheekily learned history of the notorious obscenity”).
Happy Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us! The traditional Airing of Grievances seems superfluous this year: we’ve been airing and grieving for most of 2020. So let us gather quietly—and virtually—around the traditionally unadorned Festivus pole and wish for feats of strength to get us through the season.
The American Dialect Society, the OG Word of the Year anointer, usually holds its WotY contest in person, and it’s always a rollicking event. This year ADS is soliciting nominations and taking reservations online, and there’s a bonus pre-event event: On December 10 at 12 pm EST/9 am PST, famous word guy Ben Zimmer, in partnership with Washington’s new Planet Word Museum, will explain the nomination and selection processes and talk about his year’s likely candidates. Register here (free). Or you can skip directly to registration for the ADS livestream on December 17, and nominate up to five words while you’re at it.
“What’s the word?/Thunderbird!/How’s it sold?/Good and cold.” More about the word (and the wine) at Modern Drunkard magazine.
I wrote last month about Schulz’s excellent pieces for the New Yorker, and I’m here to tell you that Being Wrong is every bit as well researched, witty, and graceful. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m fascinated by failure, but hey—everyone has a story to tell about wrongness petty or vast. Schulz’s catalog of errors includes explorers undone by mirages, buyers beset by remorse, the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court experiment, the impossibility of saying “I am wrong” (as opposed to “I was wrong”), and the ’Cuz It’s True Constraint (a name I love). She dips into cognitive psychology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion; Newsweek called the book “intellectualism made fun!” and it is.
I listened to the audiobook, and immediately discovered that I’d been wrong for ages about the pronunciation of the author’s last name. It rhymes with pools, not cults.
Third in a series of posts about US brands that are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My previous posts in this series looked at Lysoland Zoom, brands that have filled real-world needs—for sanitizing and for video-meetings, respectively—during the pandemic. This post is about Steak-umm, a brand whose claim to pandemic fame isn’t its product—although that product has its fervent fans—but its soothing, amusing, occasionally bemusing Twitter account.
many brands haven’t meaningfully responded to this crisis due to internal bureaucracies, self-preservation, or overthinking their “image,” so by the time any message gets out it’s just a watered-down ambiguous ad that’s like “in these uncertain times we’re still here ok”