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.
On March 13, 2020, Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski noticed that all of the dictionary’s lookups were pandemic related: coronavirus, quarantine, draconian, lockdown, cancel. For the somber one-year anniversary this month, WGBH looked at how the pandemic has transformed the English language, and whether its impact will endure:
Will people five years from now still say they are “zooming” when they conduct a video meeting online? Will slang terms like “doomscrolling” and “covidiot” make their way into wider use or be little-known relics from a brief moment in time? Will “COVID-19,” in all-caps, be the preferred styling? Or will it be overtaken by “Covid-19,” in lowercase, a styling many news organizations have started using?
OK, #hivemind, this one’s for you. My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “To Bee or Not to Bee?”, looks at the New York Times word-search puzzle that has become a popular pandemic pastime, both for solitary solvers and for social animals.
Full access is restricted to subscribers—you know what to do, word nerds—but because I am benevolent and lenient (two good Bee words!), I am sharing a free excerpt:
The Bee is both a vocabulary game and a pattern-finding challenge; in the latter respect, it resembles Scrabble. Are there productive letter combinations, such as UN, ING, or ED, that can be used to create multiple words? Do you remember that -ULE is a suffix meaning “small,” as in VENULE, a small vein? Does an abundance of vowels suggest foreign-language imports such as AIOLI and LUAU? Solvers find satisfaction in tracking their progress in each day’s game, beginning with “Good Start” and proceeding through “Nice” and “Amazing.” “Genius” level is rewarded with a bee icon—she has a name: Beeatrice—wearing a mortarboard.
But wait—you can keep playing on beyond Genius. There’s a hidden prize, Queen Bee, for finding all the words in a hive; achieve it and Beeatrice appears wearing a crown. How many is all? That’s kept secret, but the total point value is approximately double the Amazing level.
Blog bonus! Many of us enjoy swarming around the Bee hives on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit to share triumphs and good-humored kvetches. On Twitter, where I hang out, the reigning Bee queen, Deb Koker, is running a March Madness-style bracketfor “words that aren’t accepted by the Bee, but should be.” Marian Merritt tweeted her tips for Bee success, including “Look for the obvious four-letter words” and “Does the word have two spellings, like bandana/bandanna?” And Oxford Comma Fan added others: “Look for plants (OCOTILLO),”Try adding –EE (DONEE),” and my favorite: “When in doubt, is there an archaic whaling term?”
“Trade characters” like Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats man used to be much more common in American commerce than they are today, writes logo expert James I. Bowie in Marker. They were so common, in fact, that the US Patent and Trademark Office assigned six-digit codes to trademark applications to “capture personal characteristics, including race and gender, as they were perceived in American culture many decades ago”:
There are codes for Native Americans and Asian Pacific people, but not for African Americans. Women, but not men, can be coded as “Hawaiian,” while men, but not women, can be deemed “Famous,” “Cowboys and westerners,” or “Farmers, hillbillies, or hobos” (the second of these terms was recently stricken). The categories for Scottish men and women seem to exist solely to code trade characters representing thriftiness — or, more bluntly, cheapness.
Aunt Jemima pancake mix, circa 1940s. James Bowie: “The Aunt Jemima logo was given codes 020301 (portraits of women) and 020315 (women wearing scarves on their heads).” Read my February 10 post about Aunt Jemima’s recently announced name change.
I’m not betraying any secrets when I tell you that TURNCOAT was the pangram in Sunday’s New York Times online Spelling Bee. (A pangram is a word that contains all the letters in a given alphabet, in this case A, C, N, O, R, T, and U.)
You’ll need to find 43 words in this hive to achieve the coveted “Queen Bee” status. Words must contain at least four letters, one of which must be the central letter. Letters may be re-used in a word.
Turncoat was also on the minds of some people who followed the Senate vote on Saturday in Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial. Although the tally fell short of the 67 votes needed to convict the ex-president, seven Republican senators did break ranks to vote with their Democratic colleagues. “Seven Turncoats” was the finger-pointing headline in American Thinker, a conservative daily online magazine. (The piece also calls the aye-voting senators “treasonous faux Republicans” and asserts that “Trump was a truly great president” and also “the most revered president since Reagan”—in case you had any confusion about where they’re coming from.)
A turncoat is a traitor. … Turncoat comes from the ancient practice of wearing a badge or pin on one's coat signifying the party or leader you supported. By “turning your coat” you quite literally hid your allegiance to others. Often used interchangeably with defector, and while they are similar they are not quite the same. Turncoat is worse: it implies no possibility of any good or honest motive. Defector can at least sometimes have a neutral or even positive implication.
The first appearance of the noun turncoat in print was in 1570, before its spelling (or any other English spelling) had been standardized: “I will beleue none of you all, for you be turne coates, and chaungelinges, and be wauering minded.” It appeared as an adjective the following year: “Hee peynteth out more expressely theire turnecote craftynesse.”
Here’s what I love about turncoat: It’s a special sort of word, a member of a category called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun compounds. Or, if you prefer, cutthroat compounds.
I’ve been reading some excellent books—more about them soon—but right now I want to tell you about a couple of interesting podcasts for language lovers.
Word Matters is “a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class”; it’s hosted by four Merriam-Webster lexicographers: Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski. Episodes have tackled singular kudo, the pronunciation of antennae, and everyone’s favorite bugaboo, irregardless (which is definitely “a word” even though my editing software red-squigglies it. Yes, “red-squigglies” is also a word. Because I said so, that’s why.)
Science Diction is “a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them,” brought to you by the folks at NPR’s “Science Friday” and hosted by Johanna Meyer. Did you know that restaurant originally meant “a medicinal soup”? Do you know “the linguistic reason why ‘Rocky Road’ sounds so dang delicious”? How about the connection between cobalt and German folklore? Lots more like that, too.
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.