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?)
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?
Better late than never: my February column for the Visual Thesaurus is all about the loving origins of amateur. I’d submitted it in time for pre-Valentine’s Day publication, but I’m not in charge of the site and [insert Serenity Prayer]. I wrote about amateur hours (capitalized and generic), amateur nights (ditto), amateur athletes, amateur radio, and amateur musicians.
“Be good or be gone”: The long-running Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem
Full access is restricted to subscribers; here’s an excerpt:
Outside of athletics and communications, there’s been a quiet but growing movement to reclaim amateur from its sullied status. Lolly Lewis, the founder and director of the San Francisco–based Amateur Music Network, told me she has received pushback about the group’s name: “Even some of my biggest supporters felt that ‘amateur’ would drive people away, that amateur meant ‘no good at’ or ‘less than,’” she said. She took it as a challenge: “I want to champion the amateur by rehabilitating the word. Amateur means we love doing it!”
The journalist Tom Vanderbilt probably agrees. In his new book Beginners, he observes that “the idea of undertaking new pursuits, ones that you may never be very good at, seems perverse in this age of single-minded peak performance.” Despite this — or because of it — he spent a year taking up new pursuits at which he wasn’t very good, including singing and open-water swimming, and came to embrace and endorse amateurism.
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”).
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.
For my November Visual Thesaurus column I look at our language of nostalgia and retrospect: at the words, old and new, we use when we talk about the past. Words like Before Times[s], retro, oldie, newstalgia, fauxstalgia, and reboot.
Full access to “Into the Past” is restricted to subscribers. Here’s a preview:
In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at a certain four-letter word that’s dominating the news lately. No, not that one. Not that one, either. I’m talking about poll.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers. Here’s a sample:
Time magazine, known in its early years for its inventive language, is responsible for an enduring poll coinage first seen in print in 1939: pollster, a person who conducts opinion polls—another term first recorded in 1939, although the practice of opinion polling in the US goes back to 1824. The -ster suffix “is slightly jazzy (jokester, trickster, hipster),” [William] Safire wrote in his Political Dictionary, “and not at all scientific; many people in the survey business resisted it at first but now put up with it.” What Safire didn’t note: many modern -ster compounds have unsavory overtones: mobster, gangster, tipster, bankster. (Not to mention the much older monster, which goes back to Chaucer’s era.)
In the 70-plus years since pollster was coined, polling has become more widespread and more scientific. Exit polls (first usage: 1976) catch voters as they leave a polling place to take the pulse of an election. Flash polls, which “quickly reach a target audience with a time-sensitive goal”—often just a matter of hours—were made possible by online survey methods and statistical-inference techniques. There are polls of polls that compile the results of multiple polls from different sources; poll trackers, which obsessively analyze those results; and websites such as FiveThirtyEight devoted to poll aggregation and election forecasting.