Verbatim

Articles from Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer

Alchemical Calques or the Transmutation of Language
In the fifth century BC, Empedocles of Acragas, the Greek philosopher, proclaimed that the universe was composed of four primal elements: fire, air, water, and earth. While not, perhaps, the most discriminating descriptive cosmology, this doctrine...
As the Word Turns: Y, O Y
"We all know the y section of the alphabet has mighty slim pickings" (Erin McKean, Verbatim XXVIII/4). Thanks, Boss, for inspiring this essay. Y, the third shortest letter, after X and Z, occupies pages 681-788 in the 1989 OED's final volume; cf....
Bacronymic Etymythologies
A neologistic title: but wait, I can explain. First, what is an acronym? There are various definitions. According to the most restrictive one, an acronym is a word that is spelled using the first letter of each of a series of words and that is pronounced...
Classical Blather: Whatsisnames and Thingamajigs
It is an ethnographic commonplace that language discontinuously maps itself onto reality, such that the continuum of all the things we might name or describe shows gaps between our actual terms to designate them. But one need never be at a loss for...
Epistola
John Huebl's fine account of the misspellings that his name is subjected to (VERBATIM XXVIII/4): if it's any comfort, many people with commoner surnames than his also suffer to some extent. Ask anyone with the surname Jonson or Stephens. Or Kahn--that's...
Holy Crapola!
Though there are usually many varieties of crap cluttering my brain, I started thinking about crap as a word only after visiting my old friend Darrell and his family. Darrell observed, with some displeasure, that trap had become a common word in the...
Horribile Dictu
"Well, that's then," said a continuity announcer on BBC radio, linking one programme trailer to another, "but coming closer to now ..." Actually, I'm coming closer to then, with this quote from a newspaper's end-of-year roundup of 2003's big stories:...
I Didn't Catch Your Name
Most of us feel fairly confident when faced with most of the names we come across in our language. We're pretty sure we know how they're pronounced, and, for the most part, they easily trip off our tongues and no one complains. For we follow the conventional...
Lipograms: The Presence of Absence
"She woke up early, drank a cup of strong unsugared coffee, then sat down at her word processor. She knew more or less what she wanted to do, and that was to create a story that possessed a granddaughter, a Boston fern, a golden apple and a small blue...
Obiter Dicta: Good Cap, Bad Cap
There it was on the kitchen table, a note from my wife, "Go buy yourself some new t-shirts." Right off, something about that note bothered me. What was it? That she was sitting at the table right across from me? Had she now taken up writing notes to...
Offending Words
It didn't take me long, in my forty-something years writing sports for the New York Times, to learn that words connoting sexuality of any kind would never insinuate themselves into the old gray lady, as other newspapermen loved to call us. And then,...
Presidential Words
Perhaps the most useful expression of universal communication ever devised, OK is recognizable and pronounceable in almost every language on earth. OK is so protean that it can function as five parts of speech--noun: "I gave it my OK"; verb: "I'll...
The Ethnocentricity of Email
HELO!!! SOU EYXOMAI PERASTIKA GIA OTI EPATHES! H DIEYTHINSH MOU EINAI.... PERIMENO! BYE-BYE That, with the omission of a few personal details, is the text of an email I received recently. Here's another from the same person: TI KANEIS RE SIMON?...
The Skinny on the Dictionary of One-Letter Words
Ever since I wrote the very first edition of The Dictionary One-Letter Words, I haven't had to pay for a single drink. But I didn't set out to create the ultimate secret weapon for winning bar bets. I mean, a dictionary is supposed to be scholarly,...

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