Express Yourself

Why we should take a red pen to ‘The Elements of Style’ and other writing guides

Dimly lit desk with an open notebook with pencil illuminated by a lamp.
Dimly lit desk with an open notebook with pencil illuminated by a lamp.
Photo: Grimvr/Flickr

There are a handful of dates in history that mark watershed moments for the English language. The year 1066: the beginning of the Norman Conquest of Britain, which would introduce a wealth of French borrowings into what was then a purely Germanic tongue. The year 1590: Shakespeare’s first foray into playwriting. And 1959: the year that E.B. White published his revised version of William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style, a work that, in the decades to come, would inform popular opinions about how to competently express oneself in writing. In particular, it triggered the phenomenon of “which-hunting,” the systematic…

By which I mean they are

(Jannet Serhan / Pexels)

I’m not going to try to convince you that black is white, but …

Have you ever wondered why the words black and blank are so similar, despite having virtually opposite meanings? It’s not a coincidence — they actually derive from the same word, the Old Norse blakkr, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhleg-, meaning to burn or to singe. It’s been suggested that the two contrasting descendants are simply different interpretations of the same concept: burning something turns it a bright colour, and then black. …

Americans’ favourite nickname for their mothers has little-known origins in the antebellum period

“African American woman holding a white child”, c. 1855 (Library of Congress / Public Domain)

Here’s a fun throwaway line from Robert Chambers’ 1911 novel The Common Law:

That evening at supper, a weird rite where the burnt offering was rice pudding and the stewed sacrifice was prunes, Neville was presented to an interesting assemblage of the free-born. There was the clerk, the drummer, the sales-lady, and ladies unsaleable and damaged by carping years; city-wearied fathers of youngsters who called their parents ‘pop’ and ‘mom’ […]

It’s hard for modern readers to gauge exactly what the image of children calling their mothers Mom is supposed to evoke. The reference to “city-wearied fathers” suggests that the…

Express Yourself

A linguist explains how our “conversational style” changes the way we interact

Getty Images / CSA Images

Life in the pandemic would be very different without video calls. We are exceedingly lucky to have unbridled access to technology that even 20 years ago was only familiar to most people by way of NATO knockoffs in Hollywood movies. The convenience that the video call affords us, too, is not to be underestimated. [Insert customary joke about crunching numbers with a colleague while soaking your toes in a foot bath here.] But as a replacement for a face-to-face meeting? I think I speak for a lot of people when I say, ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Among other…

Express Yourself

Oxford says the origins of ‘yikes’ are unknown, but could it be traced back as far as Latin?

A dilapidated one-story building with “yikes” graffittied over a window, behind a chain-link fence.
A dilapidated one-story building with “yikes” graffittied over a window, behind a chain-link fence.
Photo: Michael Coghlan via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s a yikes from me, dog. That aging comedian’s most recent tweet is a big yikes in my book. Excuse me, sir, could you please refrain from being so extremely yikes? That’s the way (aha aha) I yikes it.

Yikes is an Internet 101 word. And, as often happens when a word becomes inescapable, it has broken out of its original niche; ask anyone who positions themselves among the “extremely online” and they’ll tell you it’s so much more than just a cry of horror or surprise. The sentences I give above (alright, maybe bar the last one) demonstrate the…

A brief explanation of a time-worn euphemism

(Old White Truck / flickr)

They say don’t knock it before you’ve tried it, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that death is not nice. You can tell because we have so many ways of talking about it without actually talking about it. A wealth of these can be found in Victorian obituaries, whose subjects did anything but die; instead, they “paid the debt of nature” orreceived the unexpected summons of the tribunal of their judge.” Then there are those idioms dripping with Tony Soprano-esque irreverence, like cash in your chips or buy the farm (or, of course…

Under the current crisis, minority languages suffer while English goes more viral than ever

(John Higgitt / Unsplash)

What was your most overused word last year? Unprecedented? Doomscrolling? Banana bread? In truth, it was probably Covid, whether you speak English on a regular basis or not. The acronym for Coronavirus disease has language-hopped as far as Afrikaans and Tagalog, and has even been adopted by philological societies like L’Académie Française in France and La Real Academia Española in Spain, who normally avoid English borrowings like the non-respiratory plague.

It’s no accident that the internationally-recognised term for an illness that originated in China is an Anglicism. It was chosen back in February 2020 by the World Health Organisation, which…

Does linguistics hold the key to decoding deception?

(Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier / flickr)

The average person tells 20 to 25 lies per day. Pretty unbelievable, right? That’s because it’s not true. The number’s more like one or two. Sorry, I needed to get mine in before midnight, or else face mediocrity.

In any case, that’s still regular practice. Despite this, we’re not very good at telling when someone else is lying — our accuracy is, generally speaking, only marginally better than chance. It’s no wonder, then, that we put our faith in lie-detection technology, even if it is less than perfect. The polygraph test may be good enough for Maury Povich, but even…

People who know more words make more money, but a strong vocabulary may be worth more than its weight in gold

(Greg Rosenke / Unsplash)

Have you ever accidentally bought a self-improvement book? Not “accidentally”, as you might say when a nosy houseguest goes spelunking through your bookshelves and picks out Dale Carnegie’s name from the spines, but through genuine ignorance that inside this Holocaust survivor biography or tidying-up manual there lay carefully-worded advice about how to live well? Well, you know, “don’t judge a book by its cover” wasn’t only meant to be taken figuratively. Self-help can catch you where you least expect it—even in a workbook for school kids trying to fatten up their English essays. …

As foreign-language films and series surge in popularity, beware the medium that sometimes betrays the message

(Thibault Penin / Unsplash)

A mall Santa is suffering with chronic inflammation of the bowels. He’s tried every drug on the market; nothing’s worked. Then he fortuitously falls into the care of Dr. Gregory House, who hands him a prescription for a treatment that, while effective, isn’t exactly orthodox. The patient squints at the slip of paper and reads: “Wholegrain … rice?” House explains that rice is a tried-and-true remedy for inflammatory bowel disease. Mall Santa’s next question is whether or not there’s a risk of becoming addicted. “Practically all the drugs I prescribe come with that kind of danger,” says the doctor. …

Clare C.H.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

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