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

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(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…


A brief explanation of a time-worn euphemism

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(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…


Does linguistics hold the key to decoding deception?

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(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

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(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

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(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. …


Express Yourself

Humans have a habit of bending words to meet their needs — and defying dictionary definitions in the process

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Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

Remember how, in the 2010s — yes, that’s right, the decade that gave us Snapchat, “Gangnam Style,” one good Adam Sandler movie, and Covid-19 — everybody was losing their marbles over the word “literally”? Remember how long it took for pedants to give up trying to keep its meaning neatly segregated from that of “figuratively”? I, for one, am literally over the moon that’s behind us.

But people always need some new coinage or turn of phrase to pick on. In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson reportedly expressed familiar-sounding frustration with “clever,” describing it as “a low word, scarcely ever…


Grammatical headaches, lexical gaps — they’re what make English so much fun

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(Cris DiNoto / Unsplash)

Pretend for a moment that social taboos, political correctness, and copyright laws were no object, and answer me this: is there anything you can’t say in English? Are there ideas too lofty for our language to handle? It’s frequently said (though also frequently contested) that English has the largest vocabulary known to man. As Bill Bryson writes in Mother Tongue:

Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000). …


Express Yourself

The English language continues to be inconsistent and bewildering

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Photo: Visit Greenwich/flickr (CC 2.0)

For all of English’s maddening complexities—including an illogical spelling system, a plethora of irregular verbs, and inconsistent stress patterns being — one way the language is comparatively simple is that it lacks grammatical gender. Unlike their counterparts in France, for example, English grammarians aren’t saddled with the task of deciding whether newly coined words like “Covid” should be encoded in the language as masculine or feminine (it’s the latter, by the way, according to the French academy). And contrary to French, English has no “manly breasts” or “womanly beards,” no “boyish hair elastics” or “girlish combine harvesters.” You won’t hear…


The writers of old-timey Netflix hits like ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘Mank’ sometimes flub their lines

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(Netflix)

In the most meticulously-crafted period dramas, historical accuracy runs deep. The showrunners of Mad Men knew this well; even the actors’ underwear was true to the time. But sometimes anachronisms are hiding in plain sight — or within earshot. In 2012, historian Benjamin Schmidt wrote an article for The Atlantic detailing what the series’ writers got wrong about the state of the English language in the 1960s. Some of the most astounding offenses he lists are phrases that sound completely ordinary to modern viewers, such as to feel good about, to make eye contact, and to even the playing field


How ‘dear’ has survived into the digital age, despite the mixed messages it sends

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(Stephen Phillips - Hostreviews.co.uk / Unsplash)

Don’t you find it odd how every e-mail you get from your bank asking you to review the terms of service or a delivery company informing you your parcel has gotten wedged between a rock and a hard place begins with the word dear? Dear, a word normally so fraught with emotion that in spoken language we wouldn’t use it to address anyone who isn’t our significant other, if at all, and rarely put it in front of any noun that isn’t life, God, or Watson (the holy trifecta)? …

Clare C.H.

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

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