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Chomsky at 88

Few probably anticipated that the boy who was born on this day in 1928 would become one of the founding fathers of modern linguistics and one of the world’s foremost intellectuals. Noam Avram Chomsky’s foundational work has influenced, inspired, and divided scholars working on language for more than 60 years.

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Word Origins

Etymology gleanings for November 2016

I keep receiving this question with some regularity (once a year or so), and, since I have answered it several times, I’ll confine myself to a few very general remarks. Etymology is a branch of historical linguistics dealing with the origin of words. It looks at the sound shape and meaning of words and at the cultural milieu in which words were coined. Quite often a word has related forms in several languages, and all of them have to be compared.

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9780199668427

How did Shakespeare originally sound?

We all know the classic Shakespearean lines – “To be or not to be,” “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” — but how would these famous lines have sounded to Elizabethan audiences? Are we currently misinterpreting the Bard? This question has been on the mind of Shakespeare scholars, directors, actors, and audiences for a long time, and has proved a tricky problem.

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The origin of Black Friday and other Black Days

Across the US, those who are not too replete with their Thanksgiving feast will be braving the crowds in order to secure themselves one of the bargains associated with Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving which is often regarded as the first day of Christmas shopping in the US. Even on the […]

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9780198717058

Reflections on ‘chatbot’

A chatbot, or chatterbot, is computer program designed to engage in conversation through written or spoken text. It was one of the words on the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 shortlist. The idea of a chatbot originates with Alan Turing’s mid twentieth century aspiration to build a thinking computer. Turing proposed a test to determine what might count as success in this venture.

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9780195387070

(All) my eye and Betty Martin!

The strange exclamation in the title means “Fiddlesticks! Humbug! Nonsense!” Many people will recognize the phrase (for, among others, Dickens and Agatha Christie used it), but today hardly anyone requires Betty Martin’s help for giving vent to indignant amazement. However, the Internet is abuzz with questions about the origin of the idiom, guarded explanations, and readers’ comments.

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9780199300914

Adulting comes of age

The child in me was excited to see ‘adulting’ as one of the shortlisted words for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016. Adulting is on the minds–and tongues–of many of my millennial-generation college students. They explain that it is about assuming adult responsibilities like managing money, showing up at a job, buying food and paying rent, getting health care, and more.

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9780199669042_450

Word of the Year 2016: a ‘post-truth’, ‘alt-right’, ‘Brexiteer’ing’ explanation of political chaos

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries have been at it again with their choice of Word of the Year 2016 – ‘post-truth’. Now call me a pedant but I’d have thought ‘post-truth’ is two words, or at the very least a phrase, (‘Pedant!’ I hear you all shout) but I’m assured that the insertion of a hyphen creates a compound word that is not to be sniffed at. How then do words such as ‘post-truth’, ‘alt-right’, and ‘Brexiteer’ combine to explain the current situation of global political chaos?

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9780195387070

Coming out of the fog

This is a postscript to last week’s post on fog. To get my point across, as they say, let me begin with a few short remarks on word origins, according to the picture emerging from our best dictionaries.

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Word of the Year 2016 is… post-truth

Word of the Year 2016 is… post-truth. After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

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9780190468903

How to write a good sentence

Some years ago, I sent off a manuscript to an editor. After the usual period of review, the editor sent back a note saying that he liked the work, but suggested that I should make it “less academic.” I reworked a number of things and sent back a revised version with more examples and a lighter tone. A week later, I got a short email back saying “No really, make it less academic.”

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The Yablo Paradox

Lying, tells, and paradox

The idea that many, if not most, people exhibit physical signs – tells – when they lie is an old idea – one that has been extensively studied by psychologists, and is of obvious practical interest to fields as otherwise disparate as gambling and law enforcement. Some of the tells that indicate someone is lying include:

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9780198716327

On Hokusai’s woodblock prints

Sometimes when looking at some piece of reality, puzzling choices have to be made when describing it as ‘one’, as ‘many’ or perhaps as neither ‘one’ nor ‘many’. Three woodblock prints of the artist Hokusai can illustrate the issue.

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9780195387070

“Fog” and a story of unexpected encounters

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river,… Fog down the river….” This is Dickens (1852). But in 1889 Oscar Wilde insisted that the fogs had appeared in London only when the Impressionists discovered them, that is, they may have been around for centuries, but only thanks to the Impressionists, London experienced a dramatic change in its climate.

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9780199315734

On the cliché trail

The election campaign season licenses two cohorts—politicians and journalists—to take up an even greater share of public discourse than is normally allotted to them. Both of these groups have a demonstrable and statistically verifiable tendency towards cliché, and so it is to be expected that in what’s left of the run-up to the US elections, the public forum will be awash in clichés. And so it is!

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