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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

9780195387070

“Clown”: The KL-series pauses for a while

Those who have followed this series will remember that English kl-words form a loose fraternity of clinging, clinking, and clotted-cluttered things. Clover, cloth, clod, cloud, and clout have figured prominently in the story.

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9780199337583

Protecting our children from profanity

We adults are careful about swearing around our kids. We don’t want bad language to confuse or corrupt or otherwise harm them. As Steven Pinker says in passing while talking about profanity in The Stuff of Thought (2007), “if some people would rather not explain to their young children what a blow job is, there should be television channels that don’t force them to,” and there are. We have every right to be protective of our children even if we don’t have a reason.

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9780195387070

Etymology gleanings for August 2016

There was a desperate attempt to find a valid Greek cognate for cloth, but such a word did not turn up. One way out of the difficulty was to discover a Greek noun or verb beginning with sk- and refer its s to what is known as s-mobile (“movable s”). Movable s is all over the place. For instance, the English cognate of German kratzen is scratch (the same meaning).

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Word Origins

As black as what?

All words, especially kl-words, and no play will make anyone dull. The origin of popular sayings is an amusing area of linguistics, but, unlike the origin of words, it presupposes no technical knowledge. No grammar, no phonetics, no nothin’: just sit back and relax, as they say to those who fly overseas first class. So here is another timeout.

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9780199300914

What makes a good campaign slogan?

Slogan-wise, this year’s presidential campaign gives us Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” and “I’m with Her.” Trump’s slogan is a call to bring something back from the past. Clinton’s are statements of solidarity.

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9780199337583

A collection of Victorian profanities [infographic]

Euphemisms, per their definition, are used to soften offensive language. Topics such as death, sex, and bodily functions are often discussed delicately, giving way to statements like, “he passed away,” “we’re hooking up,” or “it’s that time of the month.”

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9780195387070

Etymology gleanings for July 2016

As I have observed in the past, the best way for me to make sure that I have an audience is to say something deemed prejudicial or wrong. Then one or more readers will break their silence, and I’ll get the recognition I deserve (that is, my comeuppance).

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9780195387070

As clean as what?

In anticipation of the post on clean, I decided to say something about the idioms in which clean figures prominently, but chose only those which have the structure as clean as.

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9780199937240

The challenge of adult language learning

Adult migrants often struggle to learn the language of their new country. In receiving societies, this is widely seen as evidence that migrants are lazy, lack the required will power or, worse, actively resist learning the new language as an act of defiance towards their new community. Unfortunately, most of those who point the finger at migrant language shirkers vastly underestimate the effort involved in language learning.

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9780190491680

The profanity of disease

Over spring break, I spent a day in Tombstone, Arizona. This is the town where, if you don’t know the story, Wyatt Earp and his brothers, accompanied by their friend Doc Holliday, had a shootout with a group of cattle rustlers at the OK Corral. Though the Earp brothers wore the badges, when the tale is told the hero is usually Doc Holliday—noted gambler, crack shot, prodigious drinker

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9780190491680

From “O Fortuna” to “Anaconda”: A playlist of musical profanity

Almost everyone swears, or worries about not swearing, from the two-year-old who has just discovered the power of potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. Whether they express anger or exhilaration, are meant to insult or to commend, swear words perform a crucial role in language. But swearing is also a uniquely well-suited lens through which to look at history

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9780195387070

A timeout: the methods of etymology

I expected that my series on dogs would inspire a torrent of angry comments. After all, dog is one of the most enigmatic words in English etymology, but the responses were very few. I am, naturally, grateful to those who found it possible to say something about the subject I was discussing for five weeks, especially to those who liked the essays.

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9780199300914

How to write a thank you note

I write a lot of thank you notes. I thank donors of organizations that I support, gift givers after the holidays and birthdays, friends who have invited me over for dinner, guest speakers who come to my classes, community partners who work with my students, colleagues who help me solve problems, and editors and publishers (you know who you are).

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9780198729532

Bird talk

For all its supposed isolation out there beyond the pale of acceptable discourse — marginal words in the mouths of marginal people — we know a good deal about slang. We know its lexis, and keep chasing down the new arrivals; we know its lexicographers, some very well; we know its speakers, and note that far from monosyllabic illiterates, they coin some of the most inventive usages currently on offer.

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sorry about that

Apology round-up: 2016 presidential race (so far)

It’s an election year and that means we get to think about the language of politicians—their vocabularies, vocal timbre, gestures, accents, metaphors, style, mistakes, and recoveries. I’m always on the lookout for interesting apologies, and the 2016 election has not been a disappointment.

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