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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The last shot at American Idioms

The use of metaphors is relatively late in the modern European languages; it is, in principle, a post-Renaissance phenomenon. The same holds for the idioms based on metaphors. No one in the days of Beowulf and perhaps even of Chaucer would have coined the phrase to lose one’s marbles “to become insane,” even if so long ago boys were as intent on collecting marbles as was Tom Sawyer.

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Celebrating banned books week

Book banning is not a new phenomenon. The Catholic Church’s prohibition on books advocating heliocentrism lasted until 1758. In England, Thomas Bowdler lent his name to the practice of expurgating supposed vulgarity with the 1818 publication of The Family Shakespeare, edited by his sister.

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The sense and essence of smell

This post owes its existence to a letter from our correspondent, who was surprised to discover that dictionaries call the origin of the word smell unknown. Not that two and a half pages later this origin will become “known,” but the darkness around it may become less impenetrable.

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Flatterers and bletherskites

Almost exactly twelve years ago, on August 2, 2006 (see this post), when the world and this blog were much younger, I mentioned some problems pertaining to the etymology of the verb flatter. Since that time, I have written several posts on kl– and sl-words and discussed sound symbolism more than once. There is little […]

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Racial biases in academic knowledge

The word of racism evokes individual expressions of racial prejudice or one’s superiority over other races. An outrageous yet archetypical example is found in the recent racist tweets made by the President Donald Trump, attacking four congresswomen of color by suggesting that they go back to the countries where they are originally from if they criticize America. […]

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How to construct palindromes

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same way forwards and backwards, like kayak or Madam, I’m Adam. The word comes to us from palindromos, made up of a pair of Greek roots: palin (meaning “again”) and dromos (meaning “way, direction”).

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What is the Middle Voice?

Punctuation-wise, most of us fall between these two extremes. We are neither staccato nor breathless. Instead, we use punctuation to establish a comfortable pace for readers by grouping and emphasizing certain chunks of information.

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Using punctuation to pace

Punctuation-wise, most of us fall between these two extremes. We are neither staccato nor breathless. Instead, we use punctuation to establish a comfortable pace for readers by grouping and emphasizing certain chunks of information.

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W(h)ither the five-paragraph essay

I was surprised to learn from my students that many of them are still being taught to write the five-paragraph essay in high school. You know it: an introductory paragraph that begins with a hook and ends in a thesis statement.

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Where did the phrase “yeah no” come from?

I’ve noticed myself saying “yeah no.” The expression came up in a class one day, when I had asked students to bring in examples of language variation. One student suggested “yeah no” as an example of not-quite standard California English.

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Preventing miscommunication: lessons from cross-cultural couples

We might expect that people will have trouble understanding one another when they are using a foreign language, but several studies have found that overt misunderstandings are relatively uncommon in such situations. The reason for this is that when people can anticipate that some problems of understanding may occur, they adapt the way they speak.

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How to do fact checking

The actor Cary Grant once said of acting that, “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.” That’s true for writing as well—concrete details can paint a picture for a reader and establish credibility for a writer. Details can be tricky, however, and in the swirl of research and the dash of exposition, it is possible to get things wrong: dates, names, quotes, and facts.

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How to use the passive voice

Writing instructors and books often inveigh against the passive voice. My thrift-store copy of Strunk and White’s 1957 Element of Style says “Use the Active Voice,” explaining that it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive.” And George Orwell, in his 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language,” scolds us to “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

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The evolution of the word “terror”

Terror comes into English in the late fourteenth century, partly from Middle French terreur, and partly directly from Latin terror. The word means both “the state of being greatly frightened” and “the cause of that state,” an ambiguity that is central to its future political meanings. In Early Modern English, terror comes to stand for a state of fear provoked on the very edge of the social.

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