OnWords

An exploration and celebration of language and all of it's many quirks, with KMUW commentator Lael Ewy.

Hear OnWords on alternate Tuesdays or find it on iTunes.

OnWords: Is Unacceptable

Jun 12, 2018

At some point we’ve all heard or said that something or other (quote) “is unacceptable.”

“Is unacceptable” is one of those phrases that seep through the language and bubble up seemingly everywhere.

But there are a few things very wrong with it.

“Is unacceptable” glosses over by whose standards acceptability is being measured. When we say it, what we really mean is that we don’t like something, but the passive construction allows us to avoid the fact that we’re the ones doing the unliking.

OnWords: Identity

May 29, 2018

More fundamental than the issue of so-called identity politics is the definition of identity itself.

My work in the mental health field has me facilitating workshops on culture and its impact on work in human services.

In these workshops, we inevitably end up talking about the idea that various cultural forces are at play in forming an identity and creating a worldview.

But isn’t “identity” itself a concept of the Western world?

Recently, our president used the words “mission accomplished” to describe military action in Syria.

The phrase immediately brought up a famous faux pas: George W. Bush slapping the same term across an aircraft carrier to proclaim the same in Iraq.

That statement turned out not to be true, and US forces fight and die there still.

Various theories of language, notably the Sapir-Whorf theory support the idea that language creates reality for language users.

And while some visual artists and musicians might argue the point, there’s something to it.

Successful political initiatives define the terms of political debate before the debate even begins. Thus the estate tax becomes the “death tax,” the poor become lazy, and unfettered access to guns becomes freedom.

OnWords: No Words

Mar 6, 2018

Alert listener Ryan Philbrick noted the current trend of using the words “no words” when one is overcome with emotion.

Indeed, there are plenty of words one can use in these situations, from “devastated” and “apoplectic,” to “saddened,” or, if you don’t want to commit, “deeply moved.”

One way of looking at the “no words” phenomenon is that the person doing it is trying to say that the words available don’t express the true depth of emotion, as in “I’m so incredibly saddened that the words ‘incredibly saddened’ seem inconsequential.”

I remember reading Plato as an undergrad and being interested in the way Socrates took pains to define his terms in the dialogs.

Western philosophy has continued this tradition, and by the 20th century, the problem of meaning in philosophical language became acute.

If there’s one thing I’ve come around to over the years, it’s the non-gender-specific pronoun.

OnWords: Word Of The Year

Jan 23, 2018

Late in December each year, authorities on language such as those who curate the Oxford English Dictionary release their word of the year.

I use the word “curate” purposefully to describe what those who assemble dictionaries do, as the best description of a dictionary I ever heard was that it is a “museum for words.”

OnWords: Public Apology

Jan 9, 2018

Recent sex scandals have seen an uptick in public apologies.

Some people are more satisfied at the sincerity of these attempts at amends than others are, but the public apology remains an important part of life in a country that constitutionally protects free speech.

OnWords: Compassion

Dec 26, 2017

I hear the word “compassion” in surprising places these days, such as in health service delivery, education, and even those who study communication patterns.

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