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: Philosophy

May 16, 2017

I recently heard a well-respected radio host describe Donald Trump’s “America First” approach as a (quote) “philosophy.”

Hearing this caused me a bit of cognitive dissonance.

OnWords: Earned

May 2, 2017

As we move out of tax season, you may be thinking a lot about what you’ve earned.

Few public intellectuals have influenced the way we talk about communication more than Marshall McLuhan.

Best known for the phrase “the medium is the message,” McLuhan is also responsible for popularizing the way that we refer to content as the substance of a message in contrast to its medium of delivery. That idea predated McLuhan, but he made it acceptable for English teachers to use it when critiquing a freshman composition and for “content creators” to exist in the Internet Age.

OnWords: Quality

Apr 4, 2017

You can usually tell that an organization has stopped caring about quality when it becomes the only thing they talk about.

“Quality” is one of those words that is necessarily vague, and, therefore, becomes a smoke screen behind which much mischief can hide.

Consider the continual quality improvement efforts so in vogue for the past few decades. They have all been accompanied by increasingly onerous and minute numeric evaluations and assessments. This data-gathering is then obsessed over for just long enough to justify the predetermined decisions of those in charge.

OnWords: Divisiveness

Mar 21, 2017

At first blush, the word “divisiveness” appears to be yet another term used to describe something another person does that you don’t like.

NPR has recently taken several opportunities to discuss and defend its decision to use terms like 'untruth' rather than the term 'lie.'

OnWords: Elite

Feb 21, 2017

The word “elite” has seen a lot of abuse over the last few decades. 

For liberals, the “elite” are wealthy businessmen who purchase politicians, wreck the schools, and rape (really? Rape?) the planet.

For conservatives, the elite are ivory-tower academics who ruin the minds of children with their radical, sinful, and dangerous ideas.

All of us sense that the status of the elite is undeserved. The ideas is that the rich got there by exploiting others and that intellectuals lack practical knowledge.

OnWords: Fake News

Feb 7, 2017

The term “fake news” has exploded all over the real news, possibly in order to draw fire away from how the news media has covered falsehoods in the past.

Fake news has been around a long time, though.

Consider the presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Among the slurs the two exchanged, Jefferson’s campaign at one point said Adams had “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

OnWords: Expert

Jan 25, 2017

A few years ago, the humorist John Hodgman published a book titled The Areas of My Expertise.

The book used irony to skewer the whole notion of expertise, yet the subject matter expert or “SME,” is still the go-to person for journalists and executives alike.

In my own limited experience with being called an expert, it certainly doesn’t feel like anything special.

In fact, it’s kind of scary, because the deeper you get into a subject, the more you’re aware of how little you actually know.

OnWords: Extreme

Jan 10, 2017

In his call for “extreme vetting,” the president-elect has given the word “extreme” a bit of a comeback.

“Extreme” had a good run in the ‘90s, applied to everything from rock bands to bowling.

And even though the excesses of the 2000s were far greater, we seemed then to have used the word less, almost as if “extreme” was no longer adequate to describe the billions of dollars scammed by complex financial transactions and made-up mortgages.

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