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: 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.

OnWords: Snowflake

Dec 12, 2017

A popular idea about the way water freezes notes that all snowflakes are unique, beautiful latticeworks of crystals revealing themselves when magnified and properly attended to.

This notion has led some well-meaning folks to apply the word “snowflake” to people, implying that we are all beautiful in our own way and should be treated according to our own special needs.

Our friends in the media love to use the term “national conversation” about anything newsworthy and controversial. Lately we’ve had national conversations about sexual harassment, race, and the rights LGBT people.

I think it’s very important to talk about such things, and often it’s an indication that once taboo subjects no longer are.

But I don’t think these are really national conversations.

Mostly, pundits and self-declared experts repeat talking points on TV and regular folks share invective online.

OnWords: Tone

Nov 14, 2017

When senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake recently announced they were not running for reelection, they both noted the tone, the manner in which the current president communicates.

This is all fine and good, but it seems somewhat strange coming from men who voted with the president more often than not.

Such complaints about the tone of public speech are understandable. We’d like to be proud of the quality of our political debate. It makes us feel good as Americans to have witnessed the use of words fit for the ages.

OnWords: Crisis

Oct 31, 2017

I think we’re using the word “crisis” wrong most of the time.

I don’t usually make such pronouncements, and, frankly, as someone who recognizes that language changes based on how it is used, I’m uncomfortable doing even this.

But right now we seem to have a crisis glut.

North Korea’s nuclear program is a crisis. Immigration is a crisis. Health care is a crisis.

Traditionally, the word “crisis” has referred to a turning point, a time after which everything would dramatically and suddenly change.

OnWords: Identity Politics

Oct 18, 2017


“Identity politics” is one of those terms that everyone seems to want to distance themselves from but that everyone seems to practice.

In short, identity politics describes approaching political issues from the standpoint of the group with which you most closely identify.

OnWords: Function

Oct 3, 2017

The word “function” is applied to people in a variety of ways.

Job descriptions detail basic functions of the position, and mental health professionals declare people high- or low-functioning.

If my goal is to be a “functioning” student, employees, husband or son, my value as a human being is tied up with what I’m doing. That “doing” is generally for the benefit of some social institution or for the sake of someone else’s bottom line.

You can imagine what it might feel like if, through disability or happenstance, one is no longer “functional” in one area or another.

OnWords: Yeah, No

Sep 19, 2017

On a recent trip with some of my guy friends, we got to discussing the phrase “yeah, no,” a usage that one of our party found particularly annoying.

My annoyed friend considered “yeah, no” a recent development, an inescapable but obnoxious bit of Millennial verbal detritus on par with “LOL” and vocal fry.

I’m not so sure.

“Yeah, no” goes back in my experience at the latest to the 1990s, and its parallels in Spanish and French, “sí, no,” and “oui, non,” are common.

A couple of interpretations of this phrase stand out from its usage.

OnWords: Care

Sep 5, 2017

The word “care” has taken on many different meanings, meanings that seem to contradict themselves.

At one level, we use the term to indicate helping and high regard: the caring person gives constant nurturing and support, hovering over a bedside and using soothing tones.

But we also admire a “devil may care” attitude. In this case, the caring person is seen as overly sensitive and far too serious, but the person who doesn’t care is seen as having no worries.


It’s interesting that we’d be at a point in our nation’s history where we’d be having to decide if a meeting between the family members of a presidential candidate and a foreign agent should be defined as opposition research or treason.

“Opposition research” is supposed to mean finding information about a candidate against whom you’re running in order to gain political advantage.

The term has a scientific tinge, the word “research” making it all seem data-driven and proper for a tech-savvy election team well adapted to the Internet Age.