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: Evil

Apr 5, 2016

We use the word “evil” when we want to stop thinking about the roots of unacceptable behavior.

Look at how often the word “evil” is preceded by the words “just plain,” as in “Them Moozlim ter’rists is just plain evil, is all it is.”

This use runs across lines of party and principle, and it serves to literally demonize the other side. Liberals label giant corporations evil, and conservatives have used the term on Hillary Clinton.

As recently as 50 years ago, the subject of evil was up for philosophical debate. Today, we don’t try to understand it at all.

OnWords: Print

Mar 22, 2016


Many words have been written both in print and online worrying about how we’re writing too many words online and not enough in print.  

“Authority” is a word we associate with positions of power. Authority in this sense comes from the role you fill, not from the personal qualities you possess.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, though, authority’s Latin root means, among other things, to originate, to promote, to increase or make grow.

At its origins, authority is distinct from power, but it can embody its own kind of power.

When I was growing up, my cousins and I were sometimes accused of being honyocks.

“Honyock” was applied to us by older relatives who were tired of our noise and horseplay and just wanted us to settle down and cut it out already. 

Online sources of varying quality contend that “honyock” is either a Hungarian word making fun of country folk or an English word making fun of Hungarians. One source even says that “honyock” comes from German and means “honey chaser.”

Time-shifting technologies such as DVRs and Netflix have created the need for the term “spoiler alert.” Since not all of us access our favorite movies and TV shows at the same time these days, those who saw them first can reveal things we’d rather see ourselves.

“Spoiler alert,” though, tells us a lot about how contemporary storytelling gets done and what kind of stories we now find compelling.

The “spoiler” is usually tied to an unexpected plot twist or shocking revelation, a deus ex machina (define) for the online era.

Terms like “climate denier” tend to make language sticklers blanch.

After all, those who carry this label do not deny that there is a climate; they just dismiss humanity’s role in changing it.

Language sticklers also object to such things as the suffix “gate” for denoting political scandals. Using “gate” this way derives from the Watergate scandal that took down Nixon, but notably this term for Nixon’s problems come from the fact that it happened at the Watergate hotel.

OnWords: Campaign Rhetoric

Jan 12, 2016
donaldjtrump.com

 

    

Headed into yet another election cycle, we all have the opportunity to wade through a deep sewer of campaign rhetoric.

For lost souls who insist that language ought to correspond to reality, this can be a difficult time. Fact-checking websites have a field day comparing what candidates say with what reliable sources claim to be true.

OnWords: Happy Holidays

Dec 29, 2015

I started bidding people “happy holidays” a long time ago.

For my part, this greeting has nothing to do with a war on Christmas or political correctness. It’s really about laziness and respect.

OnWords: Have vs. Get

Dec 15, 2015

Advertisers like to remind us of all that we get when we buy their products. Feature-packed deals are, among other things, how we put up with the low quality and microsecond life cycles of the junk we buy.

But this word, “get,” has some interesting implications.

It’s not having a thing that’s important in consumer culture but getting it. Having and keeping are, after all, bad for business. The profit is in the purchase, so an emphasis on what you get is paramount.

OnWords: Saving 'Crazy'

Dec 1, 2015

 

George Orwell warned us about language becoming burdened with fancy words meant to obscure meaning and draw people’s attention from evil intent.

Orwell argued that being direct is more ethical, not just more elegant.

We can see this play out with words like “crazy.” “Crazy” is about as direct as English gets, and it’s tremendously useful in ordinary talk. To call something that is far outside normal reason “crazy” says what we mean to say: it’s something that pretty obviously doesn’t make sense.

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