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: Post-Fact World

Dec 27, 2016

The term “post-fact world” is gaining frightening currency these days.

The idea here is that facts no longer matter in public discourse, that people can say whatever they want, and if something reinforces what people think, they’ll believe it, no matter the evidence to back it up.

At issue is not just how we communicate with one another, but whether or not language is really able to carry straightforward meaning.

The word “refugee,” though quite well placed in a certain Tom Petty song, has become quite rare.

OnWords: Transition

Nov 29, 2016


We get to hear the word “transition” a lot during this season, as we move from summer to fall, and fall to winter. If nothing else, the political scene seems to be making up for any transitions the weather has failed to deliver. But “transition” has gathered a remarkable amount of baggage for a fairly technical, Latinate word.

OnWords: Unfriend

Nov 22, 2016

This past election season, we’ve seen a spate of unfriending. In order for “unfriend” to be a verb, “friend” must also have become one.

To “friend” a person is a function of social media. The process is as simple as clicking a virtual button and sending a request, to be requited or refused in the great digital beyond. Back in ancient times when “friend” was only a noun, this process was much more drawn out. You “befriended” someone, which implies that the onus of beginning the process was on you. Or you “made friends with” someone. You put in the work to build something new.

OnWords: Media

Nov 15, 2016

We tend to use the word “media” somewhat ungrammatically.

It is plural, but we generally reference “the media” as if it’s a single entity and not various different ways of conveying information.

This is curious, since the last few decades have seen a proliferation of new media, each medium failing to completely supplant the last.

Perhaps we lump all media together because the messages we receive from our various sources are largely the same.

OnWords: Locker Room Talk

Nov 1, 2016

I’m not going to argue here that Donald Trump was justified in calling his hot-mic admission of sexual assault “locker room talk.”

Rather, I’m going to suggest that such candid speech is probably necessary.

OnWords: Honyock

Oct 18, 2016

This commentary originally aired on February 23, 2016.  

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.”

OnWords: Listicle

Oct 4, 2016

The listicle is familiar to all readers of Buzzfeed and HuffPo, as well as to the denizens of Cracked and a zillion other online venues.

I’m not much of a word stickler, but I do object to people confusing the word “simple” with the word “simplistic.”

“Simple” means, well, simple: uncomplicated, straightforward, easy to understand.

A simple design is clean, but it can also be clever. Sometimes a simple solution takes a whole lot more thought than a complicated one.

“Simplistic,” in contrast, is oversimplified, dumbed-down, and probably stupid from the get-go, like the idea that building a wall on the Southern border will solve the immigration problem.

The term “the Ferguson effect” developed in order to explain the rise in the murder rate in a few major cities following the massive protests against police violence that originated in Ferguson, Missouri.

The idea behind the Ferguson effect is that police are reluctant to pursue the kind of aggressive policing that, its supporters claim, lowers the murder rate because cops know their actions are being recorded by onlookers’ smart phones.