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.

Adam Gerard, flickr Creative Commons

The term “political correctness” arose over twenty years ago from the Pentagon’s attempt to package war as cleanly as possible--think “collateral damage” instead of “civilian deaths.” It’s largely been kept alive by conservatives angry at liberal overreach and liberal free speech activists who feel constrained by their own tribe.

Meh.

Dec 4, 2014
Ken Murphy, flickr Creative Commons

The word “meh” may be the perfect combination of resignation and ennui.

Only a culture so utterly saturated in mediocrity could come up with a term that, in one syllable, expresses both the feeling of being confronted with that mediocrity and the fatigue of having to put up with it.

I guess we wouldn’t even need “meh” if our opinions about stupid, formulaic movies; mind-numbing occupations; and indifferent products and services weren’t so frequently polled.

Oberazzi / flickr Creative Commons

While I prefer to let language run its course, I get upset when people misuse the phrase “it begs the question.”

Using “it begs the question” creates confusion rather than clarity and tames an otherwise powerful tool of argument.

The most common use of “it begs the question” is actually its misuse. A journalist or pundit will unthinkingly analyze some minor bit of scandal and say “it begs the question” when he really means “it brings up the question.”

On Words: Civil Discourse

Nov 4, 2014
U.C. Berkeley

Recently, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has come under fire for using the 50th anniversary of the campus free speech movement as a call for “civil discourse.” 

So, I’m on Facebook the other day, where all meaningful discussion happens, and I run across several friends discussing why so many people start sentences with the word “so.”

http://meangirlgifs.tumblr.com/

There are various origin stories for the phrase “I know, right?” In The Week magazine, James Harbeck attributes the popularization of this phrase to the movie

Explaining Isn't Excusing

Sep 23, 2014
Wikimedia Commons

Though we often use them together, an explanation is not an excuse.

An explanation can be used when we give evidence for an excuse, but an excuse is about culpability, which is determined by a set of values, values that can exist outside of a set of facts. An explanation, in contrast, comes about by the application of a set of principles to a set of facts.

Mark Engelbrecht / Flickr / Creative Commons

A former colleague of mine, Rita Peters, pointed out the frequency with which teens and tweens utter the dreaded phrase,“Mom, I’m bored!”

Boredom, it seems, is a major epidemic. But, of course, it always has been. Let’s face it, most things, except perhaps sex, are boring on the surface of them.

Google Images / Creative Commons

There’s a big difference between responsibility and blame, even though we often use them interchangeably.

When GM CEO Mary Barra stood up before congress and accepted responsibility for her company’s faulty ignition switches, what she got was blame. Her attempt, it seems, was genuine: she was trying to express the idea that, unlike past GM officials, she was willing to admit that wrong had been done and something was going to be done about it.

As any Midwesterner knows, you can take responsibility for a problem by stepping up and acting on it.

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The U.S. goes through periodic bouts of doubt regarding what education means.

In the latest round, we have the Common Core and No Child Left Behind pushing us toward ever more measurable outcomes and ever less certainty about what kids actually should learn. These trends equate education with “performance” and “achievement,” “success” and “excellence.”

I’ve been around education circles just long enough to recognize these as only trends, soon to be replaced by other trends, none of them particularly helpful in understanding education.

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