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.

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



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.

The last 30 years have seen a shift toward economic concerns over just about everything else. Simultaneously, we’ve seen an uptick in our awareness of ecology, and of humanity’s often destructive place therein.

As oil-industry-funded climate-change denial has shown, however, the words “economy” and “ecology” are often at odds in the public mind. Doing what it takes to create a cleaner ecology, we’re told, will harm our already fragile economy.

OnWords: Oppression

Oct 6, 2015
Ty Wright/Getty Images

We put a lot of stock in the word “oppression.”

Our nation’s mythology begins with hapless colonists oppressed by a tyrannical king, even though those who led the revolution would have been considered pretty comfortable at the time.

The idea that coming to America will free immigrants from the oppression in places like Syria and South Sudan is bellowed from the mouths of politicians and reflected on the podium of the Statue of Liberty. For most of us, though, oppression is lost in the misty past, as much a source of pride as a collective memory.

OnWords: Intellectual

Sep 23, 2015

As recently as the 1980s, the word “intellectual” had real meaning.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote half a century ago, the United States has always loved to hate intellectuals, a fact that can be seen on prominent display in the current race for president.

But the U.S. has also produced some of the greatest intellectuals of the past two centuries, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to bell hooks.


The way Americans use words like “shooter,” “gunman,” and “killer” show our attitudes about gun use.

Reporters often use the words “shooter” and “gunman” interchangeably. While perhaps meant to convey objectivity, these words also show no culpability or intentionality on the part of the person wielding the gun.

“Shooter” and “gunman” suggest that the gun has a force of will or that gun use is somehow inherent in the person. In either case, the words imply that there's nothing to be done: gunmen gonna gun and shooters gonna shoot.