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.

European Commission DG ECHO

My work in the mental health field has brought me into contact with a lot of disease. I mean this not just in the sense of diagnosis, but also in the sense of dis-ease: those things that put us ill at ease.

The proliferation of new disease categories, such as generalized anxiety disorder, with the publication of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is actually quite controversial within the field. But it points to an uncomfortable idea: disease, rather than referring to something out there in the world, is actually a social construct.

Joel Kramer, flickr Creative Commons

Since when was “a thing,” you know, a thing?

The phrase “a thing” has recently come to mean something not just real but relevant to the lives of certain people—probably not us. It is usually uttered at the discovery of this new, well, thing. This usage is not just another form of shorthand. It’s also an indication of how little we actually know about other people’s lives.

Enokson, flickr Creative Commons

A post-holiday conversation with a co-worker led to an exploration of the origin of the phrase “get back in the swing of things.”

We speculated that perhaps the phrase originated with golf, or maybe with work involving the swing of an ax.

More formal research proved all but fruitless, but it did reveal something interesting: a lot of people, mostly non-native English speakers, are interested in the meaning of the phrase “get back in the swing of things.”

The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll
Henry Holiday / Wikimedia Commons

One particular form of irony that deserves special attention is snark--the cutting sort of sarcasm common to virtual spaces from Facebook to Reddit and back again.

We may at one time have attributed the urge to be snarky to good, old-fashioned wit. History tells us that the insults thrown around in society gatherings in the drawing rooms and at the dinner tables of the elite were just as sharp as today's snark, though they may have been more clever.

OnWords: Hey You Guys!

Feb 10, 2015

I have been challenged by several people to comment on the use of the word “guys” as a general form of address. The main complaint goes something like this: “What if we're not all guys, guys?”

And I get it: the use of a gendered generalization when a non-gendered one would be more appropriate rubs against some hard-won principles. But “guys” is such a trite word that it seems like an unworthy target.

After all, the title sequence of The Electric Company on PBS opened with a woman yelling, “Hey you guuuuys!” And that was over 40 years ago.

Office Space / 20th Century Fox

Purists can’t stand the use of the word “office” as a verb, as in a major NPR underwriter using the tag line “the smart way to office.”

On one hand, I don’t blame them. This sort of what we might call “verbing” stinks of all the absurdities promoted by management culture with its disdain for, if not contempt of, regular language and plain speech. But looking a bit deeper, “to office” hints at the way work has changed over the past 50 years.

opensource.com, flickr Creative Commons

“Reform” is another word of cavernous uncertainty into which falls many a good idea, never to return.

On its face, we should expect anything that’s reformed to look different when we’re done but not be fundamentally different. To reform a thing is, after all, not to transform it.

But sometimes the vagueness of “reform” is used so as not to scare those who are potentially harmed by the details of systemic change.

“Compromise” was the buzzword of the 2014 mid-term elections. The absolute failure of the two major parties to show any progress toward compromise should not surprise us, though.

“Compromise” is one of those words that seems general but is incredibly sensitive to context. Whether we view compromise as a higher good or as unprincipled evil depends entirely on what we want to achieve—and on who is doing the compromising.

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.


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.