A Polish tongue twister

November 23, 2021 • 9:45 am

In my perambulations across the Internet, I came upon a list of international tongue twisters, and looked up the Polish ones. I thought they’d be interesting because Polish, with its notable absence of vowels and presence of many cases, is a very hard language for English speakers to learn, much less pronounce.  I’ve been sending these tongue twisters to Malgorzata each morning and then Skyping her to hear her read them in Polish. And oy! are they hard!

I also discovered that Polish poets often write poems as tongue twisters, the way Anglophones write limericks—as a form of amusement.  So I will present the latest Polish tongue twister and you can try to pronounce it. You will fail.  It’s part of a poem by Czeskaw Jryszewski:

Chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Szczebrzeszynie,
W szczękach chrząszcza trzeszczy miąższ,
Czcza szczypawka czka w Szczecinie,
Chrząszcza szczudłem przechrzcił wąż,
Strząsa skrzydła z dżdżu,
A trzmiel w puszczy, tuż przy Pszczynie,
Straszny wszczyna szum…

If you heard it pronounced by a Polish person, it is indeed a tongue twister, and doesn’t sound all that much like the words above. So it goes.

Malgorzata also translated it into English:

A beetle sounds in reeds in Szczebrzeszyn [name of a town],
In the beetle’s jaws pulp is creaking,
A meaningless earwig is hiccuping in Szczecin [name of a town],
A snake bashed the beetle with a crutch,
It shakes rain off its wings,
And a bumblebee in the forest close to Pszczyna [name of a town],
Started horrendous noise.

Freddie deBoer has some questions

November 9, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve recently read a few things by Freddie deBoer, described by Wikipedia as “an American academic and author”, as well as an “author and a socialist,” and so far he looks like a prominent person to follow. Reader cesar clued me into this piece on his eponymous Substack column, which you can read for free. (But remember to subscribe if you keep reading the site.) This is a very short piece so I won’t quote much, but it makes two assertions with a great deal of wit:

1.) Members of the Woke Brigade object to every term, phrase, or definition used to describe them—especially “woke”. (And yes, I know where the word came from.)

2.) They do this on purpose to avoid criticism.

Click to read:

deBoer was prompted to write because of the tweet below from Adam Serwer, a writer for The Atlantic.

I have no idea whether Serwer is woke, but I for one would be glad to explain what I mean: “woke” refers to those people who want to effect social justice (an admirable goal) but do so by either performative, non-effective acts or going to ludicrous extremes of writing or speaking. In general, wokeness either harms or has no effect on true liberalism. Two cases in point: preventing Dorian Abbot from giving a lecture on climate change at MIT, and protesting “Kimono Wednesdays” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  And let’s not forget all those “Grievance Studies” that Pluckrose et al. were mocking: real papers on stuff like the unbearable whiteness of pumpkins, or yogurt, or Pilates, or glaciology. Enough said.


Two excerpts from deBoer, and you’re invited put your own definition of “wokeness” in the comments. I will keep using the word in the sense described above.

. . . no [using] woke, it’s a “dogwhistle” for racism. (The term “dogwhistle” is a way for people to simply impute attitudes you don’t hold onto you, to make it easier to dismiss criticism, for the record.) But the same people say there’s no such thing as political correctness, and they also say identity politics is a bigoted term. So I’m kind of at a loss. Also, they propose sweeping changes to K-12 curricula, but you can’t call it CRT, even though the curricular documents specifically reference CRT, and if you do you’re an idiot and also you’re a racist cryptofascist. Also nobody (nobody!) ever advocated for defunding the police, and if they did it didn’t actually mean defunding the police. Seems to be a real resistance to simple, comprehensible terms around here. Serwer is a guy who constantly demands that he and his allies be allowed to do politics on easy mode, but he’s just part of a broader communal rejection of basic self-definition and comprehensible terms for this political tendency. Also if you say things they don’t like they might try to beat you up. Emphasis on try.

and one more:

The basic stance of the social justice set, for a long time now, has been that they are 100% exempt from ordinary politics. BlackLivesMatter proponents have spent a year and a half acting as though their demand for justice is so transcendently, obviously correct that they don’t have to care about politics. When someone like David Shor gently says that they in fact do have to care about politics, and points out that they’ve accomplished nothing, they attack him rather than do the work of making their positions popular. Well, sooner or later, guys, you have to actually give a shit about what people who aren’t a part of your movement think. Sorry. That’s life. The universe is indifferent to your demand for justice, and will remain so until you bother to try to change minds. Nobody gives you what you want. That’s not how it works. Do politics. Think and speak strategically. Be disciplined. Work harder. And for fuck’s sake, give me a simple term to use to address you. Please? Because right now it sure looks like you don’t want to be named because you don’t want to be criticized.

DeBoer desperately asks readers to give an acceptable term for Wokeness, but I think it’s a losing cause. “Wokeness” has already stuck, and most people have a pretty good idea of what it means. Any attempt to change it will meet the fate of the word “Brights” suggested by Dan Dennett to refer to “philosophical naturalists.” Have you heard anybody use it in the last couple of years except to mock it?

Words and phrases I detest

November 4, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Yes, it’s time for another selection of words and phrases that burn my onions and get my knickers in a wad. And, of course, you’ll get your own chance to weigh in below. As usual, I take many of my examples from the HuffPost, the epicenter of bad writing.  We have five items today; click on the screenshots to go to the articles.

1. Impactful. I detest this word because it seems to be a recent usage, is pretentious, and there are plenty of better words for it—like “powerful”. In the case of the HuffPost usage below, why wouldn’t “influential” do as well?  Can you imagine saying, “Well, Bill Gates is very impactful these days.”


2. Crisply.  I see this word all the time, like the odious phrase “bright line”, but it reminds me not of anything evocative except crackers. Here’s a usage from a Science paper I cited recently:

To wit:

An extreme social event (a war, in this case) that triggered intense, selective exploitation of elephants crisply illustrates the pronounced coupling between human societies and evolutionary processes in other life forms.

How does “crisply illustrate” differ from “vividly illustrate” or simply “illustrate”?Are they showing pictures of Saltines?


3. Majorly:  Now this one is really bad. Yes, it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it grates like nails on a blackboard.  This article has two errors: “majorly” (used with “intersect”, for chrissake), and “suped-up”, which is supposed to be spelled “souped-up”.

The offending sentence:

Early critic reactions to the scene described it as “very tame” and “very G-rated,” so keep your expectations low regarding just how steamy Marvel is getting in this new era. For decidedly more R-rated fare, fans noted that past heroes in Marvel television shows like “Jessica Jones,” which have yet to majorly intersect with the current MCU slate of films, featured more explicit and suped-up sexual encounters.


4. Going forward.  I know other readers hate this, too, for all it means is, “in the future,” or simply “next”—and sometimes doesn’t even need to be there. Here it is used in a Madison, Wisconsin NBC site—in the headline. (And no, it doesn’t refer to mail being forwarded; it means “from now on”; so it’s not only irritating, but confusing.)


5. Advancement. Now you see this one all the time, and all it means is “advance” as a noun. Anyone using it is being pretentious. Stop it now!

. . . aaaand, here it is in a HuffPost headline. “Advances” would have read so much better! But the author wanted to sound, well, serious:


Your turn! What words curl the soles of your shoes?

Jesse Singal: The AMA jumps the Woke Shark, introduces Medspeak

November 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychological Association are now beyond redemption since they’ve decided to steep their organizations in “progressive” ideology and also to issue fulsome apologies for their past behavior. But this I found unbelievable:  tweets sent by Jesse Singal and forwarded by Luana. The AMA is policing language to conform to an extreme Leftist view of the world.  Welcome to Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Medspeak:

I’ll just expand the text:

What the AMA is doing here is taking statements of fact and then politicizing them by ascribing those facts to various debatable ideological positions. In other words, they’re adding irrelevant ideological material in service of their viewpoint. This of course stifles any discussion. But since when is the AMA supposed to police language?

I’ll add a few more of Singal’s tweets from that thread; you can enlarge the text for yourself.  There are 15 tweets in the thread.

You can check Singal’s excerpts out by clicking below, which will take you to the 54-page document. It provides hours of amusement unless you have high blood pressure, in which case you’ll blow an artery.

They also have a convenient glossary where you can amuse yourself by turning up stuff like this. Note the “subjective” part, designed to denigrate an objective sexual binary (yes, of course there are very rare exceptions, like hermaphrodites, but they are not members of “a different sex”). The glossary doesn’t even give a hint that there is “biological” sex defined by relative gamete size, and virtually all humans can be classified as one or the other of two sexes. When I sorted flies, they were either male or female (with dissection invariably showing the correct gametes) or, once every six months or so, a gynandromorph, reflecting loss of a chromosome.

Throughout there is unquestioning endorsement of the ideas of Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo:

Why is that in there? Why would a doctor ever need the concept of “white fragility”? It’s in there to cater to the Woke.

More: an unquestioning acceptance of the tenets of Kendi, with no dissent permitted.

Enough for me. It appears we’ve lost this battle, but I still find value in pushing back, which may inspire others to follow.

[Added note by GCM: The AMA brochure is even nuttier than it appears on first view. It says not to use the words vulnerable, marginalized, and high-risk, but then uses the words repeatedly in its preferred usages!! It’s as though the approved and disapproved sections were written by two different people!]

McWhorter on how to teach kids to read

September 4, 2021 • 11:30 am

John McWhorter’s “subscriber only” columns seem to appear in the online NYT even if you don’t subscribe, but I wouldn’t always count on it, for they also disappear rapidly. His latest column (click on screenshot) is about linguistics—I suspect he’ll alternate between race and politics on one hand and linguistics on the other—and will be of interest mainly to parents with young children, for it’s about the best way to teach kids to read.

Again, compared to what McWhorter is capable of writing when he’s on a roll (and I think he is close to the Orwell/Mencken class of essayist), this one is fairly tedious, though it has useful information you might want if you have kids on the cusp of reading. Like his other columns that don’t hang together well, it’s a pastiche of somewhat related ideas that seem to have been thrown together to meet a deadline.

The first is why English is spelled so un-phonetically, so that words like “comb,” “tomb” and “bomb”, or “tough,” “bough” and “through”, look the same but are pronounced very differently. A kid learning English has to grapple with that. Attempts to spell words phonetically, and he gives a few examples, are ridiculous to our eye.

He then recounts the controversy about “ebonics” (remember that?): the use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a way to teach kids to read. I well remember this controversy, in which white opponents thought that it was going to teach black kids that proper English consisted of the black street vernacular. McWhorter says that’s wrong; it was always intended to engage kids in reading regular English by using their own argot to teach them.

Finally, he makes a big push for what he considers the only proper way to teach kids to read the difficult language of English: phonics.  I didn’t learn that way, but you can read about the principle and methodology here and here (there are several teaching methods, and McWhorter favors the “Direct Instruction Method”.

Since I can already read, and don’t have kids, I didn’t find this column of particular interest, but you might, and so I’ll give a few quotes:

Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.

Crucially, the method works well with poor as well as affluent children. Just a couple decades ago, the method was still kicking serious butt where it was implemented. In Richmond, Va., the mostly Black public school district was mired in only a 40 percent passage rate on the state reading test until the district started teaching the phonics way, upon which in just four years passage rates were up to 74 percent.

However, there is a persistent disconnect between the world of reading science and the world of people teaching children to read. Only 15 percent of programs training elementary-school teachers include actual instruction on how to teach children to read. There remain people who favor the whole word method, or a combination of whole word and phonics, or even no particular “method” at all.

Using phonics, he says, obviates the divisive need for Ebonics, since the “Direct Instruction Method,” whatever that is, works much better than the marginal gains in reading ability of African-American children achieved by teaching them in AAVE.  Finally, he recommends a book if your kid isn’t being taught to read via phonics:

In our moment, as our children go back to school, pandemic-related issues are a clear priority for all of us. However, school boards should be pressured as much as possible to teach reading via the Direct Instruction method of phonics. And if they won’t, there’s what I call the magical book: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons,” by Englemann with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner. I’ve seen this method work in my own home, having used it with both of my children and watched that light go on.

McWhorter’s a linguist, so he surely knows whereof he speaks. However, I’d prefer that he write just one column a week, and if it’s about linguistics it should be about as engaging as Pinker’s The Language Instinct. So far McWhorter’s not in that territory, though I haven’t read any of his linguistics books.

I’m looking forward far more eagerly to his upcoming tome, due out October 26. Click on screenshot to go to the Amazon page. You can bet your bippy that this book ain’t getting any starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or Booklist!

McWhorter returns to the mundane

August 27, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I think John McWhorter should write one column per week in the NYT instead of his contracted two, as the two-column gig just takes up too much time, and something’s gotta give. After his barnburner critique of performative anti-racism on Tuesday, McWhorter’s plumb worn himself out. Or so it appears from his much shorter piece today, which is on how spoken American has gotten more polite.

You can’t get this at the NYT yet, or by clicking on the screenshot, as it hasn’t yet appeared in the op-ed section, and you have to subscribe to see it anyway. Perhaps a judicious inquiry will yield the piece.

Of course McWhorter is a linguist, and this stuff is his bread and butter, but somehow I can’t get as juiced about contrarian linguistics as I can about McWhorter’s contrarian (for a black man) take on antiwokeness.. Ergo, I’ll be short.

McWhorter says that, contrary to our impressions, American language has not gotten rougher, with more frequent use of profanity, but in fact is becoming more polite. And politesse is, he says, one of the functions of language. When you take leave of a friend you don’t say “I am leaving now”, which is rude, but rather the gentler, “I’ll be heading out.”

To defend his thesis, McWhorter has to make some stretches. “Uptalking”, the irritating habit of ending a sentence with a rise in pitch, like a question, now becomes a form of checking to see if the other person is following you, “acknowledging the other person’s presence and marking their engagement and interest.” I wonder how we accomplished that before some people—no, not even most of them—adopted this annoying intonation. We did it by politely engaging in conversation.

And as for the reprehensible and nonstop insertion of “like” into every sentence, McWhorter also, like, likes that, too. He says, like, the word actually conveys different meanings depending on, like, how it’s used:

The infamous usage of “like” is a similar story. It’s easy to hear nothing but hedging in it — “That was, like, not a great thing to do.” But a linguist can break (and has broken) the new “like” down into assorted usages beyond hedging. For example, if a guy says, “We looked in, and it was so crowded. And not just a few kids. There were, like, grandparents and cousins in there. We had to go somewhere else,” he isn’t hedging; he’s stressing his point. The function of “like” there is to imply, “You might think it was just some kids, but actually ….” He is thinking about the state of mind of his interlocutors as he speaks.

Well, “but also” would have conveyed the same meaning. Yes, language changes, and we’re not going to get rid of “like”, much beloved of the younger folks (although notice that you don’t hear it on the evening news). But how many of us have heard a conversation between two young people in which almost every other word is “like”? And no, not every use of that word has a different meaning, or even a meaning.

As for curse words, which you hear increasingly in the movies or in prose (and I don’t mind that), those too show McWhorter that English is getting ever more polite.  Here’s how he justifies that:

A possible objection here is those four-letter words flying all over the place. I certainly use them more than my parents did, and most would consider me a reserved sort — and yet in this, I am not unusual for people my age. How much sweetness and light can we really see in an American English that allows into polite society people who use a certain F-word dozens of times a day?

But we need to change the lens here. It’s less that people use profanity more than that profanity is no longer as profane as it used to be. What people treated as truly bad words 100 years ago are now more realistically classified as salty. By my parents’ time, this was true of “damn” and “hell”; to dismiss something, they’d say “Oh, to hell with that,” even in front of kids. Today, though, my equivalent — and yes, sometimes in front of kids! — would involve that word that begins with “f.”

But I’m not sure what he means by saying that they’re used more often because “they’re not as profane as they used to be.” Perhaps they became less profane because they were used more often! After people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin broke the taboo by speaking the taboo words onstage, people realized that you could get away with using in public words previously reserved for private conversation.

I won’t go on; the piece is light, larded with claims about how phrases like “hop on the phone” and a waiter saying “I’m going to go ahead and take your plate” are harbingers of a new and kinder English, a “delightfully considerate language if you know where to listen for it—in informal language.”

Well perhaps McWhorter is right. After all, he’s a linguist and I’m not. But I’ll never get used to fifteen “likes” in a sentence, and I still think that uptalking is also a sign of insecurity. McWhorter most engages me when he’s in a hot passion about the follies of wokeness, not when highlighting the nuances of English. It’s his column, of course, and he’s perfectly entitled to write about his profession. But I bet he wasn’t hired by the NYT to talk about linguistics, at least linguistics unrelated to politics. And dare I say that he’s better when writing about politics and ideology than about language?

McWhorter’s first NYT essay: The origins of “woke” as a pejorative

August 18, 2021 • 9:15 am

If you subscribe to the New York Times, you can sign up for a twice-weekly essay in your email by John McWhorter (go here to subscribe), which, though also on the paper’s op-ed page isn’t available for free viewing. Although McWhorter fretted about the effect on his academic duties of writing two longish pieces per week, it’s hard to resist when the Gray Lady calls.

His first essay, which as a subscriber you can get for free by clicking below, is an essay on the origin of the term “woke”. Once a term of approbation used by blacks, is now a pejorative word used by many to mean what “politically correct” used to mean: annoying and over-the-top flaunting of liberal virtues.  But how did its meaning change?

I have to say that, while instructive, McWhorter’s essay is not nearly as engaging as the pieces he writes on his own website, “It bears mentioning“. That’s undoubtedly because he can’t be as incendiary about race in the NYT as he can at Substack. But beyond that, I can’t make a lot of sense out of McWhorter’s explanation of how “woke” changed from an expression of solidarity and awareness among black people into a term of mockery among white people and those of other ethnicities.

Here’s his chronology and line of argument.

First, “woke” has been part of black argot for a long time. McWhorter notes that Lead Belly uses the phrase “stay woke” in a 1938 recording, meaning “black people: be alert to physical danger.” Over the next decades it kept a positive connotation as expressing empathy for black issues. It first appeared in the NYT in 1962, and, says McWhorter, was probably adopted in the 1980s by whites as a sign of racial empathy. It was still a positive term about 6 years ago, but then something happened: it became a replacement for the term “politically correct,” which itself may have started out as a positive term (I don’t remember it being used that way), which had long ago became a sneering reference to mindless adherence to Leftist ideology.

The horizontal leap of “woke” from black to white parlance, like the transfer of a gene, kept its function intact. It was, as they say, a cultural appropriation by whites of black street talk, like the word “salty” for “irritable.” So how did it wind up changing its meaning and turning from a positive term to this?:

No more. These days, “woke” is said with a sneer. It’s a prisoner in scare quotes as often as not (“Why ‘wokeness’ is the biggest threat to Democrats in the 2022 election”) and typically uttered with a note of condescension somewhere between the way comedians used to talk about hippies and the way anybody talks about, well, rather than a word beginning with “a” you’ll find discussed, among other places, here, I will sub in “jerks.”

Indeed, that’s how I use it, and have been called out by some readers for that. Is it racist to use the term given that it came from black argot and used to have a positive spin? I don’t think so, because although it was taken from black jargon, it’s not applied solely, or even exclusively, to blacks. It means the same thing as “politically correct”, which is a general sneer at the Left, regardless of race.

McWhorter falls down on two counts in this piece. First, and less important, he’s discursive, throwing in a lot of material irrelevant to the question at hand, like the new usage of “racial reckoning” and “problematic”. Those terms are fascinating on their own, but have nothing to do with the change of “woke” (well, a few of us use “problematic” as a sneer). But one gets the feeling that McWhorter—who had complained earlier about having to write long-form essays twice a week—was padding the piece with irrelevant stuff.

More important, he doesn’t clearly explain, at least to me, how woke changed its connotation from good to bad. It appears to have something to do with the Right starting to make fun of the term, just as they supposedly did with the term “politically correct.” But then the explanation of changing meaning doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

McWhorter starts by reaffirming that “wokeness used to refer to views that “any reasonable person” should have:

In a view like that, there is, inevitably, a certain self-satisfaction. And in some of those holding this kind of view, that self-satisfaction will express itself in dismissal and abuse of those ungifted with the third eye in question. The result will be resistance, much of it no less pretty, and this was why, just a few years after my college friend used the term, “politically correct” had become the slur “P.C.,” hurled at the left from the right and even from the center.

“Woke” has just undergone the same process: Those bristling at being accused of not being woke have pushed back to the point of leaving the term in bad odor. Certainly “woke” has a racial substrate, but the larger process here is the race-neutral euphemism treadmill, a term I am ripping off from Steven Pinker. A well-used word or expression is subject to ridicule or has grimy associations. A new term is born to replace it and help push thought ahead. But after that term spends some time getting knocked around in the real world, the associations the old term had settle back down, like gnats, on the new one. Yet another term is needed. Repeat.

This was how we got from “politically correct” to “woke.” This was the path from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” Certainly it can be about race matters, as “slum clearance” became “urban renewal.” But just as often, it’s things more race neutral. There was a time when one called a trade union a combination, and the draft was often called conscription. The old words had, for better or for worse, menacing associations that made it seem useful to sub in other ones.

In other words, people started using “woke” in a negative way because those who used it positively were arrogant and condescending. Ergo, it was subject to ridicule. And in this McWhorter may be correct. But then McWhorter reverts to the old term “politically correct,” which I don’t remember ever having been used positively. (Perhaps it was before my time.) So, he implies “woke” became negative because for some reason it was needed to replace the negative term “politically correct.”

Now McWhorter is a linguist, so I hesitate to say his explanation is muddled.  Did the term become negative as a way of making fun of arrogant people who used it? Or was it needed as a replacement for the term “politically correct”, which was itself getting obsolete and overused? The analogy with the change “crippled” through “handicapped” to “differently abled” is not apt, because “crippled” has a negative connotation (which the original “woke” didn’t), while “differently abled” is a term that arose to try to express empathy with the disabled. Yes, some people mock “differently abled”, but it’s often used positively, while “woke” has become wholly negative. Pinker’s “euphemism treadmill”, at the link, doesn’t clarify matters much, for it explains such changes as ones meant to unload the negative freight carried by words, misguided as such changes may sometimes be. But “woke” is not like “Negro” or “crippled”. It’s a positive term that took on a negative meaning, and not as a euphemism.

I remain confused. If McWhorter wanted to say that “woke” became negative as a reaction to snobs who used it positively, well, that takes just one sentence.

McWhorter’s column is good, but discursive and less clear than it could be—something unusual for a man who pulls no punches. I blame it on the NYT, and on McWhorter’s desire to write in a less incendiary way and in a longer form. I hope he continues these pieces, as his thoughts deserve a much wider audience than they get from Substack. But he should at least return a bit to the tone and style of the pieces on his own site, or in his conversations with Glenn Loury on “The Glenn Show.”

It has not escaped my notice that I may have misunderstood what McWhorter’s trying to explain; after all, my insomnia kicked in big time last night and it’s hard for me to think. Readers are welcome to correct any misapprehensions of fuzziness of thought on my part.

More words and phrases I detest

August 8, 2021 • 11:00 am

After a long dry spell, once again I’m inundated by infelicitous language.  Today I’ll show you five words or phrases that trigger me, inflicting linguistic microaggressions (i.e. violence) to my brain. And, as usual, I’ll take most of my examples from HuffPost, which is the Mother Lode of Bad Writing. (Click on screenshots if, Ceiling Cat forbid, you want to go to the articles.)  I may have used one or two of these before, but you can’t be reminded often enough about this kind of usage.

1.) “To medal” (used as an intransitive verb like “to defecate”). Meaning: to acquire a bronze, silver, or gold medal in the Olympics. The Oxford English dictionary even defines this as a proper verb, though it’s usually transitive, e.g., “George Tenet, the head of the CIA was medaled and commended by George Bush when he retired.” But it’s also intransitive, as you see every five minutes in reports on the Olympics. To wit:

I don’t give a damn if the OED says the usage is correct; this is the difference between something being legal and being wrong. And yes, the alternative is longer, “X won a gold medal”, but you see that usage even more often, and it sounds a lot better.

But wait! There’s more! Here’s a usage from the New York Times!

2.)Going forward”: This is just a “with it” phrase meaning “In the future” (it does not mean “moving on”, which simply means moving to the next topic in a discussion or article). Its purpose is to make you sound significant or important. Here’s one example from HuffPost:

The acceptable substitute is simply this: “in the future.”  I have a feeling that more than one reader will share my sentiments on this one.

3.) “A nominal flight”. This does have a technical meaning, “performing acceptably”, as we heard to no end when we watched the short Blue Horizon tourist flight. But the first time the announcers used it, I immediately thought of the usual definitions of “nominal”: either “in a small amount” or, more rarely, “in name only”. So I wondered why the flight should be less than expected until I had to look up the meaning of the word. You shouldn’t have to do that—the announcers were just showing off (it’s ok, though, for the SpaceX people communicating back and forth to the capsule to use it as a technical word).

4.) “Cash out”.  The usage to which I refer does not mean to redeem your poker chips or lottery ticket. Rather, I’ll show its meaning taken from a philosophy website, Maverick Philosopher:

Keith Burgess-Jackson writes in a recent post:

Philosophers use the term “cash” in a special way, as when they say, “This [concept] needs to be cashed out.” It’s another way of saying “analyzed.” I don’t know this, but I suspect the term derives from cash, as in money. To cash a check is to reduce it to (transform it into) money. To cash out a concept is to reduce it to (transform it into) other, more familiar, concepts.

Or, from reddit, answering the question of what the phrase means:

Explaining it. When you cash out your chips in a casino, you bring them to the cashier and get the money that the chips represent. When you cash out, for instance, an assertion, the assertion is metaphorically the chips, and you bring them to the philosopher, who presents you with the explanation of what that assertion means.

When I see a philosopher use the phrase, I immediately discount that person. I can’t help it. You lose Coyne points when you say “cash out” because a). it’s trendy, used to show off professional jargon and b). its meaning is not clear to the average person like me.  If you are tempted to use this phrase, resist, resist, resist. Why not just use “explain” or “analyze” as in the definitions above?

5.) Bad-ass or badass.  This originally was an adjective designating a person you didn’t want to mess with because the consequences could be dire or dangerous. Now, with language being devalued right and left, it simply means, “someone who does something interesting, unexpected, laudatory or unusual.” For reasons I don’t understand, it now applies almost exclusively to women.  Let’s just say that the new version of “badass” is to the old one as the woke usage of “violence” is to real violence. Some examples from HuffPost.

At least in this version they put quotes around the offending phrase:

it gets worse. Here’s a common usage: the people referred to aren’t badass at all; they’re just people you like!

This one refers not to a woman, but to an impala:

I’m sure Orwell would find “badass” to be a “problematic” word (“problematic” is another word I detest). Think of something clearer. For the first one above, you can simply leave out ‘badass’. For the second, do the same thing, unless all the women you love are gangsters. For the third, what’s wrong with “determined” or “tenacious”?

Get off of my lawn!  Of course, now it’s your turn to beef, which you can do in the comments.

Words and phrases I detest

July 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I’ve been looking out for infelicitous phrases for a while, and I think my previous posts in this series have nearly exhausted my curmudgeonly policing of language. So in the past two months I have just two pharses. But they’re phrases that one hears a lot.

Now before you start telling me that “languages evolves,” don’t bother, for I’m highlighting phrases that bother me.  You have such phrases. too (and eliciting them is what I intend to do), while other folks, being liberal minded, will say that it’s fine that phrases like “begs the question” can be used to mean “raises the question”. After all, languages changes. But this is not the post to point that out.

As usual, I take my examples from HuffPost, whose writers cannot write without Twitter and must lean on language that they think is trendy.

a.)  “Deep dive”.  This simply means a “close look”, or, if you want to be fancy, a “thorough analysis”. You will never hear me use this phrase, but HuffPost uses it often. Here’s but one example:

But it’s not just HuffPost! The New York Times uses it, too!

b.) “Perfect storm”.  Now if you really want to sound au courant, just use this phrase to refer to the concatenation of factors that aggravate a situation. (Don’t get me started on “aggravate”!). The words were popularized by the eponymous 2000 disaster movie in which a boat and its crew are lost in a terrible storm. (The title came from the 1997 nonfiction book that inspired the film.) And, of course, HuffPost is aboard the linguistic Andrea Gale:

Note that in the headline above, “perfect storm” is in quotation marks, which indicates, perhaps, that the author knows he’s not writing something quite right. And he isn’t: for there are not multiple concatenating factors here that worsen a situation, but just a proposed sequence of violent episodes. Still, Mr. Mathias wants to sound cool, so he uses it anyway.

But the New York Times uses it as well. Here’s just one example:


At least they use it to refer to a series of concatenating factors that, together, could cause a big disaster.  But a good writer doesn’t just lean on these trite phrases. Instead, as Orwell urged, try thinking up your own fresh metaphors or similes. For that is the mark of language that’s a pleasure to read.

Now you know the drill: cough up some words or phrases that annoy you. Curmudgeon time!

Australian woman has tonsil surgery, wakes up with Irish accent

July 1, 2021 • 2:45 pm

Here’s a Brisbane woman whose accent changed from Australian to Irish after her tonsils were removed. This phenomenon is called “foreign accent syndrome” and, as Wikipedia says,

Foreign accent syndrome usually results from a stroke, but can also develop from head trauma, migraines or developmental problems. The condition might occur due to lesions in the speech production network of the brain, or may also be considered a neuropsychiatric condition. The condition was first reported in 1907, and between 1941 and 2009 there were 62 recorded cases.

Its symptoms result from distorted articulatory planning and coordination processes and although popular news articles commonly attempt to identify the closest regional accent, speakers suffering from foreign accent syndrome acquire neither a specific foreign accent nor any additional fluency in a foreign language. There has been no verified case where a patient’s foreign language skills have improved after a brain injury.

Since this involved only the removal of tonsils, it must be either “neuropsychiatric”, or have something to do with the change in her tonsils. Don’t ask me: I’m not a doctor (I just play one in academica).

When you’re so afflicted, you don’t speak a different language, of course, but your accent resembles that of someone from another land speaking your language. And it occurs in languages other than English. It’s usually temporary, but can be persistent, and it’s hard to fix, with retraining in your native accent the usual means of “cure.” You can read about it in various papers here.