The Week: Most Recent from Neal Whitman recent posts.en-usTue, 17 Sep 2013 06:03:00 -0400http://theweek.com Recent from Neal Whitman from THE WEEKTue, 17 Sep 2013 06:03:00 -0400A linguistic tour of the best libfixes, from -ana to -zilla<img src="" /></P><p>English speakers love to create new words by blending existing ones together into "portmanteau words." Sometimes a particular word gets pulled into so many portmanteaus that a fragment of that word becomes "liberated" to become an affix (i.e. a prefix or suffix) all by itself &mdash; but one that has a much more specific meaning than what you get with affixes like un-, -ly, or -ness. The best example might be the suffix <em>-gate,</em> which jumped free of the name <em>Watergate </em>to embark on a successful career turning any noun into a scandal. The linguist Arnold Zwicky coined the term <em>libfix</em> for these creations...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Tue, 17 Sep 2013 06:03:00 -0400A linguistic dissection of our affect/effect problem<img src="" /></P><p>A lot of people struggle with <em>affect</em> vs. <em>effect</em>, but let's assume that you've got the difference down cold: <em>Affect</em> is a verb (usually), and <em>effect </em>is a noun (usually).</p><p>But how did it happen that two clearly related words, one a verb and the other a noun, are distinguished only by a difference in spelling that doesn't make a difference in the pronunciation?</p><p>It could have been different. For the verb <em>affect,</em> we could have had the noun form <em>affection. </em>Oh, wait &mdash; we do. Unfortunately, it's the noun form for a meaning of <em>affect</em> that we don't have anymore: to have a liking for something.</p><p>Well...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Mon, 26 Aug 2013 13:20:00 -0400The humble spatula's linguistic origins<img src="" /></P><p>In his 1989 movie <em>UHF</em>, Weird Al Yankovic has a fake advertisement for a spatula warehouse calling itself Spatula City, which has "thousands to choose from, in every shape, size, and color!" Really, it's just an excuse to say "spatula" again and again, because it's such a fun word. But did you know that spatula is a member of a family of at least six words that are related etymologically?</p><p><strong>1. <em>Spathe</em></strong> (rhymes with <em>bathe</em>)<br />The Greek word <em>spathe </em>(pronounced spa-thay) or <em>spatha</em><em>, </em>which meant "a broad blade," was borrowed into Latin as <em>spatha</em> to refer to a variety of long sword. English botanists borrowed...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Tue, 02 Jul 2013 10:35:00 -0400The delights and frustrations of off-road grammar<img src="" /></P><p>One of the amazing things about language is that it lets you express thoughts that have never been expressed before and describe situations that may never have been imagined.</p><p>Even so, in any language there are some kinds of thoughts, and not necessarily new or unusual ones, that the grammar rules don't give you an easy way to state. If you think of your language as a vast and sprawling place, then your grammar is the network of roads that allows you to get to where you want to go. And these troublesome thoughts are areas that are just beyond where the sidewalk ends, just past the Dead End sign...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Wed, 15 May 2013 08:40:00 -0400A handy guide to homophones, homonyms, and homographs<img src="" /></P><p><em>Suede </em>and <em>swayed. Mine </em>and <em>mine.</em> They're homophones, right? No, wait &mdash; homonyms? Are <em>homophone </em>and <em>homonym </em>synonyms? And what's the deal with homographs<em>,</em> anyway? How do they fit in? At least you're not in fourth grade anymore, so you don't have to worry about it. Unless...</p><p>'re a fourth-grade teacher! Or you have a son or daughter in fourth grade. In that case, you've come to the right place to straighten out your <em>phones</em>, <em>nyms</em>, and <em>graphs</em> of the <em>homo</em> variety once and for all.</p><p>For starters: Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings. Homographs are words that...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Mon, 15 Apr 2013 06:34:00 -0400From absentee-vote to zero-tolerate: 26 backformed compound verbs<img src="" /></P><p>If there's one thing the English language is good at, it's making compound nouns. Whether you spell them as separate words (<em>human resources solutions</em>), hyphenated words (<em>face-off</em>), or single words (<em>blackbird</em>), they're everywhere.</p><p>Compound verbs, though, are a different story. According to the <em>Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, </em>compound verbs are usually not formed by simply putting a noun or adjective with a verb, although it has happened with verbs such as <em>speed-read</em> and <em>hand-wash.</em> More typically, they arise by simply "verbing" a compound noun (as in <em>gaslight</em>); by adding a preposition...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Fri, 22 Mar 2013 06:40:00 -0400A brief history of the phrase 'talking filibuster'<img src="" /></P><p>Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster holding up the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director came to an end after 13 hours on Wednesday. And while the filibuster lasted, it captured the public interest not only because of Paul's impassioned stand on the issue of possible drone strikes on American citizens, but also because it wasn't the kind of filibuster we usually see these days.</p><p>As many Americans have learned, the usual means of initiating a filibuster for some years has been a "let's not and say we did" approach: A senator simply registers his or her theoretical willingness to debate something...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Fri, 08 Mar 2013 09:42:00 -0500Rainbows and unicorns: A linguistic history<img src="" /></P><p>It's not all rainbows and butterflies, you know. Or rainbows and unicorns. Or butterflies and unicorns. But when it comes to referring to impossibly perfect conditions where everyone's happy and nothing goes wrong, we're living in a golden age of&nbsp;RBUs.</p><p>A Google News search for just the past week brings up almost 500 hits for&nbsp;<em>rainbows and unicorns</em>&nbsp;or&nbsp;<em>rainbows and butterflies</em>. On this Google Ngram Viewer&nbsp;graph below, you can see that both expressions, as well as&nbsp;<em>butterflies and rainbows</em>, are on the rise, with&nbsp;<em>rainbows and unicorns</em>&nbsp;in particular shooting steadily...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Tue, 26 Feb 2013 11:05:00 -0500The linguistic trick behind A Good Day to Die Hard<img src="" /></P><p>This week, the fifth offering in the <em>Die Hard</em> action franchise hits movie theaters nationwide. The series has always tried to avoid simply calling its sequels <em>Die Hard</em> followed by a number, starting by giving <em>Die Hard 2</em> the subtitle <em>Die Harder</em>, and dubbing episode three&nbsp;<em>Die Hard With a Vengeance.</em>&nbsp;But the fourth installment,&nbsp;<em>Live Free or Die Hard</em>, and the soon-to-be-released<em> A Good Day to Die Hard</em>&nbsp;both rely on a particular kind of wordplay to grab our attention. Start with a well-known expression &mdash; say, New Hampshire's motto "Live free or die," or the Klingon-popularized...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/neal-whitman" ><span class="byline">Neal Whitman</span></a>Thu, 14 Feb 2013 07:30:00 -0500