The Week: Most Recent Language Posts recent posts.en-usSun, 14 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -0400http://theweek.com Recent Language Posts from THE WEEKSun, 14 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -0400Can y'all be used to refer to a single person?<img src="" /></P><p>"Y'all" is the most identifiable feature of the dialect known as Southern American English. It simply and elegantly fills out the pronoun paradigm gap that occurs in dialects that have only "you" for both singular and plural. Even people who don't speak the dialect, who sometimes look down on its other features, have a soft spot for "y'all." It's as American as can be, and it embodies our ideal national self-image: down-to-earth, charming, and useful. But there is also a mysterious side to "y'all," and for over a century, a controversy has been brewing over what might be called the Loch Ness Monster...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Sun, 14 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -040015 words plagued by unusual silent letters<img src="" /></P><p>The scourge of spellers, silent letters are often a stumbling block when learning how to write in English. To the modern eye, it's unclear what these letters are doing in the words in question, and learners sometimes simply have to memorize them. But the silent letters are very often hidden remnants of how the words passed through different languages on their way to English. Here, from our friends at, are 15 words that prove that English spelling is far from rational.</p><p><strong>1. CHTHONIC</strong></p><p><em>dwelling beneath the surface of the earth</em></p><p>Greek-derived words often feature tricky consonant clusters...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Sat, 13 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -040026 fancy, unusual plurals that work like 'attorneys general'<img src="" /></P><p>The usual way to modify a noun in English is to put an adjective before the noun: nice view, tasty treat, hot day. But every once in a while, we put the adjective after the noun. Often this is because it comes from a language where adjective-after-noun is the norm, namely French. Much of our legal and military terminology comes from French and Latin, and some noun-adjective compounds, like "attorney general," came with it. This leads to a situation where the act of putting the modifier after the noun becomes a mark of authority and importance, even with regular English words.</p><p>Time immemorial,...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Tue, 09 Sep 2014 10:22:00 -0400Why is 'colonel' spelled that way?<img src="" /></P><p>English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent "e" in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that "eight" rhymes with "ate," "of" rhymes with "love," and "to" sounds like "too" sounds like "two." If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons &mdash; stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.</p><p>But sometimes English takes it a...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Mon, 08 Sep 2014 11:51:00 -0400Everything you wanted to know about danglers but were too afraid to ask<img src="" /></P><p>There's been a little kerfuffle lately over danglers. Steven Pinker, who is a noted linguist, said in an article in <em>The Guardian</em> that some dangling modifiers are OK to use &mdash; in fact, according to him, they're not even ungrammatical.</p><p>What <em>are</em> dangling modifiers, or "danglers" for short, you ask? In a nutshell, a dangler is a little phrase &mdash; not a complete sentence &mdash; that is used at the start of a sentence to describe something, but that something is not the subject doing the main action of the sentence. Since dangling modifiers don't attach to what comes right after them, they...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/james-harbeck" ><span class="byline">James Harbeck</span></a>Fri, 05 Sep 2014 09:32:00 -040021 fancy medical terms for mundane problems<img src="" /></P><p>Your health issues might be mundane, but that's no reason to be boring. Give your complaints some interesting heft with these fancy medical terms for commonplace problems.</p><p><strong>1. LIMB FALLING ASLEEP</strong></p><p>That numb feeling that you wake to when you've slept on your arm wrong is <strong>obdormition</strong>. It is followed by a pricking, tingling sensation called <strong>paresthesia</strong>.</p><p><strong>2. ICE CREAM HEADACHE</strong></p><p><strong>Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia</strong>. Say it five times fast to warm up your mouth and relieve the brain freeze.</p><p><strong>3. MUSCLE TWITCH</strong></p><p>If you ever feel the sudden flutter under your skin from a small bundle of muscle fibers spontaneously...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Mon, 25 Aug 2014 06:09:00 -040015 awesome 19th-century street gang names<img src="" /></P><p>You may have heard of the Bowery Boys, a notorious New York street gang of the mid-19th century. But there were plenty of other gangs fighting it out for turf during that time, and some of them had pretty great names. Here are 15 street gangs you wouldn't want to mess with, even if their names made you laugh.</p><p><strong>1. BAXTER STREET DUDES</strong></p><p>Teenage former newsies who went around stealing when not performing at the theater they ran.</p><p><strong>2. BOODLE GANG</strong></p><p>Specialized in hijacking wagons and raiding food stores.</p><p><strong>3. CORCORAN'S ROOSTERS</strong></p><p>Also known as the Charlton Street Gang, they specialized in robbing cargo...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Sun, 24 Aug 2014 11:00:00 -040011 common words that will boost your Scrabble score<img src="" /></P><p>Scrabble lovers know that the game's all-too-often elusive prize is the "Bingo," when a player uses all seven tiles at once to make a word. Our friends at prepared this list of relatively common seven- and eight-letter words with high point totals. The fact that these words are somewhat familiar should make memorizing them that much easier, and your next game of Scrabble that much more winnable.</p><p>(Note: All point totals include the 50-point bonus for using all the tiles.)</p><p><strong>1. QUIXOTIC (76 POINTS)</strong></p><p>Quixotic: Not sensible about practical matters; idealistic and unrealistic.</p><p><strong>2. MAXIMIZE...</strong></p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Sat, 23 Aug 2014 11:00:00 -0400Why isn't 'Arkansas' pronounced like 'Kansas'?<img src="" /></P><p>Kansas and Arkansas aren't so far from each other on the map, but their names seem to want nothing to do with each other. Though they share all but two letters in common, Kansas comes out as "KANzis" and Arkansas as "ARkansaw." Why so different?</p><p>Kansas was named for the Kansa, a Siouan tribe that lived in the region. The Kansa people were called, in plural, Kansas, and that became the name of the state. But before it did, English, French, and Spanish speakers, as well as speakers of various Native American languages, all came up with their own ways of pronouncing (and writing) the name of the...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Thu, 21 Aug 2014 10:06:00 -0400How to tell whether you've got angst, ennui, or weltschmerz<img src="" /></P><p>English has many words for the feelings that can arise when a good, hard look at the state of the world seems to reveal only negatives. Hopelessness, despair, depression, discouragement, melancholy, sorrow, worry, disconsolation, distress, anxiety &hellip;there are so many that it would hardly seem necessary to borrow any more from other languages. But English never hesitates to borrow words that would lose certain subtleties in translation, and angst, ennui, and weltschmerz have made their way into English by offering a little something extra. Have you got a case of one of these imported maladies...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Sun, 10 Aug 2014 09:00:00 -0400