The Week: Most Recent Language Posts recent posts.en-usSat, 20 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -0400http://theweek.com Recent Language Posts from THE WEEKSat, 20 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -040010 words with difficult-to-remember meanings<img src="" /></P><p>Sometimes there are words that you've seen, read, and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick. From our friends at, here are 10 words with definitions that can be difficult to remember. Some look like they have a negative element in them, but either because their positive counterpoint has fallen out of use or because it never existed in the first place, the word doesn't really have a negative sense. Other words below are often confused for their opposite or have come to have connotations...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/arika-okrent" ><span class="byline">Arika Okrent</span></a>Sat, 20 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -0400How did 'expletive,' 'explicit,' and 'exploit' become such sleazy words?<img src="" /></P><p>If you want to search out the best way to make the most of a relationship, you will want to use plain language, perhaps with some padding out.</p><p>If you want to explore the best way to exploit a relationship, you will want to use explicit language, perhaps with some expletives.</p><p>Somehow the second sentence has a very different tone from the first. And yet they can mean the same thing. It's just that somehow the <em>expl</em> words have acquired a &mdash; shall we say &mdash; shady tone to them. How? Allow me to explain.</p><p>There are just seven basic words in common use in English (plus words derived from them...</p> <a href="">More</a>By <a href="/author/james-harbeck" ><span class="byline">James Harbeck</span></a>Thu, 18 Sep 2014 09:01:00 -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 -0400