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Episodes of OnWords

You might be wondering why young people are calling each other a type of women’s underwear. But “brah,” is really a version of “bro,” a term with which even the oldest among us are familiar. “Bro,” is, of course, a shortening of “brother,” an e
Metaphorical language is powerful. We use it to make the unfamiliar familiar and to make us see the familiar in a different light. A reporter may speak of the “race” to an upcoming election, or a poet may liken separated lovers to two legs of a
I was intrigued immediately by the way the people of Hong Kong describe themselves. Through all the coverage of the Umbrella Movement of 2014 to the more recent protests against interference by mainland China, to concerns over the coronavirus,
The word “play” comes up when accessing music, on streaming services, and, constantly, with video games. Play is pervasive: an actor plays a role; the ump yells “Play ball!”; a golfer plays through. We even apply “play” to sex: a “playa’” plays
When smartphones and online text editors no longer auto-corrected “gonna” and “kinda,” I knew I had to fight back. It’s not that these constructions are necessarily wrong. Contractions — such as the one at the beginning of the previous sentence
With the rise of esports, we see also the re-emergence of the e-prefix. Esports are, as the name implies, video games played competitively and for paying spectators. And they’ve gotten big, fast: collectively they make up a billion dollar indus
For some reason, the word “hoax” has been on my mind a lot lately. “Hoax” is a word with a storied past. Famous examples range from faux autobiographies of Hitler and Howard Hughes to a supposed mummified giant dug up in Cardiff, New York, in 1
When you hear this, the term “OK Boomer” will probably already be fading from public view. As you may recall, the term was briefly noteworthy as a way for Millennials and those younger to signal Baby Boomers’ cluelessness about matters importan
As an English teacher, I warn students away from Wikipedia. Yet the way it builds meanings and information collectively, from users rather than only experts, mimics the way language itself builds meaning in the real world. Among scholars, Wikip
There is nothing wrong with numbering off talking points while speaking publicly. It helps listeners keep track of what you’re saying, helping the audience make sense of it, especially when tackling complex issues. But what I’ve noticed lately
Virtue signaling is a term describing people publicly declaring their positions on various issues of the day, using print, speech, or social media to align themselves, often with progressive causes or points of view. For the more cynical among
As we move into the holiday season, it seems like a good time to consider the ways we use the word holiday and its implications. Originally meaning “holy day,” the term has expanded over the centuries to include any day set aside for celebratio
Social media have spawned many new words, and now they bring us “influencer.” Social media influencers are distinguished by their use of YouTube, Instagram, or similar platforms to impact their many followers’ opinions and beliefs. These follow
As a new school year gets under way, both students and teachers are likely to report some anxiety. “Anxiety” is a word with both clinical and common meanings, part of the complex dance we have with such terms in a culture driven by science and
For a one-syllable word of little sparkle or fire, “dope” has an interesting variety of meanings. Prominent over the last century or so is the use of “dope” to mean illegal drugs, typically marijuana or opioids, which tend to make people out of
The term “confirmation bias” has come to the fore recently, describing everything from the publication of scientific papers to polls of public opinion. Briefly stated, “confirmation bias” is the tendency to only accept new information that supp
Conspiracy theories have been around a long time—from speculations about what happened to the children of the Russian royal family after the revolution to the fate of the Lindbergh baby to more contemporary concerns about what’s actually in the
A few terms we have to protect from the unstable landscape of language, and I nominate “slippery slope” as one of them.
As language users, we reserve the right to make up words. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as those with whom we are communicating understand what we’re trying to get across. No lesser beings than Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss added new wor
Among the many things Millennials are supposed to have killed is the word “adult.” For evidence of this, their critics look no further than the word “adulting,” which creates a verb out of what used to be a venerable and well-respected noun. A
As a writer and a teacher of writing, I worry constantly about the death of writing, and I worry that emoji are leading the charge.
The word “tech” has become ubiquitous. It’s a descriptor: high tech, tech geeks, tech jobs—all these refer to that which revolves around microchips and the software that runs on them, and we occasionally throw in lasers and DNA to round things
“AI” is a term that crops up with increasing frequency as automated systems perform functions once squarely in the realm of human thought and control.
The word “regulation” takes on different meanings depending on where you stand. Libertarians tend to bemoan it. Environmentalists are likely on board. They both can agree that “regulation” in sports is not only OK, but probably necessary. Those
I started worrying about the word “idiot” while discussing whether or not our smartphones are making us stupid. The word “idiot” shares its roots with words such as “idiom” and “idiopathic” from an ancient Greek word meaning “private.” “Idiot”
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