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  • Originally published 03/27/2014

    Dusting off the language of the Cold War

    ?“The cold war dinosaurs who still tramp the corridors and editorial columns of London and Washington seem almost to pine for the virile certainties of 1945-1989,” the columnist Simon Jenkins writes.

  • Originally published 05/23/2013

    Allan Metcalf: On the Origin of ‘Shyster’

    Allan Metcalf is a professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.Out in the wilds of western Missouri, in Rolla, which is not far from the tornado-devastated town of Joplin, lives a scholar who has made etymology his life’s work. He is Gerald Leonard Cohen, professor in the department of arts, languages, and philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and grand impresario of American etymologists—as well as the world’s leading corraler of language historians, who often join him in tackling some of the most challenging puzzles of word origins.

  • Originally published 02/12/2013

    How the Union’s state got so ‘strong’

    ...Strong, stronger, strongest — one of those words has been used to describe the union in each of the last 17 State of the Union addresses.But it was not always so. Presidents once used other words to describe the state of our union. President Jimmy Carter liked to call it “sound.” President Harry S. Truman liked to call it “good.” President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a lyrical moment, described the state of the union in 1965 as “free and restless, growing and full of hope.”And when things were not going well, they said so.“I must say to you that the state of the union is not good,” President Gerald R. Ford said in 1975, citing high unemployment, slow growth and soaring deficits. He added, “I’ve got bad news, and I don’t expect much, if any, applause.”...What changed? The simple answer is President Ronald Reagan....

  • Originally published 02/05/2013

    Long after a man’s brain helps make a scientific breakthrough, he is identified

    The identity of a mysterious patient who helped scientists pinpoint the brain region responsible for language has been discovered, researchers report.The finding, detailed in the January issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, identifies the patient as Louis Leborgne, a French craftsman who battled epilepsy his entire life.In 1840, a wordless patient was admitted to the Bicetre Hospital outside Paris for aphasia, or an inability to speak. He was essentially just kept there, slowly deteriorating. It wasn’t until 1861 that the man, who was known only as “Monsieur Leborgne” and who was nicknamed “Tan” for the only word he could say, came to physician Paul Broca’s ward at the hospital....

  • Originally published 01/18/2013

    Douglas L. Wilson: The Power of the Negative

    Mr. Wilson is co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and author of "Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words." This essay is adapted from an article scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.Now that Steven Spielberg's new film, "Lincoln," has sparked extraordinary interest in Abraham Lincoln as a behind-the-scenes persuader, it may be a good time to take a look at an aspect of his most persuasive writing. In virtually all the most memorable passages of Lincoln's writings, there is a feature that plays a critical role—namely, the rhetorical use of the negative. This is not to say that Lincoln was a naysayer or negative thinker, but rather that he demonstrated an acute understanding of the power of negation in language and was unusually adept at putting that force to use.Philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke argues that the negative is intimately connected to our sense of morality, if not actually responsible for it. Law, ethics and religion, he contends, are all built around the "thou-shalt-nots." This is one way of accounting for the power that the negative has in language and human affairs.

  • Originally published 01/16/2013

    In gun debate, even language can be loaded

    WASHINGTON — When the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence wanted to promote more restrictions on firearms after the Connecticut school shootings in December, it turned to a firm to help publicize its position. The firm’s name? Point Blank Public Affairs....The ubiquitous nature of such language has caused people on both sides of the emotional debate in recent weeks to take back, or at least think twice about the phrases they use, lest they inadvertently cause offense in a moment of heightened sensitivity.“It’s almost second nature,” said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. “They’re such mainstream phrases, you almost have to check yourself and double-check yourself.”But it also says something about the long American romance with guns and the nation’s self image. “All of that ties into the frontier tradition, rugged individualism, a single American with a flintlock or a gun of some kind holding off the Indians or fighting off the British,” said Robert Spitzer, a scholar of gun control at the State University of New York at Cortland....

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