The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee kicks off today, and every year there seems to be more and more public attention paid to this preeminent spectacle of word-nerdery. As in the past two years, tomorrow's semifinal and final rounds are being broadcast live on national television (semifinals on ESPN from 11 am to 2 pm, finals on ABC from 8 to 10 pm). It's always exciting to see middle-schoolers battle it out for the spelling crown, in a competition rife with dramatic "thrill of victory" and "agony of defeat" moments (most memorably depicted in the suspenseful documentary Spellbound). Adults can only marvel at the preternatural abilities of the young finalists to spell super-obscure words that most of us have seldom — if ever — come across. Where do they get those words, anyway? Continue reading...
In the United Kingdom, the "nice decade" is over. When Bank of England governor Mervyn King announced recently that "the nice decade is behind us," he didn't mean that British pleasantness was at an end. Rather, he was using an acronym, NICE, which stands for "Non-Inflationary Consistent Expansion," a condition that King says has characterized the last ten years of British economic prosperity. One economist says the country is now heading into VILE years, playing off NICE with his own readymade acronym for "Volatile Inflation, Less Expansionary," while another says things are going to be EVIL ("Exacting period of Volatile Inflation and Low growth").

BBC News greets the end of the NICE decade with the question, "What's the point of niceness?" Was the acronym an appropriate one to label Britain's sustained economic boom, or is nice just too... nice? Continue reading...

Last week on the Visual Thesaurus, William Safire and Nancy Friedman both weighed in on "Bittergate," the political furor that arose over Senator Barack Obama's comments about small-town Pennsylvanian voters ("It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion"). Now Obama has found himself under the microscope again for his use of a particular word, but this time the context is more "sweet" than "bitter." Responding to a question from television reporter Peggy Agar at an automobile plant outside of Detroit, Obama said, "Hold on one second, sweetie." Later he left Agar a voicemail apologizing about using the word sweetie to address her, calling it a "bad habit of mine." Lisa Anderson of the Chicago Tribune wryly wrote, "Welcome to 'Sweetie-gate,' a place paved with eggshells, where terms of endearment turn into political peccadilloes at the drop of a diminutive." Continue reading...
Our two-part interview with William Safire about the new edition of his Political Dictionary focused on the lasting contributions of political talk to the English lexicon. But sometimes the language of politics is more idiosyncratic. High-profile politicians who are speaking publicly on a daily basis inevitably develop their own verbal mannerisms, their peculiar linguistic likes and dislikes. Take New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance. We've recently learned that he's a big fan of the word unconscionable, but he's got a problem with the word maintain. Continue reading...
Last week we presented the first part of our interview with New York Times columnist William Safire about the latest edition of Safire's Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2008), a thoroughgoing guide to the nuances of American political lingo. In part two, Safire explores how the discourse of politics has changed since the previous edition of the dictionary was published in 1993. It's a peculiar terrain full of moonbats and wingnuts, where pork-busters decry the bridge to nowhere. Continue reading...
Part two of our interview with William Safire focuses on new political terms that have entered the latest edition of Safire's Political Dictionary. Below, for your delectation, you'll find extended excerpts from relevant dictionary entries. Continue reading...
Welcome to "Word Routes," a new column where your fearless editor will chart a course through a sea of words. We'll be looking at how new words emerge on the scene and how older ones have changed over time. Think of it as a series of dispatches from the frontlines of our dynamic and ever-shifting language. Often we'll focus on a single word or phrase and tease apart the layers of meaning and usage, with the Visual Thesaurus wordmaps providing special insight. First up is a word near and dear to my heart: procrastination. Continue reading...
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