The latest headlines are dominated by news of the failure of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a $700 billion "bailout" of the financial industry. As I explained on the Voice of America program "Wordmaster" last week, bailout in the financial sense, meaning the rescue of a bankrupt or near-bankrupt entity, is a figurative extension from the world of aviation. A pilot who needs to make an emergency landing bails out to safety. That part of the term's etymology is relatively clear, but figuring out its ultimate origin is a bit trickier. Continue reading...
If you were following the U.S. presidential campaign in late summer, it was easy to imagine you'd switched channels and were watching "Animal Planet." Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin compared "hockey moms" to pit bulls (with the addition of lipstick), and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke of his rival John McCain's policies as "lipstick on a pig" (which he said meant "mere window dressing"). Continue reading...
In a recent interview on the Voice of America radio program Wordmaster (a show that seeks to explain the vagaries of American English to an international audience), I was asked about a number of terms relating to the U.S. presidential campaign. We talked about red states (leaning Republican), blue states (leaning Democratic), and purple states (somewhere in between), a topic I discussed on Word Routes after the untimely passing of Tim Russert, who helped to popularize the terms in the 2000 election. But we also covered some earlier American expressions to describe "toss-up" states that predate the red/blue/purple color scheme: battleground states and swing states. Here's some extra historical background that I wasn't able to include in the brief interview. Continue reading...

Blog Excerpts

Taking in Tech Terms

Should words like podcast, Bluetooth, and crowdsourcing be included in mainstream dictionaries? Computerworld talks to leading lexicographers about which high-tech terms make the cut.

Yesterday we heard from contributor Julia Rubiner about a pattern she identifies as an "epidemic": using the word myself in place of a plain old personal pronoun like I or me. She was disheartened to see Merriam-Webster's treatment of this use of myself as no big deal, writing, "Don't you hate it when something you were so sure was absolutely wrong is reduced to the status of pet peeve?" I wanted to flesh out the myself story, since it's been a point of contention for generations of grammarians and usage mavens. Continue reading...

VT subscriber Kcecelia of San Francisco, CA writes in about yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day: dude. She observes that the word's current usage has little to do with its more historical sense, "a man who is much concerned with his dress and appearance":

Last month a 20-something man in an Oregon gas station punctuated his conversation with me with references to me as dude. I am a 55-year-old woman. Also, people say duuuude as an exclamation or interjection. I sometimes say dude myself in a more joking manner to people I am with who are sprinkling it liberally into their conversation. I do not mean that they are a fop or a dandy.

Especially now that Todd Palin, husband of Gov. Sarah Palin, is in the news as Alaska's "First Dude," this is a good time to reflect on the peculiar history of this all-American word. Continue reading...

As news from the financial world gets bleaker and bleaker, two scapegoats have emerged in the ongoing credit crunch: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Here's a sampling of headlines from the Wall Street Journal opinion page: "Fannie Mayhem," "Fannie and Freddie's Enablers," "Frantic Fannie," "Fannie Mae Ugly," "Freddie Krueger Mac." Someone unfamiliar with the American economic system might think that Fannie and Freddie are the new Bonnie and Clyde, shooting up banks with reckless abandon. How did the crisis in the banking sector get so personal? Continue reading...
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