The Year 2012 in Language & Writing


The Los Angeles Times reported on local poet and journalist John Tottenham’s crusade against the pandemic overuse and abuse of the word awesome. The British expat has launched what he calls the Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome, complete with stickers, t-shirts, and a manifesto, all available at the campaign’s headquarters, the Echo Park bookstore where Tottenham works. Once he’s laid awesome to rest, the linguistic crusader plans to spread his “quiet revolution” to other fronts. Next on the kibosh list will be “It’s all good,” he says. • The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) reported that recently published Disney editions of classic children’s stories, including ones by British writers such as A.A. Milne and Lewis Carroll, were marred by grammatical errors (Eeyore says his tail “swishes real good”) and tainted by Americanisms (the BrE skipping rope has become the AmE jump rope). The Bath publisher of The Magical Story apologized for any errors but said the word choice reflected the need to “sell our books around the world and not just in the UK.” No word yet on whether its books are selling real good. • According to the New York Times, Arizona state law requires politicians at all levels to speak, read, and write English. Yet it doesn’t specify just how well. Alejandrina Cabrera, a candidate for city office whose English skills were challenged, asked the Yuma County Superior Court to decide the matter. William G. Eggington, a professor of English and linguistics at Brigham Young University, testified that Ms. Cabrera’s “basic survival-level” English skills were not adequate to participate in a city’s business. The trial and appellate courts agreed. • When ConEd utility workers repaired the street in front of a school in July 2010, they marked the crossing zone on the pavement: “SHCOOL X-NG.” The mistake went unnoticed until the New York Post reported the spelling error 18 months later. A day after being informed, ConEd ground off the permanent tape and transposed the C and H. • A typo nearly cost a Florida man his home. The Tampa Tribune reported that the homeowner mistakenly punched “0” instead of “8” on his telephone keypad while making his mortgage payment, resulting in an underpayment of 80¢. Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings but later agreed to overlook the error. • The Charlotte Observer (N.C.) reported — rather, intended to report — that pro basketball player Baron Davis had a herniated disk. An editor tried to correct an initial misspelling, disc, but introduced a new typo instead, turning disc into dick. Davis laughed off the report, tweeting that his penis was not “herinated.”


“Proper Spelling? It’s Tyme to Let Luce!” wrote Anne Trubek in the magazine Wired. She asserted that using spellcheckers and autocorrect should end because they “reinforce a traditional spelling standard.” That standard, she says, was fine for ensuring clarity in the print era. “But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling. . . . Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules.” • In Science, linguist Michael Cysouw (Ludwig-Maximiliens Universität) disputed Quentin Atkinson’s theory that all languages could be traced to southwestern Africa. Atkinson had found that the highest levels of phoneme diversity occurred in languages spoken in southwestern Africa, and theorized that as humans migrated, both genetic and linguistic diversity decreased. Cysouw responded that when other aspects of language are examined using Atkinson’s method, it “places the site of origin of language in eastern Africa or the Caucasus, or somewhere else entirely.” • The Associated Press reported that the French government has banned the word mademoiselle from all its official documents, so that women won’t be forced to reveal their marital status. In French, the title for a married woman is madame, and for an unmarried woman mademoiselle. There is not yet any French counterpart to the very American “Ms.” • The Akron Beacon Journal reported that Mrs. Lisa O’Rourke’s son almost lost his chance to start classes on time at the University of Cincinnati because of a missing apostrophe. When the O’Rourke family moved back to the U.S. with their Irish-born sons, the local Social Security Office registered Mrs. O’Rourke and her older son with the apostrophe, but Mr. O’Rourke and their younger son without it. The omitted apostrophe created confusion at the university registrar’s office, which at first insisted that the younger O’Rourke didn’t exist. • According to the New York Times, linguists and researchers are beginning to look to teenage girls for emerging trends in language and speech. Instead of seeing girls’ mercurial slang and unorthodox speech patterns as signs of immaturity or ignorance, as they have traditionally done, some linguists now see such manipulations of language serving an important social function, amounting to social-bonding argot for the sweet-16 set. Linguists now believe that, contrary to popular belief, most speakers who use trendy truncations, alterations, and embellishments do so in much more sophisticated ways than it might appear to “grown-ups.” Obvi. Perf.


Fifty years in the making, the Dictionary of American Regional English completed its first edition with the publication of Volume V, covering Sl–Z, the New York Times reported. The end came 12 years after the death of the project’s founder, Frederic G. Cassidy, described in Jennifer Schuessler’s report as “an exuberant Jamaican-born linguist given to signing off conversations with ‘On to Z!’” Of DARE’s 60,000 or so entries, many reflect the country’s rural and agricultural past. But many newer entries suggest that despite the homogenizing forces of urbanization, mass media, and the Internet, regional English is alive and evolving. One example: slug. Around Washington, D.C., slug denotes a commuter lined up near a high-occupancy-vehicle lane to carpool with a stranger. DARE’s final word: zydeco. • Six-year-old Lori Anne Madison of Prince George County, Virginia, became the youngest contestant ever to qualify for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The precocious girl became a minor media sensation, charming national audiences with her outsized personality. In May she would hold her own at the National Bee for two rounds, correctly spelling dirigible before tripping up on ingluvies (an organ found in birds) in round 3. But she wasn’t Prince George County’s only claim to spelling fame this year. The local high school issued nearly 8,000 misspelled diplomas to its graduating class — perhaps demonstrating why Lori Anne is home-schooled. Her favorite word? Sprachgefühl (= an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate). To Lori Anne it means “love of language.” • Scholastic’s Instructor magazine discussed the benefits of texting as a tool for teaching communications skills. Citing studies concluding that texting helps develop reading and spelling skills because it enhances phonological awareness (specifically, how sounds and letters are put together), Instructor suggested lessons using texting, such as having students write a 20-word text to a friend about what they did last night, then rewriting that text for their parents, then for the teacher. The lesson is intended to show how people use different vocabulary, syntax, and even spelling for different audiences. • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on the “QWERTY effect” — named after the top-left row of letters on the traditional keyboard. Researchers at University College, London, published a study in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review concluding that as between words with more “right-hand letters” and those with more “left-hand letters,” people tend to favor the former. Researchers attributed the findings to the psychological effect of “fluency” — the idea that people view easy-to-use things more positively than hard-to-use things. And since most people type faster and more comfortably with their right hands, the right-hand-heavy words are more likable. Curiously though, left-handed typists showed the same preference.


A Brooklyn resident contested a parking ticket based on the meaning of the preposition to. According to the New York Times, Mark Vincent parked under a sign that read: “No standing April to October.” He decided that to meant that parking was prohibited until the month of October began. Because it was October 2, he reasoned that he was within the law. Supported by Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, he argued that to means “up to but not including,” while through means “to and including.” Although he did not win his appeal, the new sign reads: “No standing April 1–Sept. 30.” • As reported in the Washington Post, the AP Stylebook announced by tweet: “We now support the modern usage of hopefully: it is hoped, we hope.” Before, the Stylebook’s only accepted meaning was “in a hopeful manner.” According to David Minthorn, the deputy standards editor of the Associated Press, “We batted this around, as we do a lot of things, and it just seemed like a logical thing to change. We’re realists over at the AP. You just can’t fight it.” Stickler-traditionalists decried the decision as hopelessly wrong. • Bad brief-writing contributed to a New York lawyer’s two-year license suspension. The Second Circuit’s Committee on Admissions and Grievances concluded that the lawyer had submitted briefs of “shockingly poor quality” and cited some particular defects such as incorrect client names, inclusion of irrelevant boilerplate, and reference to evidence that had not been submitted. The Second Circuit was not impressed by his excuse that an unsupervised paralegal had actually made the errors. The lawyer was ordered to attend CLE classes on brief-writing. • The New Yorker introduced a new weekly word-purge contest called “Questioningly,” asking readers what word they would most like to eliminate from the magazine for the following week. The popular first choice was moist, which has more than 3,000 detractors in a Facebook group called “I HATE the word MOIST!” (How dry.) But the ultimate winner was slacks, which was said to produce “a creepy-crawly feeling.” And what, besides a week’s banishment of the word, is the winner’s prize? “A member of the magazine’s esteemed copy department will write the word on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and toss it in the garbage.” • The New Yorker came clean about its continued use (eccentric use, many would say) of what most readers might mistakenly call the umlaut (ü). In fact, copy editor Mary Norris explained, it’s a diaeresis (also spelled dieresis), always appearing over the second of two vowels and signaling that the latter “forms a second syllable,” as in coöperate (or, as the rest of us would write, cooperate). Norris said that Hobie Weekes, style editor since 1928, promised in 1978 that he would dump the diaeresis soon. But then he died. Norris added: “No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since.” • A study published in the journal Science shows that baboons can distinguish real English words from nonsensical ones in writing — the same ability human children display when first learning to read. The baboons were shown four-letter sequences and given a treat for choosing the real words. They were able to memorize more than 300 words in this way and to apply the linguistic rules they inferred to new sets of words and nonwords. While these apes can’t read Dr. Seuss, they’re helping scientists understand how toddlers can. • The Washington Post reported that Afghan interpreters working with the U.S. Army speak a slang- and profanity-filled colloquial English picked up from young soldiers. In an effort to produce idiomatic rather than literal translations to facilitate communication, they model their English phrasings on the verbal habits they’ve gleaned over the past decade of working with native speakers — mostly American soldiers. So they now curse like seasoned pros, peppering their translations with profanity and a grab bag of English colloquialisms. One interpreter, translating for an Afghan commander asked where his soldiers were, replied: “Sir, he says they are chillin’ like villains.”


Several large newspapers, including the Denver Post, Contra Costa Times, and the Salt Lake Tribune laid off some or all of their copyeditors, and Postmedia Network Canada Corp. announced that it would soon do the same for the Vancouver Sun, the Star Phoenix, and the Leader Post. Copyediting duties are being spread to “the content-generating level” and typically only one editing pass will be done. Dave Butler, executive editor of the Contra Costa Times, said that “a second or third edit on most stories has become a luxury most newspapers can no longer afford.” Warning: more and more typos lie ahead. • The assistant dean of public affairs at the University of Texas issued an apology for the typo on the thousands of commencement programs distributed at its Lyndon B. Johnson School of “Pubic” Affairs. New and corrected copies of the program were printed and given to students later. • The Washington Post reviewed The Life of Slang, written by Julie Coleman, a linguistics professor at the University of Leicester. In a not-so-complimentary evaluation, the article accused Ms. Coleman of attempting “to walk a line between academic and popular readerships, with uneven results.” According to Ms. Coleman: “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste, but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends. Although some adults try to discourage teenagers from using slang, plenty of others want to understand and adopt it.” Again, obvi. • Oxford University Press announced that it had analyzed 74,000 stories containing 31 million words written by British children and found that American English has become common in their speech. Fairycakes have become cupcakes, flashlights are used instead of torches, and sneakers are worn instead of trainers. Argy bargy! • The Christian Science Monitor reported that Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Robert Casey proposed legislation to increase penalties on wealthy people who renounce their U.S. citizenship for tax reasons. The move was in response to Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin’s decision to give up his citizenship and move to Singapore, saving an estimated $67–100 million in taxes. To stop others from following suit, the pair introduced the “Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing the Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act” — the Ex-PATRIOT Act. Although you could certainly accuse Saverin of deficient patriotism, the word the senators were looking for is spelled expatriate. • Good Morning America reported on the trial of Senator John Edwards for allegedly violating federal campaign-finance laws. Much of the defense appeared to focus on the interpretation of the word the. The statute forbids receiving illegal campaign contributions “for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office.” Edwards argued that the purpose meant that illegal influence must be the sole purpose. But the prosecution argued that the phrase should be read more broadly (one purpose perhaps among many). The case ended in a mistrial. • Want an honest answer? You’re more likely to get it through a text message than in a face-to-face interview, Science Daily reported. A study by the Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that people are more likely to disclose sensitive information when texting than when speaking. “It seems that texting may reduce some respondents’ tendency to shade the truth or to present themselves in the best possible light in an interview,” psychologist Michael Schober said. • Science Daily also reported that people use words with a positive emotional content more frequently in written communications. Scientists at ETH Zurich theorized that social relations are enhanced by positive words even though the positive words carry less information than negative ones. They also found that when writers do use emotively negative words, they’re balanced with positive words that make the overall communication more neutral. • NPR reported that the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government group, analyzed the Congressional Record for readability, using the Flesch–Kincaid scale. For 2012, the average score was 10.6, or a 10th-grade level. Speeches by individual members of Congress were also analyzed. Rep. Dan Lungren’s grade level was 20, based on his use of long sentences and polysyllabic words. Rep. Rob Woodall registered the second-lowest grade level: 8.01, based on short, pithy words and sentences. “My mother will probably be embarrassed to hear this news,” Woodall said, “but I’m glad to know I’m not obfuscating our challenges with words that are too complicated.”


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sharply admonished both parties in a tort case for “abandon[ing] any attempt to write in plain English” by overusing abbreviations, familiar or not, and using both little-known and newly created acronyms and initialisms. Citing George Orwell, the Court wrote: “Brief-writing, no less than ‘written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.’” • Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace, the Wall Street Journal reported. Employees are used to informal — even lax — writing in e‑mails, texting, and social media, and are unaware that such informality can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials, and cause communicative misfires. Some bosses and coworkers step in to correct mistakes. Some offices provide business-grammar guides to employees. And almost half of employers are adding language-skills lessons to employee-training programs. • A job candidate’s proper grammar continues to be a skill highly valued by prospective employers. The New York Times reported that while politicians and economists talk about creating new jobs, business owners and recruiters see thousands of jobs sitting vacant because the candidates lack the necessary social skills. The owner of a sheet-metal-manufacturing business noted: “My operators are in constant contact with our customers, so they need to be able to articulate through e-mail. But you’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that. I can’t have them e-mailing Boeing or Pfizer if their grammar is terrible.” • Is texting displacing face-to-face talking? Not according to experts quoted in the Huffington Post. But “more of us are losing our ability to have — or at least are avoiding — the traditional face-to-face conversations that are vital in the workplace and personal relationships.” Professor Janet Sternberg of Fordham University said that more students fail to look her in the eye and have trouble with the basics of direct conversation — bad habits that, she said, will not serve them well as they enter a world where many of their elders still expect an in-person conversation, or at the very least a phone call. • The Daily Mail (U.K.) reported that the Queen’s English Society has succumbed to the Twitter- and text-obsessed generation and has disbanded after none of its 1,000 members volunteered to hold board positions. Since its founding in 1972, the organization has tried to defend the English language against poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Its most notable achievement was shaping the British National Curriculum. Chair Rhea Williams said: “Things change, people change. People care about different things.” • The New York Times reported that the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation sponsored a competition offering $60,000 for the algorithm that best predicted the scores given by human graders to standardized-test essays. It also sponsored a study of the commercial automated essay-scoring engines currently available and found that their scores were effectively identical to those given by human graders. Using these programs cuts the costs to schools immensely, but computers haven’t replaced human readers just yet: studies have also shown that savvy students can fool the machines with well-worded factual nonsense any human would catch.


The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan and a Detroit-area school district for violating students’ “right to learn to read” under an obscure state law. A 1993 statute provides that if a public-school student is not proficient in reading, as determined by tests given in grades 4 and 7, the school must provide “special assistance” to bring the child up to grade level within a year. The suit charged that most of the students in the district are at least three years below level, and that some cannot even spell their own names correctly. • The Atlantic printed what “may well go down as the most polite, encouraging and empathetic cease-and-desist letter ever to be sent in the history of lawyers and humanity.” It was written by Christy Susman, the lawyer who defends trademarks for the Jack Daniel’s distillery, to an author whose book cover somewhat resembled the whiskey’s label (including the same “40% Alc. by Vol.” notation). She wrote that “because you are a Louisville neighbor and a fan of the brand, we simply request” that the cover be redesigned for the next printing. The blog Above the Law commented: “You get more flies with Tennessee whiskey than you do with adversarial attorneys.” • Residents of Englewood, New Jersey, were puzzled about how to comply with a two-hour parking sign that read “8 a.m. to 8 a.m.” The Fort Lee Suburbanite reported that the city council had examined the sign ordinance — enacted in 1978 — and found the language prescribed “8 a.m. to 8 a.m.” “Nobody could figure out why they did that 30-something years ago,” the city clerk commented. The council planned to meet again in September to discuss amending the ordinance. • Can your native language change the way you plan for retirement? Yes, says Yale University economist Keith Chen, because different languages distinguish future and present events in differing degrees. In strong future-time-reference (FTR) languages such as English and Spanish, you say “It will rain tomorrow.” But in weak-FTR languages like German and Japanese, you say “Tomorrow, it rains.” According to Chen’s hypothesis as reported in the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, “weak-FTR speakers see the future as less distant and therefore engage in fewer behaviors with negative future consequences.” His study showed that speakers of weak-FTR languages smoked less, saved more for retirement, and were less likely to be obese. • According to the New York Times, research results published in Science magazine identify present-day Turkey as the home of the Indo-European-language family, which includes English, Russian, and Hindi. The international team led by biologist Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand used methods for tracing the evolution of diseases to analyze words from over 100 ancient and modern languages, plus geographical and historical data. The language’s roots were traced back more than 8,000 years to Anatolia, contradicting one linguistic theory that has the language originating in Russia. “Archeologists and linguists have had different favorite theories on the language origins,” said Michael Dunn, co-author of the study. “But now, new research like ours provides linguistic support for the Anatolian hypothesis.” [For a critique of Atkinson’s earlier work, see February.]


Reporting on the U.S. presidential race for the Globe and Mail (Canada), Courtney Shea remarked that when the Obama campaign team unveiled its new “Forward.” poster (yes, with the period), it was like “Christmas came early for grammar geeks.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that there had been a “spirited debate” about the punctuation among staffers. But in the end, Shea wrote, “an unwelcome period hasn’t caused this much panic since you wore white shorts to high-school gym class.” (You? Reverse sexism, methinks.) Almost three months later, it would become a minor “October surprise” when the period was replaced with an exclamation point. • Author James Gleik wrote in the New York Times about the perils of autocorrect functions: “People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain.” A Google spellcheck developer posited: “A dictionary can be more of a liability than you might expect. Dictionaries have a lot of trouble keeping up with the real world, right?” So Google retrieves a significant subset of all the words people type — “a constantly evolving list of words and phrases,’’ he says — “the parlance of our times.” • The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) reported that the University of Wolverhampton, which warns its students to be careful with grammar, posted a sign reading: “Celebrating our graduates success.” The sign was replaced after passersby pointed out the missing apostrophe. Chrissie Maher, of the Plain English Campaign, commented: “If they can’t get it right then God help the rest of us.” • As reported in the Malone Telegram (N.Y.), the Native American Studies Program in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences launched a new undergraduate program aimed at students and teachers of Iroquois languages: the Certificate in Iroquois Linguistics for Language Learners. The program’s interim director, Philip P. Arnold, says that the need for Iroquois language teachers is critical because elder speakers in the communities are dying off and younger people are speaking primarily English. Adding to the problem, the Iroquois grammar is a complex one. The three-semester curriculum includes courses in phonetics, phonology, semantics, verb morphology, and syntax. • According to the Times of India, the celebrated Indian lexicographer Ganjam Venkatasubbiah turned 100 on August 23. An expert in Kannada, GV (as he is popularly called) has compiled more than 10 dictionaries, including the eight-volume Kannada-Kannada Bruhat Nighantu.


The San Jose Mercury News reported that a California ballot measure was challenged because it was two words longer than state law’s 75-word maximum. The Santa Clara Valley Water District’s board thought it had corrected the problem in a six-minute emergency session by dropping the word as in one place and the abbreviation No. (“number”) in another. But the board failed to post notice of the meeting, so the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association added that open-meetings grievance to its ballot challenge. If their suit succeeds, it could cost the water district half a billion dollars, the paper reported. • The authors of Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. opined in the New York Times that the speech characteristics of President Obama and Mitt Romney heavily influenced voters’ perceptions of them as “likable” or “relatable.” Romney’s speech, they said, “is essentially the verbal equivalent of his public persona: flat, one-dimensional, unable to connect.” They described Obama as linguistically flexible, noting that his “ability to bring together ‘white syntax’ with ‘black style’ played a critical role in establishing his identity as both an American and a Christian.” • A lawyer faced with a five-page limit for an amicus brief opposing a proposed antitrust settlement opted to present his argument in the form of a comic strip. According to ABA, after a traditional table of authorities, the first page of the comic shows the judge ordering a five-page limit, then the lawyer at home, sitting in bed wearing a robe and working on his laptop. When his daughter asks what he’s doing, they discuss his argument in dialogue. Although the court accepted the brief for filing, it approved the settlement. • The Dallas Morning News reported that language researchers at the University of Texas have found that most Texans no longer sound like stereotypical Texans: the twang is fading. Lars Hinrichs, an assistant professor of English and director of the Texas English Project, says that 30 years ago about 80% of Texas residents had clear Texas accents, but now Texans sound more like accent-neutral Midwesterners. The reasons? Immigration, urbanization, and gentrification. But Texans haven’t completely abandoned the y’alls and drawls — they just use them at certain times. According to Hinrichs, the trend of adapting language and accents to fit different needs represents the future of Texan talk. • In his article “Dictionaries are Not Democratic,” Jonathon Green laments the decision of dictionary-publisher Collins to solicit suggestions from the general public for definitions: “Suggest a word that qualifies for their dictionary and win a prize!” According to Green: “Such shout-outs are the antithesis of traditional lexicography. . . . [T]he dictionary is not designed for second-guessing. If it is not intensively researched, edited, proofed, and rendered as ‘true’ as possible, why bother to consult it? . . . [I]f reference is to remain useful then it cannot become amateur hour.”


The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that no authority supports using the First Amendment as a shield against sanctions for insulting a judge. A Florida lawyer wrote a brief that opened by saying, “It is obvious that you have not reviewed the record in this case,” and concluded: “It is sad when a man of your intellectual ability cannot get it right when your own record does not support your half-baked findings.” The Court rejected the lawyer’s defense that these were “truthful responses to a string of unjustified abuses” and affirmed his 60-day suspension. • The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) reported that a survey released by the book-publishing firm Pearson UK found that bedtime stories are dying out as children’s attention spans decrease. One in six parents never read to their children. Another two of those six read to their children only once a week. Pearson expressed concern, noting: “Study after study has shown that reading for pleasure is a key indicator of future success for children, but demands on children’s attention and the difficulty of inspiring reluctant readers mean many are missing out.” • Britishisms are cropping up in the daily speech of Americans, the New York Times reported. A journalist dubbed Mitt Romney a toff. A science-fiction writer described the latest iPad as a “lovely piece of kit.” And everywhere, people are heard expressing affirmation with brilliant, excusing themselves to use the loo, and worrying about getting sacked from their jobs. “Is it pompous,” mused the Times, “or just further evidence of the endless evolution of American English?” Oh, posh. • The New York Times reported that Hurricane Sandy made an instant celebrity of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sign-language interpreter, Lydia Callis, who enlightened a lot of people about the grammar and sheer dynamics of sign language. Callis’s animated style and whole-body expressions, “gesticulating, bobbing and nodding,” as reporter Jeremy W. Peters understated it, made her an overnight social-media meme. As Callis told one reporter, “When I’m interpreting, you see the tree falling, you see the building, you see the crane moving around.” As one Twitter fan said, she “signed with a New York accent.” • An article in the Daily Telegraph (U.K.) highlighted the negative influence that spellcheckers are having on children. Research has shown that while children ages 7–13 could correctly spell terms like pterodactyl and archaeologist, they couldn’t spell simple and everyday words because of their reliance on spellcheckers. Most problematic are common words with unusual spellings and distinguishing between homophones such as there and their. • Harper Collins published David Skinner’s book The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. Skinner, editor of Humanities magazine for the National Endowment of the Humanities, wrote about the history and controversy surrounding Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. • The Atlantic reported that New Dorp High School on Staten Island, once a notoriously underperforming school, has staged a dramatic turnaround in the last four years — thanks to an almost single-minded focus on teaching writing. The school’s Writing Revolution program places strong emphasis in nearly every academic subject on teaching the skills necessary for good analytical writing. After a chemistry lesson, for example, students may be asked to write what they’ve learned in sentences with subordinate clauses. The results have been extraordinary, and once-failing New Dorp is now hailed as a model of school turnaround. • Jacques Barzun died on October 25 at the age of 104. Best known as a historian, the polymath Barzun completed Wilson Follett’s posthumous work Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966) and wrote Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (1975), among dozens of other books.


The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) reviewed Trench Talk: Words of the First World War by the historian Peter Doyle and the etymologist Julian Walker. The authors studied thousands of public and private writings to document how new words and phrases originated and others broadened from earlier, narrow contexts to gain new meanings. Others were imported from French and German. Among the list of everyday terms found to have originated or spread from the conflict are cushy, snapshot, wash out, conk out, blind spot, binge drink, dud, and pushing up daisies. • Sarah Ogilvie’s book Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary set off a firestorm in the world of lexicography. The linguist, lexicographer, and former staff editor for the Oxford English Dictionary claimed that the late Robert Burchfield, eminent former OED chief editor, “covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins and bizarrely blamed previous editors.” Among the deleted words she listed are shape (= a Tibetan councillor), chancer (= to tax), calabazilla (=  a wild Mexican squash), and wading-place (= a ford). The OED is reportedly reevaluating the expunged words, but the accuracy and fairness of the book’s claims are yet to be known. (Burchfield having been my friend and mentor, I doubt Ogilvie.) • Oxford University Press picked its U.S. word of the year: GIF, the verb for creating a GIF file of an image or video. According to Katherine Martin, head of the U.S. dictionaries program at OUP, superstorm, pink slime, and YOLO (the acronym for “you only live once”) were all contenders, but “GIF transcended any particular event and spoke to an overall trend of how we consume media.” As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the “verbing” of the noun GIF — an acronym for “graphic interchange format” — follows in the footsteps of other noun-to-verb examples such as “Google” and “Photoshop.” • The Boston Globe reported that Oxford University Press also chose its British word of the year: omnishambles (= a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations). Oxford lexicographer Susie Dent said the word — coined by writers of the satirical television show The Thick of It — was chosen for its popularity as well as its “linguistic productivity.” • As reported by the Christian Science Monitor (and many other news outlets), a mother named her baby girl “Hashtag” after the Twitter symbol (#) to mark keywords and trending topics. Although the story went viral within just a few hours after the mother’s post on Facebook, it couldn’t be confirmed, and skepticism mounted. Of course, the story created a hashtag of its own: #babyhashtag. Maybe when she gets older she will become friends with “Facebook,” the baby girl born in Egypt a few months earlier.


On December 20, the Guardian (U.K.) noted the 200th anniversary of Die Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) by the Brothers Grimm. Kate Connolly reported on the kickoff of a yearlong celebration at a meeting drawing participants ranging from lexicographers to psycholanalysts to examine “everything from the book’s enduring legacy to the brothers’ impact on German grammar and how they shaped the nation’s erotic imagination.” The Brothers Grimm looked at people’s “dark souls,” critic Matthias Matussek said. The book was banned from German kindergartens after World War II. • Every day, the Oxford English Dictionary e-mails and posts on its blog a selected “word of the day.” The words are chosen months in advance and automatically distributed. By unfortunate coincidence, the day after the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren occurred, the OED’s “word of the day” was bloodbath. The OED quickly deleted the blog entry and issued sincere apologies. It added that it is taking steps to review its word selection and scheduling policies. • Doctors from Harvard Medical School reported in the Archives of Neurology on a condition called dystextia and how it revealed that a woman was experiencing a stroke when she sent a series of texts. Bizarre messages (not attributable to autocorrect errors) may indicate difficulties with language, a possible symptom of neurological dysfunction. One doctor noted that “the growing digital record will likely become an increasingly important means of identifying neurologic disease, particularly in patient populations that rely more heavily on written rather than spoken communication.” • The “whole nine yards” may not be nine and may not be a distance. Or anything else concrete. The New York Times reported that researchers found references to the “whole nine yards” in 1956 but also to the “whole six yards” as far back as 1912 in Kentucky. The expression’s origins are still unknown, but now many of the folk theories for the nine yards (fabric in a kilt, WWII ammo belts, quantity of beer, etc.) seem less likely to be valid. • The Washington Post story “Caps-lock and Load on Twitter” discussed a Twitter grammar bot (an automated software application) called @CapsCop. The account systematically finds tweets posted in all caps and immediately sends a snarky reply such as “Give lowercase a chance” or “On Twitter, no one can hear you scream.” In fact, there are many tech-savvy grammarians launching Twitter campaigns like this one. One account finds users who tweet “sneak peak” and sends a correction. Yet another, @YourorYoure, simply replies “Wrong!” when the contraction is misused. • Dmitry Golubovskiy recited the longest word in the world — all 189,819 letters — in a video that lasts over three hours. According to, the name for a giant protein called Titin begins with “methio” and ends with “leucine.” It is not listed in any dictionary (perhaps because its name alone would fill many pages before getting to the definition). Why is the name so long? Because Titin is the largest protein ever discovered, and proteins are named by their component chemicals. • Despite a cult following of enthusiasts, the Russian letter ë, pronounced “yo,” is fading from use. Russians are increasingly omitting the diacritic, dissolving the distinction between ë and e (pronounced “ye”). The Russian Language Institute says the dots are optional, necessary only to avoid confusion. But Viktor Chumakov, the man leading the campaign to save ë, is convinced that this is part of a CIA plot to weaken Russia. A spokesperson for the CIA formally denied the accusation, however, assuring the Wall Street Journal that “the Agency supports the practice of good grammar and pronunciation in any language.”

1 thought on “The Year 2012 in Language & Writing”

  1. Would like a valid definition on the word “Commencement” from your Blacks Law Dictionary. Im getting negative feed back reguarding the word and im currently in desperate need of a better understanding or definition.

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