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  • Thon was Word of the Year in 1884

    Gender-neutral pronouns have been in the news recently. Last fall, a trans teacher in a Florida school was removed from their classroom for asking students to refer to them with the gender-neutral title Mx and the singular they. Two years earlier, when the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers make sure all students felt included by asking them, “What’s your pronoun?”, the state legislature closed the Diversity Office and banned the use of tax dollars to pay for gender-neutral pronouns.

    It’s only fitting then to remember that the gender-neutral pronoun thon was Word of the Year in 1884. Or it would have been, had we been picking words of the year back then. 1884 was the year that Charles C. Converse announced that he had coined thon, a gender-neutral pronoun, by blending that and one. Thon could refer both to men and women, and it would come in handy in cases where gender is unknown, or irrelevant, or where it needs to be concealed (C. C. Converse, “A New Pronoun.” The Critic, Aug. 2, 1884, p. 55).

  • The 2017 Word of the Year has been banned

    The Trump administration has banned the 2017 Word of the Year. 

    Adding to earlier reports that the federal government will no longer be allowed to use seven dirty words like evidence-based, vulnerable, diversity, transgender, season’s greetings, and #metoo, the Trump administration has canceled this year’s Word of the Year awards.

    Sources inside the White House, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear for their lives, reported on the social media site on Sunday that the Department of Homeland Security has rescinded recent Word of the Year awards to feminism, fake news, populism, and youthquake, a word no one has even heard ofDHS further announced the suspension of all awards currently in the pipelines.

  • The new digital censorship: Writers blocking readers

    In a new form of censorship, social media lets writers block their readers.

    I found out recently, and quite by accident, that a writer whose work I’ve read from time to time had blocked me on Twitter. It’s a digital first: never since the invention of letters have writers had the option of preventing readers from accessing their work. 

    I’m not talking about private diaries, personal letters, or eyes-only top secret communiqués. I mean writers who write for the public. These writers—who used to be grateful that anyone was willing to glance at their work let alone read it all the way through—now have the power to say, “My words are for everybody else, but they’re not for you.”

  • So long as we're banning devices from the classroom, let's ban clay tablets as well

    A University of Michigan professor is the latest in a long line of instructors who don’t allow students to use devices in their classrooms. Susan Dynarski (“Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting,” New York Times, 22 Nov.) cites irrefutable research that banning devices in class increases student learning. Apparently cell phones, tablets, and laptops keep even students who are actually paying attention from fully engaging with the course material.

    You’ve heard the arguments before: Devices cause distraction. Typing is faster than handwriting, so students will spend less time mentally processing each word. Typing encourages copying verbatim; writing by hand forces students to digest and summarize what they hear.

    But the arguments fail: pens and pencils are complex technological devices--if you don't believe that, try making a pencil at home. How many student notebooks consist of swirls, doodles, cartoon figures, experiments with signatures, or stray keywords indecipherable after the fact? As for verbatim transcription, there’s no research showing typed notes parrot the speaker more than written ones. Remember, too, that transcription originates as a handwriting technique; it took decades before typists could come close to the accuracy of stenographers.

  • When Donald Trump blocks you on Twitter, does he violate the First Amendment?

    The Knight First Amendment Institute claims that when Donald Trump blocks Twitter followers who criticize him or his policies, he’s violating the First Amendment, and so Knight is suing on behalf of seven blocked tweeters to force the president to unblock them and open his Twitter feed to everyone.

  • Miranda and the Louisiana Lawyer Dog: a case of talking while black

    Talking while black cost Warren Demesme his Miranda rights in Louisiana.

    In a 6-1 decision, on Oct. 27 the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Warren N. Demesme, in jail in Orleans Parish since January of the previous year while he awaits trial on a count of first degree rape and another of “sexual misconduct with a juvenile under the age of thirteen.” During questioning Demesme confessed, but he later asked the court to throw out that confession because police ignored his request for an attorney, one of the “Miranda” rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

    The court is not required to explain why it refused to hear the appeal, but in order “to spotlight the very important constitutional issue regarding the invocation of counsel during a law enforcement interview,” Scott J. Crichton, one of the court’s judges, wrote in a concurrence that police did not have to stop their questioning after Demesme’s request because he asked for a “lawyer dog,” not a lawyer.

  • Language in the age of Fake News, Fox News, and Trump™

    Everyone likes to pick apart the language of politicians, but it’s the job of linguists to pick apart everybody’s language, from the everyday to the very rare, from the learned and refined to the rough and tumble, from the main streets and gated communities to the empty lots and back alleys. We come up with stunning insights about language for a living, and so far as analyzing political language, well, you could say we eat it for breakfast. But the age of fake news, Fox News, and Trump™—all of them synonymous to some extent—is challenging our long-held beliefs about how language works.

  • Court rules that gay bashing is not a crime in West Virginia

    West Virginia's hate crime law protects people from threats and violence because of their race, religion, or sex. Last week, the state's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the word sex in the hate crime statute does not include sexual orientation. The 3-2 decision in West Virginia v. Butler means that gay bashing is not a crime in West Virginia.

  • Tennessee’s new “plain meaning” law masks an anti-gay, anti-feminist agenda

    Tennessee's new plain meaning law masks an anti-gay, anti-feminist agenda. It’s plainly ambiguous and discriminatory.

    When laws don’t define the words that they contain, we’re supposed to give those words their plain or ordinary meaning. A Tennessee bill, passed on April 27 and awaiting the governor’s signature, would take this common practice of legal interpretation and turn it into a law, only with a twist: the Tennessee plain meaning law has a hidden meaning that threatens to roll back hard-won rights.

  • Dictionaries are trending

    When people don’t understand something in the news, they no longer wait for the Sunday talk shows to tell them what it means, or the next issue of Time, or even the Daily Show. With just a click, they look it up in the dictionary.

  • Is the mother of all bombs sexist?

    “Is the mother of all bombs sexist?” That’s what the reporter who called me wanted to know. I couldn’t take that call, so I missed his deadline, and anyway, I didn’t have a sound bite, which is what reporters always want. But here’s my answer: “Yes. But sexism’s not its biggest problem.”

  • The Frozen Trucker v. The Bolognese Bloodletter: Why we read law sensibly, not literally

    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is catching well-deserved shade for favoring employers in legal disputes. As he began his Senate confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court, which Gorsuch hopes to join, unanimously overturned his decision siding with a school board against an autistic pupil in a special education dispute. But the Gorsuch opinion that interests me most, because it involves dictionaries, is “The Case of the Frozen Trucker.”

  • Let's eat grandpa: Commas are not a matter of life and death, even in the law

    There’s a pedant at my university who likes to stand on the Quad, wave a grammar book at passers-by, and warn them that a comma can mean the difference between life and death. He or she points an accusing finger at some poor soul and makes them fix the commas in their term paper.

    You’d better get those commas right, pedants like to warn, because “Commas save lives,” an eternal truth they illustrate with the life-and-death Parable of the Dinner Guest: 

        (1) Let’s eat, grandpa.

        (2) Let’s eat grandpa.

    Don’t let the pedants sucker you with their scary comma talk. There is no one in their right mind who reads the second example as an invitation to cannibalism. 

  • You lie: Dictionaries find truth in a post-truth world

    It’s a fact: politicians lie, and the news media exposes their lies. It may seem surprising, but lately dictionaries, not the media, have become the guardians of facts and the exposers of lies.

  • The oath of office in the post-truth presidency

    When it came time for Chief Justice John Roberts to administer the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, to use the language of political euphemism, mistakes were made. Roberts and Obama stumbled over mis-timed phrasing. Then, trying to recover, the Chief Justice misspoke the words that are specified in the Constitution. Following Roberts’ lead, the president-elect also made mistakes in wording. This led to a do-over the next day. The oath of office could take on a whole new life in the post-truth presidency.