The lexis of our language is like a coral reef, full of wonders rich and strange. And, as with coral reefs, one of the threats to its diversity is bleaching.

Coral bleaching is a result of coral shedding algae due to rising sea temperatures. Semantic bleaching is a result of words shedding distinctions of meaning due to overuse, over-broad use, what one might call thesaurusitis: treating all words in a section of Roget’s as fungible. The words are still in use, but they lose much of their distinction of sense, thereby reducing the expressive power of the language. And modern electronic media can amplify this effect.

Expressive power and electronic amplification have much to do with the word of which I sing today, croon. It’s not a new word; it dates back half a millennium in Scotland and northern England, where it has for that long had the sense of a low sound, either (particularly in Scotland) a low, deep, loud, steady sound, or (more broadly) a low murmuring sound or soft quiet singing. It sounds like it should mean what it means. In singing, it’s the opposite of belting. Belting is the kind of singing you do when you have a noisy room and poor (or no) amplification. Once you have a good microphone and good speakers, you can draw the audience in with quiet, smooth singing. You can croon.

Which is what happened in jazz in the late 1920s onward. The first truly famous crooner was Rudy Vallée. His soft voice crept like a lover into millions of living rooms through the radio. Many others followed; the one probably most often thought of as a crooner was Bing Crosby. They all had a gentle, quiet singing style that worked closely with the microphone.

But as one technology giveth, another helpeth take away. Newspapers are written by people who are trained to be allergic to repetition. They seek different words for the same thing to make their prose seem more varied and expressive. We can never forget that a pumpkin is a gourd thanks to them; we are given the idea that every promise, however solemn and formal or not, is a vow; food writers talk of people munching even the softest, smoothest, quietest foods (ice cream? oatmeal?). And every act of singing may be called crooning.

It’s not that the word is always used over-broadly; it has not been utterly bleached. But a quick look through recent New York Times articles finds gospel choirs “crooning” more than once and a jazz singer who “crooned over the trio, belting the 1941 Duke Ellington classic” – yes, crooning and belting as the same act. Even non-singers, we are told, have sometimes “crooned”: soccer fans, en masse in a stadium, “crooned” “We’re not going home”; Donald Trump, at a rally, “crooned” “I love you! I love you!” to his supporters. Every one of these uses is amplified to an unlimited number of eyeballs through the wonder of the world wide web.

As a linguist, I can look at this and just write it down as instances of semantic broadening due to an evident desire for more expressive-sounding vocabulary (with the likely long-term effect of reducing the expressive value it draws on). As an editor and user of the language, however, I would rather resist it, because it ultimately reduces the expressive power. And there can be quite a lot of expressive power in the soft, quiet, focused, and amplified sound of crooning.

kyle, kylie

There are some words, like some people and some songs, that you just can’t get out of your head – they keep coming back to you. And sometimes when they come back they mean a different thing each time.

One word like that is kyle. As a noun, it has three different origins and three different meanings. One is ‘sore, ulcer, or boil’, coming from Old Norse kyli ‘boil, abscess’. Another refers to a small iron wedge that holds the head of a hammer (or similar implement) onto the shaft; it’s related to German Keil. The third is ‘narrow channel, strait’; it comes from Gaelic caol (pronounced about like “kale”). If you know someone named Kyle – or if that’s your name – you’ll be relieved to know that the personal name comes from that third sense.

Which is not to say all Kyles are strait-laced. Certainly not all Kylies are. I don’t know about you, but when I see Kylie I immediately come back to Kylie Minogue, the pop star who had a huge hit with her 2001 “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”

Funny thing about Kylie, though. She’s from Australia. And while I don’t know what her parents had in mind when naming her, there’s another word from Australia we need to come around to: kylie. It’s not very common in current use, but it’s still in the dictionary.

What’s a kylie? It’s another distinctly Australian thing: a boomerang. The word comes from Noongar, one of the indigenous (Aborigine) languages of southwest Australia. So it’s fitting that Kylie has had many happy returns.

Just as a little tangent: her family name Minogue traces back to an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘monk’. Kylie doesn’t seem very monastic… I guess she came around.

laryngitis (word review video)

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life hands you laryngitis, make a video.


This is a good word for New Year’s. Each year proceeds from the previous, attacca.

If you’re looking at a musical score, and at the start of a movement you see attacca, you know you’re supposed to dive right into that movement without pausing from the previous one.

To attack it.

Except no. No and yes, but no.

To attach to it.

Sure, when the next movement comes along, you have a choice to pause for a moment or just to jump on it and keep going. But while a strong attack on the opening note can make quite a statement, the point is just that it’s attached like a trailer to a truck. It’s concatenated: chained together.

Why the confusion? Because the two English words, attack and attach, connect to the same Italian verb, attaccare. I won’t say the Italian is the direct source, but the English words and the Italian word appear to have the same origin – and both English words translate to attaccare. It reminds us that attach or stick (or tack on, if you like the sound) can be active and aggressive, not always passive. Think of a magnet: bring it close enough to the right kind of thing and it just – attack-attaches to it.

The Italian has a broad ambit of senses: according to Harper Collins, senses include ‘attach’, ‘stick’, ‘hang (up)’, ‘attack’, ‘begin, start’, ‘stick, adhere’, ‘be contagious’, and ‘cling’. Attaccare discorso means ‘start a conversation’, and Con me non attacca! means ‘That won’t work with me!’ That’s quite a lot of meaning sticking to one word. But it all seems to work, because it’s all related.

Years don’t need magnetism or a physical attack to roll around, of course. The line from one to another is arbitrary and instantaneous, and the instant passes without tremor (other than percussive sounds from fireworks and champagne corks). In truth, the time it takes to pass from one year to another is more than a full day: the Line Islands, part of Kiribati, are 14 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, while Howland Island and Baker Island, owned by the US – and farther west than the Line Islands – are 12 hours behind it. That means that when the new year first arrives on the planet, it’s only 10 AM on New Year’s Eve in London, and when it last arrives it’s already noon on New Year’s Day in London. It is possible for something to happen on January 2nd and for people not so far away to learn of it on December 31st of the previous year.

There are also half-hour and even quarter-hour time zones on the planet (for example, when it’s noon in London it’s 5:30 PM in India and 5:45 PM in Nepal), meaning that the new year arrives a total of 39 times. And, because a day lasts 24 hours, it will be New Year’s Day – or New Year’s Eve, or any other day – somewhere on the planet for 50 hours from when it first arrives to when it last departs.

Time may seem to attack. The year 2016 has one heck of a casualty toll among famous people, for instance (and a far greater one among non-famous people). But as attached as we are to our arbitrary divisions of time, a year has no true discrete existence. Yes, the planet orbits the sun in a regular period, but just where we draw the line to start a new period is arbitrary – roughly 10 days after it reaches perihelion, going by the calendar that will start the year 2017 forthwith (other calendars start other years at other times). We go with it because it works with us. Because we are attached to it.

And while we may make resolutions to turn over new leaves each New Year’s, we mostly just turn over new pages in calendars (if even that). We don’t let go of our attachments. Rather, we sing to not letting old acquaintance be forgot. We go right into the next movement, but it is still attached to the one before.

populism, populist

Language change is, generally, organic. It usually doesn’t happen by fiat (especially in English); it also doesn’t happen by vote. There may be some influence from “above” by people such as English teachers, but that mostly affects what rules people think they’re breaking when they’re speaking the way they want to speak anyway. You could say that language change – grammar, the meanings and pronunciations of words, and so on – happens by mass popular movement.

Which is not to say that it’s populist. Populism is a political stance that advocates the people – the general populace, hoi polloi – in opposition to a ruling élite. Language change is not the product of a program leading a movement of the populace in opposition to English teachers, editors, and others. There could be such a movement, of course, but de facto language change happens by popular will anyway. We’re all part of it, not just the people at the top. (The situation can at times be different for languages with official deciding bodies, such as in France.)

So, you could reply, if we all decided that the meaning of populism should shift to ‘following the will of the people as with a general tide, without a specific political program’, then that would be the meaning. Well, yes, if that sense shift happened and ultimately overcame opposition. The change would probably take quite a while and not be without some controversy. But it could happen.

But there are shifts that we have every right and reason to resist, no matter how many people use the new sense. We are all streamkeepers of this flowing language. When a word is being used as a euphemism to let something slide that should not, or when its use carries implications that have negative consequences, we should not let these pass unnoticed. If we speak up and point out the problems, we may help these shifts to become unpopular.

So, for instance, for a long time there was a default assumption that people in certain roles were masculine, and so he and him were used. Around the time that such assumptions started to be a bit less tenable, a common line from prescriptivists was that he and him were the natural universal gender-neutral pronouns. (Poor men, having to sacrifice the uniqueness of their pronoun! Ah, such sacrifices must be made.) At long last enough people pointed out that this did, in fact, convey the default assumption of masculinity – words carry resonances and implications whether you say they should or not – and so use of masculine pronouns as a universal has lost general acceptance. (Read more about this in my article on they.)

Which, I suppose, you could say was a populist movement – the neglected masses against the prescriptive authorities – though it was in particular a movement by and on behalf of the more neglected moiety of the populace, to influence the more dominant segment and thereby produce a fairer outcome for all.

But now let’s say that people start using populism to refer to a movement focusing on the desires not of the whole population but on a minority of it who consider the remainder to be of lesser status. Say, for instance, that there is a group we’ll call X in the population, and they feel that the government has been giving too many rights to that larger part of the population that is not X. This group has traditionally been the group that, for all its internal differences, has been ceteris paribus the more-advantaged group, and they’re seeing non-Xes get similar rights. This doesn’t involve the loss of any rights from X – unless you consider it a right to have things that other people you consider inferior can’t have. If some political leader or party rallies members of X against the government just so they can protect their perceived right to have more rights, would you call that populism? Would you accept seeing it called populism? When the movement is for the rights of not all the populace but just a subset of it, and strongly against the rights of others?

This is not a hypothetical question. I’m seeing populist used quite a lot by news media and the commentariat for racist, nativist, frankly sexist and reactionary movements. In countries across Europe and at least one in North America, leaders who advocate or enfranchise not just xenophobia but racism and sexism are being called populists, and the reactionary groups that support them are being described as having populist sentiment.

Which implies that women and non-white people are not part of the populace, or anyway are not relevant parts of it. In spite of being, in sum, the majority. And, for that matter, it also implies that white men are, en masse, in favour of such movements. Which is also not true.

I think we owe ourselves and everyone else a duty to make this use of populist and populism unpopular.


We went on a trip through niveous countrysides and cityscapes. The three pictures above are the views from our three successive hotel rooms on the mornings of our checkouts. The land is covered with snow, smooth and white as Nivea, frothy as Evian, delicate and naïve, ovine in its fluffiness.

In our peregrinations we passed white churches and picnic tables.

We skied niveous riparian plains with veinous trees and red paint.

We walked streets nixed with flakes, past trees spruced with invasive lights.

Envious of our niveous souvenirs? Snow is pretty but problematic. You can march with boots or glide with skis, but if you are consigned to driving from point to point you may be disappointed by the slowness of the snowiness. Beauty may be paralyzing, and if you think snow is baleful, allow me to introduce you sometime to the ice storm, a singularly lethal beauty. Weather is the hand you are dealt, and you play it as you may and must.

Words, too, are dealt to you. You have more of them in your hand than you probably remember, and more ways to play them than you probably think the rules allow.

The word for now is niveous. It means ‘snowy’ but without the Tintin reference but with various other overtones and a vibe at its heart. It comes from Latin, of course: niveus, an adjectiving using the combining form niv- referring to snow. The nominative form of the noun for ‘snow’ in Latin is nix. Which may not sound very soft (except inasmuch as it reminds us of Stevie) but reminds us of the obliterating effect of a snowfall, nixing the picture. Cecidit nix: snow has fallen, snow has snowed, neige a neigé. And all is as gnomic as a sphinx, buffered with billions of flakes, each unique and evanescent. A presence that makes an absence, but a textured, soft one.

For the time being. Until it breaks and melts and mixes with dirt. Well, never mind. There will always be more.

In excelsis in excess?

Is it possible to try too hard? Sure. People do it every year around Christmas. One of the ways they do it is by trying too hard to pronounce in excelsis right and ending up saying (or singing) it wrong – making too many sounds. Sometimes the highest and best is not the most. Here’s my latest article for The Week:

How do you pronounce ‘in excelsis’?