Take a Verbal Voyage This Summer

Rob Kyff on

Become a "word" traveler this summer with one of these new books about language.

If you're reading this column, you're probably annoyed by sentences peppered with "like," the use of "literally" when a figurative meaning is intended, or the scratchy "vocal fry" in the voices of many young women these days. But Valerie Fridland, a socio-linguist at the University of Nevada, Reno, makes a persuasive case for the validity and utility of these recent verbal trends in "Like, Literally Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad Language." She points out that "literally" has morphed into an intensifier that's not meant to be taken ... well, literally. Calling someone (either a man or a woman) a "dude," she explains, signals inclusion -- "you're one of us!" And women, she surmises, adopt the low-pitched "vocal fry" to make their voices sound more authoritative.

Did you know that Scrabble was inspired by an alphabetic code in an Edgar Allan Poe short story? That the seemingly modern texting abbreviation "O.M.G." was used as early as 1917 when Admiral Lord Fisher wrote to Winston Churchill, "I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis -- O.M.G.!"? That the era of Prohibition brought us "giggle water" (champagne) and "hooch" (short for "hoochinoo," a distilled beverage from Alaska)? Erin McCarthy and her colleagues at the online magazine Mental Floss have compiled all these juicy facts, along with the best opening words to use in Wordle, in "The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases and Surprising Etymologies."

What do John Adams, Sojourner Truth, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, Amy Tan and Donald Trump have in common? Their writing is represented in "The People's Tongue: Americans and the English Language." This eclectic anthology, assembled by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, includes pieces analyzing the American language as well as excerpts that reflect the whip and snap of colloquial speech, such as banter from an episode of "I Love Lucy." In a fascinating introduction, Stavans provides a sweeping overview of the evolution of American English. "It is an ongoing process," he writes, "a language that is in constant flux, responding in audacious ways to the stimulation of its environment ... The nation's tongue is restless."


Bon voyage!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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