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13 Badass German Words We Really Need in English

You know that moment when you can’t find the word to describe what’s happening. Or how you feel. It can be a pretty frustrating, right? Learning a new language opens the doors of communication in more ways than one. The word that describes...Show More Summary

Lay waste to Carthage?

Q: I never see “lay waste” used correctly, as in “lay Carthage waste.” Instead I see “lay waste to Carthage.” Though a voice crying in the wilderness, perhaps I could enlist your help in staying this devastation of the language? A: Traditionally, as you point out, “lay” is a transitive verb that takes a direct... ? Read More: Lay waste to Carthage?

The Origin of Mid Vowels in Siwi

How does a language with a relatively small vowel system react to pressure from a language with a larger one? Most northern Berber varieties have a simple four-vowel system: tense /a/, /i/, /u/, vs. lax schwa (/?/, written e in the official orthography), the latter being mostly predictable and limited to closed syllables. Show More Summary

Iron Crotch

Here on Language Log, we have devoted a considerable amount of attention to the terminology related to kungfu: "Kung-fu (Gongfu) Tea" (7/20/11) See also Ben Zimmer's masterful article on Visual Thesaurus: "How 'Kung Fu' Entered the Popular Lexicon" (1/17/14) Now we have documentation for another type of kungfu that has hitherto eluded us: This #KungFu […]

Wenzhounese in Italy

Commonly referred to as "Devil's language" (èmó zh? y? ????), because it is considered by outsiders to be extraordinarily difficult, Wenzhounese (W?nzh?u huà ???), the language of the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province 230 air miles south of the Yangtze estuary, has been a topic of discussion on Language Log before: "Devilishly difficult 'dialect" […]


“Rhododendron threat raised in Dáil” is a brief but piquant news story well summed up in the first sentence: “Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae has claimed that the spread of rhododendron in Killarney National Park is so bad that the army may have to be called in to sort it out.” I bring it here solely […]

Impact Effect

I recently saw a list of revisions suggested by the editor of a scientific journal, which combined technical issues with a number of points of English usage, including these two: Please try to avoid the word ‘impact,’ unless it is part of a proper name.  It is now over-used (its ‘impact’ is diminished), and doesn’t communicate […]


I’m on the home stretch of Rieber’s The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands (see this post), and in the course of reading up on the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875 and its consequences (which ultimately included the First World War and the entire last century’s worth of awfulness) I’ve run across items that satisfy my […]

New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around

In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break […]

Fatal or mortal?

Q: I’d be grateful for your thoughts on whether “fatal” or “mortal” better describes a gunshot wound that someone dies of. A: Either “fatal” or “mortal” may describe a deadly wound. However, each adjective has several other meanings of its own. “Fatal” may also mean, among other things, decisive (“a fatal moment”), causing failure (“a... ? Read More: Fatal or mortal?


In his ?????? “???????” [The Frigate Pallada], Goncharov uses ????????? ??????? for what are now called ??????? ????, the Ryukyu Islands. I found the old name curious, and when Goncharov goes on to say “??? ??? ????? ????????? ???????, ???, ??? ?????? ? ??? ? ?????? ??????????, ????-????, ???, ??? ?????????? ???????? ??, ??-?? (Loo-Choo), […]

Famous Movie Quotes

Screenwriters have been providing movie-goers with memorable quotes for a long time. Many of these have fallen into common usage, often misquoted but much loved. Here are some of the best movie quotes of all time. ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ (Gone With the Wind,...

Mayan Languages: How I Learned to Speak Tz’utujil in Guatemala

Have you ever wondered what ancient Mayan languages sound like? I did. My curiosity, in fact, led me to the indigenous town of San Juan La Laguna in Sololá, Guatemala where I volunteered my time at a health clinic and studied the language...Show More Summary

Patton Oswalt on Trump, Obama, David Lee Roth, and Rutgers linguistics

At the Writers Guild of America Awards on Sunday night, host Patton Oswalt predictably made some Trump jokes in his opening monologue. What wasn't so predictable was an extended analogy involving '80s hard rocker David Lee Roth and the linguistics department at Rutgers University. The key line: "Donald Trump taking Obama's job would be like […]

Bill of Goods.

My wife and I were out walking when one of us mentioned somebody being “sold a bill of goods” and we looked at each other in that this-is-a-case-for-Languagehat way and said “How did that expression arise?” We surmised, correctly, that a bill of goods is literally a consignment of merchandise (in the words of Merriam-Webster), […]

Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

Q: Where do you stand on the debate in academia over whether Jane Austen winkingly used the name “Fanny Price” for her Mansfield Park heroine? A: There’s no chance that Jane Austen was slyly winking at her readers when she used that name in Mansfield Park (1814). The British use of “fanny” to mean the... ? Read More: Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

A real-life subjacency problem sentence

There are some kinds of questions and relative clauses that you just can't form without resorting to a resumptive pronoun, even in languages - like English - that otherwise don't allow resumptive pronouns to begin with. Ever since Ross...Show More Summary

Two Japanese Questions.

1) In Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky bio, he says “After his return from Berlin in May 1924, Mayakovsky met with the Japanese author Tamisi Naito, who was visiting Moscow.” (In the original: “Efter hemkomsten från Berlin i maj 1924 träffade Majakovskij den japanske författaren Tamisi Naito, som var på besök i Moskva.”) I can find no reference […]

Homophonous phrase of the week

Wondermark for 1/24/2017, In which a Run is made:

Last night in Sweden

One of the most widely noted aspects of Donald Trump's campaign rally yesterday in Florida was his reference to a terrorist incident the night before in Sweden: Your browser does not support the audio element. You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden — Sweden! Who would […]

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