language

In American English, some slang words come and go. And some stay and stay.

"Yep. Nope. Very definitely."

Kathryn Schulz, a writer for The New Yorker, heard that seemingly-contradictory response to a question recently. And once she started listening for it, she heard it everywhere: people agreeing by saying "No, totally," or "No, definitely," or "No, for sure."

In a recent article, Schulz digs into what's behind this linguistic quirk. She found out that the English language used to have more options than just "yes" and "no."

Many East Asian cultures use zodiac animals to symbolize each New Year and predict a person's fortunes. But which animal represents 2015 is up for debate.

You may have seen goat, sheep or ram as the English translation for this year's animal according to the Chinese zodiac — yang, in Mandarin. All of them are correct, says Lala Zuo, a Chinese language and culture professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.

"I don't think there's a wrong translation," she says. "I think there are various ways of translation. It really depends on the context."

Seahawks Legion of Boom members Jeremy Lane, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman show off the trophy at the Super Bowl parade last January. The organization wans to trademark "boom" and the number 12.
Flickr Photo/Bernie Zimmermann (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Marcie Sillman talks with linguist Ben Zimmer about the Seattle Seahawks'  bid to trademark the number 12 and the word "boom."

A protester of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, holds up a sign reading "No justice, no peace" -- a popular slogan.
Flickr Photo/Shawn Semmler (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Marcie Sillman speaks with language journalist Ben Zimmer about the varied interpretations of the popular protest slogan, "No justice, no peace."

What was the top word of 2014?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it was "culture," based on increased frequency of use. "Of the top 10 words in the running for the honor, culture had a 15% year-over-year increase in look-ups on the dictionary company's website and in its app."

Sports. TV shows. Daily news. All grist for online arguments. (Not to mention culture, politics, race and feminism.)

Now, everyday people can communicate directly with people in news stories, celebrities and activists on social media. But not every conversation works on every platform. We're getting more sophisticated about choosing where we say things online.

Our blog was born in 2014, and I'll let you in on a little secret: We had a really hard time coming up with our name. (See: "Why Goats? Why Soda?")

But that naming struggle was nothing compared with figuring out what to call the parts of the world we cover. Third World? Developing world? Global south? Low- and middle-income countries?

We asked for nominations for "most misused word or phrase," and they came pouring in. Weekend Edition listeners and NPR.org readers have many gripes about the grammar gaffes they see and hear every day.

From nearly 450 story comments, 500 emails and more than 900 Facebook posts we received in December, we identified 275 separate nominees. Here's a top 10 countdown of the most frequently mentioned:

Flickr Photo/Forest History Society

Duff. Fish wheel. Skid Road.

Long butt.

Few of us here know the Northwest words listed in the Dictionary of American Regional English because they harken to a time when fishing and logging reigned in Washington state – when skookum described a tough, hardworking guy and Skid Road was a street in downtown Seattle where logs were sledded down to the waterfront.

KUOW reporter Deborah Wang asked native Washingtonians if they believe they have an accent. They said no. But they also pronounced "caught" and "cot" the same way -- one of the subtle distinctions of this region's accent.
KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

Do Pacific Northwesterners have an accent and what does it sound like? Listener Molly in Tacoma asked that question as part of KUOW's Local Wonder series. 

Molly never thought she had an accent until she moved to Virginia and was told she had one.

Some regional accents are obvious. But many in the Pacific Northwest describe themselves as speaking “standard,” “normal,” or “plain” English. But is that really the case? What do the experts say?

Black Friday in downtown Seattle at Westlake in 2010.
Flickr Photo/John Henderson (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Ross Reynolds speaks with linguistics journalist Ben Zimmer about the origins of the shopping phrases "Black Friday,"  "Cyber Monday," and "Super Saturday."

The growing popularity of electronic cigarettes has now sparked the notice of the estimable Oxford Dictionaries, which has chosen "vape" as the word of the year for 2014. The word can be a noun or a verb; it beat out contenders such as "bae" and "normcore."

Noting that e-cigarettes have come a long way since the early 1980s, when the "vape" was first breathed into life, the folks at Oxford Dictionaries say it took awhile for the new market, and the new word, to mature.

In an emergency, the last thing you want to hear is, "I can't understand you." The reality is emergency dispatchers in the Northwest generally speak one language, English. But in our increasingly polyglot society, some people in distress inevitably can't communicate in English.

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