For my most recent "Word on the Street" column in the Wall Street Journal
, I consider the history of a word very much in the news: drone
, referring to a pilotless aircraft guided by remote control. It turns out the term has been on a long, strange trip from early prototypes in the 1930s to the current controversial U.S. program of covert drone strikes.
Edward Snowden's leaking of National Security Agency information has put the term whistleblower
back in the news. Since the early 1970s, whistleblower
has come to be seen as a positive term, but before that it had been decidedly negative for many decades.
Some stories about word origins recall the old Italian saying, se è non vero, è ben trovato
: even if it is not true, it is well invented. One such too-good-to-check story involves the sporting usage of upset
, which, it is said, came to be because an unfavored horse named Upset beat the great thoroughbred Man o' War.
Last December I commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of what was then the first-known appearance of "Uncle Sam" as a personification of the United States, which turned up in a Bennington, Vermont newspaper. Now, just in time for the Fourth of July, comes new evidence that "Uncle Sam" was in use as early as 1810, more than two years before the phrase's popularization in the War of 1812.
American courtrooms can produce some fascinating linguistic specimens. Two high-profile court cases have put language on display. In Boston, the trial of mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger has provided testimony full of old-school crime lingo. Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion on the Defense of Marriage Act featured some "legalistic argle-bargle."
In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I look at the recent craze for "cronuts," which are a croissant-doughnut hybrid created by an upscale French bakery in Manhattan. It was such a hit that imitators have created their own hybrids using names like dossant
. Regardless of these concoctions' culinary qualities, is cronut
a more appealing name than other combinations of croissant
When Fox News host Megyn Kelly gamely took on Erick Erickson, a contributor to the network, for his provocative statements about gender roles last week, she was puzzled by one word in particular that Erickson had used to describe his ideological opponents. "I don't know what the word is... some sort of liberals, eco-liberals, what did you call them?" "Emo liberals," Erickson clarified.