On Lexicon Valley, Slate's podcast about language, I'm taking part in a regular feature. I come prepared with a mystery word, and the hosts have to guess the word itself and its origins. The first word didn't remain a mystery for very long: discombobulate.  Continue reading...
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When you visit your bank's website or enter a credit-card number, you've probably noticed that in the browser's address box, the URL begins with https. The "S" stands for "secure," and the security technology your browser uses for that "S" represents one of the great inventions in the history of secrets. In this piece I'll walk you through some of the terms of that rich field.  Continue reading...
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Long before the advent of air conditioning, ice cream, sherbet, and their frozen cousins provided edible relief for summer heat — if you were rich enough to afford them. Today, these icy treats are democratic and diverse, and their names, both generic and trademarked, tell rich stories about language and history. Here are some of the tastiest.  Continue reading...
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Grammar Girl, a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty, has been sharing short tips on usage and style with us. Her latest tip looks at the evolution of affirmative interjections, from yea and yes in Old English to yeah and yup in contemporary English.  Continue reading...
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Just in time for the 4th of July, our own Ben Zimmer investigates how the term "Yank" started off as a term of disparagement but was reclaimed as an expression of patriotic pride in settings from world wars to the World Cup.  Continue reading...
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Tradecraft, which has been spy jargon since at least the 1960s, has been making its way into more mainstream consciousness recently, as we hear about operations like the search for Osama bin Laden, or about Edward Snowden's training as a spy. It's a good example of how words with seemingly transparent meanings can settle into semantic idiosyncrasy through historical circumstance.  Continue reading...
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I am guessing that the average electrician doesn't realize how much history is knocking about in his or her toolbox. Volt, amp, ohm, watt—these electrical units are all eponyms, derived from the names of pioneers in the field. Let's have a tour.  Continue reading...
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