Language Archive


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Prior to the Civil War, the usual usage when referring to the nation as a whole was "the United States are...."

Since the Civil War, "United States" has been treated linguistically as singular: "the United States is...."

Given the to-do over Arizona's immigration enforcement law, as well as the incipient revolt of a number of states over the health care individual mandate (among other things) I get the feeling that we're on the way to hearing more use of "the United States are...."

That's how it's registering in my thoughts, more and more. As it relates to the nature of state sovereignty within our federal republic, I'm fine with that usage.

A Few Pet Peeves

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Sometimes I hear or read something that strikes me as an appalling failure of education. Having always had an affinity for language, certain misuses grate hard on me.

I know, I know — you're thinking "Russ, you're such a relaxed and easygoing guy, how could anything trivial bother you?" Good point, but there are indeed some abuses of language that get right up my nose, so to speak.

First on today's list: "The gig is up." No, no, no. If the game is over, if you've been found out, then the jig is up.

Next: "It doesn't jive with...." Perhaps not, but the word you're probably looking for here is jibe, meaning "to be in accord; to agree."

Finally (for now): "I'll have the prime rib with au jus." This one is enough to make me want to hurl a brick at the speaker. As anyone with even the slightest smattering of a classical education can tell you, "au jus" is not a noun, it is a style. It literally means "with juice" and in cooking generally means "with a light gravy or sauce made from the meat's natural juices." Saying that you'll have something "with au jus" is syntactically equivalent to ordering your apple pie "with à la mode." It goes beyond redundant, into the realm of the vacuous.

Here's a handy rule, a lesson I learned the hard way many years ago: if you don't know how to use a word or phrase, particularly one from a foreign language, don't use it.

Of course, that won't stop people who don't know that they don't know.

My feeling towards serial abusers of language can perhaps be summed up by one of my favorite foreign language sentiments: Caesar si viveret, ad remum dareris — "if Caesar were alive, you'd be chained to an oar."

Word of the Day

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The English language is generally more flexible and expressive than most, but the German language has a lot of great words for concepts that are harder to describe in English. My recent favorite:

Backpfeifengesicht: a face badly in need of a fist.

Other examples of great German words include schadenfreude and schwerpunkt.


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