An exploration and celebration of language and all of it's many quirks, with KMUW commentator Lael Ewy.

Hear OnWords on alternate Tuesdays or find it on iTunes.

Recently, our president used the words “mission accomplished” to describe military action in Syria.

The phrase immediately brought up a famous faux pas: George W. Bush slapping the same term across an aircraft carrier to proclaim the same in Iraq.

That statement turned out not to be true, and US forces fight and die there still.

Various theories of language, notably the Sapir-Whorf theory support the idea that language creates reality for language users.

And while some visual artists and musicians might argue the point, there’s something to it.

Successful political initiatives define the terms of political debate before the debate even begins. Thus the estate tax becomes the “death tax,” the poor become lazy, and unfettered access to guns becomes freedom.

OnWords: No Words

Mar 6, 2018

Alert listener Ryan Philbrick noted the current trend of using the words “no words” when one is overcome with emotion.

Indeed, there are plenty of words one can use in these situations, from “devastated” and “apoplectic,” to “saddened,” or, if you don’t want to commit, “deeply moved.”

One way of looking at the “no words” phenomenon is that the person doing it is trying to say that the words available don’t express the true depth of emotion, as in “I’m so incredibly saddened that the words ‘incredibly saddened’ seem inconsequential.”

I remember reading Plato as an undergrad and being interested in the way Socrates took pains to define his terms in the dialogs.

Western philosophy has continued this tradition, and by the 20th century, the problem of meaning in philosophical language became acute.

If there’s one thing I’ve come around to over the years, it’s the non-gender-specific pronoun.

OnWords: Word Of The Year

Jan 23, 2018

Late in December each year, authorities on language such as those who curate the Oxford English Dictionary release their word of the year.

I use the word “curate” purposefully to describe what those who assemble dictionaries do, as the best description of a dictionary I ever heard was that it is a “museum for words.”

OnWords: Public Apology

Jan 9, 2018

Recent sex scandals have seen an uptick in public apologies.

Some people are more satisfied at the sincerity of these attempts at amends than others are, but the public apology remains an important part of life in a country that constitutionally protects free speech.

OnWords: Compassion

Dec 26, 2017

I hear the word “compassion” in surprising places these days, such as in health service delivery, education, and even those who study communication patterns.

OnWords: Snowflake

Dec 12, 2017

A popular idea about the way water freezes notes that all snowflakes are unique, beautiful latticeworks of crystals revealing themselves when magnified and properly attended to.

This notion has led some well-meaning folks to apply the word “snowflake” to people, implying that we are all beautiful in our own way and should be treated according to our own special needs.

Our friends in the media love to use the term “national conversation” about anything newsworthy and controversial. Lately we’ve had national conversations about sexual harassment, race, and the rights LGBT people.

I think it’s very important to talk about such things, and often it’s an indication that once taboo subjects no longer are.

But I don’t think these are really national conversations.

Mostly, pundits and self-declared experts repeat talking points on TV and regular folks share invective online.