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.

OnWords: Hoax

Jan 21, 2020

For some reason, the word “hoax” has been on my mind a lot lately.

“Hoax” is a word with a storied past. Famous examples range from faux autobiographies of Hitler and Howard Hughes to a supposed mummified giant dug up in Cardiff, New York, in 1869. The most famous archaeological hoax, and one of history’s most famous, is Piltdown man, in which an amateur geologist claimed to have found in southeast England the missing link between humans and apes.

OnWords: OK Boomer

Jan 7, 2020

When you hear this, the term “OK Boomer” will probably already be fading from public view.

As you may recall, the term was briefly noteworthy as a way for Millennials and those younger to signal Baby Boomers’ cluelessness about matters important to young people. “OK Boomer” has been appended to subjects such as climate change, sexual orientation and gender identity, and the crushing debt from student loans.

OnWords: Wikipedia

Dec 24, 2019

As an English teacher, I warn students away from Wikipedia. Yet the way it builds meanings and information collectively, from users rather than only experts, mimics the way language itself builds meaning in the real world.

Among scholars, Wikipedia’s user-generated knowledge has no place: to know is to study, and there is a formal process for that.

There is nothing wrong with numbering off talking points while speaking publicly. It helps listeners keep track of what you’re saying, helping the audience make sense of it, especially when tackling complex issues.

But what I’ve noticed lately are speakers listing off “number one” after they’ve made their first point.

For example, an interview subject might begin a statement by saying “We’re going to conduct a thorough investigation of the theft of Lizzo’s flute, number one. Number two . . . .”

OnWords: Virtue Signalling

Nov 26, 2019

Virtue signaling is a term describing people publicly declaring their positions on various issues of the day, using print, speech, or social media to align themselves, often with progressive causes or points of view.

OnWords: Holiday

Nov 12, 2019

As we move into the holiday season, it seems like a good time to consider the ways we use the word holiday and its implications.

Originally meaning “holy day,” the term has expanded over the centuries to include any day set aside for celebration, religious observance, or rest.

OnWords: 'Influencer'

Oct 29, 2019

Social media have spawned many new words, and now they bring us “influencer.”

Social media influencers are distinguished by their use of YouTube, Instagram, or similar platforms to impact their many followers’ opinions and beliefs. These followers are typically young people who receive the bulk of their news and entertainment from online videos.

We used to use the word “celebrity” to describe such people, with its implication that their work and contributions to the culture were something to celebrate, that we all shared in their accomplishments.

OnWords: Anxiety

Oct 15, 2019

As a new school year gets under way, both students and teachers are likely to report some anxiety.

“Anxiety” is a word with both clinical and common meanings, part of the complex dance we have with such terms in a culture driven by science and technology. In this case, it shows how language users borrow words from science when they resonate with how we feel—and how we want to feel about how we feel. 

OnWords: Dope

Oct 1, 2019

For a one-syllable word of little sparkle or fire, “dope” has an interesting variety of meanings.

Prominent over the last century or so is the use of “dope” to mean illegal drugs, typically marijuana or opioids, which tend to make people out of it, spacey, slow to react, or just plain silly.

The term “confirmation bias” has come to the fore recently, describing everything from the publication of scientific papers to polls of public opinion. 

Briefly stated, “confirmation bias” is the tendency to only accept new information that supports what we already think. Gen X-ers like me, for example, might be inclined to believe any study indicating that Baby Boomers are self-centered, that Millennials are entitled, or that only the unsophisticated don’t like craft beer.