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: Organic

Apr 16, 2019

When you think about a word like “organic,” we think about how it’s seeded throughout the language.

Chemists might contend that “organic” refers to compounds containing a significant amount of carbon, the origin of which is irrelevant: a chemical is a chemical, after all, and it doesn’t matter if it came out of a laboratory or your back yard.

A regulator might look at “organic” as a set of parameters describing how a food is grown, tended, packaged, or prepared.

OnWords: 'Spring'

Apr 2, 2019

It seems like it will never arrive. But once it does, spring seems like the the only possible way to be.

We use the word spring for that time of year when hope, as we say, proves that it springs eternal, when the vernal shows the trace of Persephone returning from the underworld.

The word spring comes up again and again.

The springs in your car help determine its ride, how compliant or stiff, how bouncy or smooth. Spring, then, is also about movement.

“Inflection point” is a term originating in mathematics that describes the point on a curve at which the direction of the curve changes.

Business seems to have picked up on “inflection point,” broadening the term to refer to any moment of significant change. This makes sense in a realm like business, plotting out the curves that describe an ever-shifting bottom line.

But the term “inflection point” has made a turn into the larger world, now being applied to points of change in social, political, and cultural trends.

OnWords: 'Screen'

Mar 5, 2019

Considering how much time we spend with screens, we don’t spend much of that talking about the word “screen” and all the ways we use it.

The screen on your laptop, tablet, or phone is both what you use to view things and the view itself, both the physical object and its virtual complement.

As you’re scrolling past these various screens, you might find something to share, so you use a screenshot, bringing in a metaphor borrowed from photography, a metaphor photography borrowed from gunnery.

It’s not so much that there’s more insulting language these days but that it isn’t very good.

Calling a Millennial lazy or entitled, for example, simply shows a lack of wit.

Consider George Bernard Shaw’s note to Winston Churchill that he was “enclosing two tickets to the first night of my play; bring a friend, if you have one.”

And Churchill’s equally witty response: “Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.”

OnWords: Whataboutism

Feb 5, 2019

We’ve probably all been there. In the middle of a heated debate, our frustrated opponent hauls out the ol’ “what about . . .” followed by some horrible thing someone on our side once did.

An atheist, for example, might premise a comeback with “What about the Crusades?” and her devout opponent might counter with “What about Mao’s China?”

As a sometime teacher of rhetoric and English composition, I run across entire papers structured around what about arguments that oppose other sides imagined or real.

OnWords: Shutdown

Jan 22, 2019

For some reason, the word shutdown has been on my mind lately…but let’s look at the word itself. 

OnWords: Transactional

Jan 9, 2019

The underpinnings of Donald Trump’s leadership style have often been described as “transactional.”

Observers and analysts seem to mean by this term an approach that sees the world as essentially a deal: for every thing we do, we expect reciprocity, hopefully in the form of something that benefits us, ideally in the form of something that benefits us more than others.

Using the word “transactional” is a quick way to sum up and make sense of terms like “good deal,” “bad deal,” “the worst deal in history,” and “winning!”

OnWords: Thanks

Jan 1, 2019

The holiday season and the year’s end have a lot of people taking stock.

Gratitude proliferates on social media, a new thanks for every day, for family and friends, pets and pies, warm socks and hot coffee, a fireplace on a raw, autumnal night.

No matter how you feel about such public outpourings of authenticity, you’ve certainly noticed the proliferation of thanks out there at every time of year.

OnWords: Blue Wave

Dec 11, 2018

After this year’s midterm elections, news-types spent countless hours trying to decide if the results could be described as a “blue wave” or not.

“Blue wave” is supposed to mean the electorate turning toward Democratic candidates, by associating their victory with the blue often used to indicate Democratic candidate victories on electoral maps.

What makes this interesting is not the post-election attempt to define “blue wave” but the fact that these same people spent countless hours trying to predict a blue wave before the election as well.