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: Bro

Apr 14, 2020

You might be wondering why young people are calling each other a type of women’s underwear.

But “brah,” is really a version of “bro,” a term with which even the oldest among us are familiar.

“Bro,” is, of course, a shortening of “brother,” an expression expanding filial relationships beyond the literal family. Our everyday use of brother in this way goes back at least to the Great Depression with its anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Metaphorical language is powerful.

We use it to make the unfamiliar familiar and to make us see the familiar in a different light.

A reporter may speak of the “race” to an upcoming election, or a poet may liken separated lovers to two legs of a compass, physically distant but spiritually connected.

But metaphors can also lead us astray.

A common metaphor compares the brain to a computer, as the body’s “central processing unit,” with thoughts compared to software.

OnWords: Hong Kong People

Mar 17, 2020

I was intrigued immediately by the way the people of Hong Kong describe themselves.

Through all the coverage of the Umbrella Movement of 2014 to the more recent protests against interference by mainland China, to concerns over the coronavirus, they have used one term to describe themselves: Hong Kong people.

OnWords: Play

Mar 3, 2020

The word “play” comes up when accessing music, on streaming services, and, constantly, with video games.

Play is pervasive: an actor plays a role; the ump yells “Play ball!”; a golfer plays through.

We even apply “play” to sex: a “playa’” plays the field, looking not for love and commitment but to score. If we object, we’re reminded to “hate the playa’, not the game.”

Play, which we associate with entertainment, is very serious business, with the video game market alone expected to top $20 billion this year, according to business analysis company Statista.

When smartphones and online text editors no longer auto-corrected “gonna” and “kinda,” I knew I had to fight back.

It’s not that these constructions are necessarily wrong. Contractions — such as the one at the beginning of the previous sentence — have become acceptable in many circumstances, for example, radio commentaries. “Goodbye” has so long been contracted that most of us have forgotten, or never knew, that it once meant “God be with you.”

Language changes, as it must, to meet the needs of its users.

OnWords: e-Prefixes

Feb 4, 2020

With the rise of esports, we see also the re-emergence of the e-prefix.

Esports are, as the name implies, video games played competitively and for paying spectators. And they’ve gotten big, fast: collectively they make up a billion dollar industry.

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 . . . .”