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.

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. 

OnWords: Conspiracy

Aug 20, 2019

Conspiracy theories have been around a long time—from speculations about what happened to the children of the Russian royal family after the revolution to the fate of the Lindbergh baby to more contemporary concerns about what’s actually in the contrails airplanes make as they fly.

Our capacity for language helps create this phenomenon. Even the most direct words, nouns and verbs mostly, remove us one step from what they are referencing: the word train is not a train, and even if the word “train” disappeared tomorrow, linked cars on tracks would still trundle across the plains.

OnWords: 'Slippery Slope'

Aug 6, 2019

A few terms we have to protect from the unstable landscape of language, and I nominate “slippery slope” as one of them.

As language users, we reserve the right to make up words.

There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as those with whom we are communicating understand what we’re trying to get across. No lesser beings than Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss added new words to the language, and slang continues to bloom.

OnWords: Adulting

Jul 9, 2019

Among the many things Millennials are supposed to have killed is the word “adult.”

For evidence of this, their critics look no further than the word “adulting,” which creates a verb out of what used to be a venerable and well-respected noun.

A typical usage of “adulting” might be something like “I’d love to stay late at work and fix all your computer problems, but I’m done adulting for today.”

The implication here is that “adult” has moved from a state of being to an activity, from a fact of growing up to a choice one makes depending on one’s whim or mood.

OnWords: Emoji

Jun 25, 2019

As a writer and a teacher of writing, I worry constantly about the death of writing, and I worry that emoji are leading the charge.

OnWords: 'Tech'

Jun 11, 2019

The word “tech” has become ubiquitous.

It’s a descriptor: high tech, tech geeks, tech jobs—all these refer to that which revolves around microchips and the software that runs on them, and we occasionally throw in lasers and DNA to round things out.

Some educators have instituted “tech breaks” for their students, not to get students away from their electronic devices for a few minutes, but so they can use them.

OnWords: AI

May 28, 2019

“AI” is a term that crops up with increasing frequency as automated systems perform functions once squarely in the realm of human thought and control.

OnWords: Regulation

May 14, 2019

The word “regulation” takes on different meanings depending on where you stand.

Libertarians tend to bemoan it. Environmentalists are likely on board.

They both can agree that “regulation” in sports is not only OK, but probably necessary. Those who play assent to regulations that govern sizes and weights of bats and balls; lengths, widths, and layouts of courts and fields; and all manner of minutiae only the refs and the hardcore fans ever bother to know.

OnWords: 'Idiot'

Apr 30, 2019

I started worrying about the word “idiot” while discussing whether or not our smartphones are making us stupid.

The word “idiot” shares its roots with words such as “idiom” and “idiopathic” from an ancient Greek word meaning “private.”

“Idiot” as we know it quickly took on a negative denotation, and by the time it got to Latin, it had achieved its present insulting form. And it’s easy to see why: those who are immersed in their own private worlds are oblivious to what’s going on around them, unable to interact in any publicly meaningful way.