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: 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. 

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.