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: 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.    

OnWords: Dog Whistle

Nov 27, 2018

The term “dog whistle” pops up in politics with much higher frequency these days.

A literal dog whistle is a whistle that emits sounds at a pitch beyond human hearing but that can be heard by dogs and domestic cats.

Dog-whistle politics refers to ideas politicians suggest that the general population will not understand but that certain subgroups will.

OnWords: Witch Hunt

Nov 13, 2018

When an American uses the term “witch hunt,” a few inter-related referents come to mind.

OnWords: Pumpkin

Oct 30, 2018

You can’t avoid the word “pumpkin” this time of year, even if you’re the sort of person who avoids pumpkin flavors or pumpkins themselves.

“Pumpkin” is a fun word. Roll it over your tongue a little.

With its luscious “u,” delicious “m,” and mouth-filling “p,” “pumpkin” contains almost the whole word “yum” and resembles the texture of a well-made pie.

As if anticipating the spices we often use to set off its rich flavor, the “kin” ending alights bright and lively on the mouth at each enunciation.

OnWords: #Hashtags

Oct 16, 2018

Those who do search engine optimization for a living contend that the hashtag is not all that useful, since few people actually use them to search for the content they want.

Recent debate over removing Confederate statuary from public spaces illuminates the intersection of words and other forms of expression.

The civil rights activists who have succeeded in getting Confederate statues removed from public places argue that these works celebrate America’s racist past and romanticize the history of slavery.

Their defenders say they represent the reality of American history and to remove them is to deny that history.