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.

I’m not much of a word stickler, but I do object to people confusing the word “simple” with the word “simplistic.”

“Simple” means, well, simple: uncomplicated, straightforward, easy to understand.

A simple design is clean, but it can also be clever. Sometimes a simple solution takes a whole lot more thought than a complicated one.

“Simplistic,” in contrast, is oversimplified, dumbed-down, and probably stupid from the get-go, like the idea that building a wall on the Southern border will solve the immigration problem.

The term “the Ferguson effect” developed in order to explain the rise in the murder rate in a few major cities following the massive protests against police violence that originated in Ferguson, Missouri.

The idea behind the Ferguson effect is that police are reluctant to pursue the kind of aggressive policing that, its supporters claim, lowers the murder rate because cops know their actions are being recorded by onlookers’ smart phones.  

OnWords: Flabbity

Aug 23, 2016

A friend of mine recently described her arms, with which she was dissatisfied, as “flabbity.”

Rather than correcting her--the word she wanted was “flabby”--it struck me just how wonderful the folksy neologism “flabbity” really is.

“Flabby” is simply a description, but “flabbity” could be a state of being and a verb, suggesting not just my friend’s frustration but the very fleshly motion that bothers her.

OnWords: The 'The'

Aug 9, 2016

It’s remarkable how a tiny word like “the” can change the tone of a message.

Note the substantial difference between the terms “people with mental illnesses” and “the mentally ill.”

Invoking personhood in the former example helps, but by placing the definite article before “mentally ill” in the latter example, we lump together a set of experiences and ways of being in the world as varied as the people who experience them.

OnWords: Honyock

Jul 26, 2016

When I was growing up, my cousins and I were sometimes accused of being honyocks.

“Honyock” was applied to us by older relatives who were tired of our noise and horseplay and just wanted us to settle down and cut it out already. 

Online sources of varying quality contend that “honyock” is either a Hungarian word making fun of country folk or an English word making fun of Hungarians. One source even says that “honyock” comes from German and means “honey chaser.”

OnWords: The ____ Card

Jul 12, 2016


When Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of “playing the woman card,” he used a metaphor that bears exploring, not the least because of the way Trump reveals its insulting nature. 

OnWords: Industry

Jun 28, 2016

One word you hear less and less is “industry.”

Associated with images of smokestacks belching out plumes of chemicals and the Cuyahoga river on fire, maybe that's understandable. 

In the 1960s, the comedy troupe Firesign Theater satirized presidential candidates by having a candidate call, absurdly, for “Shoes for Industry!”


Much has been made of the recent story that Facebook is more likely to promote left-wing political stories as trending in its news feed.

Conservatives have complained that their stories are essentially suppressed, and that Facebook’s promotional algorithm is not to blame.

Issues like this bring up questions about how we access language and how we encounter free speech.

OnWords: The Establishment

May 31, 2016


This presidential race has created much hand-wringing over the term "establishment."

OnWords: Selfie

May 17, 2016

A friend who teaches elementary school noted a weird trend: For kids under 10, “selfie” now refers to any picture at all.

In these kids’ experience, adults with cellphones are deeply narcissistic.

“Selfie” is, I guess, “self-portrait” made cute, and while there’s nothing new about self-portraits, it’s interesting that this form of the term has become popular now.