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: Identity Politics

Oct 18, 2017


“Identity politics” is one of those terms that everyone seems to want to distance themselves from but that everyone seems to practice.

In short, identity politics describes approaching political issues from the standpoint of the group with which you most closely identify.

OnWords: Function

Oct 3, 2017

The word “function” is applied to people in a variety of ways.

Job descriptions detail basic functions of the position, and mental health professionals declare people high- or low-functioning.

If my goal is to be a “functioning” student, employees, husband or son, my value as a human being is tied up with what I’m doing. That “doing” is generally for the benefit of some social institution or for the sake of someone else’s bottom line.

You can imagine what it might feel like if, through disability or happenstance, one is no longer “functional” in one area or another.

OnWords: Yeah, No

Sep 19, 2017

On a recent trip with some of my guy friends, we got to discussing the phrase “yeah, no,” a usage that one of our party found particularly annoying.

My annoyed friend considered “yeah, no” a recent development, an inescapable but obnoxious bit of Millennial verbal detritus on par with “LOL” and vocal fry.

I’m not so sure.

“Yeah, no” goes back in my experience at the latest to the 1990s, and its parallels in Spanish and French, “sí, no,” and “oui, non,” are common.

A couple of interpretations of this phrase stand out from its usage.

OnWords: Care

Sep 5, 2017

The word “care” has taken on many different meanings, meanings that seem to contradict themselves.

At one level, we use the term to indicate helping and high regard: the caring person gives constant nurturing and support, hovering over a bedside and using soothing tones.

But we also admire a “devil may care” attitude. In this case, the caring person is seen as overly sensitive and far too serious, but the person who doesn’t care is seen as having no worries.


It’s interesting that we’d be at a point in our nation’s history where we’d be having to decide if a meeting between the family members of a presidential candidate and a foreign agent should be defined as opposition research or treason.

“Opposition research” is supposed to mean finding information about a candidate against whom you’re running in order to gain political advantage.

The term has a scientific tinge, the word “research” making it all seem data-driven and proper for a tech-savvy election team well adapted to the Internet Age. 

OnWords: Sad

Aug 8, 2017

A well-known Twitter user has gotten a reputation for ending his diatribes with the word “sad.”

This use of “sad” is meant to label something “pathetic” and not to indicate the tweeter’s actual mood.

And this use of “sad” is patronizing. It is meant to pull rank by the person casting it out.

But its use brings up a strange paradox in how we use the word “sad” that parallels some contradictory notions we have about feelings.

OnWords: Tweet

Jul 25, 2017

Remember when tweets were only reserved for birds?

OnWords: Leaker

Jul 11, 2017

Not since the Watergate break-in of the early 1970s has the word “leaker” gotten more attention than over the past few months.

OnWords: Salt

Jun 27, 2017

Occasionally, I like to focus in on an everyday word and really listen to it, observe its missed qualities. One of those words is “salt.”

OnWords: Newspeak

Jun 13, 2017

George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has been flying off the shelves recently, perhaps in response to the growing number of authoritarian leaders across the globe.