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: Have vs. Get

Dec 15, 2015

Advertisers like to remind us of all that we get when we buy their products. Feature-packed deals are, among other things, how we put up with the low quality and microsecond life cycles of the junk we buy.

But this word, “get,” has some interesting implications.

It’s not having a thing that’s important in consumer culture but getting it. Having and keeping are, after all, bad for business. The profit is in the purchase, so an emphasis on what you get is paramount.

OnWords: Saving 'Crazy'

Dec 1, 2015


George Orwell warned us about language becoming burdened with fancy words meant to obscure meaning and draw people’s attention from evil intent.

Orwell argued that being direct is more ethical, not just more elegant.

We can see this play out with words like “crazy.” “Crazy” is about as direct as English gets, and it’s tremendously useful in ordinary talk. To call something that is far outside normal reason “crazy” says what we mean to say: it’s something that pretty obviously doesn’t make sense.

The last 30 years have seen a shift toward economic concerns over just about everything else. Simultaneously, we’ve seen an uptick in our awareness of ecology, and of humanity’s often destructive place therein.

As oil-industry-funded climate-change denial has shown, however, the words “economy” and “ecology” are often at odds in the public mind. Doing what it takes to create a cleaner ecology, we’re told, will harm our already fragile economy.

OnWords: Oppression

Oct 6, 2015
Ty Wright/Getty Images

We put a lot of stock in the word “oppression.”

Our nation’s mythology begins with hapless colonists oppressed by a tyrannical king, even though those who led the revolution would have been considered pretty comfortable at the time.

The idea that coming to America will free immigrants from the oppression in places like Syria and South Sudan is bellowed from the mouths of politicians and reflected on the podium of the Statue of Liberty. For most of us, though, oppression is lost in the misty past, as much a source of pride as a collective memory.

OnWords: Intellectual

Sep 23, 2015

As recently as the 1980s, the word “intellectual” had real meaning.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote half a century ago, the United States has always loved to hate intellectuals, a fact that can be seen on prominent display in the current race for president.

But the U.S. has also produced some of the greatest intellectuals of the past two centuries, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to bell hooks.


The way Americans use words like “shooter,” “gunman,” and “killer” show our attitudes about gun use.

Reporters often use the words “shooter” and “gunman” interchangeably. While perhaps meant to convey objectivity, these words also show no culpability or intentionality on the part of the person wielding the gun.

“Shooter” and “gunman” suggest that the gun has a force of will or that gun use is somehow inherent in the person. In either case, the words imply that there's nothing to be done: gunmen gonna gun and shooters gonna shoot.

OnWords: Turnings

Aug 25, 2015

An email exchange with loyal OnWords listener Steven Johnson led to the following meditation on the word “turn.”

A turn in poetry marks a dramatic shift in emotional tone or intellectual consideration; witness the end of a sonnet: a longer landing at the new notion in the last six lines if Petrarchan, and a swift shutting in the last two lines if Elizabethan.

We once marked our emotional shifts with lists of turn-offs and turn-ons, before all such rapid-cycling was declared disease and drugged away.

OnWords: Poetic Language

Aug 11, 2015

Americans love to claim that they don't understand poetry. Its use is relegated to therapy sessions and pop music, often with disastrous artistic results.

Yet we turn to poetry in profound moments, and by looking at how, we can see its impact.

Consider Justice Kennedy's recent writing in a landmark case upholding same-sex marriage.

He wrote: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Atomische * Tom Giebel, flickr Creative Commons

What distinguishes words that are used as insults from those that have been reclaimed by the aggrieved party?

OnWords: Avoiding Triggers

Jul 14, 2015
lafrijola, flickr Creative Commons

With the advent of the “trigger warning,” the word “trigger” to mean a sudden, uncontrolled emotional response, has burst into the public consciousness.

By using a specifically violent metaphor—a trigger is literally the part of the gun that incites it to fire—we sum up both the suddenness of the experience and its seeming unpredictability.

Triggers are often based on some difficult experience, often a past trauma, and can be the body’s way of reminding us to prepare to fight, freeze, or flee from danger.