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: Protest vs. Riot

Jun 30, 2015

  Recent events in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri have brought us face to face with how we decide what’s a protest and what’s a riot.

The short memory of mainstream broadcasters gives the impression that protest should never coincide with violence or hard feelings. But the Civil Rights movement wasn’t just MLK and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; it was also Black Power, the Nation of Islam, and riots from Watts to New York City.

Robert Cheaib, flickr Creative Commons

Pundits left, right, and center all seem to think that the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on gay marriage hinges on the definition of marriage.

I think that is a mistake.

A cursory introduction to anthropology reveals that our contemporary idea about marriage is hardly the cultural norm.

OnWords: "-ish"

Jun 2, 2015


A friend and colleague of mine challenged me to comment on the suffix “ish,” and I must admit a certain fondness for the subject.

As current and former students of mine know, I’m prone to giving out grades like “B plus-ish.” I don’t grade papers this way in order to confuse or annoy, but to represent the inherent subjectivity of the grading process and the inability of the grading scale to really represent the complexity of written work.

Thus, if you get a B plus-ish from me, the idea is to look at the comments, not the grade.

Bruce Berrien flickr Creative Commons

As a budding curmudgeon, I’m bothered by the proliferation of the word “perfect,” notably among those in the service industry, to describe, well, darn near everything.

I suppose it feels good for wait-staff to compliment my choice of the nicoise salad by saying “perfect,” but honestly, no matter how good my taste or how good the salad, there’s probably nothing perfect about the situation.

I just made a simple choice; next time it might be the Caesar, or maybe the slaw.

Karen Murphy, flickr Creative Commons

Hillary Clinton has recently come under fire for trying to protect her privacy as Secretary of State by using a private email account.

We associate the word privacy with an important American value, as represented by the 4th Amendment of the Constitution.

BagoGames, flickr Creative Commons

Inspired by an excellent piece by KMUW commentator Sanda Moore Coleman, I’ve decided to look deeper into a subject close to my heart: satire.

Satire necessarily involves elements of the thing being satirized. Good satire comes from the sort of anger and contempt brought up by both knowing a thing intimately and being deeply disappointed in it.

Swift’s satire skewered the very Anglo-Irish who, as a clergyman, would have been considered his spiritual constituents.

European Commission DG ECHO

My work in the mental health field has brought me into contact with a lot of disease. I mean this not just in the sense of diagnosis, but also in the sense of dis-ease: those things that put us ill at ease.

The proliferation of new disease categories, such as generalized anxiety disorder, with the publication of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is actually quite controversial within the field. But it points to an uncomfortable idea: disease, rather than referring to something out there in the world, is actually a social construct.

Joel Kramer, flickr Creative Commons

Since when was “a thing,” you know, a thing?

The phrase “a thing” has recently come to mean something not just real but relevant to the lives of certain people—probably not us. It is usually uttered at the discovery of this new, well, thing. This usage is not just another form of shorthand. It’s also an indication of how little we actually know about other people’s lives.

Enokson, flickr Creative Commons

A post-holiday conversation with a co-worker led to an exploration of the origin of the phrase “get back in the swing of things.”

We speculated that perhaps the phrase originated with golf, or maybe with work involving the swing of an ax.

More formal research proved all but fruitless, but it did reveal something interesting: a lot of people, mostly non-native English speakers, are interested in the meaning of the phrase “get back in the swing of things.”

The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll
Henry Holiday / Wikimedia Commons

One particular form of irony that deserves special attention is snark--the cutting sort of sarcasm common to virtual spaces from Facebook to Reddit and back again.

We may at one time have attributed the urge to be snarky to good, old-fashioned wit. History tells us that the insults thrown around in society gatherings in the drawing rooms and at the dinner tables of the elite were just as sharp as today's snark, though they may have been more clever.