Category Archives: The Power of Language

In Melbourne, storytelling becomes big business | SmartPlanet

There’s a new breed of consultants cropping up in Melbourne’s corporate landscape. They believe that what they teach can achieve powerful, tangible results, like creating loyalty and engaging with customers, affecting profit margins and radically improving employee performance. Some call it a “secret sauce”, others simply call it “storytelling.”

In the city’s central business district a handful of early adopters are advocating storytelling’s universal application, claiming it has the potential to become part of MBA programs and a key competency for entrepreneurs. One such proponent is Yamini Naidu, co-director at One Thousand and One, a global thought leader in business communication.

The Melburnian declares storytelling as the number one business skill for the 21st century. Across the world, people want to feel connected to the leaders they work for and organization they work in, and storytelling is a powerful way of doing this.

via In Melbourne, storytelling becomes big business | SmartPlanet.

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“We interrupt this grammar for an important message about words…”

Here’s the message: we invented words so we could communicate with ourselves and each other. That’s all. Everything else we do with words comes back either to exercising that principle or complicating the hell out of it and getting into such ridiculous arguments that we no longer wish to communicate at all! So let’s all take a step back and reconsider why we love these little nuggets of meaning.

Words are like seedlings: an NPR interview with  Iron and Wine‘s Sam Beam 

On the similarities between songwriting and making films

“There are definitely a lot of narrative elements, but I’m not worried about people understanding exactly what’s happening. I treat it more like a poem, and if there’s a certain feeling or a certain wordplay or some kind of cognitive tension, I’ll go for that.”

On the physicality of lyrical wordplay

“I think it’s important — the way that [words fall] out of your mouth. I find that a lot of times I’ll come up with the seedlings of a song just by fooling around with the guitar or the piano and muttering nonsense, you know, just syllables at random. Sometimes you stumble upon a word or a phrase, and it’s like a coat hanger. All of a sudden, you have something to start hanging other phrases and stuff on. But they’re all different. Sometimes you have a clear idea of what you’re getting into when you start, and sometimes you’re just fishing.”

via Iron And Wine: Words Like Seedlings : NPR.

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Filed under The Power of Language, Wordy Awesomeness of the Day

Pariah Words

The fifth annual “day of awareness” was held recently, in a national campaign to stop the use of the word “retarded” and its variants. As a medical label for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the R-word used to be neutral, clinical, incapable of giving offense. But words are mere vessels for meaning, and this one has long since been put to other uses.

via A Word Gone Wrong –

I find this debate utterly fascinating.

I don’t have strong feelings about the word “retarded” one way or the other. A lot of people have said, “Hey, please don’t use that word just willy-nilly; we find it insulting.” And my response is, “Okie dokie!” Same thing with “midget”, which the Little Peoples’ Association has very politely asked that we avoid using to describe people of short stature. No problem; have a nice day.

What’s fascinating about the word “retarded” is not clearly stated in the article, and it is this:  the word “retarded” has been retired from clinical applications. As of this May, when the 5th editon of the  Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) comes out, people will no longer be diagnosed with “mental retardation”. There has been a debate over what term will be used instead: “intellectual disability” or “intellectual developmental disorder” are the contenders. But either way, nobody is “retarded”.

Technically, there are other legitimate uses for the word: one might say that one’s profits had been retarded by the budget debated. Except one wouldn’t, would one? English having one of the largest vocabularies in the world (oo-er!) and “retarded” being the charged little number that it is, one would be much more likely to steer clear. It’s still scientifically valid to talk about “retarded growth”, I think, but the word “growth” has to be in or around there: it is most definitely a compound.

And of course, calling people “retarded,” whether they have a disability or not, is simply not ok. As many organizations for the disabled have argued, using it as an insult perpetuates the common representation of intellectual disability as pathetic or repellant.

So… the word “retarded” has no official medical use. And it has largely moved out of use in other fields because of its now-taboo common usages.

And here’s the question:

How is a word forcibly removed from a language?

Some words just fall out of usage because they are ridiculous. Thee and thou? Yeah, people just started feeling like goobers saying thee and thou, so they stopped. (Yes, yes, I know it’s more complicated than that. Shut up: my blog, my rules.) But when a word becomes, quite suddenly, meaningless?

It happened in my area in the late 80s/early 90s, with certain uses of the word “rubber.”  When AIDS education picked up, the word became “condom”. Now, before that, any other uses of the word “rubber” had become too charged to bother with. Tell someone you’re putting on your rubbers (galoshes) or use the word in reference to a flat, pink eraser and you’d earn yourself a nice chorus of Beavis and Butthead: “Heh… heh heh… she said ‘rubber’!”

Just as with “retarded,” “rubber” persisted in compound uses: “rubber tree,” “rubber boots” (rain boots, aka gum boots), “rubber band,” etc. But in common parlance, “rubber” came to mean ONLY condom. Until people started saying “condom” ONLY — and then what? Well, then did “rubber” join the shoddy, haggard company of the Pariah Words that roam the earth. And that is never good:

“I am a Word. Hath not a Word letters? Hath not a Word vowels,
consonants, syllables, pronunciations; spoken with the same
mouths, written with the same pens, subject to the same grammatical rules,
bludgeoned by the same accents as any other Word is? If you misspell us, do we not grate? If
you capitalize us, do we not YELL? If you reframe us in a negative connotation, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.”

What does revenge look like for a word? It’s not pretty, I’ll tell you that: language is tenacious.  I’m not saying we should be using a word that people find insulting. I’m just saying don’t be too surprised the next time you mean to text “bug spray” and it mysteriously autocorrects to “buggery.”


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Filed under The History of Language, The Politics of Language, The Power of Language, The Science of Language

Word Nerd o’ The Day: Ed Norton!

Wordnerdians! Please join me in a collective “Squee!” for our Word Nerd o’ The Day, Mr. Edward Norton!

Norton, already a well-known Actor and Sexy Person, has revealed his Inner Nerd by organizing a Words With Friends Celebrity Challenge for Charity. Celebrity contestants include Ed Norton, and… whatever, some other people.

Now, I might or might not have a little thing for Ed Norton. Maybe. But even if he weren’t so sexy, he would still be nerdy — what kind of mind is settling back in First Class, getting a manicure and a foot rub (or whatever happens in first class) and suddenly thinks, “You know, I’d like to raise some money for charity. Hmm… got it! Words with Friends!”

I’ll tell you what kind of mind. A nerdy one. So congratulations, Ed Norton, for your generosity, ingenuity and, MOST important, your Word Nerd o’ The Day award* from Dispatches from Wordnerdia!


*Actual award not included.


Eva Longoria, Kristen Bell and more compete in Words With Friends Celebrity Challenge – Zap2it

Eight celebrities are taking on a cerebral challenge for charity by playing Words With Friends against each other. Organized by Edward Norton, the seven other celebs include NBA-er Paul Pierce, actress Kristen Bell, actor Jonah Hill, rapper Snoop Lion, actress Sophia Bush, singer John Legend and actress Eva Longoria.

You can help, by joining a celebrity team and playing Words With Friends now through Oct. 3. Each word you play gives your celebrity pick a chance to earn more money for their charity.

Charities include Harlem Grown, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and several more. And in case you’re wondering why famous Words With Friends player Alec Baldwin isn’t participating, Norton tells the AP, “Next year, for sure, if I have any say in it. I’m going to win this year, so adding him to the mix next year will make it interesting for me.”

via Eva Longoria, Kristen Bell and more compete in Words With Friends Celebrity Challenge – Zap2it.


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Filed under The Power of Language, Wordy Awesomeness of the Day

Free-Range Words (Warning: Some Are Naughty)

Elope. Noodle. Trillionth. Mud. Surreptitious. Alabaster. Freeze.

Nope, no pattern. Well, except that all of those, and everything else you have read or said today, are words. That’s all. And that’s everything. I don’t mean to wax revolting, but communication, human culture, past, present, future: words words words everything depends upon words.

Here’s where I do the thing I have always told my students never to do: I’m about to quote the dictionary. Ready? Here we go:

Definition of WORD

(1) : a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use(2) : the entire set of linguistic forms produced by combining a single base with various inflectional elements without change in the part of speech elements(1) : a written or printed character or combination of characters representing a spoken word.

OR, and here’s my preferred definition, something I say (or write) that you understand.

For example: at my house, there are some children. Occasionally, these children do not want to do a thing (usually a thing requested by their mother. Their father seems to have better luck. This is irritating.) And when these children do not want to do a thing, they suddenly lose all structural integrity and blob to the floor. “Oh, no!” I say. “They’ve got The Puddinbone!”

How these children originally developed this dread disease I do not recall. But I no longer have to say: “Oh, no! The children do not wish to do as I have asked, therefore they have lost all structural integrity and blobbed to the floor!” I just say “The Puddinbone” and, because everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say it, Puddinbone* is now a word. As is, by the way, “blob” as a verb. (See what I did there?)

That’s all. Sounds or symbols that convey meaning. And all words are that, entirely that, and only that.

So our segregation of words as being more or less appropriate in certain situations is shaky at best. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want anyone to start yelling naughty words at the afore-mentioned puddinboned children. Some things make cultural sense beyond simple logic and that’s that.

(But fair warning, I’m going to use a few of those words in a minute.)

I’m talking about words like “yes” and “no.” Like “good” and “bad.” Simple and straightforward words that rarely show up when we really need them. We mostly get kind of a runaround; we very often see words purposely arranged in such a way as to avoid conveying any meaning at all.

Are they still words at that point?

On a more practical level, wouldn’t it be great if words could just roam free across the plains, flit and flutter around the world conveying meaning in the most direct ways? If there were no such thing as being blunt, brusque, or flat-out rude? If a statement made simply and honestly in the clearest language possible were prized as the hallmark of excellence in writing?

Language like this: “Till I Die is a catastrophic, misogynistic shit of a song.”

I’ll admit, “catastrophic” and “mysoginistic” are big long words. But I’d argue that using a word whose definition expresses your entire point in one go really is simplicity in action. Your opinion may differ, but there is no way that anyone can argue with “shit”. As the most straightforward method of conveying the idea that the song is a) a waste product offering no benefit, b) offensive to the senses, and c) the one and only thing an asshole can produce… well. “Shit” wins.

That quote is from a beautiful piece of writing. A bold, fearless unequivocal piece of writing, full of free-range words that convey the author’s personal opinion with utter clarity. Words like “repugnant.” And “disgusting.” And “clusterfuck.”

Ladies and gentlemen. I bring you Chris Havercroft’s review of Chris Brown’s album, Fortune.

*Just did a quick Google search and found independent instances of “Puddinbone,” so it may not be original to me. But I own If that doesn’t make it mine, I don’t know what does.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Nerd Candy, The Power of Language

Words to avoid using online: Pork, Cloud, and Mexico

The Department of Homeland Security has been forced to release a list of keywords and phrases it uses to monitor social networking sites and online media for signs of terrorist or other threats against the U.S.

The intriguing the list includes obvious choices such as ‘attack’, ‘Al Qaeda’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘dirty bomb’ alongside dozens of seemingly innocent words like ‘pork’, ‘cloud’, ‘team’ and ‘Mexico’.

Released under a freedom of information request, the information sheds new light on how government analysts are instructed to patrol the internet searching for domestic and external threats. 

The words are included in the department’s 2011 “Analyst’s Desktop Binder used by workers at their National Operations Center which instructs workers to identify “media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities”.

Department chiefs were forced to release the manual following a House hearing over documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit which revealed how analysts monitor social networks and media organisations for comments that “reflect adversely” on the government. 

However they insisted the practice was aimed not at policing the internet for disparaging remarks about the government and signs of general dissent, but to provide awareness of any potential threats.

Read More:  Mail Online. 


The “Analyst’s Desktop Binder” isn’t actually a binder, of course. You just know it’s a Trapper Keeper.

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Filed under Extra! Extra!, The Power of Language

Alabamans consider cutting segregation language

Nearly 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, voters in Alabama this fall will decide whether to rid their state constitution of racist language adopted during the time of Jim Crow laws.

This isn’t the first time voters there will decide to remove references to school segregation and poll taxes. In 2004, voters narrowly defeated a similar amendment.

There was some concern in 2004 that certain language regarding education could lead to higher property taxes if courts interpreted the provision to require more spending on education.

via Alabamans consider cutting segregation language –

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