Fresh Air: Linguist
Do Feelings Compute? If Not, The Turing Test Doesn't Mean Much
For the first time, a computer passed the test for machines engaging in intelligent thought. Linguist Geoff Nunberg says the real test is whether computers can behave the same way thinking people do.
150 Years After Marx, 'Capital' Still Can't Shake Loose Of 'Das Kapital'
Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century evokes another famous tome with "capital" in its title, and makes comparisons inevitable.
Hackers? Techies? What To Call San Francisco's Newcomers
Linguist Geoff Nunberg lives in the Mission and says young tech employees have been pouring into the neighborhood. But what to call these new residents? He says the term "techie" used to suggest a computer whiz with no social skills; now it suggests...
Sorry Assiduous (adj.) SAT-Takers, Linguist In Dudgeon (n.) Over Vocab...
Many students prepare for the SAT by drilling themselves on esoteric, arcane and recondite words — like esoteric, arcane and recondite. Linguist Geoff Nunberg doesn't discourage these efforts, but he does have a word of caution: memorizing a...
Narcissistic Or Not, 'Selfie' Is Nunberg's Word Of The Year
Linguist Geoff Nunberg says he feels a little defensive about choosing "selfie" — a word that wears its ephemerality on its outstretched sleeve — as the word of 2013. But not only was this a year when we couldn't stop posting photos of ourselves...
Was Rand Paul's Plagiarism Dishonest Or A Breach Of Good Form?
The flap over the Kentucky senator's articles and speeches is just the latest in a series of cases of plagiarism by high-profile journalists and politicians. Linguist Geoff Nunberg looks at the way the word plagiarism has been used since it was...
The Internet's 'Twerk' Effect Makes Dictionaries Less Complete
When dictionaries add trendy words like "twerk," they're prioritizing the fleeting language habits of the young, says Geoff Nunberg. And our fascination with novel words tends to eclipse subtle changes in the meanings of old ones — "which are often...
Bracing For Google Glass: An In-Your-Face Technology
The new eyeglass frames allow you to take pictures and browse the Internet while you wear them. Early adopters focused on the tiny screens have already been dubbed "glassholes." Fresh Air linguist Geoff Nunberg reminds us that in Shakespeare's time...
Calling It 'Metadata' Doesn't Make Surveillance Less Intrusive
Whether it's logs of phone calls or GPS data, commentator Geoff Nunberg says it still says a lot about who you are: "Tell me where you've been and who you've been talking to, and I'll tell you about your politics, your health, your sexual orientation,...
'Horrific' And 'Surreal': The Words We Use To Bear Witness
After more than a week of gruesome media coverage, linguist Geoff Nunberg takes a close look at the words we use to describe events that mesmerize and horrify, that sensitize and desensitize, that transfix and repel us at the same time.
Even Dictionaries Grapple With Getting 'Marriage' Right
Lexicographers know they're in the hot seat as they confront the changing use of the word "marriage." Linguist Geoff Nunberg says the key to getting the new definition right is to crisply describe everything that's in the category and nothing that...
Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?
We're living in an age obsessed with authenticity, says linguist Geoff Nunberg, but we often choose to nitpick the wrong details. Whether it's Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Lincoln or Argo, Nunberg argues, a historical novel or screenplay should give us a...
'The Whole Nine Yards' Of What?
There are many theories about where the expression comes from — among them square-riggers with three masts, the amount of cloth in the queen's bridal train, the Shroud of Turin, and a prodigiously well-endowed Scotsman who gets his kilt caught in a...
Forget YOLO: Why 'Big Data' Should Be The Word Of The Year
"Big Data" had just as much to do with President Obama's victory as phrases like "Etch A Sketch" and "47 percent," says linguist Geoff Nunberg. Big Data is also behind anxieties about intrusions on our privacy, whether from the government's...
Even Americans Find Some Britishisms 'Spot On'
Adding a foreign word to your vocabulary is like adding foreign attire to your wardrobe. Sometimes you do it because it's practical and sometimes just because you think it looks cool. Linguist Geoff Nunberg says Americans' use of "spot on" falls...
One Debate, Two Very Different Conversations
Linguist Geoff Nunberg has been puzzling over President Obama's performance in the presidential debate last week. Looking at who the candidates were addressing their answers to shows that Romney was doing something unusual, he says.
When Words Were Worth Fighting Over
Since the 1961 publication of the Third International Dictionary, people have debated the merits of dictionaries that describe language as it is and those that explain how it should be. Today the debate continues, but it doesn't hold the same cultural...
With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts On 'Entitlement'
The Republican vice presidential pick wants to take another look at programs like Medicare and Social Security. Fresh Air's resident linguist parses the word "entitlement" in its political and nonpolitical contexts.
Swearing: A Long And #%@&$ History
Middleborough, Mass., recently imposed a $20 fine for swearing in public. Linguist Geoff Nunberg says profanity makes hypocrites of us all.
Taboo Revival: Talking Private Parts In Public Places
Earlier this month, there was a national uproar when a Michigan state legislator was disciplined for using a clinical sexual term during a debate. According to linguist Geoff Nunberg, it was just one of many such incidents that reflect a trend he...
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