Author Archive


The Embattled American Dream

October 18, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

The candidates in the 2012 American presidential election disagree on many issues, but when you come right down to it, much of the contest revolves around different interpretations of the American dream and what, if anything, the government should do to help people make that dream come true.

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Red State Blue State

September 26, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

Now that the national political conventions are over, and the candidates of the two major parties officially selected, the interminable campaign for the American presidency is heading into the home stretch, where all eyes are focused on election maps composed of red states, meaning basically Republican states, and blue states, referring to Democratic ones.

The firm association of red with Republican and blue with Democratic is comparatively new in American politics, dating only to the election of 2000. Previously, different publications and TV stations used different color schemes on election maps. Yellow and green were sometimes employed, while red and blue often had opposite meanings from today. For example, in 1980, TV newsman David Brinkley described the many blue-colored states on a map that portrayed Republican Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory as “beginning to look like a suburban swimming pool.”  And in 1992, anticipating Democrat Bill Clinton’s triumph over Republican George H. W. Bush, a Boston Globe columnist wrote: “But when the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me.” Read the rest of this entry ?


Gosh Darn It to Heck!

August 14, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

Gosh, darn it, and heck are euphemisms – mild, round-about words used in place of stronger, plainer ones. They translate as the much more forceful “God damn it to hell!” The euphemistic phrase honors old taboos while enabling users to let off emotional steam without much risk of upsetting people with delicate sensibilities.

It is always difficult to trace the origins of casual phrases of this sort, but gosh and many of its close cousins appear to have crept into the English language in the second half of the eighteenth century. This was a time when society in England and its newly united colonies in North America was becoming more refined, anticipating many of the features that are commonly associated with the Victorian Age. (She ascended to the throne in 1837.) People in the late 1700s on both sides of the Atlantic started to act more politely than in the past and to choose their words more carefully, especially when women were present. Read the rest of this entry ?


The Triumph of the Long Jump

August 2, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

One of the classic track and field events in the Olympic Games is the long jump, but this is a relatively new name for what used to be known as the broad jump.  The name change was made in the 1960s, and had nothing to do with the nature of the athletic feat itself. This was strictly a case of political correctness. To begin at the beginning:

The first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, included a standing broad jump and a running broad jump. (They also featured a standing high jump as opposed to a running high jump. The standing versions of both events were dropped from the Games after the fourth Olympiad in 1912.) Back then almost everyone in the English-speaking world would have described a running jump of this sort as being broad, not long. For example, reporting on an international, intercollegiate track meet in 1895 between Oxford and Yale universities, a British publication, Outing, An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, summed up Oxford’s victory, saying, “Oxford won all the runs, the high hurdle, and tied in the high jump with Yale, losing only the weights and the broad jump.” Read the rest of this entry ?


Political Geography

June 18, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

Incensed over what it views as a Western-Arab plot, Iran on Thursday threatened to sue Google for deleting the name Persian Gulf from its online mapping service and leaving the body of water nameless
– The New York Times, May 18, 2012

The poor Google mapmakers. They were caught in the middle of a political controversy and wound up with a “nameless” compromise that couldn’t have satisfied anybody.

The Iranians have always insisted that this body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia be called the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Saudis and other Arab states prefer to think of it as the Arabian Gulf or, simply, The Gulf. This is an old dispute that flares up from time to time. In 2010, it led to the cancellation of the Islamic Solidarity Games – the Olympics of the Muslim world, in effect. Because Iran, the host nation, insisted on using Persian Gulf in promotional materials about the games and on medals for events, the Arab states declined to participate. Of course, Iran itself is a relatively new name (since 1935) for the country that used to be known as Persia. To the outside observer, it is a wonder that the former Persians haven’t insisted on calling this strategically important body of water the Iranian Gulf. Read the rest of this entry ?


Watching What You Eat

April 23, 2012

By Hugh Rawson       

“Man is what he eats,” according to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach – but may not want to know too much about the origin of what’s being eaten.

One of the most common ways of maintaining willful blindness is to translate English words for foods into French ones. In part, this is a tribute to the general admiration for that nation’s culinary expertise. But it also has the great advantage for English-speaking diners of blurring one’s mental image of what is being served up for their consumption.

Take filet mignon, for example. This  translates literally as “delicate” or “dainty slice.” In actuality, though, as pointed out by semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, “finest quality filet mignon” is just another way of saying “first-class piece of dead cow.”  Which tastes better to you? Read the rest of this entry ?


Who will be the next Potus and Flotus?

March 12, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

The words look like they might be Latin, perhaps something you would find scrawled on a wall in Pompeii, but they are not. Potus is an acronym, composed of the initial letters of the phrase, President of the United States. Flotus is his wife, the First Lady of the United States. (It should be pronounced FLOE-tus to rhyme with POE-tus.)

Once used mainly by the Secret Service and other White House insiders, the acronyms have slipped into the public domain. For example, historian David Brinkley, in a review of  Jodi Kantor’s The First Marriage, a new book about Barack and Michelle Obama, noted that the author “became intensely interested in the working relationship between Potus and Flotus” after interviewing them in 2009 (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2012). Read the rest of this entry ?

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Commenting on developments in the English language


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