WYSO

Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg (@GeoffNunberg) is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

It wasn't a serious political gaffe, but it was awkward. On Feb. 12, the Republican National Committee tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with the quote, "'And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count; it's the life in your years' — Abraham Lincoln."

It's been an unusual political year, to put it mildly, and you could write most of its story just by tracking its effects on the lexicon — the new words and new uses of old ones, some useful, some that we could do without.

I'll come to some of these in a minute. But for my word of the year, I'll go with "normal" and its sister "normalize." That may seem perverse for a year like this one, but when people are talking a lot about normal it's a sign that we're living in extraordinary times.

It has become a familiar story in a world bristling with live mics. A public figure is caught out using a vulgarity, and the media have to decide how to report the remark. Web media tend to be explicit, but the traditional media are more circumspect.

Wherever you look, this is the year of white working-class males — or, as Donald Trump describes them, "the smart, smart, smart people that don't have the big education." Who are they, and why are they sticking with Trump even as other voters are peeling away?

"I am the law-and-order candidate."

With that proclamation in his acceptance speech, Donald Trump made it official that he'd be recycling the themes and language of Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. A lot of observers were quick to point out that 2016 is no 1968 and that Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon. As it happens, "law and order" isn't what it once was, either.

"The way kids speak today, I'm here to tell you." Over the course of history, every aging generation has made that complaint, and it has always turned out to be overblown. That's just as well. If the language really had been deteriorating all this time, we'd all be grunting like bears by now.

The French have gotten themselves into one of their recurrent linguistic lathers, this one over the changes in their spelling that will be taking effect in the fall. The changes were originally proposed more than 25 years ago. But nothing much came of them until the government recently announced that they'd be incorporated in the new textbooks, at which point traditionalists took to the barricades.

Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun "they" their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular "they." This is the "they" that doesn't care whether it's referring to a male or female. As in "If I get a call, tell them they can call me back." Or "Did someone leave their books here?"

Pages