Cover image for The way we talk now : commentaries on language and culture from NPR's "Fresh air"
The way we talk now : commentaries on language and culture from NPR's "Fresh air"
Nunberg, Geoffrey, 1945-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, [2001]

Physical Description:
xi, 243 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
Includes indexes.
Added Uniform Title:
Fresh air with Terry Gross (Radio program)

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
P107 .N86 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
P107 .N86 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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This engaging collection of National Public Radio broadcasts and magazine pieces by one of America's best-known linguists covers the waterfront of contemporary culture by taking stock of its words and phrases. From our metaphors for the Internet ("Virtual Rialto") to the perils of electronic grammar checkers ("The Software We Deserve"), from traditional grammatical bugaboos ("Sex and the Singular Verb") to the ways we talk about illicit love ("Affairs of State"), Geoffrey Nunberg shows just how much the language we use from day to day reveals about who we are and who we want to be.

Author Notes

He is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center & a consulting professor in the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University. He is also chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the english Language. He lives in San Francisco.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stanford linguistics professor Nunberg is well-placed to critique netiquette, computer grammar checkers and "The Software We Deserve" via his computer language research at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In these engaging, often humorous essays, he takes digs at "emoticons" ("a string of punctuation marks suggesting a facial expression laid on its side," and, moreover, a word that "deserves to die horribly in a head-on collision with infotainment"), suggesting that Kafka might have used a "frownie" and Austen a "winkie." But many of his subjects are nontechnological, concerning everyday culture and speech. While disapproving of some contemporary grammatical lapses, Nunberg admits that some words only exist for spelling bees and tolerates certain slang. Regarding the oft-aired contention in the Ebonics debate that schools must teach the language of Shakespeare and James Baldwin, Nunberg argues somewhat sardonically that, in fact, inner-city kids must learn "to speak like kids in middle-class suburbs, so they can grow up to become competent speakers of the brutalist clatter of the American political and business worlds." During the presidential election debates, Nunberg discerned from Gore's disinclination to contract verbs that he wasn't "gonna" beat the more homespun Bush. Pondering how current language trends might sound in 50 years, he worries that his daughter Sophie will meet the dowdy fate that once awaited women named Ethel or Mildred, and disdains the trendy vocabulary borrowed from California Esalen Institute-type movements (e.g., "proactive," "prequel," "rockumentary"). Nunberg never fails to reveal some bit of history embedded in language, and, despite his occasionally stuffy responses to contemporary jargon, his acuity and fixation on funny pop-phenomena keep the book fresh. (Oct. 15) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Compiling humorous commentaries about language in the United States, Nunberg, a language and computer technology researcher and a consulting linguistics professor at Stanford, here offers essays prepared for National Public Radio's Fresh Air. Some of the many topics covered are the long-lasting linguistic impact of movies, software that checks grammar, and word histories. Likewise, politics is one of six categories in which the essays are chronologically organized. Some readers will enjoy a review of 1990s events through reading the essays in their published order, while others can skip around owing to the essays' short length and approachable tones. Another collection about language that targets a similar audience of general readers is Verbatim: From the Bawdy to the Sublime, the Best Writing on Language for Word Lovers, Grammar Mavens, and Armchair Linguists (Harcourt, 2001), edited by Erin McKean. Recommended for large public libraries and libraries in communities with a strong National Public Radio audience. Marianne Orme, Des Plaines, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



As a Cigarette Should {{1997}}The year was 1954. The top-rated TV show was I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris, and close behind was Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strikes, whose ''Be Happy, Go Lucky'' jingle had won TV Guide's award for commercial of the year. And Otto Pritchard, a Pittsburgh carpenter with lung cancer, filed the first liability suit against a tobacco company. In that year R. J. Reynolds introduced the new brand Winston, which unlike other filter cigarettes stressed taste rather than health. Reynolds ran a singing commercial with the tagline ''Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.'' Like instead of as-as grammatical sins go it was pretty venial, but the purists went to the mattresses over it. One critic called it ''belligerent illiteracy''; another suggested that the writer who came up with the ad should be jailed. The Winston people were delighted with all the free publicity. They capitalized on the controversy in a new campaign that featured the slogan ''What do you want, good grammar or good taste?'' Soon after that Tareyton got in on the act with a campaign headed ''Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch,'' and the whole dance went round again over pronouns. It was a curious episode. It certainly wasn't the first time advertisers had stooped to using popular usage to make a point. Fifty years earlier, the sides of barns all over the country were plastered with endorsements for Red Man chewing tobacco by the great Philadelphia second baseman Nap Lajoie: ''Lajoie chews Red Man, ask him if he don't.'' But no critic ever deigned to notice this sort of thing until the 50s, that golden age of American paranoia, when Madison Avenue vied with Moscow as the insidious corruptor of American mores. That was when he martini-sipping ad man in the gray flannel suit became the new archetype of the American smoothie -the character played by Tony Randall in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and by Gig Young in just about everything else. Maybe that's why the grammarians' criticisms of the advertisements echoed with charges of class treason, the sense that the Winston copywriters were probably Yalies who knew perfectly well when to use as and when to use like. As Jacques Barzun put it, ''The language has less to fear from the crude vulgarism of the untaught than the blithe irresponsibility of the taught.'' In retrospect, it's all pretty ironic. Those cigarette ads do indeed sound a little sinister to us now, and of course they came back to haunt the companies that produced them. But the worst thing critics could find to say about them at the time was not that they were selling cigarettes, but only that they were doing it ungrammatically. The advertisers are still playing fast and loose with the language, but it's unlikely that the Winston episode will ever repeat itself. In recent months, for example, the Toyota people have been running a campaign that stresses how well their products fit in with consumers' day-to-day needs. '' Toyota, everyday'' is the slogan. You'd think that by spelling everyday like that they'd worry about suggesting that their products are banal and ordinary. But the ad agency thought the one-word version looked zippier, and when they talked to consumer focus groups, it turned out that no one was particularly troubled by the misspelling: people said they were used to seeing mistakes in advertising, and besides, it made the company seem folksier. Indeed, folksy is all you see in advertising nowadays. You think of those in-flight infomercials where guys in jeans and Doc Martens are touting the latest cool stuff from Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. Not long ago, in fact, Microsoft went to the ad agency that had done all those Gen-X ads for Nike and asked for an ad series that would make them sound cool. It bothered some people, like the Los Angeles Times columnist Gary Chapman; he took to task all these multinationals who appropriate a style and language that originates with inner-city kids who will wind up being the losers in the information age. It was a perfect reversal of the attacks that critics leveled at the Winston people back in the 50s. The advertisers are still taxed for their linguistic condescension, but now their crime is the betrayal not of their own class but of the people whose language they're ripping off. Well, of course. Advertisers are no less shameless now than they were back in the days of the singing commercial. What's surprising is only that people can still get indignant about it. Shocked, shocked! to find that there is advertising going on. Excerpted from The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture from NPR's Fresh Air by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
The Passing Scene
The Choice of Sophie {{1989}}p. 3
Vietnamese for Travelers {{1989}}p. 6
You Know {{1992}}p. 8
Yesss, Indeed! {{1995}}p. 11
Look-See {{1994}}p. 13
The N-Word {{1995}}p. 16
Some Pig! {{1995}}p. 18
A Few of My Favorite Words {{1995}}p. 20
Rex Ipse {{1995}}p. 23
An Interjection for the Age {{1997}}p. 26
The Last Post {{1997}}p. 29
As a Cigarette Should {{1997}}p. 32
Go Figure {{1998}}p. 35
The Past Is Another Country {{1998}}p. 38
Yadda Yadda Doo {{1998}}p. 41
Gen Z and Counting {{1999}}p. 44
Wordplay in the Country {{1999}}p. 47
Turn-of-the-Century {{2000}}p. 50
Word Histories
Hoosiers {{1989}}p. 55
Easy on the Zeal {{1992}}p. 58
The Decline of Slang {{1992}}p. 61
The Last Galoot {{1992}}p. 64
Uber and Out {{1993}}p. 66
The Burbs {{1995}}p. 69
Rebirth of the Cool {{1996}}p. 73
Remembering Ned Ludd {{1996}}p. 76
Paparazzo and Friends {{1997}}p. 79
The Cult Quotient {{1997}}p. 82
Portmanteau Words {{1999}}p. 85
Ten Suffixes That Changed the World {{1999}}p. 88
The Edge {{2000}}p. 91
No Picnic {{2000}}p. 94
Community Sting {{2000}}p. 97
Politics of the English Language
Force and Violence {{1990}}p. 103
Eastern Questions {{1991}}p. 106
A Suffix in the Sand {{1991}}p. 109
PC {{1991}}p. 112
Party Down {{1996}}p. 115
Standard Issue {{1997}}p. 118
Group Grope {{1998}}p. 122
The Jewish Question {{2000}}p. 125
Only Contract {{2000}}p. 128
Chad Row {{2000}}p. 131
The Two R'S
I Put a Spell on You {{1990}}p. 137
Naming of Parts {{1994}}p. 140
Reading for the Plot {{1994}}p. 143
Split Decision {{1995}}p. 146
Sex and the Singular Verb {{1996}}p. 149
Verbed Off {{1997}}p. 151
Hell in a Handcar {{1999}}p. 154
Distinctions {{2000}}p. 157
Points in Your Favor {{2000}}p. 160
Shall Game {{2001}}p. 163
Literacy Literacy {{2001}}p. 166
Technical Terms
The Dactyls of October {{1995}}p. 173
Virtual Rialto {{1995}}p. 176
The Talking Gambit {{1997}}p. 178
Lost in Space {{1997}}p. 181
A Wink is As Good As a Nod {{1997}}p. 184
How the Web Was Won {{1998}}p. 187
The Software We Deserve {{1998}}p. 190
Have It My Way {{1998}}p. 193
The Writing on the Walls {{1999}}p. 195
Its Own Reward {{2000}}p. 198
Hackers {{2000}}p. 201
Business Talk
You're Out of Here {{1996}}p. 207
Whaddya Know? {{1998}}p. 210
Slides Rule {{1999}}p. 213
Come Together, Right Now {{1999}}p. 216
It's the Thought That Matters {{2000}}p. 220
A Name Too Far {{2000}}p. 223
Having Issues {{2000}}p. 226
Pack It In! {{1999}}p. 231