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The Shifting Meanings Of Our Evolving Modern Language

This program was originally broadcast on September 13, 2016.

Linguist John McWhorter explores how the meaning of words change dramatically over time, and why we should embrace this.

Linguist John McWhorter knows that language drives a lot of people crazy. The way it shifts and moves. The way it changes and defies old usage. Sticklers for grammar can feel assaulted, overwhelmed.  McWhorter says relax. Get over it. We need to teach proper grammar and usage, he says, but we also need to let it go. Language never sits still, he says. And that’s like totally all right. Totes. And if that, like, bothers you, stand by. This hour On Point, linguist John McWhorter on how language moves. — Tom Ashbrook


John McWhorter, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Author of the new book, “ Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally).” Also author of “ The Power of Babel,” “ Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” and “ The Language Hoax.” ( @johnhmcwhorter)

From Tom’s Reading List

NPR News: Our Language Has ‘Interesting Little Wrinkles,’ Linguist Says— “The meaning of words, and the way we used them, change all the time — and that’s OK with linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University. He writes about how the English language has evolved in his new book, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — And Can’t — Sit Still (Like Literally).”

Huffington Post: These 12 Everyday Words Used To Have Completely Different Meanings — “There are slang words like “cray cray” — meaning someone or something that is really crazy — that are popular among teenagers but leave older people bewildered. There also are phrases like ‘Indian giver’ that boomers might have said when they were kids — but that today are understood to be obviously racist.”

New York Times: Scouring the Web to Make New Words ‘Lookupable’ — “Traditional print dictionaries employ lexicographers to track and assess words, selecting the worthiest candidates to be included in published editions. But printed lexicons naturally have limited space. And with only periodic updates, they are not intended to keep pace with contemporary spoken language.”

Read An Excerpt Of “Words On The Move” By John McWhorter


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