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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

by Geoffrey Nunberg

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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”


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In a chatty, accessible style, he takes American catchwords and colloquialisms and turns them into signifiers of shared experience." Philadelphia City Paper

"Most occasional pieces lose their freshness in hard covers, but Geoffrey Nunberg's commentaries on language…are a happy exception." Boston Globe

"Nunberg offers homages and brickbats to the popular culture, especially as it is spoken and written." Kirkus Reviews

"Never fails to reveal…history embedded in language…his acuity and fixation on funny pop-phenomena keep the book fresh." Publishers Weekly

"Humorous commentaries about language in the United States." Library Journal

"Nunberg . . . discusses usage and its abuses in brief, delightful essays." Minneapolis Star-Tribune

[A] lighthearted but pithy analysis of the changing ways Americans talk and write." Columbus Dispatch

"Contains [Nunberg's] ruminations on the strange twists and turns of English as spoken in America." Columbus Dispatch

The Barnes & Noble Review
Language: We use it, abuse it, and misuse it every day. It means different things to different people. To Stanford University linguist Geoffrey Nunberg it's the pulse of human nature. Few people happily obsess on language the way Nunberg does, taking to heart and mind the way our culture chooses (or in some cases, haphazardly butchers) its words.

In his collection of short essays, The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture, culled from National Public Radio's Fresh Air, Nunberg cleverly deconstructs what most of us take for granted by sharing personal anecdotes, such as choosing the name of his daughter Sophie ("And then two weeks before the baby was due, we were watching an episode of Thirtysomething where one of the characters had gotten herself a cat and named it Sophie"), revealing the little-known origin of words ("The word suburb actually goes back to the late Middle Ages when it referred to the areas outside the city walls where people relegated a host of illicit and noxious activities -- the tanneries and slaughterhouses, the gambling dens and bordellos"), and commentating on the latest technology-speak ("E-commerce, e-cash, e-trade -- those are words you hear when you hang out around South Park in San Francisco, where five thousand twenty-somethings are milling around waving business plans for companies to sell nail polish on the Web").

Nunberg isn't smug, though. He admits that even he can't distinguish the difference between on behalf of and in behalf of. He conjures the expertise of wordsmiths like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. With expertise, modesty, and clarity, Nunberg educates and entertains, and may even make you think before you speak. (Karen Mancuso)

An essential book for anyone interested in…how we talk. Friendly, accessible, and scholarly….lighthearted without being lightweight.
Publishers Weekly
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 occasionallystuffy responses to contemporary jargon, his acuity and fixation on funny pop-phenomena keep the book fresh. (Oct. 15) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thoughtful if glancing remarks on word usage, fads, and other matters of pressing concern to public-radio listeners. Gathering greatest hits from his dozen-odd years as a contributor to Fresh Air, Xerox Corporation think-tank denizen Nunberg offers homages and brickbats to the popular culture, especially as it is spoken and written. Some of the topics are the usual fodder of the past decade-the O.J. Simpson trial, for one, and the much-mooted chads of the last national ballot held in Florida. These would be tedious to revisit were Nunberg not so adept at finding an offbeat twist of the sort that would not occur to most of us: in the matter of the Simpson trial, what interests him is the media's use of the coyly euphemistic phrase "the n-word," whereas what concerns him about hanging chads is not the outcome of the election but the etymology of the term. (Was it, as some have suspected, a borrowing from a Scottish dialectal term meaning "loose rock"? Was it from the ringing name of a keypunch machine's inventor, one Mr. Chadless? Stay tuned.) Elsewhere, Nunberg writes of the bizarre examples that turn up in foreign-language phrasebooks, such as "our coachman has been struck by lightning" and "God bless you. Now hurry"; the life and death of slang words and phrases, from the perennial "cool" to the please-stop-now "whatever"; the apparent disappearance of the word "history," replaced by "heritage," and of the word "galoot," replaced by, well, nothing in particular; and the current president's "nonchalant ungrammaticality"-which, he writes, comes not from any authentic mastery of Texas patois but from the condescending WASP view that "taking pains with language [is] theunerring signal of someone who is trying too hard." Though the pieces here, being radio filler, are simply too short to do their subjects justice, it's still a fine read for a logophile.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

Meet the Author

Geoffrey Nunberg is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and 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 has published many articles in the scholarly and popular press and made numerous radio broadcasts on language and linguistics, the cultural implications of digital technologies, and language policy issues. For this work, he was given the 2001 Language, Linguistics, and the Public Interest Award by the Linguistic Society of America.

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