Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

He teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of The Way We Talk Now, Going Nucular, Talking Right and The Years of Talking Dangerously. His most recent book is Ascent of the A-Word. His website is www.geoffreynunberg.com.

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. Take the vulgar epithet that George W. Bush was overheard using to describe a New York Times reporter during the 2000 presidential campaign. Some newspapers printed it with dashes or asterisks. Others said it was a word that rhymed with ...

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? Sociologists talk about the disaffected white underclass. Marxists talk about the lumpenproletariat , or riffraff, which makes " Trumpenproletariat " almost irresistible. But others on both the left and right have used more familiar...

"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. "Law and order" is an archaic expression, from the Latin "lex et ordo." Over the course of American history, it's the cry that the...

"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. But when it comes to language, history is bunk. Or anyway, it hasn't deterred critics from monitoring the speech of today's young people for the signs of cultural decline. In fact it was a professor of...

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. The government has made a point of calling the changes "rectifications" rather than reforms,...

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?" As ordinary as it is, that use of ...

The obvious candidates for word of the year are the labels of the year's big stories — new words like " microaggression " or resurgent ones like " refugees ." But sometimes a big theme is captured in more subtle ways. So for my word of the year, I offer you the revival of "gig" as the name for a new economic order. It's the last chapter in the life of a little word that has tracked the rise and fall of the great American job. "Gig" goes back more than a century as musicians' slang for a date...

To listen to the media tell it, "so" is busting out all over — or at least at the beginning of a sentence. New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas calls "so" the new "um" and "like"; others call it a plague and a fad . It's like a lot of other grammatical fixations: Not everybody cares about it, but the ones who do care care a whole lot. When NPR's Weekend Edition asked listeners last year to pick the most-misused word or phrase in the language, that sentence-initial "so" came in in...

"I tell it like it is." Chris Christie made this his campaign slogan . Donald Trump repeats it whenever he's challenged on something he has said. And Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Rick Santorum have said the same thing. It's the conventional pledge of candor, or what passes for it in American public life. It's actually odd that anybody's still using the phrase. By rights it should have gone the way of dated '60s slang like "right on" and "can you dig it?" Like those...

We English-speakers take a perverse pride in the orneriness of our spelling, which is one reason why the spelling bee has been a popular entertainment since the 19th century. It's fun watching schoolchildren getting difficult words right. It can be even more entertaining to watch literate adults getting them wrong. I've seen that first-hand when I served as the judge for a spelling bee for San Francisco-area writers that's held as an annual benefit for a Berkeley literary clearinghouse called...

HBO's Silicon Valley is back, with its pitch-perfect renderings of the culture and language of the tech world — like at the opening of the "Disrupt" startup competition run by the Tech Crunch website at the end of last season. "We're making the world a better place through scalable fault-tolerant distributed databases" — the show's writers didn't have to exercise their imagination much to come up with those little arias of geeky self-puffery, or with the name Disrupt, which, as it happens, is...

I think of English usage as one of those subjects like cocktails or the British royal family. A lot of people take a passing interest in it but you never know who's going to turn out to be a true believer — the kind of person who complains about the grammar errors on restaurant menus. "Waiter, there's a split infinitive in my soup!" For single-minded devotion to grammatical rectitude, you'd be hard-pressed to match a Wikipedia editor named Bryan Henderson, who goes by the user name of...

"Infobesity," "lumbersexual," "phablet." As usual, the items that stand out as candidates for word of the year are like its biggest pop songs, catchy but ephemeral. But even a fleeting expression can sometimes encapsulate the zeitgeist. That's why I'm nominating "God view" for the honor. It's the term that the car service company Uber uses for a map view that shows the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who ordered them. The media seized on the term this...

To judge from some of the headlines, it was a very big deal. At an event held at the Royal Society in London, for the first time ever, a computer passed the Turing Test, which is widely taken as the benchmark for saying a machine is engaging in intelligent thought. But like the other much-hyped triumphs of artificial intelligence, this one wasn't quite what it appeared. Computers can do things that seem quintessentially human, but they usually take a different path to get there. IBM's Deep...

A lot of things had to come together to turn Thomas Piketty's controversial Capital in the Twenty-First Century into the tome of the season . There's its timeliness, its surprising accessibility and the audacity of its thesis, that capitalism inevitably leads to greater concentrations of wealth at the very top. There's the mass of data he musters, which has been the subject of animated debate (see here and here ) among economists. And then there's the title. Capital in the Twenty-First...

"There goes the neighborhood." Every so often that cry goes up in San Francisco, announcing a new chapter in American cultural history, as the rest of the country looks on. There were the beats in North Beach, then the hippies in the Haight, then the gays in the Castro. Now it's the turn of the techies who are pouring into my own Mission neighborhood, among other places. Only this time around, the green stuff that's perfuming the air is money, not weed. Locals are agitated over soaring rents...

When I took the SATs a very long time ago, it didn't occur to us to cram for the vocabulary questions. Back then, the A in SAT still stood for "aptitude," and most people accepted the wholesome fiction that the tests were measures of raw ability that you couldn't prepare for — "like sticking a dipstick into your brain," one College Board researcher said. It wasn't until the test-prep industry took off a few years later that people realized you could work the system, and students began boning...

I feel a little defensive about choosing "selfie" as my Word of the Year for 2013. I've usually been partial to words that encapsulate one of the year's major stories, such as " occupy " or " big data ." Or "privacy," which is the word Dictionary.com chose this year. But others go with what I think of as mayfly words — the ones that bubble briefly to the surface in the wake of some fad or fashion. Over recent years, the people at Oxford Dictionaries have chosen items such as "locavore," ...

Even taken together, the charges didn't seem to amount to that big a deal — just a matter of quoting a few factual statements and a Wikipedia passage without attributing them. But as Rand Paul discovered, the word "plagiarism" can still rouse people to steaming indignation. Samuel Johnson called plagiarism the most reproachful of literary crimes, and the word itself began as the name of a real crime. In Roman law, a plagiarius was someone who abducted a child or a slave — it's from "plaga,"...

Evidently it was quite fortuitous. Just a couple of days after MTV's Video Music Awards, Oxford Dictionaries Online released its quarterly list of the new words it was adding. To the delight of the media, there was "twerk" at the top, which gave them still another occasion to link a story to Miley Cyrus' energetic high jinks. And why not add "twerk"? It's definitely a cool word, which worked its way from New Orleans bounce music into the linguistic mainstream on the strength of its expressive...

The likes of you and I can't buy Google Glass yet. It's available only to the select developers and opinion-makers who have been permitted to spring $1,500 for the privilege of having the first one on the block. But I've seen a few around my San Francisco neighborhood among the young techies who commute down to the Google and Facebook campuses in WiFi-equipped shuttle buses or who pedal downtown to Zynga and Twitter on their fixies. You've probably seen pictures of one of these. It's an...

"This is just metadata. There is no content involved." That was how Sen. Dianne Feinstein defended the NSA's blanket surveillance of Americans' phone records and Internet activity. Before those revelations, not many people had heard of metadata, the term librarians and programmers use for the data that describes a particular document or record it's linked to. It's the data you find on a card in a library catalog, or the creation date and size of a file in a folder window. It's the penciled...

Mass shootings, bus crashes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks — we've gotten adept at talking about these things. Act of God or act of man, they're all horrific. At least that was the word you kept hearing from politicians and newscasters describing the Boston bombings and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas. That may not strike you as surprising — the events were horrific, weren't they? But it's actually a new way of describing things. "Horrific" is an old word; it turns up in...

It's a funny thing about dictionaries. First we're taught to revere them, then we have to learn to set them aside. Nobody ever went wrong starting a middle-school composition with, "According to Webster's ..." but that's not how you start an op-ed commentary about terrorism or racism. When it comes to the words that do the cultural heavy lifting, we're not about to defer to some lexicographer hunched over a dusty keyboard. Except, of course, if the word is "marriage." Now that even a lot of...

Has there ever been an age that was so grudging about suspending its disbelief? The groundlings at the Globe Theatre didn't giggle when Shakespeare had a clock chime in Julius Caesar . The Victorians didn't take Dickens to task for having the characters in A Tale of Two Cities ride the Dover mail coach 10 years before it was established. But Shakespeare and Dickens weren't writing in the age of the Internet, when every historical detail is scrutinized for chronological correctness, and when...