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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.

You recall back in 2004 when George W. Bush referred to "rumors on the Internets." That instantly became a classic Bushism, but to my mind he got it right — not just because what we call the Internet originated as a collection of networks 40 years ago, but because what people call "Internet culture" is an ocean of yammer strewn with innumerable islands and continents, each with its own rules, customs and conversations.

Letter-for-letter, no part of speech gets people more worked up than pronouns do. Linguistic history is dotted with eruptions of pronoun rage. Right now, the provocation is the gender-neutral pronouns that some nonbinary people have asked to be called by, so that they won't have to be identified as "he" or "she."

Algorithms were around for a very long time before the public paid them any notice.

Time was when the word "socialism" had a firm footing in the American political lexicon, with as many meanings as it has collected in all the other nations where it has taken root — as mixed or pure, as planned or market, as democratic or authoritarian, as a dogma or simply an aspiration — "the name of our desire," as the critic Irving Howe (and Lewis Coser) famously defined it.

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President Trump has a penchant for breathing new life into expressions with troubled pasts, like "America first" and "enemy of the people." It's not likely his uses of those phrases will survive his presidency. But he may have altered the political lexicon more enduringly at a Houston rally two weeks before the elections, when he proclaimed himself a "nationalist" and urged his supporters to use the word.

In his essay "On Liars," philosopher Michel de Montaigne famously wrote that the truth has a single face, while its opposite has "a hundred thousand faces."

That disproportion is reflected in the English dictionary. We have only a handful of words to describe statements that correspond to reality, like "correct" and "accurate." In fact, we don't even have a single word that means "tell the truth," which is probably to our credit.

The citizens of democracies have always been suspicious about concentrations of unelected power. In the late days of the Roman Republic, Cicero denounced the triumvirate who had usurped the role of the Senate as the imperium in imperio, or the government within the government. Nowadays, the alleged usurpers go by more pedestrian names: the invisible government, the hidden government, the shadow government.

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

"Great Britain and the United States are two nations separated by a common language."

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

It's word-of-the-year time again. Collins Dictionary chose "Fake news" and Dictionary.com went with "complicit." Others have proposed #metoo, "alternative facts," "take a knee," "resistance" and "snowflake."

If you're into counterculture kitsch, you might want to check out the nostalgia-themed resort hotel at Walt Disney World in Florida. It features a "Hippy Dippy" swimming pool, surrounded by flower-shaped water jets, peace signs and giant letters that spell out "Peace, Man," "Out of Sight" and "Can You Dig It?"

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.

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