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Book cover for "Americanon" by Jess McHugh
Dutton / Dutton

Jess McHugh is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared across a variety of national and international publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Nation, TIME, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The New Republic, New York Magazine's The Cut, Fortune, Village Voice, The Believer, and Lapham's Quarterly, among others. She has reported stories from four continents on a range of cultural and historical topics, from present-day Liverpool punks to the history of 1960s activists in Greenwich Village.

In her new book, "Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History In Thirteen Bestselling Books," she explores the true history of thirteen of the nation’s most popular books: simple dictionaries, spellers, almanacs, and how-to manuals. These overlooked standbys are the unexamined touchstones for American cultures and customs.

Book cover for "Nine Nasty Words"
Avery

Profanity has always been a deliciously vibrant part of our lexicon, an integral part of being human. We know why languages have terms of endearment, of greeting, of ritual - but why do all languages have collections of words that are "bad"?

Language evolves with time, and so does what we consider profane or unspeakable. In his new book, "Nine Nasty Words," McWorther examines profanity, explored from every angle: historical, sociological, political, and linguistic.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, and music history at Columbia University. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and host of Slate's "Lexicon Valley" podcast.

Book cover for "The Invention of Miracles"
Simon & Schuster

Joe Donahue: The "Invention of Miracles" is a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, a revisionist biography, if you will. While best known for inventing the telephone, Bell's central work was in Deaf Education. In fact, he considered his true life's mission to be teaching the deaf to speak. However, by the end of his life, he had become the American Deaf community's most powerful enemy, as he positioned himself at the forefront of the oralist movement. They oralist movement's aim was to teach the deaf to speak and extinguish the use of American Sign Language in the face of growing evidence that focusing on speaking orally often came at the additional expense of all other education, causing serious harm to brain development. Katie Booth is the author of the new book, "The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness."

The fallout after Michelle Wolf’s roast at the 2018 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Samantha Bee’s forced apology after calling Ivanka Trump a name I can’t say here, Kathy Griffin’s being “blacklisted” from Hollywood after posting a photo with what looked like the president’s severed head, all represent a dangerous and growing trend—to censor comedians.

In the new book, "Yes I Can Say That," comedy veteran Judy Gold argues that "no one has the right to tell comics what they can or cannot joke about…. Laughter is a unifier. It's the best medicine. It's also the most palatable way to bring up seditious, subversive topics.”

For Gold, nothing is more insidious than enforcing silence and repressing jokes—the job of a comedian is to expose society's demons, and confront them head-on, no prisoners allowed. In ten impassioned polemics, she frames comedy as a tool of empowerment, a way to reclaim hateful rhetoric and battle the democracy-crushing plight of censorship.

Albany Language Exchange / Facebook

If you’re interested in learning a new language or just want to meet people who speak one, a club based in the Capital Region might be able to help you out. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports on a local group that says: “bienvenido.

The received idea of Native American history as promulgated by books like Dee Brown's mega-bestselling 1970 "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" has been that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry, the sense was, but Native civilization did as well.

Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer has uncovered a different narrative.

Because they did not disappear -- and not despite but rather because of their intense struggles to preserve their language, their traditions, their families, and their very existence the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented resourcefulness and reinvention. His new book is "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee" where David Treuer melds history with reportage and memoir.

Across the pond, Brits have scoffed that Americans are ruining the English language. Here in the U.S., Americans fawn over British accents and giggle at the preposterous syllables in gobsmacked and kerfuffle.

As an American linguist teaching in England, Professor Lynne Murphy is on the linguistic front line. In her new book, "The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English," she explores the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English.

From an award-winning, “meticulously observant” (The New Yorker) writer, Helen Thorpe, comes a powerful and moving account of how refugee teenagers at a Denver public high school learn English and become Americans.

The Newcomers follows the lives of twenty-two immigrant teenagers throughout the course of the 2015-2016 school year as they land at South High School in Denver, Colorado, in an English Language Acquisition class created specifically for them. Speaking no English, unfamiliar with American culture, their stories are poignant and remarkable as they face the enormous challenge of adapting. These newcomers, from fourteen to nineteen years old, come from nations convulsed by drought or famine or war. Many come directly from refugee camps, after experiencing dire forms of cataclysm. Some arrive alone, having left or lost every other member of their original family.

Helen Thorpe is an award-winning journalist who lives in Denver, Colorado. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, and 5280.

Max Décharné is a writer and musician. He writes about music regularly for Mojo magazine, where he is their chief authority on the subject of rockabilly music, which he has followed and played since the 1970s.

His new book, Vulgar Tongues, is a rollercoaster ride through the colorful history of slang -- from highwaymen to hip-hop. It presents a fresh and exciting take on the subject: entertaining and authoritative without being patronizing, out-of-touch or voyeuristic.

Listener Essay - Tongue-Tied

Jul 19, 2017
The Statue of Liberty
Sarah LaDuke

Sandra Capellaro wrote this story five years ago recently became an American citizen. She lives in New Paltz and works as a translator, administrator and writer.  

Tongue-Tied

When I am in elementary school we read a book called “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”. It's about a Jewish girl in Germany, her non-Jewish friend and the painful truth they learn about the pre-war reality around them. And it's about the pink plush rabbit that one day disappears just as will the little Jewish girl.

About 45 minutes north of Hannover where I grew up, is Bergen-Belsen, the former concentration camp. It's here that Anne Frank perished. We read her diary in school, and one day my class goes on a field trip to Bergen-Belsen. My daughter goes on trips to the Bardavon Opera and the Mohonk Preserve, but growing up in Germany I'm on a bus to the grounds of a former concentration camp. The drive there leads through small towns and countryside. Birch trees and heather, lots of wild heather are the features I remember.

In How May I Help You?: An Immigrant's Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage, Deepak Singh chronicles his downward mobility as an immigrant to a small town in Virginia. Armed with an MBA from India, Singh can get only a minimum-wage job in an electronics store. Every day he confronts unfamiliar American mores, from strange idioms to deeply entrenched racism.

Nearly everyone swears—whether it’s over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we’ll mutter in relief seconds after they fall asleep. Swearing, it seems, is an intimate part of us that we have decided to selectively deny.

That’s a damn shame. Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows in his book What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.

John Simpson is the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he helped take the dictionary online.

His new book, The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, is an intensely personal memoir and a joyful celebration of English, he weaves a story of how words come into being (and sometimes disappear), how culture shapes the language we use, and how technology has transformed not only the way we speak and write but also how words are made.

The art of hula is thriving in cities all over the country and the world, but it is not always understood.

In The Natives Are Restless, journalist Constance Hale presents the largely untold story of the dance tradition, using the twin keyholes of Kumu Patrick Makuakane (a Hawai‘i-born, San Francisco–based hula master), and his 350-person arts organization (Na Lei Hulu i ka Wekiu).

In the background, she weaves the poignant story of an ancient people and the resilience of their culture. In the foreground, she tells the story of an electrifying new form of hula that has emerged from a restless generation of artists like Makuakane.

  After thirty-five years as a book editor in New York City, Ann Patty stopped working and moved to the country. Bored, aimless, and lost in the woods, she hoped to challenge her restless, word-loving brain by beginning a serious study of Latin at local colleges.

As she begins to make sense of Latin grammar and syntax, her studies open unexpected windows into her own life.

Her book is Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.

  In That’s Not English by Erin Moore, the seemingly superficial differences between British and American English open the door to a deeper exploration of a historic and fascinating cultural divide.

American by birth, Moore is a former book editor who specialized in spotting British books—including Eats, Shoots & Leaves—for the US market. She’s spent the last seven years living in England with her Anglo American husband and a small daughter with an English accent.

  Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care?

  Analogies are far more complex than their SAT stereotype and lie at the very core of human cognition and creativity. Once we become aware of this, we start seeing them everywhere—in ads, apps, political debates, legal arguments, logos, and euphemisms, to name just a few.

    In this week’s Classical Music According to Yehuda, Alan Chartock and Yehuda Hanani discuss Bartok and music as language.

Celebrating “White Nights” of the Russian tradition, pianist Vassily Primakov and Yehuda will present a program of Russian masters Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky, in the inaugural concert of Close Encounters With Music at the Clark Sunday, July 14 at 3 PM.

    In the past, expressions like "horsefeathers," "blinkers," and "coxy-loxy" were all the go around towin, but they have since largely disappeared from the English lexicon in favor more pedestrian modern expressions.

Lesley Blume is looking to bring such language back – we speak with her about her efforts.

4/26/13 - Panel

Apr 26, 2013

  This morning's panelists are WAMC's Ray Graf, David Guistina, and Joe Donahue.

In this abbreviated panel we're asking listeners to call in with their language pet peeves.

    Natalie Goldberg, teacher and author of Writing Down the Bones, joins us to talk about her new book: The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language.

She offers writing guidance learned from years of teaching and practice in the second part of the hour.

    In 1973 in the offices of The Atlantic Monthly in Boston, a young freelance writer named Tracy Kidder came looking for an assignment. Richard Todd was the editor that encouraged him.

After much success they have written the new book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, which explores three major non-fiction forms: narratives, essays, and memoirs.

  The founding fathers felt that coining words and creating new uses for old ones was part of their role in creating a new American culture and language, distinct from the prescriptive King's English.

Ever since, American presidents have enriched our vocabulary with words, phrases, and concepts that we have since put to general use. Acclaimed lexicographer Paul Dickson has compiled the first collection of new words and lexical curiosities originating on Pennsylvania Avenue.

His new book is Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents.

Writers know it instinctively: Verbs make a sentence zing. Grammar gurus agree: Drama in writing emerges from the interplay of a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb).

Michael Adams teaches English language and literature at Indiana University. He is the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon and editor of From Elvish to Klingon.