McWhorter’s Similes

When Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield said they would be abandoning Lexicon Valley, my beloved linguistics podcast, for other projects, I was crestfallen. Not even withstanding the fascinating content of the show, half of the reason I listen is for that comic pairing. Who could justifiably replace them?

Though the name John McWhorter didn’t mean anything at the time, the Columbia Professor has acquitted himself as the solo host well, and uniquely so. The best moments of these episodes is when his speech breaks out into a sort of trot: fast enough that it stops sounding like a monologue and starts sounding like a manic brainiac talking to himself. In these moments, he fires off similes that make you stop what you’re doing and rewind… just to make sure you heard him right. Here’s a sampling.

Feb-RU-ary sounds like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Why does English put “is” in simple sentences like “she is my sister?” Other languages don’t do it. Little things get stuck into sentences, like food getting caught in your teeth.

English kept becoming easier. Things just started blowing away as if English was a sick tree and the leaves were falling off.

But of course “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” are things that we giggle at. If you’re synaestheitc, you think of “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” as smelling like a sandwich full of cured meats with various sauces. It’s somehow not something that you bring out for formal occasions.

“He” probably did not become “she” because “h” gradually came to be pronounced “sh.” There was some support for the case but it was always thin. It was like a fence blowing in a tornado.

Languages don’t borrow pronouns much [from each other]. it’s kind of like people don’t use each other’s toothbrushes very much.

If I say “tell each student that they can hand in their paper tomorrow,” is that wrong because “they” is plural when we all understand that in that particular usage “they” is singular? Of course, some of us like to keep our food apart on the plate. I am one of those people, actually….

When you have an “r” at the end of a syllable, it’s kind of like fingernails, they get worn down. Because sounds are always changing like clouds are always blowing away in the sky.

So, “he,” “she,” “it:” it used to be “he,” “heo,” and then, was it “it”? No, it was tidy. They all began with “h.” They were ducks in a row. Quack. It was “he” “heo”… “hit.”


Keep it up, McWhorter.

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, writer, and artist based in New York City.

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