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May 13, 2004 - 'Your Own Words' by Barbara Wallraff - 2004-05-12

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: May 13, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- we talk to language columnist and author Barbara Wallraff about her new book. It's called "Your Own Words." In it, she explains, quote, "how to outsmart the reference books and be your own language expert."

And Barbara Wallraff says one of the best ways to do that is with an Internet search engine like ...

WALLRAFF: "Google in particular -- and some of the other ones are starting to have this too -- but Google in particular has a feature called Google News. Everything on Google News is some kind of edited medium. It might be a Web site for a newspaper with the stories from the newspaper. Or a television Web site. Thousands of edited media Web sites are searchable for even little words or phrases.

"So if you're trying to decide whether -- if you're trying to figure out what the word 'phishing' spelled with a p-h at the beginning means, that's one of the examples of a new term that you can go look on Google News and you'll find a bunch of newspaper articles that will mention phishing and, because it's a new term, will tell you what it means."

AA: "And please explain it."

WALLRAFF: "Phishing is a form of e-mail scam. People will send an e-mail that pretends to be from something like PayPal or eBay or your bank, and it'll try to look official and it'll say 'oh sorry, we lost your credit card information and your social security number. Could you just give it to us again?'"

RS: "Who sets the standards, though? How do you know what you're getting is correct?"

WALLRAFF: "Well, this Internet method of looking things up that I'm talking about is particularly good for new words, because when I turned in the manuscript of my book, which was right around the beginning of the year, 'phishing' every time you saw it was glossed. Language people call it glossing when the word is defined. When you say phishing, you say 'comma, an e-mail scam that ... ' so on and so forth. Every time you saw phishing last year, it was glossed.

"Now if you go look on Google News, and it gives you just the last month's worth of citations, I think the majority of citations -- or at least when I last looked the majority of citations were not glossed. So that's an interesting fact, that it's becoming well enough known that people are beginning to be comfortable using that word, expecting people they say it to to know what they mean.

"If all the citations that you see are from very specialized publications, that tells you something. That tells you it's not in the mainstream. There was a business expression a few years ago: 'put the moose on the table.' And somebody wrote me and said, what in the heck does that mean. I would have no idea how to find out what 'put the moose on the table' meant if it weren't for the Internet.

"You need to put quotation marks around a phrase. Otherwise you'll get all of the articles that contain 'put' somewhere in them and 'table' and 'moose' someplace in the article. But when I called that up, I got a magazine article explaining that a man whose name I now forget had been the CEO [chief executive officer] of a company, and it was his way of saying, let's talk about some uncomfortable truth that we're not acknowledging."

RS: "What would you hope readers to your book take away from it."

WALLRAFF: "A lot of people think what's in their head about language is right, and they haven't necessarily examined that in depth. If you begin to study, if you begin to think 'how do I know that, do I really know that?' you may find that there are things you don't know. But you'll also find you can know the answers to just about any question. And often -- more often than you'd like -- the answer is 'it depends.' Or 'that's up to you, here's the range of respectable opinion.' But you don't want to be somebody saying 'well, it's got to be done this way, this word is wrong, wrong, wrong,' when it's not."

AA: Barbara Wallraff writes a language column in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and she's just written a book called "Your Own Words." That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And you can find all of our segments archived at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Free"/Phish