words that shouldn't be?
robert macneil and jesse sheidlower,nyc public library

Track That Word!
Discover the origins of hundreds of words and phrases

The Power of Prose
A look at the impact of American "voice" writers

Additional Resources
Sez Who? Index

Sez Who?

Detailed Article Index

The experts weigh in on the American penchant for creating new words, expressions and distinctive ways of speaking. Have we become too informal? Are we lowering our standards? Can we control language change? The answers may surprise you.

Language & Society

  • The Truth About Change
    Language sows its own seeds of change; social context gives it the fertile ground to grow and spread. Walt Wolfram explains that the language changes differently than we may think.
  • Language  &  Society
    Are we less literate than we used to be? Is E-mail ruining the language? In America - as anywhere - language is shaped by contact, conflict and incredible cultural complexity. Dennis Baron explains how.
  • Americans are Ruining English
    For more than 200 years people have complained that Americans trash the English language. But is it corruption - or simply normal change? John Algeo investigates how both American and British English have evolved.

Slang, Lexical Items & Non-Regional Dialect

  • Campus Talk
    Over the past two centuries, American college students have hit the books and spoken slang with equal vigor. Connie Eble examines campus trends in this colorful casual language, uttered by everyone from chums to dweebs in words both out of sight and sweet.
  • The Power of Slang
    Slang tends to be a bit wittier and cleverer than Standard American English, according to Tom Dalzell. Slang is everywhere, he says - and youth slang, in particular, exerts enormous power.
  • Slayer Slang
    Television heroine Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was an unlikely source of language change. Michael Adams tells how this unconventional teen challenged linguistic taboos and introduced new slang words and phrases in nearly every show.
  • Born in the USA
    Slang lets young people worldwide share a common culture. Jannis Androutsopoulos explains how American slang has become a global code, using colorful examples from the German music scene.
  • Like, Quote Me
    "Like" as a quotative - a way of indicating speech-has spread like a global brushfire, cutting across ethnic and social lines. John Singler explores the origins and use of "like" to introduce everything from verbatim speech to inner monologue or, like, just a sense of things.
  • Spanglish
    PBS NewsHour Correspondent Ray Suarez speaks with author Ilan Stavans about his new book, Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, a look at the new lexicon created by Latinos and Latinas who live in the United States.
  • !Viva Spanglish!
    Lilly Gonzalez tells how her hybrid language of English and Spanish draws pity and criticism but also helps her find best amigas. It's her mother tongue: She grew up on the Texas-Mexico border so it sounds like home to her.
  • Ebony + Phonics
    Immigrant groups from every part of the world have routinely brought their languages to the United States, except one: African Americans. John Baugh explains why and shows how the term Ebonics came into being.
  • Hip Hop Nation
    Sociolinguists are intensely interested in the language of Hip Hop Nation, a highly fluid, creative and constantly changing dialect. H. Samy Alim explains how devotees "slice the system with the syntax." Companion article: Street Conscious Copula Variation in The Hip Hop Nation, by H. Samy Alim.


  • Wired Words
    Impersonal computer screens invite no-holds-barred communication that is, paradoxically, very personal. Constance Hale discusses the impact of the Internet and other new technologies on American English.
  • World Wide Web of Words
    The Internet is a petri dish for culturing and spreading language. Paul McFedries explore how technology and language interact in an increasingly wired world.

Data Collection

  • The O.E.D.
    The esteemed Oxford English Dictionary has set up an editorial office in New York City to collect and edit material relating specifically to North American English. Jesse Sheidlower, principal editor of the North American Editorial Unit, describes its inner workings.
Back to Top

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

Back to Top

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York