TIME language

Preserving American Language Is Worth Paying for

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

As Wisconsin's basketball team plays in the Big Dance, the Dictionary of American Regional English based at the university in Madison prepares for its last

As the University of Wisconsin gets ready to take the court in the NCAA championship on Monday night, with the potential to rain down glory on the Badger State, a guillotine is threatening to come down on one of that school’s greatest contributions to American history.

The Dictionary of American Regional English, based at the university’s flagship campus in Madison, is preparing to turn off the office lights for good because its funding has dried up. This project, which has spanned half a century, has dared to capture all the ways Americans speak English—the slang we use for food in different parts of the country, the nostalgic gibberish we say in childhood games, the sound of a Bostonian uttering the word car (much less referencing one near Harvard Yard).

“We’re simply running out of time and money,” says editor Joan Houston Hall, estimating that the project’s budget will dwindle to $100,000 by summer, or less than 20% of its usual annual budget. If everyone, including her, is laid off or politely asked to retire, that’ll be enough to keep one editor on staff and “wind things down” after that.

DARE, as it’s familiarly known, contains records of words that no other dictionary in the world does, gathered over the course of decades by field workers going door-to-door in the United States. DARE’s catalog, which its staff is working to update and expand online, is as much a part of our folk culture and history as Johnny Appleseed or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And the editors want to do it all over again, setting out to survey America about the words we use today and how we say them.

There is no telling how many phrases the editors led by Hall have already saved from a quiet extinction, by preserving them in DARE’s first, and perhaps last, edition. (The final volume was published in 2012, nearly 50 years after fieldwork began). Creating a record of American speech is just like preserving pop art paintings or Prairie School architecture or early jazz recordings—except that it’s much easier to forget that fragments of our language are historical objects. A child may yell “all-ee all-ee oxen free” for all of their youth and never stop to think why they said it or whether people will continue to say it after them.

To get a sense of what DARE editors collect, imagine a Duke basketball player and a Wisconsin basketball player from the 1960s. The Wisconsin player might say the Duke player is meaner than dirt. The Duke player might respond that the Wisconsin player didn’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot. If a person nearby sneezed, the polite Wisconsin player would likely say, “Gesundheit,” while the the Duke player would say, “Scat!” On court, while the Wisconsin player heaved the ball, the Duke player would chunk it. If the Duke player gave up, he could holler calf rope, and the Wisconsin player would cry uncle.

Now imagine that it’s 2015 and the Wisconsin player wanted to mess with the stenographer at a news conference. He might drop in a distinctly American word like cattywampus—or other regional terms that mean bent out of shape, like whomper-jawed, wop-sided and skew-gee.

Recording the myriad words that Americans have used and continue to use for dragonflies or peanuts or an abundance of something—oodlins, as they say in Kentucky—is a historical job but also a contemporaneous one, which must continually be done as language ebbs and dies and gets reborn. DARE, says Vocabulary.com Executive Producer and linguist Ben Zimmer, is “the most important record that we have of the way Americans speak and how Americans reflect society through language.” The Wisconsinite says gesundheit, after all, because that part of the country was once packed with German immigrants.

The editors at DARE are trying to share their work, putting audio of interviews done around the U.S. online and paying staff to add new words to a database that has no outward limit. In an ideal world, cataloging American speech every 50 years would be something we did like a census. Few things transport us back in time like a well-placed groovy or cat’s pajamas. Yet the lack of funding is threatening to make DARE an epic one-off project rather than an ongoing one.

The money that the DARE team needs to keep going for a year—about $525,000—is a drop in the bucket compared to the University of Wisconsin’s $3 billion budget and is small compared to the $12 million in revenue that its men’s basketball team netted last year. Yes, the school is facing tough 13% budget cuts over the next two years if Governor Scott Walker’s budget plans come to pass. But on this exciting eve for Wisconsin, when a college basketball program appears as strong as ever, it’s worth sparing a thought for a few small rooms at the same university where people are starting to look for new jobs. And if you happen to be a billionaire who loves language or American history, perhaps there are a few thoughts that might come after that—before DARE goes kaput.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

‘Madam, I’m Adam': Meet the Reigning World Palindrome Champion

His name is actually Mark, though his brothers have been known to call him Kram

Eat poop tea.

When he was a kid, Mark Saltveit would sit in the car with his two young brothers, bored silly during 500-mile drives on family trips. Eventually he and his siblings turned to palindromes to pass the time. They had learned about these delightful strings of wordplay in school, a row of letters that read the same backwards as forwards. Poop, to the grade-school boys, was of course the consummate example. And when they worked out “Eat poop tea,” they felt like the Albert Einsteins of palindromy—until they realized that it didn’t quite work.

“We were crushed,” laughs Saltveit, now 53, as he recalls the cruel realization that the actual mirror image would be Eat poop tae. But during a bout of insomnia during his 20s, he remembered how he had filled the hours in the family car. Saltveit broke out the dictionary and embarked on what would become his life’s work. Within hours, he had written his first palindrome, at a length that most people couldn’t achieve in a month, or maybe ever. He called it “The Brag of the Vain Lawyer:”

Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser.

Within three decades, he would become the reigning world palindrome champion.

Saltveit is the star of a new documentary short that filmmaker Vince Clemente is hoping will inspire people to pay for making the feature-length version, as he follows the world’s leading palindromists up to their showdown at the next world championship in 2017. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the initial stages of A Man, a Plan, a Palindrome went live this week. The short debuted in March at—where else—the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual gathering of people who like to debate whether puzzles are better solved using .3 mm or .7 mm lead in mechanical pencils.

“I am drawn to niche worlds. I feel that they need to be explored,” Clemente says. “If you are a palindromist, you are an artist and a genius. There is no doubt. The amount of skill that goes into each one is beyond calculation. Sure, when one is done anyone could look at it and say, ‘Duh, that was easy.’ And I think that is a sign of great artistry.”

Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

In a rare cultural moment, some of the world’s greatest palindromists have just been given the Hollywood treatment — even if palindromes aren’t even mentioned in the film.

These men are the stars of The Imitation Game, which tells the story of the mathematicians who unraveled Nazi codes during World War II. Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), plays a background character in a biopic that focuses on Alan Turing, but he is the stuff of palindrome legend. Taking a break from his work, Hilton puzzled out the above palindrome over five hours. The skills these men brought to code-breaking, says Saltveit—who may know more about the cultural history of palindromes than any other living person—are the same skills one needs to mentally run through all the possible letter combinations that might build out a grammatical, coherent sentence in opposite directions.

“The amazing thing about Peter Hilton is he did this all in his head,” Saltveit says. “But that was his gift. That’s why he was famous even among the code breakers, because he had that ability.”

Constructing a palindrome starts with the middle, Saltveit explains. In the case of Hilton’s famous work, that was:

never prevents

That leaves a “ts” dangling on one end that must become “st” at the end of a word on the other. So one runs through all the words they can think of that end in “st”—last, vast, past, amast. When Hilton decides that a fast jibes well with never prevents he then knows he has to work with this:

a fast never prevents a fa

And on he goes, running through his mental Rolodex of words that being “fa,” until he has created the deceptively straightforward three-sentence masterpiece, without so much as a pencil or a piece of paper.

As an avid student of palindrome history, Saltveit was bequeathed rare copies of the journals of British mathematician and word-artist Leigh Mercer, who died in 1977. While people don’t generally know his name, they’re probably familiar with his most famous palindromic creation:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

In the journals, it’s clear that he also worked from the middle outward. On one page, Saltveit says, is this revealing fragment:

Panama, a man a p

Saltveit, of course, used this same method when he took home the world’s first World Palindrome Championship title.

He and the other few but proud souls who can call themselves true palindromists (pronounced pal-IN-droh-MISTS) gathered in Brooklyn, New York in March 2012. Each was called to the front of a ballroom at the Marriott, in front of about 700 or so eager audience members, and given a choice of three challenges: write a palindrome that contains an x and a z; write a palindrome about someone who has been in the news in the past year; or write a palindrome about this competition.

They were given 75 minutes to craft up to three palindromes off-stage, as the audience was entertained with other wordplay. The winner was to be decided by audience vote. Each attendee had a little sign they could use to convey their approval or disapproval: It read “huh?” on one side and “wow!” on the other.

Saltveit, who is also a freelance writer, stand-up comedian and editor of the Palindromist magazine, was going up against the likes of cartoonist Jon Agee, who Saltveit describes as the only person to ever make money off this art. Agee was and is a formidable foe, a man who understands how to balance the ridiculous and sensical in just the right measure. He is the author of this book and its famed, eponymous palindrome:

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A great palindrome, in Saltveit’s estimation, is a little weird. It should be basically grammatical and follow some rules of natural language, but more important is telling a story or creating an absurd image in the reader’s head. Take this example, he says:

Enid and Edna dine.

“It’s a perfectly good palindrome. There’s nothing flawed with the English. It’s just boring,” he says. Now tweak it just a little bit, swap a verb and a name, and you’ve got this:

Dennis and Edna sinned.

That’s basically the same palindrome, he says, “but it’s a heck of a lot more interesting.” Much like this one:

Sit on a potato pan, Otis.

“There’s no such thing as a potato pan and nobody has ever told anybody to sit on a pan anyway. So the absurdity of it is its strength,” Saltveit explains. “You’re almost kind of showing off how far you had to jump to make this work, like you really had to push yourself to heroic bits of cleverness to pound your way through. And that’s the trade-off, versus being smooth. You can be too smooth.”

So when Saltveit sat down for his 75 minutes, he started with the already silly, vivid phrase trapeze part. Like other palindromists, he keeps his own “dictionary,” a collection of tens of thousands of mirror-image fragments that he encounters in daily life—reading every sign, advertisement and text message forwards and backwards. Sometimes, in fact, he so busy inverting letters that he neglects to read them forwards at all. It can become so distracting that he makes himself stop for a time.

When he emerged with the six other contestants, Saltveit revealed a palindrome that—in its charming, barely sensible senselessness—could not be beat:

Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived.

The “wow!” signs sprung into the air. “The audience went for the dirty one, which is not surprising,” says Saltveit. “I threw in a y just to show off.”

Part of what Clemente’s documentary seeks to record is the training that Saltveit and other palindromists are already doing in advance of the 2017 championship, with about two years left on the clock. In Portland, Ore., Saltveit is already running himself through timed trials, asking his wife to throw him a topic—any topic—and seeing what he can come up with. (I asked him how she felt about this hobby of his. “I was completely open about my palindromy before the marriage.”) Unlike most palindromists, Saltveit also has a personal trainer who has crafted a regimen of progressive exercises designed to increase the blood flow to his brain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who professes to love words not donating a few dollars to see what else these brains get up to—and whether Saltveit can defend his title. There is a rich history of palindromes to weave into the tapestry. Saltveit has traced their origins back to the Hellenistic era, when people stood in the shadow of the world’s first library and stumbled across these magical, symmetrical strings of letters that they believed must be the blessings of god and the curses of demons. As God tells Moses from the burning bush when a man dares to challenge his identity, in what is a word-unit palindrome in Hebrew: I am who I am.

“There’s so much more to explore and share,” says Clemente. To donate to the campaign, visit the Kickstarter page here.

TIME language

Winston Churchill Did Not Coin the Phrase ‘Iron Curtain’

Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' Speech
George Skadding—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivers a speech at Westminster College that addressed the Communist threat, and in which he uttered the now-famous phrase 'Iron Curtain,' Fulton, Mo., Mar. 5, 1946.

On the anniversary of his famous speech, TIME takes a look at why people misattribute quotes and just plum make them up

Exactly 69 years ago, on Mar. 5, 1946, Winston Churchill stood in a college gymnasium in Fulton, Mo., at the beginning of the Cold War, while President Harry S. Truman sat behind him in a gown and mortarboard. Speaking to students gathered at Westminster College, he accepted an honorary degree and famously condemned the Soviet Union’s ways: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

The actual title of Churchill’s speech was “Sinews of Peace,” though most people know it as the “Iron Curtain speech.” Over the years there has been another twist of the record. Churchill often gets credit for coining that metallic metaphor—on that stage—for the figurative barrier drawn across Europe between the capitalist West and the communist East. But he did not. In fact, there’s evidence of the phrase being used to mean exactly that a good 26 years earlier when an E. Snowden (seriously) published a travelogue about her adventures in Bolshevik Russia.

So why do quotes get false histories? Lots of reasons.

Misattribution can be convenient. It’s easy not to question a coinage that it seems plausible—especially when it just so happens to give us good gravitas by association.

“You reach for a famous name to give authority,” says Elizabeth Knowles, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. “You want to say Churchill said it. Because you have associated what you’re saying with that particular person, it gives the saying a bit more oomph.” Iron curtain just feels like something a dulcet, witty orator like Churchill would come up with, right? And it’s a much clearer signal that you’re educated and that your words have heft if you attribute a quote to Winston Churchill than to Snowden, an unremembered member of a trade-union delegation.

Many times people invoke quotations that were never said at all.

“Play it again, Sam.” Neither Bogart nor Bergman said these words.

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Doyle wrote no such thing.

“Beam me up, Scotty.” Sorry, nope.

These get passed on because we wish people had uttered them. “A misquotation of that kind can be, almost, what you feel somebody ought to have said,” says Knowles. “It summarizes for somebody something very important about a particular film, a particular relationship, a particular event.” Even if it’s made up and especially if it’s close to things people really did say, we embrace it as gospel. After all, Bergman did utter, “Play it, Sam,” in Casablanca. And Bogart did say, “If she can stand it, I can! Play it!”

Sometimes misquotations get handed down because they convey the right idea and sound better to us than what the person actually said.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he said, “To give victory to the right, not bloody bullets, but peaceful ballots only, are necessary.” Over time, that sentiment been recrafted as, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” The latter version is snazzier. Even when sources know this precise phrasing was probably never really used by Lincoln, they continue to pass it on. Take Dictionary.com’s quotes site, where the well-sourced quote from 1858 is in the fine print. Also in fine print is the admission that the quote in giant font across the top of the page was “reconstructed” 40 years after Lincoln was supposed to have said it. Which, as far as editors at Oxford are concerned, he did not.

Screen shot taken from Dictionary.com

“It’s a very natural thing, that we edit as we remember,” Knowles says. “So when we quote something we very often have in mind the gist of what’s being said. So we may alter it slightly and we may just make it slightly pithier or simpler for someone else to remember. And that’s the form that gets passed on.”

While it may be easier to remember that Churchill invented the iron curtain, here’s the real history:

In its earliest use, circa 1794, an “iron curtain” was a literal iron screen that would lowered in a theater to protect the audience and auditorium from any fire occurring backstage. From there, it became a general metaphor for an impenetrable barrier. In 1819, the Earl of Muster described the Indian river Betwah as an iron curtain that protected his group of travelers from an “avenging angel” of death that had been on their heels in that foreign land. Then, in 1920, Ethel Snowden made it specifically about the East and West in Throughout Bolshevik Russia (1920):

At last we were to enter the country where the Red Flag had become a national emblem, and was flying over every public building in the cities of Russia. The thought thrilled like new wine … We were behind the ‘iron curtain’ at last!

Read TIME’s original coverage of the Mar. 5, 1946, speech, here in the TIME Vault: This Sad & Breathless Moment

Read next: You Can Now Own a Vial of Winston Churchill’s Blood

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Careers & Workplace

39 Commonly Misused Words and How to Use Them Correctly

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Easy to get wrong. Fortunately, not that hard to get right

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This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

Where the mechanics of writing are concerned, I’m far from perfect. One example: I always struggle with who and whom. (Sometimes I’ll even rewrite a sentence just so I won’t have to worry about which is correct.)

And that’s a real problem. The same way one misspelled word can get your résumé tossed onto the reject pile, one misused word can negatively impact your entire message.

Fair or unfair, it happens all the time–so let’s make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

My post 30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Bad resulted in readers providing a number of other examples of misused words, and here are some of them. Once again I’ve picked words that are typically used in business settings, with special emphasis on words that spell checker won’t correct.

Here we go:

Advise and advice

Aside from the two words being pronounced differently (the s in advise sounds like az), advise is a verb while advice is a noun. Advice is what you give (whether or not the recipient is interested in that gift is a different issue altogether) when you advise someone.

So, “Thank you for the advise” is incorrect, while “I advise you not to bore me with your advice in the future” is correct if pretentious.

If you run into trouble, just say each word out loud and you’ll instantly know which makes sense; there’s no way you’d ever say, “I advice you to…”

Ultimate and penultimate

Recently I received a pitch from a PR professional that read, “(Acme Industries) provides the penultimate value-added services for discerning professionals.”

As Inigo would say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Ultimate means the best, or final, or last. Penultimate means the last but one, or second to last. (Or, as a Monty Python-inspired Michelangelo would say, “the Penultimate Supper!”)

But penultimate doesn’t mean second-best. Plus, I don’t think my PR friend meant to say her client offered second-class services. (I think she just thought the word sounded cool.)

Also, keep in mind that using ultimate is fraught with hyperbolic peril. Are you–or is what you provide–really the absolute best imaginable? That’s a tough standard to meet.

Well and good

Anyone who has children uses good more often than he or she should. Since kids pretty quickly learn what good means, “You did good, honey” is much more convenient and meaningful than “You did well, honey.”

But that doesn’t mean good is the correct word choice.

Good is an adjective that describes something; if you did a good job, then you do good work. Well is an adverb that describes how something was done; you can do your job well.

Where it gets tricky is when you describe, say, your health or emotional state. “I don’t feel well” is grammatically correct, even though many people (including me) often say, “I don’t feel too good.” On the other hand, “I don’t feel good about how he treated me” is correct; no one says, “I don’t feel well about how I’m treated.”

Confused? If you’re praising an employee and referring to the outcome say, “You did a good job.” If you’re referring to how the employee performed say, “You did incredibly well.”

And while you’re at it, stop saying good to your kids and use great instead, because no one–especially a kid–ever receives too much praise.

If and whether

If and whether are often interchangeable. If a yes/no condition is involved, then feel free to use either: “I wonder whether Jim will finish the project on time” or “I wonder if Jim will finish the project on time.” (Whether sounds a little more formal in this case, so consider your audience and how you wish to be perceived.)

What’s trickier is when a condition is not involved. “Let me know whether Marcia needs a projector for the meeting” isn’t conditional, because you want to be informed either way. “Let me know if Marcia needs a projector for the meeting” is conditional, because you only want to be told if she needs one.

And always use if when you introduce a condition. “If you hit your monthly target, I’ll increase your bonus” is correct; the condition is hitting the target and the bonus is the result. “Whether you are able to hit your monthly target is totally up to you” does not introduce a condition (unless you want the employee to infer that your thinly veiled threat is a condition of ongoing employment).

Stationary and stationery

You write on stationery. You get business stationery, such as letterhead and envelopes, printed.

But that box of envelopes is not stationary unless it’s not moving–and even then it’s still stationery.

Award and reward

An award is a prize. Musicians win Grammy Awards. Car companies win J.D. Power awards. Employees win Employee of the Month awards. Think of an award as the result of a contest or competition.

A reward is something given in return for effort, achievement, hard work, merit, etc. A sales commission is a reward. A bonus is a reward. A free trip for landing the most new customers is a reward.

Be happy when your employees win industry or civic awards, and reward them for the hard work and sacrifices they make to help your business grow.

Sympathy and empathy

Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s feelings. “I am sorry for your loss” means you understand the other person is grieving and want to recognize that fact.

Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and relate to how the person feels, at least in part because you’ve experienced those feelings yourself.

The difference is huge. Sympathy is passive; empathy is active. (Here’s a short video by Brené Brown that does a great job of describing the difference–and how empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection.)

Know the difference between sympathy and empathy, live the difference, and you’ll make a bigger difference in other people’s lives.

Criterion and criteria

A criterion is a principle or standard. If you have more than one criterion, those are referred to as criteria.

But if you want to be safe and you only have one issue to consider, just say standardor rule or benchmark. Then use criteria for all the times there are multiple specifications or multiple criterion (OK, standards) involved.

Mute and moot

Think of mute like the button on your remote; it means unspoken or unable to speak. In the U.S., moot refers to something that is of no practical importance; a moot point is one that could be hypothetical or even (gasp!) academic. In British English, mootcan also mean debatable or open to debate.

So if you were planning an IPO, but your sales have plummeted, the idea of going public could be moot. And if you decide not to talk about it anymore, you will have gone mute on the subject.

Peak and peek

A peak is the highest point; climbers try to reach the peak of Mount Everest. Peekmeans quick glance, as in giving major customers a sneak peek at a new product before it’s officially unveiled, which hopefully helps sales peak at an unimaginable height.

Occasionally a marketer will try to “peak your interest” or “peek your interest,” but in that case the right word is pique, which means “to excite.” (Pique can also mean “to upset,” but hopefully that’s not what marketers intend.)

Aggressive and enthusiastic

Aggressive is a very popular business adjective: aggressive sales force, aggressive revenue projections, aggressive product rollout. But unfortunately, aggressive means ready to attack, or pursuing aims forcefully, possibly unduly so.

So do you really want an “aggressive” sales force?

Of course, most people have seen aggressive used that way for so long they don’t think of it negatively; to them it just means hard-charging, results-oriented, driven, etc., none of which are bad things.

But some people may not see it that way. So consider using words like enthusiastic,eager, committed, dedicated, or even (although it pains me to say it) passionate.

Then and than

Then refers in some way to time. “Let’s close this deal, and then we’ll celebrate!” Since the celebration comes after the sale, then is correct.

Then is also often used with if. Think in terms of if-then statements: “If we don’t get to the office on time, then we won’t be able to close the deal today.”

Than involves a comparison. “Landing Customer A will result in higher revenue than landing Customer B,” or “Our sales team is more committed to building customer relationships than the competition is.”

Evoke and invoke

To evoke is to call to mind; an unusual smell might evoke a long-lost memory. To invoke is to call upon some thing: help, aid, or maybe a higher power.

So hopefully all your branding and messaging efforts evoke specific emotions in potential customers. But if they don’t, you might consider invoking the gods of commerce to aid you in your quest for profitability.

Or something like that.

Continuously and continually

Both words come from the root continue, but they mean very different things.Continuously means never ending. Hopefully your efforts to develop your employees are continuous, because you never want to stop improving their skills and their future.

Continual means whatever you’re referring to stops and starts. You might have frequent disagreements with your co-founder, but unless those discussions never end (which is unlikely, even though it might feel otherwise), then those disagreements are continual.

That’s why you should focus on continuous improvement but only plan to have continual meetings with your accountant: The former should never, ever stop, and the other (mercifully) should.

Systemic and systematic

If you’re in doubt, systematic is almost always the right word to use. Systematic means arranged or carried out according to a plan, method, or system. That’s why you can take a systematic approach to continuous improvement, or do a systematic evaluation of customer revenue or a systematic assessment of market conditions.

Systemic means belonging to or affecting the system as a whole. Poor morale could be systemic to your organization. Or bias against employee diversity could be systemic.

So if your organization is facing a pervasive problem, take a systematic approach to dealing with it—that’s probably the only way you’ll overcome it.

Impact and affect (and effect)

Many people (including until recently me) use impact when they should use affect. Impact doesn’t mean to influence; impact means to strike, collide, or pack firmly.

Affect means to influence: “Impatient investors affected our rollout date.”

And to make it more confusing, effect means to accomplish something: “The board effected a sweeping policy change.”

How you correctly use effect or affect can be tricky. For example, a board can affect changes by influencing them and can effect changes by directly implementing them. Bottom line, use effect if you’re making it happen, and affect if you’re having an impact on something that someone else is trying to make happen.

As for nouns, effect is almost always correct: “Employee morale has had a negative effect on productivity.” Affect refers to an emotional state, so unless you’re a psychologist, you probably have little reason to use it.

So stop saying you’ll “impact sales” or “impact the bottom line.” Use affect.

(And feel free to remind me when I screw that up, because I feel sure I’ll backslide.)

Between and among

Use between when you name separate and individual items. “The team will decide between Mary, Marcia, and Steve when we fill the open customer service position.” Mary, Marcia, and Steve are separate and distinct, so between is correct.

Use among when there are three or more items but they are not named separately. “The team will decide among a number of candidates when we fill the open customer service position.” Who are the candidates? You haven’t named them separately, s oamong is correct.

And we’re assuming there are more than two candidates; otherwise you’d say between. If there are two candidates you could say, “I just can’t decide between them.”

Everyday and every day

Every day means, yep, every day—each and every day. If you ate a bagel for breakfast each day this week, you had a bagel every day.

Everyday means commonplace or normal. Decide to wear your “everyday shoes” and that means you’ve chosen to wear the shoes you normally wear. That doesn’t mean you have to wear them every single day; it just means wearing them is a usual occurrence.

Another example is along and a long: Along means moving in a constant direction or a line, or in the company of others, while a long means of great distance or duration. You wouldn’t stand in “along line,” but you might stand in a long line for a long time, along with a number of other people.

A couple more examples: a while and awhile, and any way and anyway.

If you’re in doubt, read what you write out loud. It’s unlikely you’ll think “Is there anyway you can help me?” sounds right.

Read next: These Are the 2 Most Important Words in a Job Interview

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TIME language

Oxford Dictionaries Adds Janky, EGOT and Ridesharing

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From the dictionary that keeps track of modern usage

Oxford Dictionaries Online added hundreds of words and phrases to its online database Thursday, many of which reflect the technology-influenced world we live in.

This branch of the Oxford family is focused on modern usage: the language people are using now. And if the addition is any indication, we are talking a lot about tech — from ridesharing to bioprinting — not to mention using more abbreviations and acronyms as words.

Here are some highlights from the quarterly update, along with definitions:

AFAIC (abbrev.): abbreviation for ‘as far as I’m concerned.’

awk (adj.): of a situation, causing uneasy embarrassment; awkward or uncomfortable.

bioprinting (n.): the use of 3-D printing technology with materials that incorporate viable living cells, e.g., to produce tissue for reconstructive surgery.

colorblocking (n.): in fashion and design, the use of contrasting blocks or panels of solid, typically bright color.

data scientist (n.): a person employed to analyze and interpret complex digital data, such as the usage statistics of a website, especially in order to assist a business in its decisionmaking.

divey (adj.): of a bar or similar establishment, shabby or sleazy

EGOT (n.): the achievement of having won all four of the major American entertainment awards (i.e., an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony).

janky (adj.): of extremely poor or unreliable quality.

koozie (n.): an insulating sleeve used to keep a canned or bottled drink cold.

McTwist (n.): in skateboarding and snowboarding, an aerial maneuver in which the boarder spins one and a half times while holding the edge of the board with one hand.

party foul (n.): an act or instance of unpleasant or unacceptable behavior at a party or other social gathering.

patient zero (n.): used to refer to the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases.

ridesharing (v.): to participate in an arrangement in which a passenger travels in a private vehicle driven by its owner, for free or for a fee, especially as arranged by means of a website or app.

sharing economy (n.): an economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either for free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet.

superfan (n.): a person who has an extreme or obsessive admiration for a particular person or thing.

teachable moment (n.): an event or experience that presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life.

unbox (v.): remove (something, especially a newly purchased product) from a box or other packaging.

vishing (v.): the fraudulent practice of making phone calls or leaving voice messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as bank details and credit-card numbers.

TIME language

Why We Shouldn’t Refer to ISIS as ‘Medieval’

Torturing a prisoner on the rack, Middle Ages.
Print Collector/Getty Images A 19th-century representation of a medieval torture device in use, from World of Wonders, published by Cassell and Co, (London, 1894).

'Medieval' is often treated as synonymous with lawlessness and brutality. Is that fair?

History Today logoThis post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

The word medieval is often treated as synonymous with filth, lawlessness and brutality. In particular the recent actions of ISIS and their treatment of prisoners have been called ‘medieval’ by journalists, commentators and bloggers alike. But why do we do this, and is it fair?

The use of medieval in this way has been widely discussed, and is not dissimilar to Orientalism. That is, the creating of an ‘other’ to contrast with one’s own identity (the modern versus the medieval, or ‘West’ versus ‘East’), and, through that contrast, to celebrate our perceived progress or difference in a way that is often also exoticising. As Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens have said, “When commentators and politicians describe Islamic State as ‘medieval’ they are placing the organization opportunely outside of modernity, in a sphere of irrationality.” It is an act of distancing, a separation of ‘us’ from ‘them,’ that removes them from our current definition of humanity and society, and exculpates us from any kind of association with their actions.

The ‘othering’ of a group or a period is by no means a modern phenomenon: barbarian, regardless of whether or not its origin is a joke at the expense of foreign-language speakers (bar-bar-bar), has been used derogatively in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and English to distance a community from its neighbors and, to the Anglo-Saxons, wealh meant both a foreigner (now ‘Welsh’) and ‘slave.’ Conversely, as Roberta Frank has said:

Medieval men of letters, like their modern counterparts, could sometimes be over-eager to recover the colorful rites and leafy folk beliefs of their pagan ancestors.

This phenomenon is encapsulated in the mythical rite of blood-eagling, the ritualistic killing of an enemy by splitting their ribs and spreading them to look like eagles’ wings. The English kings Ælla and Edmund were said to have been victims, among others. The myth has been around since the 12th century when an antiquarian revival in north-western Europe popularized the legend of the vicious Vikings. It was at this point that the berserker myth also took hold. Despite appearing in multiple sources such as Saxo’s Gesta Danorum and sagas of Ragnar Loðbrok, blood-eagling is most probably a misreading of poetic metaphor. Despite a lack of evidence to support it, the myth has persisted from the 12th century until today, in large part because it so perfectly emblemizes our perception of that time as violent, lawless and needlessly brutal.

While blood-eagling may have been a myth, torture was certainly a fact of the medieval period although its legality and application varied widely across Europe. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Stephen’s rebelling barons in the 12th century torturing people for money, but English common law in the later medieval period made it illegal to mistreat a prisoner before they had been found guilty.

Until the 13th century, torture had been used by the state and the church in the pursuit of justice: ordeals by fire or by water under supervision of a priest were used to determine guilt. This extraction of proof by ordeal was then replaced by trial by jury. Under this system, torture was made illegal because it was rendered unnecessary. The death penalty could be applied without the need for the confessional evidence torture might provide.

While illegal in England, it was still used on the Continent as a means of extracting proof. At times it aimed to follow the Classical model in practicalities as well as ideology: Aristotle believed that confessions withdrawn by torture were unreliable – understandably – and so very often the goal was to stop the torture before confessions were made, or if that were not possible, to allow the victim to recover before re-confessing. Due to its illegality in England, Edward II was very resistant to papal orders for the investigation of the Knights Templar for heresy and ultimately they were tortured according to ‘ecclesiastical law’ rather than English law. Once found guilty, they were burned alive as heretics.

Fire was used in various forms, in burning feet, or in heating iron boots or devices such as bars to be held. Other medieval torture methods included stress positions – a method approved of in 2003 by Donald Rumsfeld – and flaying, which was most commonly associated with martyrs such as St Bartholomew (the patron saint of parchment-makers, bookbinders and other trades reliant on the removal of skin from flesh). Public exhibitions of torture and punishment being exacted were also common, but were not just gruesome displays intended to titillate and horrify: Sean McGlynn has suggested that they acted as ‘reassurance that justice was being served to protect society’.

Torture was certainly widespread across the medieval world. Its use was regulated by church and state law as a means of demonstrating guilt, of determining guilt and of exacting punishment, but its legality and application changed depending on any number of factors including country, date, church, state, ideology and political context. There was no one unified system of medieval torture: to some it was abhorrent; to some against the Church and to others it was a tool to be used by the Church. It had legal, ecclesiastical, moral and mercenary applications.

Neither was torture restricted to the medieval period. The Greeks and Romans used torture, and the early-modern period was rife with ordeals: the rack, witch-hunts, keelhauling. But it is the medieval period which is most associated with it because it fits with our image of that time as rough and lawless.

Despite the reality of medieval torture, comparisons with ISIS are not intended to be meaningfully equivalent. Instead, they are conjuring up the one-dimensional myth of medievalism: of berserkers, barbarians and blood-eagling, a myth which leaves us, civilized and modern, wholly absolved of any connection with those actions.

Kate Wiles is a contributing editor at History Today.

TIME language

In Soviet Russia, the Oscars Host You

Actors (L-R) Clark Gable Cary Grant Bob Hope and David
Leonard McCombe—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bob Hope and David Niven laughing heartily together at one of Hope's recently-acquired Russian jokes during break from rehearsals for the 1958 Academy Awards

In 1958, Oscars host Bob Hope may have made comedy history

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

These days, an Oscars host is likely to wish only to avoid a complete disaster — but in 1958, veteran host Bob Hope may have introduced the world to a joke that, decades later, has become part of comedy’s common heritage.

Here’s how TIME described the ceremony in the Apr. 7 issue of that year:

As things got under way, Jimmy Stewart told the home audience that the uninterrupted program was “being brought to you in living black and white.” Bob Hope, back from his Russian junket, noted that there had been TV in all the rooms of his Moscow hotel—”only it watches you”—also called attention to the parades of expensive talent being given away free to television, proving that “the motion-picture industry isn’t frightened. It’s off its rocker.”

Comedy fans will likely recognize a very familiar construction in that first Hope joke. In Soviet Russia, the TV watches you!

These days, that construction is often known as the “Russian reversal.” Swap around the order in which things are usually done, add “in [Soviet] Russia” to the beginning, and that’s it. The joke has appeared on The Simpsons and Family Guy, and the Internet is flush with “t-shirt wears you” gear.

Most sources — from the spot-on Language Log blog at UPenn to the equally trustworthy (when it comes to viral jokes) Know Your Meme — trace the joke’s popularity to Yakov Smirnoff, a Russian-born comedian who came to the U.S. in the 1970s. And it’s not hard to see why he would get the credit:

Dig a little deeper, and some sources note that a similar joke (substituting “the Old Country” for “Russia”) appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which started airing in 1968 — which is, of course, a full decade after Bob Hope used the joke at the 1958 Oscars.

There’s some evidence that Hope’s joke was new at that time: LIFE magazine had a photographer on scene during rehearsals for the telecast, and — though the magazine ended up printing something different — the caption with one of the photos (seen here) indicates that Hope and friends were laughing at one of his “recently acquired Russian jokes.”

But, while Bob Hope may have introduced a national television audience to the Russian reversal, the real moral of the story is not that he was first — just that it’s hard to say who came up with something so common. After all, buried in the meme’s page on TVTropes.org there’s an example from a play written a full two decades earlier, before Bob Hope hosted the Oscars, before the Oscars were on TV, before the Cold War even started. In 1938’s Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me!, a man tries to tip a messenger. “No tipping,” he’s told. “In Soviet Russia, messenger tips you.”

Read the full write-up of the 1958 ceremony, here in the TIME Vault: The Oscars

TIME language

The Secret of Abraham Lincoln’s Success as a Writer?

Abraham Lincoln And Family
Kean Collection / Getty Images Engraved portrait of President Abraham Lincoln and his son Thomas, as Lincoln reads from a large book, circa 1850.

He had a reputation as a country bumpkin, but he knew his grammar inside out

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Abraham Lincoln’s formal education was remarkably sparse for a man who later became president. By his own estimate, his schooldays amounted to less than a year altogether, and these were passed in poorly equipped frontier classrooms. He wrote dismissively in his autobiography of the “schools, so called,” where the teachers were barely qualified, and anyone in the neighborhood rumored to know Latin “was looked upon as a wizard.” Yet Lincoln is remembered today as one of our most eloquent presidents. His best-known speeches are still familiar and cherished.

Lincoln developed his linguistic skills partly by following a once-common early American tradition—self-betterment through grammar study. Grammar books were the self-help manuals of the early republic. Cheaper and more available than other books, they were frequently the only classroom texts in small rural schoolhouses. They were also the only secular books in many homes. For people too poor or too isolated to attend school, mastering a grammar primer was the first step toward economic and social success. Grammar study was thought to sharpen the mind and prepare people for further education, as well as leading to a better command of elegant speech.

As with thousands of other nineteenth-century Americans, the young Abe’s self-education and rise out of poverty started with basic textbooks. These included English schoolmaster Thomas Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue and fellow countryman Noah Webster’s Grammatical Institute. Like most other popular grammar books, these titles were first published in the eighteenth century and had gone through numerous editions by Lincoln’s day. Dilworth was available in nearly all classrooms, even in remote places like rural Indiana, and secondhand copies of both books were fairly easy to find. Lincoln would have learned parts of speech and basic sentence structure from these books.

The adolescent Lincoln also studied elocution books, including one owned by his stepmother—William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution. This volume would have introduced Lincoln to the standardizing rules that all eighteenth-century grammar books emphasized. Among the “common errors” that Scott discusses are ending a sentence with a preposition (Who did you give it to?), following a preposition with a subject pronoun (between you and I), and following the verb to be with an object pronoun (It was him.) Scott also offers a section on literary devices like antithesis.

When Lincoln began contemplating the possibility of a law degree, he took up grammar study at a higher level, making an effort to seek out the most respected authors. Learning that a local farmer owned a copy of schoolteacher Samuel Kirkham’s popular English Grammar in Familiar Lectures, he walked several miles to borrow it. From another friend he borrowed a copy of the best-selling grammar book of the time, English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners by American expatriate Lindley Murray.

Typically for that time, Lincoln mastered the books by memorizing them. He would have started at the beginning, with definitions—“A noun is the name of any person, place, or thing.” Then he would have progressed to more complex rules—“The verb to be, through all its variations, has the same case after it as that which next precedes it.” He would have learned such niceties as the various ways to use shall—including for determination and insistence—and the proper usage of the subjunctive mood. Murray’s book also provided more sophisticated compositional advice in the form of style rules. Here Lincoln would have read, for instance, about the value of a “plain, native” style over highly ornamented prose.

Lincoln’s enemies frequently portrayed him as an illiterate country bumpkin. When the Republican Party announced his nomination for the presidency, the New York Herald sneered, “They pass over Seward, Chase, and Banks, who are statesmen and able men, and they take up a fourth-rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar.” The Albany Atlas and Argus complained,“He … is not known, except as a slang-whanging stump speaker.”

The critics’ attacks weren’t really about Lincoln’s speaking style. In the nineteenth century, “bad grammar” was a code that suggested a whole range of other deficits. Saying that Lincoln couldn’t use language correctly implied that he was of humble origins and therefore unworthy of the highest office in the land. Newspaper readers of the time would have gotten the message.

Contrary to what his enemies claimed, Lincoln’s speeches were carefully constructed. They show that he thoroughly grasped the grammar rules found in the books he had studied. For example, his Cooper Union speech of February 27, 1860 features the use of nominative case after the verb to be (“It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers”). Lincoln also used the present subjunctive unless you be rather than unless you are (“Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe … the Constitution as you please”), and correctly placed prepositions before their objects (“I give [the Democrats] … all other living men … among whom to search”).

The Gettysburg address, delivered on November 19, 1863, includes the specialized use of shall with third person to promise or express determination (“Government of the people, for the people, by the people shall not perish from the earth”). The emphatic use of shall had been on the wane since the late eighteenth century. By the 1860s it would have been uncommon outside of grammar books, yet Lincoln obviously understood how to use it effectively.

None of the formal grammar rules that Lincoln applied in his speeches could have been acquired naturally from the people around him while he was growing up. He learned them by studying grammar. Grammar books promised to set users like our sixteenth president on the path to scholarly and social achievement. In this case at least, that promise was fulfilled.

Rosemarie Ostler is a linguist and former librarian, Her books about slang and word origins explore the colorful turns of phrase in America’s past lexicon. Her articles have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Whole Earth, Christian Science Monitor, Verbatim, Writer’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.com among others. Her latest book is “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language” (May 2015)

TIME language

The 5 Woofiest Descriptions of Westminster Dog Show Competitors

Three English Bulldogs
Underwood Archives / Getty Images Three English bulldogs at the 61st annual show of the Westminster Kennel Club at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1937

From nearly a century of TIME's coverage of the venerable dog show

This year’s Westminster Dog Show, which takes place on Feb. 16 and 17, will be the 139th such show in the Kennel Club’s history, making it one of the oldest competitions in the United States. (The Kentucky Derby is older.) And, though recent media coverage of Westminster has tended to focus more on numbers and trends — the way a Westminster winner can set off a puppy-buying spree within a breed, for example — it used to be that the annual event was an occasion for a writer to show off a way with woofs.

Here are five of the most drooling drops of wordcraft about Westminster competitors from the history of TIME magazine:

A 1926 description of Signal Circuit, a wire-haired fox terrier: “His long squared muzzle and flat ears, splashed with tan, his tapering middle-piece, his front legs straight as the legs of a stool, his back-legs taut as triggers, showed him at once to be a prince. When the judges bent above him, probing with wise fingers the fabric on his bones, he stood very still; his garnet eyes were palled with a smoky sorrow.”

A 1928 description of Bogota Firebug, a pomeranian: “Like a mosquito who has been crawling in the fluffy dust under a boarding house bed, he stood, looking up at the crowd with startled, pert malignance.”

A 1937 description of Flornell Spicypiece of Halleston, a wire-haired terrier: “[She] twinkled around the ring, dark eyes snapping, white coat curried and brushed to a glistening alabaster…”

A 1953 description of Rancho Dobe’s Storm, a Doberman pinscher: “Storm was matched against a Skye terrier which looked like a dust mop, a prissy poodle, a sad-eyed bloodhound, a self-conscious Irish setter and a pudgy pug. It was hardly a contest. Storm, sleek and cocky, paraded around with the aplomb of a high-fashion model.”

A 1957 description of Shirkhan of Grandeur, an Afghan hound: “…the long-haired, silver-blue Afghan stayed cool and aloof, a champion without pause.”

Whichever dog takes home the blue ribbon this year, he or she will surely be a prose-worthy pooch.

TIME weather

Here’s a Closer Look at the ‘Snowmenclature’ People Are Using

Literal is so hot right now

Every great blizzard that hits the U.S. sends people running to the grocery store to stockpile canned goods and, in recent years, to their keyboards for rampant hashtagging. As snow hit the Northeast on Monday and Tuesday, social media was rife with references to the #snowicane, the #snowjam and the #snownado.

TIME partnered with Hashtracking to find out which trending hashtags were getting the most traction on Twitter, as New York residents geared up for chaos that never really hit and New Englanders battened down the hatches. The results are in: The top hashtag for tweeting about the storm is the quite literal #blizzardof2015. (You can get a closer look at the chart here.)

Chart complied by Hashtracking

But, as with many competitions, the winners aren’t as interesting as the losers. Juno, the green line above in a solid third place, is the name for the storm chosen by the Weather Channel. That cable network decided two years ago that it would start giving names to winter storms like the government does for hurricanes, a move many saw as a branding “ploy”.

The government hasn’t endorsed the Weather Channel’s names and doesn’t name winter storms itself because snowstorms are more frequent and more ambiguous than events like hurricanes. The network has said its aim is to make people more aware of such events, but it appears that people prefer to orient themselves with the more straightforward #blizzardof2015 than the more arbitrary #Juno.

That unpoetic hashtag has also trumped the long-dominant blizzard-time puns #snowmageddon and #snowpocalypse. This blizzard may mark the first time some people are hearing this duo of “portmansnows”—as Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky dubbed them—but they have been around for at least a decade. And they may finally have reached a point of exposure where they’re on the way out.

Ben Zimmer, executive editor at Vocabulary.com, found evidence of bloggers using this “snowmenclature” when storms hit the U.S. in 2005. But, he says, they didn’t really blow up until Twitter had taken hold in 2010. Even President Barack Obama was on board that year. “Hashtags lend themselves to this play with blended words,” Zimmer says. “And a successful blend, one people recognize and understand, is one where the parts are obvious at first glance, like snowmageddon.”

MORE: Why Blizzards Turn Us Into Irrational Hoarders at the Grocery Store

Clearly snowmageddon is a blend of the white precipitation commonly known as snow and Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil that leaves the earth in ashes—just as snowpocalypse is a blend of snow and apocalypse, a last catastrophe that marks the end of the world.

But what really makes these words irresistible (at least for a while) is the nature of the events that inspired them. As Zimmer says, “It makes you feel like you’re in a disaster movie.” And what’s the best part of a huge snowstorm or a zombie takeover that leaves 10 newly acquainted survivors huddled in a farmhouse? The same thing. There’s a suspension of the rules. You’re expected to figure things out for yourself and you get to do things you wouldn’t on any regular day. Walking right down the middle of what is usually a busy street is a thrilling little treat, whether everybody’s dead or everybody’s cars are stuck in their driveways.

Just like those survivors in the farmhouse, there is also a sudden solidarity among everyone who is having their normal lives upended. “There’s something kind of exciting and it kind of draws everybody together,” says Tom Skilling, top weather broadcaster for WGN in Chicago. “‘We’re about to go through this as a group and if we all deal with this together, we’ll get through this.’ Major weather events affect everybody, all ages, all demographic groups. And if it doesn’t happen too often, there’s a drawing together that goes on.”

That said, Skilling is not a big fan of these “gimmicky” words. He’s more of a #blizzardof2015 kind of guy. The fact that they’re so hyperbolic—clearly no one is taking a snowstorm as seriously as an apocalypse—makes them playful. And the fact that they’re playful might lead to people not taking dangerous weather events as seriously as they should, he says. “You’re dealing with an event in nature that really does have great consequence,” he says. “Sometimes we’re better off just dealing with facts.” (Then Skilling apologizes for being a killjoy.)

Here is a short selection of puns and plays on words the people are using to get themselves through this cold, dark time.

#snowku (for haikus about the storm)

(Feel free to tweet the author with other puns to add.)

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