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The language we deserve?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  July 12, 2007 03:49 PM

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Wave goodbye to "just deserts": In today's entry on his Oxford University Press blog, Ben Zimmer reports that the upstart "just desserts" -- the version that confuses dessert, the after-dinner treat, with desert, something you deserve -- is beating the standard idiom by 58 percent to 42 percent.


Zimmer used the Oxford English Corpus -- a database of "more than 1.5 billion words pulled from newspapers, blogs, magazines, scientific papers, journals, books, websites, transcripts," and other sources, according to the OUP -- to check on the condition of some beleaguered familiar phrases.

There is some good news for traditionalists. The standard sleight of hand, fazed by, and home in on are trouncing the challengers (slight of hand, phased by, hone in on) by 2 to 1 or better.

But vocal chords is neck and neck with the standard vocal cords, and strait-laced scores a pitiful 34 percent against straight-laced. "Poetic innovation or descent into linguistic anarchy?" asks Zimmer. The strait-laced will have one answer, I suppose; the rest will have desserts.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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