Episode #34: Words on the Move with John McWhorter

Peter Wood

Columbia University linguist John McWhorter and I talk about talking. Why do millennials overuse the word “like,” and what led to the rise of “adulting?” (John also shares what he believes is the sole instance in which grammar scolds have succeeded.)

In the second half of this episode, we discuss race relations in the United States. John critiques a New York City proposal to axe the “Specialized High School Admission Test” after Mayor De Blasio called it “a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence” for the City’s minority students. The plan, which narrowly passed the State Assembly’s Education Committee earlier this month, would replace the test by admitting the top 7 percent from the city’s middle schools.

John and I take a close look at his article, “Atonement as Activism,” and break down the “Church of Social Justice.” We leap into the reparations debate with hesitation.

John is an associate professor of English at Columbia University and the author of many books, including Words on the Move: Why English Can’t -- and Won’t -- Sit Still (Like Literally). He writes prolifically for the popular press, especially at The Atlantic, and hosts a podcast for Slate called Lexicon Valley.


0:00: Peter introduces John, who tells the story of how he became interested in language.

4:23: Noam Chomsky proposed that all languages share a universal grammar. Was he right?

7:36: Why are words always changing? Peter and John look at John’s book, Words on the Move: Why English Can’t -- and Won’t -- Sit Still (Like Literally).

9:20: John defends the promiscuous use of the word “like” ...

12:20: ... and the changing use of the word “because.”

13:41: John says the word “adulting” and “kidspeak” have become popular, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis.

14:57: Peter asks if irony and jest are more of an engine for linguistic change than in earlier generations.

16:15: Grammar scolds have mostly failed to prevent the evolution of language, except in this one particular instance.

18:54: How efficient is English, compared with other languages? Does it have anything to do with English’s widespread use?

21:51: Modern linguists try to link language and culture, but John says that’s a mistake.

24:16: How much of language is actually spoken? Peter and John talk about gestures--and whether American Sign Language should fulfill students’ foreign language requirements.

31:00: Languages are dying out yearly. What is the future of language?

33:50: New York City is worried that too few black students are admitted to the most prestigious high schools. But John says it’s a mistake to get rid of the admissions test.

42:50: John describes anti-racism as a religion, in which white privilege is original sin. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing is almost like a sermon.

49:27: Peter and John talk about the trend of defining down words like trauma, survivor, and racism. John says the “recreational pessimism” and “performativity” of anti-racism is usually more about providing catharsis than instituting real change.

57:57: The frame of mind that anti-racism encourages actually prevents people from experiencing satisfaction when real change occurs.

1:03:13: The “cult of white atonement” is intellectually lazy and actually condescending toward black people, John says.

1:07:56: The Jussie Smollett is the most recent example of what John calls “victimhood chic.”

1:10:36: Peter asks John about the new NAS report, Neo-Segregation at Yale.


John McWhorter, Lexicon Valley Podcast

John McWhorter, “Why Grown-Ups Keep Talking Like Little Kids,” The Atlantic

John McWhorter, “The World’s Most Efficient Languages,” The Atlantic

John McWhorter, “Atonement as Activism,” The American Interest

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic

Peter Wood, “Fake Crimes, Real Hate on College Campuses,” Townhall

John McWhorter, “What the Jussie Smollett Story Reveals,” The Atlantic

John McWhorter, Words on the Move: Why English Can’t -- and Won’t -- Sit Still (Like Literally)

John McWhorter,Don’t Scrap the Test, Help Black Kids Ace It,” The Atlantic

Dion J. Pierre and Peter Wood, Neo-Segregation at Yale, National Association of Scholars

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....