Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

He teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of The Way We Talk Now, Going Nucular, Talking Right and The Years of Talking Dangerously. His most recent book is Ascent of the A-Word. His website is

"This is just metadata. There is no content involved." That was how Sen. Dianne Feinstein defended the NSA's blanket surveillance of Americans' phone records and Internet activity. Before those revelations, not many people had heard of metadata, the term librarians and programmers use for the data that describes a particular document or record it's linked to.

Mass shootings, bus crashes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks — we've gotten adept at talking about these things. Act of God or act of man, they're all horrific. At least that was the word you kept hearing from politicians and newscasters describing the Boston bombings and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas.

It's a funny thing about dictionaries. First we're taught to revere them, then we have to learn to set them aside. Nobody ever went wrong starting a middle-school composition with, "According to Webster's ..." but that's not how you start an op-ed commentary about terrorism or racism. When it comes to the words that do the cultural heavy lifting, we're not about to defer to some lexicographer hunched over a dusty keyboard.

Has there ever been an age that was so grudging about suspending its disbelief? The groundlings at the Globe Theatre didn't giggle when Shakespeare had a clock chime in Julius Caesar. The Victorians didn't take Dickens to task for having the characters in A Tale of Two Cities ride the Dover mail coach 10 years before it was established. But Shakespeare and Dickens weren't writing in the age of the Internet, when every historical detail is scrutinized for chronological correctness, and when no "Gotcha!" remains unposted for long.

Where does the phrase "the whole nine yards" come from? In 1982, William Safire called that "one of the great etymological mysteries of our time."

He thought the phrase originally referred to the capacity of a cement truck in cubic yards. But there are plenty of other theories.