Mike Vuolo and the Lexicon Valley

Friday, July 08, 2011


For almost seven years Mike Vuolo produced On the Media, until he left last week. Mike was a brilliant producer and a real mensch but he was also a language obsessive who wrote crossword puzzles on the side and always knew just what you meant to say and how to correctly say it.  He produced a few podcasts about language before he left and in his honor we're airing one of them this week.  We invite you to join us in missing Mike very much. 


Michael Vuolo

Comments [21]

david moran from massachusetts

Don't know how to contact Vuolo about bend over, but it makes me wonder how old he is. The phrase and notion and shorthand have been in the culture ever since imagined prison sex (pop culture version) has been, which is well before 1984. Ben Dover has been a HS prank name since the 1970s at least. So track prison rape jokes and you will approach a rough date period answer.

Jul. 24 2013 08:22 PM
Matt Shaw from Winston Salem NC

I enjoyed the show on malapropisms. It led me to recall a short-lived late 80s tv show, The Slap Maxwell Show, starring Dabney Coleman. Coleman played a sports writer and his boss, while not necessarily using malapropisms, mangled turns of phrase. My favorite was "You couldn't carry my luggage if you were Samsonite himself."

Also, many years ago, I made an embarrassing verbal miscue. A female friend declared "Matt, you made a phallic slip!"

Oct. 23 2012 12:29 PM
Mike from Portland, Oregon

I agree that we should bring it back, but I prefer the earlier 18th century form.

The house is abuilding, or the house is onbuilding, the food is acooking, etc.

May. 30 2012 07:59 PM
Jeffrey from Manhattan

Fascinating. I want to bring back the passival. Too bad that's not how it happens. Not even when a king is throning in a nation.

Oct. 22 2011 08:02 AM

We'll certainly miss the mention of his name in the credits for the shows. I loved the sound of his last name. With parents who spoke English, a Grandpa who spoke to me in Gaelic, attending Latin Mass, having an aunt who had we and a Spanish family as frequent house guests, with 4 years of high school Spanish and three of German, rules of languages to me meant communication.

So, too, said the Vietnamese English teacher I met in a summer downpour. "Go to store", in context, self explains.

Jul. 13 2011 08:35 PM

Thank you for all of your comments regarding Mike's Lexicon Valley segment on this week's show. He has written more on the progressive passive on the On the Media blog. You can read his entry here:


Alex Goldman
Producer, On the Media

Jul. 12 2011 04:03 PM
David Villa from Austin, TX

Our minds are impacting.

Jul. 12 2011 02:55 AM
Tony Acquaviva from Chapel Hill, NC

Facinating segment. It really divides English speakers in to two camps: Those who are early adopters of new usage, and those who are resistors of "misusage."
Enjoy or be appalled with this:

Jul. 11 2011 04:00 PM
Tim from Normal

Hearing this made me think of the people here in semi-rural Middle America who, like my grandmother, say things like "the car needs washed" or "the food needs cooked." While I used to think it could have been laziness that formed this ("the food needs to be cooked"), or the misunderstanding of using "-ed" instead of "-ing," now I wonder if it's kind of an artifact of the subject of this segment.

Jul. 11 2011 02:37 PM
Jason from Portland, OR

Great story! I listened to it while my coffee was brewing.

Jul. 11 2011 11:35 AM

I also would like to know where I can find more Lexicon Valley. As others said, not even google is helping... the best I could find was this page. I'm sure many others would love to be able to find the podcast!

Jul. 11 2011 11:10 AM
David Richter from New York

Thanks to Quispiam of Ohio, found it in the OED under "passival" which seems to be an 1892 coinage by Henry Sweet (who was, I think, the original of Henry Higgins). There are a few extra quotations but it's not a term linguists commonly use.

The term seems to denote any active verb used with passive meaning, as in "His book didn't sell very well." It doesn't require a progressive form of the verb, and we use such expressions all the time. The progressive passival has not disappeared either: try googling phrases like "while the tea was making".

Jul. 10 2011 08:40 PM

And a followup, stolen gleefully from another commenter at that TOTN story I mention below: Stephen Fry on why pedantic nitpicking of usage is NOT "defense of the language": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY

Jul. 10 2011 06:18 PM

Thank you for a nice corrective to Talk of the Nation's "Grammar Girl" piece earlier this week (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=137657833), which mostly suggested that usage and grammar are fixed, immutable, and quite probably a matter of moral concern.

Jul. 10 2011 06:02 PM
Aaron from Kittrell NC

Please where can I find more lexicon valley. It's great.

Jul. 10 2011 05:09 PM
John from Monterey CA

Very interesting and informative. I think I only have a dim memory of encountering the "passable" (or "passible") in my linguistics training, if ever. I wonder if these "passable/passible" constructions occur with certain categories of verb, such as ergatives (those that can convey a similar meaning whether they appear in the active or passive voice, as in "The glass shattered" and "The glass was shattered").

I have a grammatical quibble, though: Mr. Vuolo described the progressive as a tense. The progressive is not a tense, but an aspect. The present progressive (as in "Mary is walking the dog") is a tense-aspect combination. Moreover, the passive is a category of voice (not a tense at all) that contrasts with the active voice.

Jul. 09 2011 08:02 PM
James T. Edwards from Chicago

These common "verbified nouns" are like the verb "to impact":
to weekend
to vacation
to drink. People have been in using these for a while. OR, should I say, these verbified nouns have been using for years?

My equally arbitrary pet peeve is the verbified noun "to progress" without the pronunciation shift.

English changes, don't it?
Thanks for a great story and show.
James T. Edwards

Jul. 09 2011 05:18 PM
Quispiam from Ohio

This was a great story! I'd love to hear more from Lexicon Valley, but google searches on it or Mike Vuolo aren't leading me anywhere. Please provide a link on the OYM site!

@David Richter-
The term is "passival"

UPenn's language log site has more on the topic:

Jul. 09 2011 05:13 PM
Anthony C.

I was wondering where I could find Mike Vuolo's podcast for download. The bit shared here was quite interesting and I was hoping to find more.

Jul. 09 2011 04:27 PM
David Richter from New York

"Passive progressive" I can find in the dictionary and I use it all the time. I don't use the "passable" although I understand it well enough when I see it: "the tea is making" means that someone unspecified is making tea.

The "passable" (and the "passible" as well) did not make it into the OED--at least not in the meaning Vuolo gives it. Did Mike Vuolo make up the term? If not, please let me know how to spell it and give me a reference for it.

Jul. 09 2011 02:53 PM
Patrick W. from Oregon

So, "The book is being printed," was preceded by, "The book is printing," which in turn replaced Samuel Johnson's preferred tense, "The book is a'printing," which was a bastardization of, "The book is o'printing," which was a foreshortening of the earlier, "The book is on printing." My question is: is the word 'ongoing' a holdover from that earliest form, or did it originate elsewhere; if so, where?

Jul. 09 2011 02:10 AM

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