Take Me to the Greek!
Welcome to my Big Fat Greek Wording! Can you
determine the Greek root and meaning that links each pair of English
(Sample: cryptic, cryptogram. Answer: Both
are from the Greek root "crypt," meaning secret, hidden.) English word
pairs: 1. chrysanthemum, chrysalis 2. planet, plankton 3.
melancholy, melanoma 4. rhinoceros, rhinoplasty 5. know, agnostic 6.
pathetic, sympathy 7. appendectomy, tome 8.
odometer, electrode 9. taxidermy, tactics 10. philanthropy, philosophy
1. "chrysos" -- gold, yellow. One of the
most common colors of the chrysanthemum flower is yellow. "Chrysalis"
originally referred to the gold-colored pupa of butterflies but has been
expanded to mean any insect pupa.
2. "planasthai" -- to wander. The erratic
movements of the planets led the Greeks to call them "wanderers."
"Plankton" is so called because it consists of minute plant and animal
life that wander or drift in bodies of water.
3. "melas" -- black. The Greeks believed
"melancholia" (sadness) was caused by an excess of black bile. A
"melanoma" is a malignant tumor containing dark pigment.
4. "rhino" -- related to the nose. A
rhinoceros has a horn or horns on its snout. Rhinoplasty is plastic
surgery performed on the nose, usually for cosmetic purposes.
5. "gignoskein" -- to know. "Know" derives
from "gignoskein" through the Latin "gnoscere." An "agnostic" believes
that the existence and/or nature of God is unknown or unknowable.
6. "pathos" -- suffering, experience,
feeling. A situation that is pathetic has the capacity to induce
feelings, especially pity, in others. Sympathy
is having feeling for others, especially for their suffering.
7. "tom" -- to cut. In an appendectomy, the
appendix is cut out. Originally, a tome
was a volume cut or separated from a larger work, though "tome"
is now used to mean a large book.
8. "hodos" -- way, road. An odometer
measures the road, while an electrode provides a way or path for an
9. "taxis" -- order, arrangement. A
taxidermist puts an animal's remains in order, while tactics are
10. "phil" -- love. A philanthropist loves
human beings, while a philosopher loves wisdom.
A Chance To Test Your 'HQ'
Words that begin with "h" can raise a
hullabaloo. Try picking the correct "h" word in these sentences:
1. Borto came within a (hare's breath,
hair's breadth) of failing the course.
2. Jenna returned from her vacation (hale
and hearty, hale and hardy).
3. The lynch mob hunted down the cattle
rustler and (hanged, hung) him.
4. Dr. Bittelbaum mocked Jonah's (hairbrained,
harebrained) scheme for making chewing gum from pencil erasers.
5. The trusty mechanic (homed in, honed in)
on the source of the rattle.
6. All those involved in the bar fight were
(hailed, haled) into court.
7. Mary served as his best friend and
8. When the two space satellites collided,
debris (hurtled, hurdled) in all directions.
9. A (horde, hoard) of residents showed up
to protest the proposed shopping center.
10. The developer's plans met with a (hue
and cry, hew and cry) from the neighbors.
1. hair's breadth -- It's the width of a hair,
not a bunny's breath.
2. hale and hearty -- Though "hardy," which
means "bold, vigorous, robust," might be used here, the word used with
"hale" in this set phrase is "hearty,"meaning "strong and healthy."
3. hanged -- A person who is executed by being
suspended from a rope around the neck is "hanged." Something or someone
who's simply suspended is "hung."
4. harebrained -- This term compares the brain
of a goofy, foolish person to that of a hare.
5. homed in -- Like a homing pigeon, he went to
the source; once there, he might "hone" (sharpen,smooth) a piece of
metal to eliminate the rattle.
6. haled -- In this
expression, "hale" means "to compel."
7. helpmate-- "Helpmate" (a companion or helper)
is the modern form of the biblical "helpmeet," now considered archaic.
8. hurtled -- "Hurtle" means to move (or make
something else move) in a reckless or uncontrolled manner; "hurdle"
means to jump over an obstacle.
9. horde -- A "horde" is a throng or a teeming
crowd; a "hoard" is a stash of something, often hidden away.
10. hue and cry -- One meaning of "hue" is
"uproar." "Hew" means to shape or adhere to.
(Humanitarian disclaimer: no hares were
harmed in the writing of this column.)
Big Fish in a Small Pond
A misplaced modifier in a newspaper story
can lead to some astonishing tabloid headlines. Here are the imaginary
headlines, followed by the misplaced modifiers that inspired them:
Teenager Catches Big Fish in 20-inch Pond!
"Seventeen-year-old Tom Loney of Oscelola caught a 5-pound, 10-ounce
bigmouth bass in a pond near there which measured 20 inches long."
Wildebeests and Gazelles Can Fly!
"Flying low over the savanna, herds of wildebeests and gazelles
graze on the acacia trees."
Serial Killer Teams Up With Rookie Cop!
"Washington . . . plays a forensics officer trying to nail a serial
killer who teams up with an inexperienced officer."
Windows Have Breathing Problems!
"[People should] stay indoors and shut their windows, especially
those with chronic breathing problems."
Car Flees Accident Scene!
"Police are looking for the driver of a car that landed on top of two
parked cars on East Main Street and then fled."
Europeans Don Frontier Duds!
"Dressed in frontier attire and sheepskin accoutrements, many Europeans
mocked Audubon and his drawings."
Sabbath Has Roots in Paganism!
"Sunday is Halloween, and for some evangelical Christians, celebrating a
holiday on the Sabbath that has its roots in paganism makes a bad idea
Woman Buys Rubble for Church!
"Church member Bohdan Kachorowsky was almost moved to tears when he
pulled a banner from the rubble that his wife had bought for the church
Rats Attend Scientific Gatherings!
"For the last two years, he has shown dramatic video footage of healed
rats walking to scientific gatherings and during campaign events to
promote California's $3 billion bond measure to fund stem cell work."
Millions Call National Security Agency!
"[AT&T Corp.] began turning over records of tens of millions of
their customers' phone calls to the NSA program shortly after Sept. 11,
Germs on Hands Cause Illness Within 15
"[A hand sanitizer] kills 99.9 percent of most common germs that may
cause illness in as little as 15 seconds."
What's Your Latin IQ?
What do the words "gravity," "gravid" and
"aggravate" have in common?
They're all derived from the Latin root "gravis"
(heavy). "Gravity" is the attraction between heavy objects; "gravid"
means "heavy with eggs or fetus, pregnant"; and "aggravate" means "to
make heavy, burden."
"Gravis" also weighs heavily in "grave"
(weighty, important), "grieve" (to be burdened with sorrow) and
"gravitas" (heavy seriousness).
Now see whether you can identify the common
Latin root and concept connecting the words in each group of English
1. vocal, vocabulary, equivocate, vocation
2. vicarious, vicar, vicissitude, vice (as
in vice president)
3. cadaver, cadence, decadent
4. assiduous, sedentary, sedate, sediment
5. mollify, emollient, mollusk
6. meal, molar, immolation, emolument
Answers and explanations:
1. "vox" -- voice. "Vocal" means pertaining
to the voice; "vocabulary" refers to words; "equivocate" means to be
called equally in both directions; a "vocation" is an occupation you are
called to do.
2. "vicis" -- change. "Vicarious" refers to
something changed, substituted; a "vicar" was originally a substitute or
agent of the church; a "vicissitude" is a change of fortune; a "vice"
president is someone who takes the place of the president.
3. "cedere -- to fall. A "cadaver" is a
fallen (dead) body; "cadence" is where the beat falls; "decadent" means
4. "sedere" -- to sit. "Assiduous" means
performed with constant, energetic application, as when sitting in one
place; "sedentary" means sitting a lot; "sedate" means calm, as when
sitting; "sediment" is something that has settled.
5. "mollis" -- soft. To "mollify" is to
soothe, soften; an "emollient" is a substance that soothes or softens; a
"mollusk," though encased in a shell, has a soft body.
6. "molere" -- to grind. "Meal" is
ground-up seeds of a cereal grain; a "molar" is a tooth that grinds
food; "immolation" is to kill as a sacrificial victim, often by fire (in
some cultures, such victims were often sprinkled with ground meal); an
"emolument" is compensation for an holding an office or a job
(originally a sum paid to a miller for grinding one's wheat).
a Depressor on the Mother Tongue
You're the sentence doctor! See whether you
can diagnose the grammatical illness in each sentence and then prescribe
a remedy for recovery. But be careful; one sentence is fit as a fiddle.
1. Unrealistic expectations sometimes
generate stress, and the consequence of these pressures are substantial.
2. Driving away in the car, Tom's house
appeared smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
3. Jane decided to ditch her boyfriend, buy
a car and to drive to California.
4. Many studies have showed that wearing
seatbelts saves lives.
5. An uneasy truce prevailed between Dr.
Morton and I.
6. Professor Thickelgruber will deliver a
lecture about insects in the undergraduate lecture hall.
7. The possibility of violent retaliation
militates against applying further political pressure.
8. The food fight started when the
inebriated Busby shouted, "Let he who is without gin cast the first
9. If kids are going to fish at 6 a.m.,
it's necessary that the bait is there by then.
10. Scoring well on this quiz not only will
boost your self-esteem, but also your salary.
1. "Consequence" is singular, so "are"
should be "is."
2. The phrase "Driving away in his car" is
a dangling participle. It has no logical antecedent in the sentence.
3. The phrase "to drive to California"
isn't parallel with the preceding phrases, so replace it with "drive to
4. The past participle "shown" should
replace the past tense "showed."
5. The object of the preposition "between"
should be "me," not "I."
6. The misplacement of the modifying phrase
"in the undergraduate lecture hall" makes it sound as if the professor
is talking about insects that are in the lecture hall.
7. No errors
8. "He" should be "him" because it's the
direct object of "Let."
9. The verb should be in the subjunctive
mood to indicate a statement of necessity: "it's necessary that the
bait be there."
10. The correlative conjunctions "not only"
and "but also" must precede similar sentence parts. Correction: "Scoring
well on this quiz will boost not only your self-esteem, but also your
of 'Q's' Can Really Confuse
Q. I hope you can settle this dispute. I
teach high school, and the cheerleaders painted a banner for the
hallway. It reads, "Lady Q's drown the opposition." "Q" is short for "Quarriers";
the town is known for its quartzite quarry. I maintain that there should
not be an apostrophe after "Q." After some research online, in the
school library and in a couple of textbooks, we were unable to come up
with a conclusive answer. Can you resolve this? -- Richel Henkel, via
A. Good Quarriers that you are, you've
quarried this question extensively but futilely and are now appealing to
higher quartz . . . er, courts. (By the way, wouldn't it be better to
have Quarriers "rock" the opposition? Just asking.)
It's no wonder you couldn't find an answer.
After reviewing all my authoritative sources, I've found that the
"experts" are -- tada! -- in hopeless disarray on the issue of inserting
apostrophes in the plurals of single letters.
Many advise using an apostrophe (Lady Q's,
p's and q's). Some recommend using an apostrophe with lowercase letters
but not with uppercase letters (Lady Qs, p's and q's).
Others suggest using an apostrophe when the
letter is an abbreviation for something (Lady Q's) but not when it's
simply a letter (I learned to write capital Qs today).
Still others suggest omitting the apostrophe
but only if you can write the letter in italic type and the "s" in
Why such disagreement? Beneath the deep,
dark water at the bottom of this quarry (so THAT's where you drown the
opposition!) lurk two concerns:
Some people fear that leaving out the apostrophe
in the plurals of letters will make these plurals look like actual
words. For instance, if you drop the apostrophes from the plurals of "a"
and "i," you have "as" and "is." Not good.
But others fear inserting an apostrophe into
the plurals of letters only encourages the increasingly common -- and
maddening! -- error of using apos trophes to form the plurals of nouns
("egg's," "the Johnson's,""document's").
Further confusing the matter is the growing
tendency to drop apostrophes from the plurals of abbreviations ("IRAs,"
What to do? For purposes of clarity,
consistency and sanity, I'd insert an apostrophe into the plurals of all
single letters. That way, the Lady Q's can earn straight A's while
minding their p's and q's.
There a Joe in Your Java?
Why do coffee-drinkers ask for a "cuppa joe"?
Why are chocolate sprinkles called "jimmies"? Why is a revolving
serving tray called a "lazy Susan"?
And is there a "Mickey" mixed up in "Mickey
With the help of my favorite word
detective, Evan Morris, whose website is (www.word-detective.com),
we'll soon be on a first-name basis with these terms based on first
-- cup-a-joe -- The etymology of "cuppa joe"
is as clear as, well, mud.
Some suggest "joe" is a variant of "java," from
the coffee-growing Indonesian island of Java. Others say "joe" is named
for the Stephen Foster song "Old Black Joe."
But Morris suspects the term derives from
the use of the common name "Joe" to mean an average guy, as in "Joe Six
Pack" and "Joe college." "Cuppa joe" may have originated in the
military, where GI Joes drank coffee, and then the term percolated into
-- jimmies -- We'll have to jimmy the lock
on the origin of this term too. True, "Jimmies" is actually a brand name
for candy sprinkles used as a topping for ice cream and cakes, but
Morris suspects these confections were called "jimmies" well before the
term was trademarked in the 1940s.
He suggests "jimmies" may be a shortening of
the nonsense word "jim-jam," which first appeared in the 1500s, meaning
a trivial article or knick-knack and later a quirk or eccentricity.
-- lazy Susan -- This term may be named for
a lass, but, alas, we don't know which one. Some suggest "lazy Susan,"
which first appeared in English during the early 1900s, is derived from
a common first name for a female servant, just as "Bridget" became a
general term for an Irish maid.
Others believe a clever advertising
copywriter simply concocted the term because he liked the repeated "z"
sound in "Susan" and "lazy." On this one, it seems we're destined to go
round and round.
-- Mickey Finn -- This term for a drink
spiked with a drug that renders its victim unconscious first arose
during the Prohibition years of the 1920s and early 1930s. But the
original Mickey Finn was actually a strong laxative that bartenders in
speakeasies slipped into the drinks of unruly customers, an effective
way of quickly flushing them from the premises.
Whether there was ever a real Mickey Finn,
no one knows. During the late 1800s, it was probably a generic Irish
name common in urban bars; then someone slipped it surreptitiously into
Use Your Comma Sense
Q. I am still puzzled by the rules governing
the punctuation of nouns in apposition. For example, should there or
should there not be commas surrounding the name in this phrase: "my son
Bill"? -- Nathaniel Hartshorne, Blawenburg, N.J.
A. Let's begin with a definition: an
appositive is a word or group of words that provides further information
about the noun or pronoun that precedes it.
In the phrases "my sister, Jill," "my boss,
Jane," and my broker, Jen,"
the names "Jill," "Jane" and "Jen" are
appositives; that is, they provide additional, "nice-to-know"
information about the nouns "sister," "boss" and "broker," but they are
not essential to identifying the nouns.
But what if, perchance, you had two
sisters, two bosses and two brokers? Then you'd need to clarify which
sister, boss or broker you meant. In such cases, the names no longer
merely add extra information; instead, they're now ESSENTIAL to
identifying the person. So you'd remove the commas and write "my sister
Jill," "my boss Jane" and "my broker Jennifer."
Think of the commas as parentheses. By
dropping them, you're telling the reader that the information within
them is not parenthetical but indispensable. So "my son, Bill," would be
correct if you had one son, and "my son Bill" would be correct if you
had more than one son.
(It's only fair to acknowledge that some
respected authorities say we can safely ignore these comma "rules" when
they violate common sense or don't reflect spoken English. They say it's
fussy, for instance, to write "my wife, Jeanne," when "my wife Jeanne"
is perfectly clear.)
That said, which of these phrases are
correctly punctuated, according to traditional guidelines:
1. my husband Joe 2. my mother, Sally, 3.
my dog, Scooter, (you have two dogs) 4. my cat, Tabby, (you have one
cat) 5. Robert Frost's poem, "Birches," 6. Louisiana's capital, Baton
Rouge, 7. my favorite city, Hartford, 8. the famous novelist, Willa
Cather, 9. the luxury liner, Titanic, 10.
Beethoven's opera, "Fidelio"
1. my husband, Joe, (one hubby)
2. correct (one mommy)
3. my dog Scooter (two doggies)
4. correct (one kitty)
5. Robert Frost's poem "Birches" (he wrote many
6. correct (one capital)
7. correct (one favoritecity)
8. the famous novelist Willa Cather (many famous
9. the luxury liner Titanic (many luxury
10. correct (Beethoven wrote only one opera)
Words Wreak Worry
There's something about "W." No, not the
former President, silly; it's all those confusing words beginning with
"w." See whether you can choose the correct "w" in each sentence:
1. That dude will never (waver, waiver) in
his support for surfers' rights.
2. Using her friendship with one of the
roadies, Jess managed to (wrangle, wangle) an invitation to the party.
3. The gambler's cronies accused him of
trying to (welch, welsh) on his debts.
4. The pompous senator talked on and on, as
he is (want, wont) to do.
5. Inexperienced computer users should be
(wary, weary) of Internet scams.
6. In the small British town, we found a
pub to relax and (whet, wet) our whistles.
7. The Scarecrow wanted to (while, wile)
away the hours, conferring with the flowers.
8. With no workers to pick them, the grapes
will (wither, whither) on the vine.
9. This rainstorm will (wreck, wreak) havoc
with the outdoor basketball tournament.
10. If (worse, worst) comes to worst, we
can always hold the tournament in the gym.
1. waver (vacillate), not waiver (a
relinquishment of a right or privilege)
2. wangle (to accomplish or obtain in a clever
way, not wrangle (to accomplish through persistent arguing or fighting)
3. welsh (avoid payment, renege), not welch
(Though there's no evidence that the verb "welsh" originated with
"Welsh," many residents of Wales consider the word insulting.)
4. wont (accustomed), not want (desire)
5. wary (cautious, suspicious), not weary
6. wet (moisten), not whet (to sharpen or
7. while (to pass the time), not wile (to
8. wither (to shrivel, become dry), not whither
(to what place, where).
9. wreaked (caused, brought about), not wrecked
10. "Worse comes to
worst," with its logical progression from the comparative to the
superlative, is now preferred by most authorities. However, the original
and traditional idiom, "worst comes to worst," has been present in
English since the 1500s.
'End' I Quote . . .
"It was a great movie, but they didn't know
how to end it." This oft-heard statement about films also applies to
punctuation. When we write a great sentence, we sometimes don't know how
to end it.
The trickiest sentence endings involve
quotation marks. Here are some handy guidelines:
1. Periods are always placed inside the
quotation marks: The teacher said, "The principal is your pal." (Yes, I
know some people say putting the period inside the quotation marks is
illogical, and, yes, I know the Brits do it differently, but this is the
2. Question marks and exclamation points
that apply only to the quoted material are placed INSIDE the quotation
marks: He asked, "Is Joe brilliant?" She said, "I'm so excited!"
3. Question marks and exclamation points
that apply to the entire sentence are placed OUTSIDE the quotation
marks: Why did he say, "Joe is brilliant"? I hate it when he mumbles,
"Circumstances have forced me to postpone the test"!
Note that only one end mark is used at the
end of the sentence. NEVER:
Why did he say, "Joe is brilliant."? -- or -- I
can't wait to hear him mumble, "Circumstances have forced me to postpone
This is true even if the sentence is a
question within a question or an exclamation within an exclamation. In
such cases, most authorities advise dropping the punctuation mark that
is outside the quotation marks: Why did he say, "Is Joe brilliant?" NOT:
Why did he say, "Is Joe brilliant?"? I can't wait to hear him scream,
"Happy New Year!" NOT: I can't wait to hear him scream, "Happy New
Think you have it? Tell whether each
sentence is punctuated correctly.
If it's not, see whether you can correct it:
1. Sally said, "I'm
going home now."
2. This prompted Einstein to ask, "What's the
3. Ted shouted with joy, "I'm home!"
4. What prompted Jefferson to write, "All men
are created equal?"
5. I'm stunned that he mumbled, "Your brakes
need to be adjusted"!
6. Why did he say, "Bring your books."?
7. I detest his whispering, "Good fences make
8. Why did she write, "Who will help me?"?
9. Have you seen, "Who's Afraid of Virginia
10. Hooray for Tim for shouting, "I love you!"!
1. correct 2. "What's the matter?" 3.
correct 4. " . . . are created equal"? 5. correct 6. "Bring your
books"? 7. " . . . make good neighbors"! 8. "Who will help me?" 9.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" 10. "I love you!"
Palin Commit Double "N"tendres
Two linguistic dispatches from the
political front . . .
-- "N" the Home of the Brave -- It's not
often that President Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have something in
common, but both committed almost identical pronunciation gaffes in
recent public declamations.
At the memorial service for victims of the
Tucson shootings, Obama spoke of a "central tenent of democracy"
(instead of "tenet"). And in a webcast responding to critics of her
crosshairs map, Palin denounced "journalists and pundints" (instead of
To hear for yourself, check out Obama's
speech at http://
www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztbJmXQDIGA (minute 3:13) and Palin's
http://vimeo.com/18698532 (minute 3:28).
Inserting an extra "n" into words such as
"tenet" and "pundit" is a common and understandable mistake. The "n" in
the first syllable of each word ("ten," "pun") makes us want to use an
"n" sound in the second syllable as well.
Now, if we could only get the Obama and
Palin to agree on "mandantory" health care.
-- Reversal of Meaning -- For more than a
year, Republicans have routinely and effectively used "Obamacare" as a
term of derision for the comprehensive health care law enacted by
Congress and signed by the president last year. After all, it's a term
that not only associates Obama with a nanny state but also trips off the
tongue as smoothly as "abomination."
"Obamacare" has become such a loaded term
that, seconds after "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams used it on
air recently to describe the health care law, he sheepishly acknowledged
to viewers that his characterization might be seen as partisan.
Other U.S. presidents, of course, have seen
their names incorporated into derogatory phrases. During the 1864
presidential campaign, for instance, Democrats denounced Republican
principles favoring African American equality as "The Lincoln
Catechism," while during the Great Depression Herbert Hoover's name was
attached to virtually every symbol ofpoverty: "Hoovervilles," (shanty
towns), "Hoover blankets" (newspapers used for warmth) and "Hoover
flags" (empty pockets turned inside out).
And "Reaganomics," originally a derogatory
term for Ronald Reagan's economic policies, eventually took on neutral
and even positive connotations.
Brian Williams' slip suggests the same
thing could happen to "Obamacare." Now that the President's popularity
is rising, perhaps Democrats will appropriate "Obamacare" and use it as
a positive term. Or maybe not.
Be in the Know About
Q. I sometimes come across the word
"unbeknownst." Why not just "unknown," eliminating four letters? --
Joseph Forbes, Pittsburgh.
A. And lose the charm of that haunting,
It's a strange word, indeed. With its musty
whiff of Shakespearean English, it looks funny and sounds odd. To
pronounce its ending, you have to swallow four consonants in a row,
making it a much less attractive version of "Kirsten Dunst."
But, get this. "Unbeknownst" isn't archaic
at all. It's a relatively modern word that first surfaced in British
English during the mid-1800s, some
200 years after "unbeknown." My own hunch is
that British rustics playfully concocted "unbeknownst" to mock the
archaic sound of Elizabethan English.
Just a guess.
When "unbeknownst" first showed up in
Victorian English, there was some kind of panic among language
authorities, let me tell you. They dismissed
it as "colloquial," "dialectical," "provincial" and "uneducated."
But that didn't stop people, especially
Americans, from adopting it and using it, often quite fetchingly: " . .
. had fetched them unbeknownst to the Western ocean" (Conrad Richter); "
. . . quite unbeknownst to her" (E.B. White); "Unbeknownst to them . .
." (Garrison Keillor).
Americans have always had a funny way of
assuming that every word spoken by Brits is lofty and literary, even if
it's used only by the lowliest London chimney sweep. So, for us Yanks,
"unbeknownst" bears a sniff, not of soot, but of snoot. It conveys an
erudition that neither "unbeknown" or "unknown" delivers.
If a prison inmate, for instance, were to
tell his colleagues, "Unbeknownst to me, Rocco was singin' like a
canary," his fellows would undoubtedly raise their eyebrows, croon, "Whoooo!"
and start calling him "The Perfesser."
Some contemporary language authorities
prefer "unbeknown" to "unbeknownst." John Simon called "unbeknownst" a
"vulgarism for 'unbeknown'," while Bryan Garner observed that
"unbeknownst" seems "to come less naturally to American English" than
"unbeknown," which is odd, because Americans have embraced "unbeknownst"
Oh well. The permissive and pragmatic
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that "both
'unbeknown' and 'unbeknownst' are in widespread standard use and have
been for many years."
That's good enough for me. Just call me
Of Accidents and
Q. When traffic reporters here broadcast an
incident, they will say, "There is an accident working for you at Fifth
and Smithfield Streets." How on earth is it "working"? -- Oren Spiegler,
Upper Saint Clair, Pa.
A. Well, if it's working "for me," I hope
it's working hard. (I can't help picturing two dented cars wielding pick
axes and singing "Whistle While You Work.")
"Accident working," a splendid example of
traffic reporter-ese, ("sun-glare slow downs," "rubber-necking delays,"
"just a tap of the brakes at Exit 27"), represents what I call "verb
In this case, the police and emergency
personnel are "working the accident," but, in fast-paced traffic
reporter-speak, this flips to "accident is working."
This may seem odd, but we do this all the
time with other verbs, saying, for instance, a car "drives well" when
we're the ones driving, or a wine "finishes" well when we're finishing
it, or a "window" cleans well when we're cleaning it.
Similarly, we say, "the sink" is clogging
when it's dirt that's clogging the sink, "coffee is brewing" when we're
brewing the coffee, and "I-91 is jamming at exit 34" when it's the cars
that are jamming I-91.
Q. When something doubtful or unbelievable
was uttered, my grandmother would say, "That won't happen any more than
Adam saw a fox." Or was it "Adam's off ox"? What the heck does it mean?
-- Jim Luff, Benecia, Calif.
A. As much as I enjoy the image of a sly
fox sneaking through the Garden of Eden, the phrase is indeed "Adam's
off ox." True, it's perplexing to contemplate just what could be "off"
about an ox -- its gaze, its direction, its bellow?
As it turns out, the yoke's on us: what's
"off" isn't the ox itself but its position. In a team of two oxen, the
ox farther from the driver is called the "off ox."
The phrase, which describes someone or
something unfamiliar, is a more intense version of "I don't know him
from Adam." In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," for instance, Nick the
bartender tells George Bailey, "I don't know you from Adam's off ox."
Adam, being the most ancient of our
intelligently designed ancestors, probably isn't someone most of us
would recognize if we passed him on the street. (Nice guy, smell of
apple on his breath, could lose a little weight).
OK, so some of us might know Adam and maybe even
his on ox, but his off ox?
Never met the beast.
Are You a Hair-splitter or a Hog-washer?
It's another classic battle between the
Hair-splitters and the
First, see whether you can detect why
hair-splitters object to the use
of the capitalized words in these sentences. Then read the hair-splitters'
reasons and the hog-washers' refutations.
1. The accident TOOK PLACE at the intersection
of Pine and Oak. 2. The
fumes made me NAUSEOUS. 3. Lightning was RESPONSIBLE for the fire. 4. The
baby boomers were WEANED on TV sitcoms.
1. Hair-splitters: "Take place" should be
reserved for events that are
planned ("The wedding will take place next week"), while "occur" should be
used only for events that are unplanned or accidental.
Hog-washers: "Take place" and "occur" are
synonymous and can be used
interchangeably: "the meeting will occur tomorrow"; "the flood took place
2. Hair-splitters: "Nauseous" means "causing
nausea"; ("the fumes were
nauseous.") "Nauseated" means "feeling nausea"; ("the fumes made me
nauseated"). Poisoned people aren't poisonous, and nauseated people aren't
Hog-washers: The use of "nauseous" to mean
"feeling nausea" has been
pervasive since the 1600s; in fact, "nausea" is now used more often to
"feeling nausea" than to mean "causing nausea."
3. Hair-splitters: Only a human being can be
for something; things cannot. It's silly to say, "lightning was
for something. Bad lightning! Bad lightning!
Hog-washers: One meaning of "responsible" is
"being the cause or
explanation for something." So there's nothing wrong with saying, "The
was responsible for severe damage."
4. Hair-splitters: "Wean" means "to accustom a
child or animal to take
food other than by nursing or, by extension, to withdraw a person
from a source of dependence," e.g. "The government wants to wean young
mothers off welfare." "Weaned" should never be used to mean "reared" or
Hog-washers: Purists should wean themselves
from the notion that "wean"
can mean only "to withdraw someone from something." When a baby shifts
milk to another source of nourishment, we say, "She was weaned on apple
juice," and this meaning could be extended to mean "brought up on," as in
was weaned on folk music."
Language Books for Kith and
Giving a book for the holidays brings a new
joy this year: You get to be both Santa "Clause" AND Kris "Kindle."
Whether you like loading up hardbacks or downloading soft tracts, consider
giving one of these new books on language.
In "OK – The Improbable Story of America’s
Greatest Word" (Oxford, $18.95), veteran linguist Allan Metcalf rounds up
every fact possible about the term "OK." In his "OK" corral you’ll
discover the term’s likely origin – an esoteric, inside joke among editors
at the Boston Post, who in 1839 used "OK" as an abbreviation for the
deliberately misspelled "oll korrect").
You’ll also learn that "OK" became the first word
spoken on the moon when lunar-module pilot Buzz Aldrin said, "OK. Engine
Speaking of soft landings, Nicholas Ostler
predicts the English language will be making one soon as it gradually
declines in prevalence and influence. Ostler’s erudite book "The Last
Lingua Franca" (Walker, $28) argues that three forces are slowly eroding
the dominance of English: democratization (which downgrades the
importance of English-speaking elites); the rising economic power of
Brazil, China and Russia; and new technologies that allow instant
translation among languages.
"You lie!" "Got milk? "Oyez!" "Touché!"
"You Tarzan, me Jane."
"SOX RULE" "Give me the money or die." From
verbal outbursts to license plates to bank robbers’ notes, Alexander Humez,
Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn explore minimalist forms of verbal
communication in "Short Cuts" (Oxford, $19.95). Their rich and varied
examples prove that brevity may be the soul of wit, but sometimes it’s the
woe of snit.
Did you know that Conestoga wagons (and the
"stogies" smoked by their hard-bitten drivers) are named for the town of
Conestoga, Pa.? That the daiquiri is named for a beach in Cuba? That
"sardonic" derives from the island of Sardinia? John Marciano puts the
"Gee!" in geography with "Toponymity"
(Boomsbury, $18), a delightful collection of words
derived from place names.
In "Begat: The King James Bible and the
English language" (Oxford, $24.95), David Crystal, the world’s greatest
authority on English, takes on the most influential book in English. He
shows us how the KJB begat phrases such as "fly in the ointment"
(Ecclesiastes 10:1), "eat your own words"
(Jeremiah 15:16) and "be horribly afraid"
Get thee behind me, Santa!
Are You a 'Partyer' or a
No matter what you think of the Tea Party
movement, you have to credit
this group with raising one of the most profound questions of our time --
whether to describe one who parties as a "partyer" or a "partier."
Before we answer this question, it's worth
noting that the Tea Party
itself is a political party named for a social party. That is, it's named
a mass demonstration (the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor), an event
decades later was dubbed, with jovial understatement, "a tea party."
Now back to "partyer" and "partier." The
standard rule when creating a
noun to indicate the person or thing performing an action is simply to add
"-er" to the verb, as in "do -- doer," "run -- runner" and "teach --
teacher." When the verb ends in "y," the "y" is usually changed to "i"
the "-er"; hence, "cry -- crier," "worry -- worrier," "copy -- copier."
But in rare cases, we do form the noun by
adding "-er" alone to the
verb ending in "y." Sometimes it's because the resulting "-ier" word might
mistaken for an adjective. Using "dryer" for the household appliance, for
instance, avoids confusion with the adjective "drier."
In other cases, we add "-er" alone because the
resulting "-ier" word
might be perceived as a one-syllable word. "Flier," for instance, might be
seen as a word pronounced "fleer," so we sometimes use the variant
Brothers, for instance, called their first airplane "The Flyer,"
not "The Flier."
The Wright Brothers were a preacher's kids who
rarely partied. But if
they had, would they have been "partiers" or "partyers"? (More
would Orville have been a partyer and Wilbur a partier?)
The verb "party," meaning "to attend parties,
to revel," first appeared
in print in 1919, but its usage, for some unexplained reason, began to
surge during the 1960s.
Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary
lists "partyer" as the
preferred spelling, but a quick scan of current publications reveals that
newspapers and magazines are using "partier," not "partyer," to describe
participants in both social and political parties, e.g. "The bar was full
partiers," and "The crowd was full of Tea Partiers."
But, in the spirit of the Tea Party itself,
let's give a tip of the
tri-cornered hat to those defiant few who use "Tea Partyer." Those
tea-swizzling, "Flyer"-flying Wright boys would have been proud.
Thumped, Shellacked, Alas,
Two presidents. Two midterm elections. Two
words for getting clobbered.
In 2006, George W. Bush described the
repudiation of his Republican
Party as a "thumpin'." This year, Barack Obama said he and the Democrats
suffered a "shellacking."
We Americans trumpet our triumphs, but we also
describe our defeats
with a wide array of colorful gerunds – "spankin'," "lickin'," "whuppin',"
"thrashin'." The land of red states and blue states has plenty of words
state of black-and-blue.
So where do "thumping" and "shellacking" come
from, and what do they
reveal about the presidents who used those terms?
"Thump" jumped into English during the 1500s
with the meaning "to
strike or beat with something heavy." As you might expect, the origin of
is imitative; someone thought the dull sound of such a blow sounded like
Given the violent world of cudgel-wielding
Elizabethan England, it didn't
take long for "thump" to add the meaning "to beat someone soundly, drub,"
a usage that first appeared in print in 1594.
That's the meaning Bush had in mind when he
spoke of a "thumpin'." His
use of this somewhat old-fashioned word and his folksy dropping of its
"g" reflected his good ol' boy persona and Texas roots.
Interestingly, "thump" also boasts another
political meaning. To
"thump" for a candidate means "to endorse and/or campaign for him or her."
unclear whether this use of "thump" evolved from the concept of "fighting"
the candidate or from thumping the backs of voters at campaign events.
Befitting Obama's international background,
"shellac" has exotic roots.
It's a blend of "shell" and "lac" (a resinous secretion of an insect),
the Hindi "lakh."
When the French first used a purified version
of lac to create a
varnish with a hard, shell-like finish, they called it "lacque en écailles"
in thin plates). English adopted this term during the early 1700s and
cized it to "shellac."
The use of "shellac" to mean "beat up,"
evolved from the similarity
between the rapid, repeated brush strokes used to apply shellac and the
used to batter a person. Not surprisingly, "shellacked" also came to mean
So when it comes to political maneuvering,
forget about gerrymandering.
Bush's "thumpin'" and Obama's "shellacking" might be called
It's Time You Learned the FAQs of Kyff
What questions do readers ask me most often?
That's easy: "How do you pronounce your last name?" (Rhymes with
"knife.") "When are you going to mention Lady Gaga in your column?" (Just
"How can they let an illiterate idiot like you write a column about
(All the other illiterate idiots were unavailable).
As for the most common GRAMMATICAL questions, here are the top three:
Q. Should I say "I feel bad" or "I feel badly" about something?
A. In most cases, you should feel bad about using "feel badly." That's
because "feel" is a state of being verb, like "seem," "appear" and
State of being verbs are followed, not by adverbs, but by adjectives.
So, just as we would say, "He seems bad," "she appears bad" and "it
tastes bad," we should say, "I feel bad."
OK, sometimes "feel" can be an action verb, meaning "to handle, touch."
In such cases, "feel" can be modified by an adverb ("I feel badly"),
meaning, "I'm having trouble with my sense of touch."
Q. Should I say, "between you and I" or "between you and me"?
A. Between you and me, use "between you and me." That's because the
object of the preposition "between" must be in the objective case, e.g.
"her," "them," "me." After all, you'd never say, "between I and the
lamppost" or "between he and Joan."
Many of us want to say "between you and I" because we were chided by
our parents and teachers for using "me" in the nominative case, e.g. "you
me went to the store." So every time we hear "you and me," a voice in our
head scolds, "You and I"!, and we use it even when it's incorrect.
Q. When do I use "fewer" and when do I use "less"?
A. "Fewer" should be used with countable items, e.g. "fewer items,"
"fewer documents." "Less" should be used with mass nouns, e.g. "less
Many people mistakenly use "less" when "fewer" is required, as in the
check-out lane sign reading, "10 items or less" (should be "fewer").
But be careful. When you're referring to time and money, which are
often thought of in large units, "less" is the right choice, e.g., "less
five minutes to go" and "less than $5,000."
Between you and me, if you make fewer mistakes, you won't feel bad.
When Does Hair-splitting
Picky, Picky, Picky!
Some language authorities insist on usage distinctions so subtle you
need a microscope to find them. But others think such hair-splitting is
First, see whether you can detect why hair-splitters might object to
the use of the capitalized words in these sentences. Then, in the answer
section, read the hair-splitters' cavils, the hog-washers' refutations -
final word of advice.
1. During our private, one-on-one meeting, Horace launched into a
HARANGUE about my job performance.
2. Thurber's greatest strength as a writer was his FACILE prose.
3. The economic troubles of the mid-1830s CULMINATED in the Panic of
4. Growing industrialization led to the DEMISE of farming in the United
1. Hair-splitters: A harangue, when delivered orally, must be directed
to at least two people. It implies a public statement.
Hog-washers: A harangue can most certainly have an audience of one: "He
delivered a lengthy harangue to a hapless passerby."
2. Hair-splitters: "Facile" usually bears a negative connotation of
triteness or oversimplification.
Hog-washers: Sometimes "facile" connotes the ease and fluency that
accompanies artistic mastery: "He played the concerto with facile
3. Hair-splitters: "Culminate" originally meant "to climb to the top of
a hill" and that meaning of rising to the highest point should be
"Culminate" shouldn't be used for negative situations.
Hog-washers: Welcome to the 21st century! Today, "culminate" simply
means "to reach the end point of a sequence": "His many crimes culminated
4. Hair-splitters: "Demise" means "death, a cessation of existence"; it
doesn't mean a "decline." Farming didn't go out of existence; it declined.
Hog-washers: Fertilizer! "Demise" can mean a loss of position or status
as well as destruction: "High interest rates may lead to the demise of
What to do? While it's not "wrong" to use these words in their expanded
senses, you should be aware of their special connotations and use them
care to avoid confusing your reader.
'Ahoy' to the Origin of 'Noise'
Are you as annoyed as I am by the drone of those gas-powered leaf blowers?
Grab your earplugs as I sound off on the origins of "noise" and "sound."
Did you know that "noise" is derived from "nausea"?
The ancient Greek word for sailors was "nautes." Because sailors sometimes
become seasick, "nautes" also came to mean motion sickness, in the same
way that "housemaid's knee" and "tennis elbow" became general terms for
these ailments, no matter what their cause.
So when the Romans needed a Latin word for "a sick feeling" (which, given
their overeating, they apparently needed a lot), they created the word
"nausea" from the Greek word for sailor, "nautes." "Nausea" entered
English during the 1300s and 1400s, after what must have been a rather
rough voyage across the choppy Channel.
But while "nausea" had meant "a sick feeling" in formal Latin, it later
entered Vulgar Latin with a broader meaning – discomfort. During the
Middle Ages, this Vulgar Latin "nausea" gave rise to a French word for
English later imported the French "nois," eventually adding an "e" and
narrowing its meaning to a specific form of discomfort -- loud, confused
and unpleasant sounds.
Oddly enough, the similar-looking word "noisome" has nothing to do with
"noise" in either origin or meaning. "Noisome," which means "offensive,
disgusting, dangerous," as in "noisome garbage," is derived neither from
the Latin "nausea" nor the French "nois" but from the Old French verb "anoier,"
meaning "to annoy."
Another sound question is whether there's any link between a "sound" we
hear and the "sound" we swim in. After all, with jet skis and powerboats,
Puget Sound and Pamlico Sound can be pretty noisy these days.
Sorry, but there's no connection.
The "sound" we hear is derived from the Latin word "sonus" (sound), the
root of other sound words such as "sonar," "sonic" and "sonorous." But the
watery "sound" comes from the Old English "sund," meaning "sea," which
also gives us the verb "sound," meaning to fathom, measure.
Oddly, the "sound" that means "free from flaw or defect" is unrelated to
both of these other "sounds." It derives from the Old English "gesund,"
"Gesund" also lies at the root of the German blessing "gesundheit,"
literally "good health," proving that sound health is nothing to sneeze
Wanted: Skilled Word,
How does a new word get into the dictionary?
I compare the process to landing a job. Like a job-seeker, a word has
to have experience (it's been around for a while), usefulness (it has to
a need) and references (it has to have appeared in print).
But sometimes, as with finding employment, it helps to know someone.
New words get by with a little help from their friends. An anecdote
sent to me by language writer Richard Lederer drove that point home.
During the 1960s, Lederer was writing about "Brave New World" and
"Nineteen Eighty-Four" and he needed a word to describe the nightmarish
these novels depicted. He considered "anti-utopia," but that term implied
the novels were somehow "against" the idea of a utopia, which they were
In conducting research, he noticed that several writers had been using
the term "dystopia" (literally, "bad place") to describe such dehumanized
and oppressive societies. But when he went to look up "dystopia" in
dictionaries, he was shocked to discover that none included it.
So he wrote Frederick Mish, editor in chief at Merriam-Webster, and
provided him with a slew of print citations for "dystopia." He quickly
a thank-you note from Mish, and soon the word started appearing in
Merriam-Webster dictionaries and then in all the others. Voila!
Similarly, lexicographer Paul Dickson is currently lobbying dictionary
editors to include "demonym," a word featured prominently in his book
"Labels for Locals."
"Demonym," which combines the Greek "demos" (people) with the suffix
"-nym" (word), denotes a word used to describe residents of a certain
location. "New Yorker," "Kansan" and "Hartfordite," for example, are all
as are the more colorful terms "Nutmegger," "Liverpudlian," "Hoosier" and
"Dorpian" for citizens of Connecticut, Liverpool, Indiana and Schenectady,
As regular readers of this column know, I've been waging a quixotic
campaign to persuade dictionaries to add a new definition of an existing
-- "ode." While all dictionaries define "ode" as a lengthy and meditative
lyric poem, none includes another, more general meaning of "ode" -- a
in poetry or prose, to a person, place or thing, as in an "ode to freedom"
or an "ode to Dorpians."
Keep an eye out for "demonym" -- and perhaps a new definition of "ode"
-- in a dictionary near you!
Stock of the Handy Hyphen
Q. I know hyphens are not necessary with words ending in "-ly," such as "a
highly respected individual." What's the rule for superlatives, as in "The
investor chose the top ten highest yielding stocks in the DJIA"? -- M.
I., Hartford, Conn.
A. Hyphens help to avoid confusion. In your sentence, the confusion is
caused by the word "highest," which can function as an adverb or an
So if you wrote "the top ten highest yielding stocks" (no hyphen), the
reader might read "highest" as an adjective and thus assume you were
referring to something called "yielding stocks" (stocks that yielded
(If you find any of these stocks, by the way, please let me know.)
But you're using "highest" as an adverb to modify "yielding," not as an
adjective to modify "yielding stocks." So you should explicitly connect
"highest" to "yielding" with a hyphen: "the top ten highest-yielding
For the same reason, you should use a hyphen after other superlatives that
can function as either adverbs or nouns, as in "best-selling book,"
"worst-performing stocks" and "longest-running musical."
You don't want your reader to think you're talking about the best "selling
book" (a book about how to sell things?), or the worst "performing stock"
(an entertainment stock?), or the longest "running musical" (a musical
about the Boston Marathon?). Hey, that's not a bad idea! Opening song:
"Oh, What a Beautiful Moaning."
As you mention, hyphens are not necessary with adverbs ending in "-ly,"
as in "highly respected individual" and "slowly moving train." That's
because adverbs can't be misinterpreted as adjectives ("highly
But be careful. Some words ending in "-ly" are actually adjectives, so
they DO require a hyphen. "Ghastly-smelling salts," "scholarly-looking
glasses" and "daily-running programs," for instance, denote something
different from "ghastly smelling salts," "scholarly looking glasses" and
"daily running programs," respectively.
Q. What do you feel would be the proper word in this sentence: "Joe tends
(or attends) to the needs of his customers"? -- Oren Spiegler, Upper Saint
A. One meaning shared by "tends" and "attends" is to look after, pay
attention to, so either verb is correct.
But "tends" has another meaning -- to move in a particular direction --
and this might lead your reader to think Joe tends (inclines) to the needs
of his customers instead of, say, the needs of his employees or partners.
To prevent such leakage of meaning, I'd use "attends."
the 'Ground' Rules
Q. Today's New York Times carries a usage that I consider a blivit, but
which I have seen or heard several times in recent months, to wit: "He was
forbidden to leave on the ground that his knowledge must not leave the
Isn't it proper to use "grounds" to mean the basis of something? Can
the singular "ground" be used this way? -- John Strother, Princeton, N.J.
A. OK, first things first. Blivit? Sounds like a croak from an
I've never heard or seen that word, but, sure enough, it's in The American
Heritage Dictionary: "blivit – 1. something annoying or pointless 2.
something difficult or impossible to name."
I'm not sure which definition of "blivit" John has in mind (probably
"annoying"), but his question has a simple answer: the singular "ground"
be used to mean a basis for belief, action or argument or a cause, as in,
"ground for expulsion" or "ground for suspicion."
True, it's much more common to use "grounds" with this meaning, even
when there is a single reason, as in, "Adultery is grounds for divorce" or
"Running a stop sign is grounds for failing your driver's test."
My hunch is that "grounds" is much more common than "ground" in this
context for two reasons:
1. People always like to give more than one reason for their actions.
Would we have invaded Iraq, for instance, if there had been only a single
"ground" for doing so? (Don't answer that!)
2. The singular "ground" has so many other meanings that it can cause
confusion. For instance, consider these sentences: "The faulty electrical
connection between the lightening rod and the earth was a ground of
contention," or "The rotten hamburger he sold was ground for his arrest,"
or "His toxic
landfill was ground for a law suit."
The classic example of such confusion comes in a conversation between
Hamlet and a gravedigger in William Shakespeare's famous play.
When the gravedigger (who doesn't realize who Hamlet is) says that
Hamlet is "losing his wits," Hamlet wants to know why he's thought to be
So he asks, "Upon what ground?"
The gravedigger replies, "Why, here in Denmark." Call it a blivit.
'Appalachian' Has Ups and Downs
"A rain storm," said TV weatherman Al Roker, "will move up the Ap-uh-LATCH-ins
(At the time, he was wearing a Hoss Cartwright cowboy hat and had just
finished interviewing an entire family dressed as clowns.)
Not to make molehills out of mountains, but should the bumpy real estate
stretching from Canada to Alabama be called the "ap-uh-LATCH-ins" or the "ap-uh-LAY-chins"?
Appropriately enough, I consulted my highest authority on
pronunciation: Charles Harrington Elster's clownishly-named Big Book of
Beastly Mispronunciations (Houghton-Mifflin, $15).
According to Elster, the pronunciation of "Appalachians," like the
mountains themselves, ranges far and wide. Roker's "latch" rendering,
Elster notes, appears more frequently in the South, while northerners
favor a "lay"
Elster says this geographic split was confirmed by an anonymous employee
of the National Park Service's Appalachian Trail project in Harpers Ferry,
West Virginia ("Deep Trail?"). "Somewhere in mid-Virginia," Deep Trail
told him, "people start to pronounce it 'latch.' North of there, it's
Elster notes that southerners, such as Charles Frazier (author of the
Appalachian-set novel "Cold Mountain") and PBS broadcaster Jim Lehrer, say
"latch," while the Yankified NBC Handbook of Pronunciation prefers "lay."
So Roker was technically ignoring his own network's pronunciation edict,
not to mention its dress code.
A second rocky issue when it comes to pronouncing "Appalachians" is the
number of syllables. Some people use four syllables ("ap-uh-LATCH-in" or "ap-uh-LAY-chin"),
while others use five ("ap-uh-LATCH-ee-in" or "ap-uh-LAY-chee-in").
Yet another mountain chain -- the Himalayas -- takes the pronunciation
issue to an even higher level. Is it "him-uh-LAY-uhz" or "hih-MAHL-yuhz"?
Though the second rendering is closer to that used by natives of the
Himalayan region, the Anglicized version "him-uh-LAY-uhz" has prevailed.
Elster reports that he was shocked, shocked! when he first encountered the
"hih-MAHL-yuhz" pronunciation in the late 1980s, thinking it an
But upon investigating further, he discovered that the Oxford English
Dictionary had endorsed "hih-MAHL-yuhz" in 1928. Nevertheless, Elster,
agreeing with the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation, plumps for "him-uh-LAY-uhz."
Has this "Himalaya" issue reached its peak? Some doubt it will ever rest.
'Bumper' to 'Bumper'
on the Highway of English
Q. Every once in a while I hear the phrase "bumper crop," meaning an
abundance of something. But usually there are no car bumpers involved (or
bumper cars, for that matter). What gives? -- Chris Ryan, New York City
A. True confessions: I spent three years as a trombonist in my high
school band, where I was privy to the raucous secrets of reckless young
but I never found out why our band director had been nicknamed "Bumpy."
It's a little like that with "bumper crop." Pull up a chair and pour
yourself a beer.
In olden days, the scoffers and quaffers who inhabited ye olde inns
liked to have their glasses filled to the very top with beer or wine. In
they even liked to have themselves filled to the very top with beer or
Because the surface of these beverages seemed to bump the rims of the
vessels, these glasses were called "bumpers." Eventually, "bumper" came to
mean anything that was large or impressive.
Evan Morris, whose sage etymological advice is available at
www.word-detective.com, notes that, a couple of centuries ago, shopkeepers
doing "bumper business" and theater owners described a sold-out house as
But today, this "huge" meaning of "bumper" survives only in the
expression "bumper crop," which can refer to anything from corn to
Q. Sometimes our softball team draws a "bye" in the first round of a
tournament, meaning that we don't have to play another team to advance to
next round. Someone told me this is called a "bye" because the
team that we didn't have to play has essentially been told "good-bye." Is
this true? -- Paul Johnson, Minneapolis
A. Just why someone would say "bye" to a team that doesn't exist eludes
me, but the true origin of "bye" doesn't.
In the British sport of cricket, which for some weird reason never
caught on the U.S., the "batsman" can score a run if the ball goes by him
the "wicket-keeper" and the "long-stop" fail to stop it. Come to think of
I think I know why cricket never caught on in the U.S.
So a ball that gets by the batter and those guys with funny names is
called a -- ta-da! -- "by" or "bye." The batter essentially gets a run for
doing nothing, and soon "bye" became a general term for advancing in a
tournament by doing nothing.
I Vote 'Yea' for
Q. I wonder if you could tell me the correct spelling for the word
pronounced "Yay," as in "Yay, team!"? -- Leo Grant, Salem, S.C.
A. Yay! Finally a question I can answer!
But here's the funny thing: you won't find "yay" in some dictionaries.
(And, as the angry red lines under "yay" are telling me right now, you
won't find "yay" in Microsoft Word's spellchecker either.)
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, for instance, includes no entry
for "yay." And its definitions for "yea" (pronounced "yay") include only
the yes/aye meaning, as in "he voted yea on the bill," and the emphatic
meaning, as in "his vote was admirable, yea, heroic." But there's no
mention of a "rah-rah, go team!" meaning.
By contrast, the American Heritage Dictionary does include the
interjection "yay," defining it as an alteration of "yea" used as "an
exclamation of pleasure, approval, elation or victory."
So, as far as I'm concerned, "yay" is a word. And it should be spelled "yay"
for two solid reasons: 1. to distinguish it from the stuffy, legislative
"yea"; 2. to reflect its hidden connection to "hooray."
My hunch is that "yay" developed, in both popular speech and popular
spelling, as a natural blend of the cerebral "yea" and celebratory
So it's a blend of brains and "bravo!"
The people have spoken -- and spelled. Soon the dictionaries and
spellcheckers will catch up with them. Yay!
Q. On numerous occasions I have seen the prepositions "toward" and
"towards" published, but I cannot decipher why one is chosen over the
Would you help me understand the difference between the two? -- Matt
Leopold, Bridgewater, S.D.
A. I can explain the difference in two words: the Atlantic Ocean.
O.K., three words. The Brits prefer "towards," while we Yanks favor
Choosing "toward" or "towards" has nothing to do with meaning or context.
It's not as if "toward" refers to physical movement, while "towards"
refers to abstract movement, in the same way we do distinguish between
(for physical distance) and "further" (meaning "more, additional").
Some American usage authorities, such as the Associated Press Style Book,
outlaw "towards" entirely. We need not go that far -- Who wants to cross
"towards" with the British? -- but, on this side of the pond, at least,
"toward" is preferable to "towards" simply because "toward" is one letter
shorter and ink is expensive.
Can You Spot the
What's your U.Q. (Usage Quotient)? To find out, try to locate 35 errors in
the following passage:
Students often ask me why its important to observe rules of good usage.
"After all," they say, "as long as you're meaning is clear, whose going to
care whether you flaunt the rules?"
In responding, I try and point out that errors in usage often have an
affect on meaning. True, most student errors are venal sins that are
inconsequential, but some are egregious gaffs that cause confusion.
(Between you and I, I'm not one to do alot of hand-ringing over miner
errors, but some of these are capitol offenses.)
In pouring over students' papers, I hone in on these mistakes. To reign in
errors, I urge students to read they're papers allowed at least a couple
times. Such scrupulous review mitigates against usage errors.
In edition to distorting meaning, poor usage can also undermind the
credibility of the writer. A writer who seldom ever makes a usage mistake
is unlikely to play fast and lose with the facts. Sloppy usage has
discomforted many readers and has lead others to wretch.
Anyone with a flare for writing knows that a large amount of usage errors
will bring few complements from readers. For all intensive purposes, the
reader is judging not only your prose, but you. If you make several
mistakes, readers might impute your intelligence and censor your ideas.
Using proper usage gives your writing a certain cache.
1. why it's important 2. your meaning is clear 3. who's going to care 4.
flout the rules 5. try to point out 6. effect 7. venial 8. egregious
gaffes 9. Between you and me 10. a lot of 11. hand-wringing 12. minor
capital offenses 14. poring over 15. home in on 16. rein in 17. their
papers 18. aloud 19. a couple of times 20. militates against 21. In
undermine the credibility 23. who seldom makes ("ever" is redundant) 24.
fast and loose 25. has discomfited 26. led 27. to retch 28. flair 29.
large number 30. few compliments 31. intents and purposes 32. but also you
impugn your intelligence 34. censure your ideas 35. cachet
U.Q. Categories: 31-35 errors spotted = genius; 26-30 = ingenious;
21-25 = ingénue; 16-20 = in jeans; 11-15 = ingenuous; 6-10 = igneous; 0-5
Flip over this Coinage
It's easy to see why we call one side of a coin "heads." (Can we do
something about Washington's receding hairline on the quarter, by the
why do we call the other side of a coin "tails"?
This question sent me scrambling to the Oxford English Dictionary,
scouring the Internet and, yes, scrounging through my pockets to examine
I soon discovered that you can't just flip a coin -- heads or tails? --
on this question. For, alas, there are more than two plausible
for the origin of this term.
Let's begin with some history. The first recorded use of "tails" to
mean the reverse side of a coin occurred in a 1684 comedy, "The Atheist,"
Restoration playwright Thomas Otway. A character in the play advises
"As Boys do with their Farthings . . . go to Heads or Tails for 'em."
(Despite hilarious lines like this, "The Atheist" flopped.)
But whence "heads or tails"? You make the call:
-- Explanation #1 -- Horse Cents
The coins of ancient Corinth depicted Athena on one side and the
mythical horse Pegasus on the other. In addition to wings, Pegasus also
tail. Probability rating: 1 (on a scale of 1-5) -- too long ago, no clear
connection to English.
-- Explanation #2 -- Romanclature
Roman coins featured emperors on one side and animals on the other --
bulls, lions, crocodiles, bears, Carolina Panthers -- and many of these
critters were drawn with distinct tails. Probability rating: 2 -- ancient
again, but the Romans might have brought some of these coins to England
when they invaded it. (Centurion: "I'll flip you for one of those big
arranged in a circle. Emperors or bears?")
o Explanation #3 -- That's "Zahl" Folks
German coins bore a head ("Kopf") on one side and a number ("Zahl") on
the other, leading to the German expression "Kopf oder Zahl" ("heads or
numbers?"). The German "z" often became a "t" in English, so "zahl" became
il." Probability rating: 3 -- intriguing and plausible, but then why don't
say, "kopfs or tails"?
o Explanation #4 -- Common Cents
The head and the tail are on opposite ends of the body. So if the head
is one side of a coin, its opposite side must be the tail. Probability
rating: 4 -- when in doubt, go with the simplest explanation, even if it's
the most glamorous.
Question I Can't Duck
Q. Which came first, the verb "duck" or the noun "duck"? That is, do we
call it "ducking" because that is what ducks do, or do we call them
because they duck? -- Bill Wallace, Brandon, Miss.
A. To further confuse matters, I always thought the verb "duck"
originated when people had to lower their heads because a duck was flying
overhead: "Here he comes again! Duck!"
The noun "duck" for the waterfowl is a very old word; it was well
established in English by the 1100s. The verb "duck," which didn't appear
in English until the 1300s, is indeed based on "what ducks do" (thrust
their heads under water).
Now, as anyone who has walked near a duck pond knows, ducks do a lot of
things, some of them more attractive than others. So we're probably
fortunate that "duck" came to mean "to lower one's head."
Q. Do you "flesh out" a topic or "flush out" a topic," meaning to dig
deeper, expound? I've seen it both ways in print, and now I am thoroughly
confused. Similarly, do we "vet" an idea or "vette" it, meaning "to
examine it thoroughly"? -- Nanette Miner, Bristol, Conn.
A. Well, I suppose if you planned to test the speed of your Subaru by drag
racing with a Corvette, you could say you were going to "vette" the
Subaru. But the actual verb is "vet." It's a Briticism based on the notion
that veterinarians go over an animal with a fine-toothed comb, especially
if it's a duck who just arrived in a 'vette.
(It's interesting that the word for professionals who treat non-humans
means "to scrupulously inspect," while a primary meaning of the verb
"doctor" is "to alter deceptively," as in "to doctor a drink." Hmmm . . .)
As for "flesh out" vs. "flush out," the former would be the correct choice
for the meaning you cite -- to add the muscle and viscera of information
(flesh) to a bare-bones idea or subject.
You could "flush out" a topic as well, but that would mean something
completely different, either: 1. to identify or expose the topic, the way
a hunter flushes out birds from their hiding places, or 2. to get rid of
the topic, wash it away.
So "flush out" actually has two opposite meanings. After you flush out a
topic (expose it), you can then flush it out (get rid of it).
It's My Party,
and I'll Etymologize If I Want To
Let's party! If you've ever been curious about the origin of words such
as "carnival," "levee," "festival" and "shindig," you're invited to join
"Carnival" originally referred to the season of merrymaking just before
Lent, the 40-day period when Christians weren't allowed to eat meat.
Because "carnival" heralded the period when the flesh was "taken away,"
was derived from the Latin "caro," (flesh) and "levare" (to take away),
creating "carnelevare" in Old Italian, "carnivale" in Italian and
Another meaning of the Latin verb "levare" was "to raise." So when the
French needed a word for a reception held by a king or nobleman who had
arisen from bed, they called it a "levée." (Funny, but the reception I get
upon arising from bed is usually, "Dad, what's for breakfast?"). In
"levee" eventually came to mean any formal reception.
"Festivus," the family holiday celebrated by Frank Costanza's father on
"Seinfeld," was indeed a Roman feast. It gave rise to the English word
"festival," as well as "festive" and "festivity." "Festivus" itself
the Latin "festum" (feast), which is also the root of "feast," "fete,"
"fest" and "festoon."
You might think "shindig," meaning a large, festive party, has
something to do with people kicking each other in the shins as they dance.
it's derived from "shinny," a 17th-century British word for a game
resembling field hockey. "Shinny" may come from a shout used in the game
or from the Gaelic "sinteag," meaning "a skip, jump.")
If you're late for a soiree (pronounced "swah-RAY"), that's entirely
appropriate, at least etymologically speaking. For "soiree" derives from
Latin word for "late" – "serus." "Serus" became "soir" (evening) in French
well as "soirée," an evening party or reception.
An old word for party is "revel," often used in the plural, e.g. "Let
the revels begin!" You might think "revel" comes from "reveal" or
"revelation"; after all, you often do find out what people are really like
at such an
event. In fact, "revel" derives from the Latin "rebellare" (to rebel),
makes sense too.
"Party" itself comes from the Latin "pars" (part). The idea is that a
group of reveling people is a distinct part of a larger group.
"party" didn't appear as a verb in English until 1919 --- just in time for
the Roaring Twenties.
Backward or Forward? – A Moveable Beast
Q. If a meeting scheduled for March is moved to April, I have always said
the meeting has been "moved forward." But most people say the meeting has
been "moved back." Similarly, if a meeting scheduled for April is moved to
March, I have always said the meeting has been "moved back," but most
people say the meeting has been "moved forward." Could you please resolve
this conflict? -- Robert Whitehead, via email
A. Here's a possible resolution: stop moving the meetings!
Truth be told, this terminology has always confused me too. This may
explain why I often arrive at meetings and find no one else there.
Here's the problem: Both "forward" and "back" have two, contradictory
"Forward" can mean "advancing into the future," but it can also mean
"moving to the front," that is, closer in time. Likewise, "back" can mean
"moving earlier in time," but it can also mean "moving to the rear," that
is, la ter.
So, when you're talking about changing the times of events, I'd avoid the
terms "forward" and "back" entirely. Simply say, "The meeting will be held
a month earlier or a month later."
Q. There seems to be some confusion with the verbs "wake," "awake" and
"awaken" and some of their possible tenses, such as "waked," "woken,"
"awakened," "awokened," etc. Any clarification would be appreciated. – Joe
Fadler, Corona, Calif.
A. Pinning down the various tenses of these verbs is like trying to
(insert your favorite cliché here): herding cats, nailing Jello to the
wall, trying to get a health care plan passed. Truth be told, no one has
actually mastered these conjugations since the Great Awakening of the
Nevertheless, here's a handy guide to present, past and past participle
tenses, respectively, of these verbs:
I wake, I woke, I have waked (or have woken)
I awake, I awoke, I have awaked (or have awoken)
I awaken, I awakened, I have awakened
I wake up, I woke up, I have waked up
The biggest controversy centers around the past participle forms "woken"
and "awoken." Some purists insist that both "woken" and "awoken" are
non-standard, but both are predominant in Britain and widely used in the
U.S. as well.
It's also worth noting that folks in the southern parts of the U.S.
tend to favor the past tense "waked" as in, "I waked early to study the
conjugations of 'wake.'"
Yanks Clash Over Commas
Q. I have always used a comma after "i.e." After all, the English
translation of the abbreviation is "that is," and that phrase certainly
seems to require a comma to set it off from what follows. I recently read
that this is incorrect, i.e. that "i.e." should not be followed by a
comma. Which is it?" -- John Thomas, East Hartford, Conn.
A. While we Americans place a comma after "i.e." (the abbreviation for the
Latin "id est"), the Brits leave it out. (I can't help picturing the
Brits, like Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," demanding, "Drop the comma,
In fact you can find early evidence of this transatlantic punctuation
dispute in some of the memorable words and events of the American
Remember Tom Paine's classic pamphlet "Comma Sense"? The Boston "i.e."
party? "Don't fire till you see the white space after their 'i.e.'s'!"?
We Americans agree with your argument that, because a comma would follow
the full-expression ("that is"), it should also follow the abbreviation
"i.e." So your naughty little flirtation with the comma-less "i.e." in the
last sentence of your letter -- you think I didn't notice? -- doesn't fly
on this side of the pond.
You've inspired me to offer a quick review of some glitches associated
with three other Latin abbreviations:
-- et al. -- This abbreviated form of the Latin "et alii" ("and
others") always refers to people, not things, as in "Washington, Adams,
Jefferson, et al." The phrase "et al" is preceded by a comma. Place a
period after "al"
(because it's an abbreviation), but not after "et" (because it's the
complete Latin word for "and," not an abbreviation).
-- etc. -- This abbreviation for the Latin "et cetera" ("and the
others") should: 1. be reserved for things, not people, and 2. be preceded
by, but not followed by, a comma ("Apples, bananas, grapes, etc. are
-- e.g. -- This abbreviation for the Latin phrase "exempli gratia"
("for example") is almost always followed by a comma, though, if the list
is long, it may be followed by a colon. Because "e.g." precedes examples
and not a complete list, never put "etc." or "et al." at the end of the
"e.g., carrots, celery, peppers, etc." The Brits adhere to this practice
too, though sometimes they drop the periods out of "e.g." itself ("eg").
Don't fire till you see the whites of their egs!
Should You Put a 'Foot' in
Q. The plural of "foot" is "feet." So why do people always say things
like, "He is 6 foot tall" or "that yardstick is 3 foot long"? -- Mark
Friden, Cranberry Lake, N.Y.
A. I still recall an
episode of the old Gomer Pyle TV show in which Gomer's uncle keeps asking
him, "Are you 6 foot? You look 6 foot!"
Because that show was set
in the South, I've always associated the use of "foot" for "feet" with
southern regional dialect, though I've heard the plural "foot" in the
North as well. The guys at the lumber store in Malone, N.Y., for instance,
ask me whether I want a board that's "6 foot long," not
"6 feet long."
So should YOU use "foot"
as a plural?
What causes all the
confusion is that "foot" is the correct form to use between a number and a
NOUN -- "6-foot sheet of plywood," "8-foot ladder,"
"20-foot fence," but "feet" is
the correct form between a number and an ADJECTIVE, as in "6 feet tall"
and "8 feet deep."
So "6 feet tall" is
formal, while "6 foot tall" is informal. It's fine for a surfer to brag,
"These waves stand 20 foot tall, dude!" but a speaker at a Memorial Day
observance should intone, "These heroes stand 20 feet tall in our hearts."
In other words, saying "20
foot tall" is a practice more honored on the beach than in the observance.
Q. I passed a field in
which there was a flock of geese. Being an inveterate punster, I thought,
"Take a gander at those geese." This led me to wonder whether a male goose
is called a "gander" because he acts as a lookout while the others eat. --
Bill Gleason, Newington, Conn.
A. So your first instinct
when you see a flock of geese is to make a pun? My first instinct is to
fire a gun, mostly because I often walk through a park where the grass is
frequently goosed, if you know what I mean.
That's a good guess about
a male goose's being called a "gander"
because of his vigilance. But it's actually the other way around. The gape
is named for the goose.
As you suggest, the male
goose is always surveying his surroundings.
Some people saw a similarity
between a gander's scanning motion and human rubberneckers as they scoped
out a scene. So, during the late 1800s, people started referring to a look
or glance as a "gander."
Another bird-derived verb
is "crane," meaning "to stretch or strain." It
was inspired by the motion of cranes as they extend their long necks.
One crane to another: "Is your
neck six foot? It looks six foot!"
Are These Writers
A reader recently wrote to complain about the proliferation of double
possessives -- the use of BOTH "of" and "'s" to indicate possession, as in
"a friend of Tom's."
She included several
examples from recent newspaper stories: "a longtime friend of Dodd's," "a
playmate of Sandra's," "a guest of your family's."
She writes, "The possessive
(or genitive) case ordinarily requires an apostrophe. A substitute for
that apostrophe can be the word 'of.' But not both!"
Many usage authorities
agree. Writes Michael Walsh, for instance, in his grammar column for the
journal Practical Lawyer, "The double possessive is redundant, and it
should be avoided in careful writing."
Such simplistic edicts
ignore the fact that the double possessive has been blithely -- and
usefully -- romping around in English since the 1300s, and many
distinguished writers have succumbed to its charms: "This was a false step
of the general's" (Daniel Defoe); "that place of Dorothy Thompson's"
(Alexander Woolcott); "a
favorite phrase of your delighted mother's (Emily Dickinson).
I always picture users of
the double possessive as basketball players holding the ball firmly and
protectively with two hands after grabbing a rebound. "Just try to take
this thing away from me!" they growl.
Truth be told, there are
several instances in which the double possessive helps to sink a semantic
basket. "A photo of Emily's," for instance, means something quite
different from "a photo of Emily."
In fact, when using
personal pronouns, the double possessive is always required. Rather than
saying, "a friend of us," "a fault of you" and "a habit of them," we say
instead, "a friend of ours," "a fault of yours" and a "habit of theirs."
The double possessive can
also smooth out awkward phrasing. "That's your only poem I've ever read,"
for instance, is more naturally rendered, "That's the only poem of yours
But be careful to avoid the
double possessive in two situations:
-- when describing all, as
opposed to some, of a person's possessions:
"the poems of Emily Dickinson" (not "Dickinson's")
-- when referring to an
inanimate object: "a feature of the poem" (not
Otherwise, feel free to
use the double possessive whenever it sounds smooth and natural,
especially in speech and casual writing. Who knows? It might even become a
favorite usage of your delighted mother's.
Putting the 'Meant' in Pavement
The poet Walt Whitman reveled in "the blab of the pave" --- the varied
slang and lingo he heard bubbling up from the streets and sidewalks of New
York City during the mid-1800s.
Today, let's revel in a
different kind of pave blab --- the origins of words for the hard surfaces
beneath our feet. It's time for a walk on the tiled side!
-- cobblestone -- You might
guess that these rounded paving stones are so called because they're
cobbled together. In fact, the verb "cobble," meaning "to assemble hastily
or roughly," played no part in the origin of "cobblestone."
comes from "cob," meaning a "small stone rounded by the action of water,
or any rounded mass, lump or heap," as a "corncob."
The verb "cobble" is,
indeed, the root of "cobbler" (shoemaker). It may also be the root of the
fruit dessert with a thick top crust, as a "peach cobbler," (because such
dishes are hastily put together). But no one is sure.
-- flagstone -- As a kid,
I once tried to fry an egg on a flagstone walkway. (No luck.) But those
pieces of flagstone were, indeed, flat as a flag.
But that's not the origin
of "flagstone," which derives from the Old Norse word "flaga," meaning
-- corduroy road -- Legend
has it that "corduroy" is derived from the French phrase "corde du roi" or
"king's cord" because kings favored these "cords" (a ribbed fabric).
Oops. In fact, "corduroy"
first emerged in England during the late 1700s and may be derived from the
English surname "Corderoy."
But why "corduroy road"?
During the early 1800s, many roads were built through marshy areas by
laying large logs at right angles to the direction of the road. Because
these logs resembled the ridges of corduroy fabric, they were called
-- Tarmac -- A major
improvement over these bumpy, washboard corduroy roads came in 1822 when
the Scottish civil engineer John McAdam devised the "macadam" type of road
pavement made with layers of gravel.
By the 1880s, engineers
were mixing tar with the gravel as a binder. This type of road surface was
called "Tarmac," a combination of "tar" and "macadam." "Tarmac" is a
registered trademark, but the generic term "tarmac" is used to describe
many sorts of road surfaces, especially airport runways and taxiways.
Are You Booked for the Summer?
Looking for that perfect gift for dad or grad -- or a great read to
make your own summer glad? The bee-loud glade is buzzing with nifty new
books about words this summer.
Speaking of bees, Susie
Dent's "What Made the Crocodile Cry -- 101 Questions about the English
Language" (Oxford, $18.95) includes a chapter titled "The Birds and the
Bees." There you'll learn that the term "shedding crocodile tears" for
faking sadness derives from the ancient belief that crocodiles weep in
order to lure their prey.
To enjoy a lively romp
through the wild meadow of English, pick up "A Little Book of Language" by
David Crystal (Yale, $25). Crystal, one of the world's pre-eminent
language authorities, covers every aspect of language, from baby talk to
bilingualism to Basque, an "isolated language" of northern Spain that
bears almost no resemblance to any other European tongue.
If you know that
"tantamount," "aghast" and "revel" are always followed by "to," "at" and
"in," respectively, English is probably your first language. But selecting
the correct preposition for such words is much harder for non-native
speakers. That's where Luis Waldman's "Prepositions in Business English --
A Guide for International Executives" (Top Tier, $18) comes on . . . er,
How do you begin a
conversation gracefully? How do you avoid sounding tentative in a meeting?
What should you say at the end of an interview?
Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, a
veteran business communications consultant, answers many such questions in
her highly useful "Speaking Your Way To Success" (Houghton-Mifflin,
Since 1900, the number of
words in the English language has quintupled.
In "There's a Word For It"
(Harmony, $19.99), Sol Steinmetz takes us on a joyride (1909) through the
verbal newbies (1970) of the past 110 years. From "ping-pong" (1900) to
"Pilates" (1934) to "people-watch" (1967) to "paintball" (1984) to "podcast"
(2004), it's been quite a "bungee jump" (1990).
Groups of Chinese
university students hold "English Corners" every Friday night to practice
their English. Robert McCrum, co-author of the book and TV series "The
Story of English," tells why in "Globish -- How the English Language
Became the World's Language" (W. W. Norton, $26.95). Propelled by
cyberspace, business and American popular culture, Globish, writes McCrum,
has become "the worldwide dialect of the third millennium."
When Couples – and Verbs –
Q. Is the correct sentence "The couple ARE planning" or "the couple IS
planning a June wedding"? – Marlene Cox, Manor, Pa.
A. "The couple IS planning"
is correct because you’re thinking of the couple as a single unit.
Likewise, you’d say, "the couple is moving to Pennsylvania" or "the couple
is hosting a party."
But let’s say these two
lovebirds held very different views about the wedding – she wants a
cathedral, he wants a casino. Then you might say, tongue in cheek, "the
couple ARE planning their wedding."
"Couple" can also take a
plural verb in sentences such as "the couple are taking separate
vacations" or "the couple are disagreeing about the meanings of
‘floundering’ and ‘foundering.’"
Q. My wife and I are
debating whether "floundering" or "foundering" is correct when describing
someone who is having a lot of difficulty performing the tasks in a new
job. Bill, Glastonbury
A. What a coincidence!
Your hapless rookie is
floundering if he’s struggling, flopping around like a beached flounder.
Perhaps he’s failing to meet deadlines, flip-flopping in his decisions or
constantly misplacing the Flounder File. But enough about me.
But, if he’s performing so
badly that he’s going to be fired, he’s foundering, meaning "sinking," as
in "the Titanic foundered in the North Atlantic." "Founder" shares the
root "fundus" (bottom) with "foundation."
Q. I am bewildered by the
word "moot." Dictionary definitions indicate it means "debatable" or
"open to discussion," however it is commonly used to indicate the exact
opposite. Which meaning is correct? – Ann Messineo, Hamilton, N.J.
A. Can we please go back to
that easy question about "foundering"?
"Moot" is a "contronym" – a
word that has two opposite meanings. But how did this happen?
Originally "moot" meant
"subject to argument, not decided," so a "moot point" or a "moot issue"
was a question that COULD be debated.
But because these "moot
issues" were often debated in non-practical, academic settings, such as a
law school’s moot court, "moot" took on the contrary meaning of
"hypothetical, of no practical significance" and eventually of "decided,
not worth arguing about."
This is now the dominant
meaning of "moot." So if you use "moot point"
to mean "a debatable point," you risk
conveying the opposite meaning. You might even be accused of floundering
Maybe You Were Absent That Day
Are you in the know?
When it comes to grammar
and usage, even well-educated people have blind spots. Here are five of
the most common no-no's committed by know-knows.
-- Saying "I feel badly" --
We're all trained to use adverbs to modify action verbs. None of us would
say, for instance, "I ran bad" or "he drove bad." So we tend to avoid
using adjectives after verbs, even when the verb expresses a state of
being rather than an action, as with "feel," "seem," "taste," "smell,"
"appear" and "grow." So the correct choice after such verbs is an
adjective, rather than an adverb: "I feel bad"; "the fish tastes bad;"
"the situation appears bad."
-- Pronouncing "forte,"
meaning "a strength, talent," as "FOR-tay." -- "Forte," meaning "a strong
point," as in, "pronunciation is his forte," is correctly pronounced as
one syllable – "FORT." It derives from the French word "fort," meaning
"strong." When adopted by English, "fort" was given a final "e" and its
current figurative meaning. It should not be confused with the Italian
musical direction "forte," meaning "play loudly," which is pronounced
-- Using "comprise" for
"compose" -- It's a simple rule that bears
repeating: The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose (make up,
constitute) the whole." New York City comprises five boroughs; five
boroughs compose (make up, constitute) New York City. By the same token
(in this case, a subway token), you should say, "New York City is composed
of five boroughs," not "comprised of five boroughs."
-- Using "hone in on" for
"home in on" -- "Home in on" means "to head for or direct attention to an
objective," the way a homing pigeon heads for home or a missile homes in
on its target. "Hone" means "to sharpen, to make more acute or intense,"
as in "honing a blade" or "honing your skills." Because
the words sound alike and there's a slight overlap in meaning, many people
mistakenly use "hone in on" for "home in on."
-- Using "fortuitous" to
mean "fortunate" -- "Fortuitous" means "occurring by chance," with no
denotation of good or bad fortune. Thus, "my encountering Joe in the
hallway was fortuitous" simply means that the encounter occurred by
chance. But many people use "fortuitous" to mean "lucky," as in, "My
encountering Joe in the hallway was fortuitous because he told me the
water cooler had been poisoned."
Put Up Your Dukes and Take
Can you select the correct source of each word or phrase?
1. dukes, meaning "hands,"
as in "put up your dukes" -- A. two dukes in England who were continually
fighting each other B. "dookin," an old word for palm reading C. "duiker,"
a small, combative African antelope D. the Italian "duce" (leader) because
boxer lead with their strongest hand
2. cubby hole -- A. a den
occupied by bear cubs B. a shortening of "cubicle" C. the Old English
"cub," meaning a small animal pen or chicken coop D. George Cubbe, a
hermit who once lived in a cellar near Newfane, Vt.
3. pits, meaning "the
worst," as in "It's the pits." -- A. the armpits B. piles of worthless
fruit pits C. holes in the earth where prisoners were kept D. a shortening
4. album -- A. albumen
printing paper, which was once used to process photographs B. a corruption
of "all bunched" C. Al Bumworth, a London printer who sold such books D.
the Latin "albus" (white) because the blank tablets on which Romans posted
public notices were white
5. bachelor -- A. because a
single man often dated a batch of women B. the Vulgur Latin "baccalaris"
(cowhand) C. Bangalore, the Indian city often visited by single British
men D. a thin, dashing young man was thought to resemble a spatula, which
was misheard as "batchula."
6. jeep -- A. alteration of
"cheap," because soldiers thought they were poorly made B. "Eugene the
Jeep," a character in the Popeye comic strip C.
"G.P." as in General Purpose
vehicle D. "jeepers," often uttered by passengers startled by the
vehicle's bumpy ride
1. B. Because palm reading
was known as "dookin," hands themselves came to be called "dukes." 2. C.
"Cub" is akin to the Old English "cofa" (den), which is also the root of
"cove." 3. A. This term reflects the olfactory and visual unattractiveness
of armpits. 4. D. The meaning of a blank tablet was extended to a book
with blank pages 5. B. "Baccalaris," which derives from the Latin "vacca"
(cow), entered English as "bachelor," which came to denote an apprentice
knight and eventually any single man. 6. B. and C. When the U.S. Army
introduced this four-wheel-drive vehicle during the late 1930s, it was
given the designation "General Purpose" or "G.P." for short. Soldiers
familiar with the cartoon character from the Popeye strip soon dubbed the
"G.P." a "jeep."
Gospel Origin of
'Lukewarm' Doesn't Hold Water
Q. I belong to a bible study class, and we were wondering if there is
any connection between Luke's Gospel and the word "lukewarm." -- Suzanne
Travers, West Hartford, Conn.
A. Well, the Gospel of Luke
does quote John the Baptist as saying, "I indeed baptize you with water
but . . . He [Christ] shall baptize you with fire." Does this mean the
coming fire of Jesus would heat up the temperature of John's water to at
Afraid not. The true origin
of "lukewarm," meaning "tepid, slightly warm," has more to do with
temperature than testament.
"Luke" was a Middle English
word, now obsolete, meaning "warm." So, technically, "lukewarm" means
"warm warm," though its meaning today is more like "cool warm."
(Such redundant doublets,
by the way, do occasionally occur in English.
Because "cellar" derives from
the word "saler," meaning "salt," for instance, the term "salt cellar"
actually means "salt salt.")
Though not related to the
gospel writer, "luke" is a distant cousin of the heat-related words
"caldron," "scald" and "calorie." It's even connected to the nautical term
"lee," the side of the ship protected from the wind, because that's the
warmest side of the ship.
That's because the Middle
English "luke" is derived, after many twists and turns, from the
Indo-European root for warm -- "kele," which is the root of the Latin "caldidus"
Q. When did the spelling of
"complaisant" change to "complacent"? I was reading a magazine from 1983
the other day and it has the old spelling ("complaisant"). But now I see
only the new spelling ("complacent"). – Liz Bollich, Jennings, La.
A. In fact, these two
adjectives are actually different words with different meanings.
"Complaisant," which is
used much less often than "complacent," means "obliging, tending to follow
others." e.g. "The complaisant student went along with the prank."
The more common word
"complacent" means "contented to a fault, self-satisfied, unconcerned,"
e.g. "The student had grown complacent about his low grades."
"complacent," which are both derived from the Latin verb "complacere" (to
please), sound alike and overlap in meaning; a complacent person is likely
to be complaisant. In fact, a secondary meaning of "complacent" is
Even so, it's wise to be
complaisant and observe the significant distinction between these two
Is 'Alright' Ever All Right?
Q. Many years ago in elementary and high school, we were taught that
"already" was one word and "all right" was two. Recently I have noticed
"all right" written as "alright" in several different newspaper articles.
Were my teachers wrong? -- Bob Calnen, Manchester, Conn.
A. In one respect, your
teachers were wrong. While "already" is indeed written as one word when
referring to time ("They've already left"), it's rendered as two words
when referring to preparation ("They're all ready to go").
As for "alright," your
teachers were all right. All reputable dictionaries and usage handbooks
regard "alright" as non-standard. Quoth the editors of the Associated
Press Stylebook, for instance, "Never 'alright.'"
But, alas, the raven
"alright" often perches on the bust of Pallas . . . er, palaver, no matter
how much we try to shoo it away. After all, "alright" is a handy shortcut,
and both written and spoken English have always welcomed some contraction,
elision and blending.
Even notable authors such
as Flannery O'Connor, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce used "alright,"
though I'm not sure Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Joyce's "Ulysses" ("alright
well seen then let him go to her") is exactly a model of standard English.
As you observe, "alright"
pops up occasionally in newspapers and magazines too. A few years back,
for instance, Time magazine ran the headline "The Kids Are Alright." This
was clearly a calculated attempt to seem casual and hip.
But when it comes to
standard English, "alright" is never all right.
Q. I wish you'd write about the use of "bring" and "take." Honestly, I
can't remember the rule that I was taught in school. -- Margaret Huni,
Black River, N.Y.
A. Those teachers again!
As I'm sure they told you, it's all a matter of perspective.
Use "bring" when the
motion is TOWARD the speaker ("Please bring me an apple"). Use "take" when
the motion is AWAY from the speaker ("Please take this apple to the
This is going to sound
silly, but when I'm uncertain about which verb to use, I think of the
sound of a doorbell ("BRRRRRRING!) When you hear the doorbell, someone is
often bringing you something.
(And when you hear the
burglar alarm, someone is probably taking something away!)
Is the Pen Mightier than the
How did "bullpen" come to denote the place where back-up pitchers and
catchers warm up and wait?
In the newly-released third
edition of Paul Dickson's wonderful "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary"
(W.W. Norton, $49.95), we discover that writers have penned several
theories to explain this term -- and that some of them are probably bull.
Many attribute "bullpen" to
the Bull Durham tobacco signs that were ubiquitous in baseball parks
during the early 1900s. These large billboards, some in the shape of a
bull, were usually located along the outfield fence, providing welcome
shade to the back-up hurlers stationed there.
As Johnny Murphy, a
Yankees relief pitcher, once recalled, "It ["bullpen"] came from Bull
Durham tobacco, I was always told. All the ballparks had advertising signs
on the outfield fences, and Bull Durham was always near the spot where the
relief pitchers warmed up."
Others have linked the
term to the area where reserve bulls are held during bullfights. Alas,
skilled linguistic matadors have poked many holes in this bullfight
In a 1967 interview, New
York Mets (and former Yankees) manager Casey Stengel offered two other
possible origins. "The extra pitchers," said the Ol' Professor, "would
just sit around shooting the bull, and no manager wanted all that gabbing
on the bench. So he put them in this kind of pen in the outfield to warm
up; it looked like a place to keep cows or bulls."
Major League catcher and
sportscaster Joe Garagiola reinforced the "shooting the bull" theory when
he told The Sporting News in 1956 that the bullpen was "a place for eating
peanuts, trading insults with the fans, second-guessing the manager and
picking all kinds of silly all-star teams, like the all-screwball team or
the all-ugly team or the all-stack-blowing team."
But it's in Stengel's
reference to livestock that we may have found our "closer."
"Bull pen," of course, has
been used for centuries in English to denote a corral for cattle. By the
time of the Civil War it referred to a place where prisoners of war were
being held. So it's logical that baseball, a sport that developed in the
mid-19th century, would adopt the same term for the area where its small "arm"y
of arm-men was confined.
In etymology, as in
baseball, the simplest explanation is usually the truest.
'Of' Thee I Sing
A South Dakota reader recently sent me a full-page Allstate Insurance
ad with this large headline, "How long of a retirement should you plan
No, he wasn't trying to solicit
my advice on retirement planning, though, after a recent bout of sciatica,
I'm tempted to observe that 60 is the new 80.
Instead, this reader wants
to scrub up, don his green gown and nip and tuck this headline to give it
a tighter, more youthful look. With scalpel poised, he asks, "Is 'of'
Uh, no. All authorities
would agree that the headline should read, "How long a retirement . . ."
Even the hyper-permissive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage
trashes the "of a" construction: "You will not want to use it much in
But if grammarians condemn
it, why do we encounter phrases such as "not that big of a deal" and "how
big of a mess" so often, especially in speech?
In a word, emphasis.
In the Allstate headline,
the two key words are "long" and "retirement." To stress each one
properly, you want to put some distance between them.
Saying "how long a retirement"
inserts only one syllable between them, thus cramming them together.
Saying "how long of a retirement" provides two syllables and gives each
word some breathing room.
So, by strict grammatical
standards, the phrase "how long of a retirement" is incorrect. But a case
could be made that inserting the "of" gives the sentence more punch.
Our aggressive surgeon also
has his eye on that little preposition at the end of the sentence --
"for." He'd like to snip and flip the sentence to something like "For how
long a retirement should you plan?"
Here he's being knife
happy. True, because a preposition usually precedes an object, it's not
always a great word to end a sentence with. The last part of the previous
sentence, for example, would be better rendered, "it's not a great word to
use at the end of a sentence."
But the phrase "plan for"
is used so commonly that it should be considered as a unit. "How long a
retirement should you plan for?" sounds natural and smooth.
With "of" snipped off, but
with major removals or rearrangements averted, our sentence is now resting
comfortably in the recovery room, in, as the folks at Allstate might put
it, "good hands."
Dispute Concerning 'Bagel'
Dispatches from the Word Front . . .
Matter of Concern -- I've noticed an emerging trend that's both concerning
and involving. It's the widespread use of the participles "concerning" and
"involving" to mean "creating concern" and "generating involvement,"
A TV commentator, for
instance, recently said, "These allegations are concerning," while a film
critic, reviewing the movie "The Lovely Bones,"
wrote, "One element of the film that is consistently involving is the
dreamscape look of the in-between world where Susie spends her time."
nothing wrong with such constructions. But they sound funny because
"concerning," in addition to meaning "troubling," can also mean
"regarding." And "involving," in addition to meaning "engaging," can also
mean "using, including."
So when someone says,
"These allegations are concerning," we think he might be about to say,
"These allegations are concerning suspicious activity in late 2009."
And when someone says, "The film is consistently involving," we think he
might be about to say, "The film is consistently involving minor
characters in the plot."
So "concerning" and
"involving" sometimes put us in that ambiguous, in-between world where
Susie spends her time.
o Ivy League Bagel Fight
-- Several readers wrote to ask about the headline over a recent Hartford
Courant editorial: "Bageled by the Feds." The editorial questioned why
Connecticut received nothing -- zero, zilch, nada -- in a recent allotment
of federal transportation grants.
"What does this have to do
with bagels?" readers asked. "If we got bageled, how come we got no
The secret's in the shape.
A bagel looks like a zero. This use of "bagel" to mean a goose egg emerged
in tennis during the 1970s. To win a set 6-0 was to "bagel" your opponent,
and two 6-0 sets was a "double bagel."
The term soon cycled into
sports jargon as a synonym for "shutout," and soon it had been promoted to
the highest military rank: General Parlance.
Or perhaps Private
Parlance. The Associated Press reports that on Dec. 2, 2009, Dartmouth
College fans watching a Dartmouth-Harvard squash match taunted and heckled
Harvard players, including Franklin Cohen.
"Cohen's mother," the AP
reported, "said her son was asked if he liked bagels, which she viewed as
a reference to their Jewish surname. But the Dartmouth fans said the
comment referred to the zero on the scoreboard."
This is yet another
example of both the power and ambiguity of language.
How Did We Name the People
"Don't blame me!"
That's the mantra of every
scapegoat, whipping boy and fall guy since the dawn of history. But whom
should we blame for the origins of these terms?
- - scapegoat – Blame the
Ancients! On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the ancient Hebrews
would symbolically seek a fresh start by transferring all their sins to
One goat was sacrificed,
but the other one, bearing the sins of the people, was led to the desert
and allowed to escape. William Tyndale's English translation of the Old
Testament in 1530 referred to this animal as a "scapegoote," short for
"escape goat." Since then, anyone who's blamed for the sins of others has
been called a "scapegoat."
-- whipping boy – Blame
the Royals! This term evolved from that wonderful institution known as
the British monarchy. During the early 1600s, the belief arose that the
body of a prince, like that of the king, was sacred and could not be
harmed. So, instead of whipping the prince for royal misdeeds, his
governess or tutor would flog another boy.
The first prince to
benefit from this practice was the son of James I, who would grow up to
become Charles I. And its first victim was a young lad named William
Murray who was appointed to be young Charlie's playmate and fellow
So whenever Charlie
misbehaved, poor William, as the designated "whipping boy," would bear the
blows Charlie deserved. Soon "whipping boy" had become a general term for
someone who is punished for another's misdeeds or serves as a frequent
target of attack.
In 1649, just as Charles
was about to be behead, he looked around desperately for a "decapitating
boy" to take his place. Alas, no one stuck his neck out, so to speak.
-- fall guy – Blame Hulk
Hogan! Second only in dignity to the British monarchy is the "sport" of
professional wrestling. During the late 1800s, wrestling surged in
popularity, and beefy young men traveled from town to town to compete.
As hard as it is to
believe today, some of these matches were – My Stars! – fixed. The
competitor who was designated to lose the match was called the "fall guy"
because he "took the fall" - often several falls - for the sake of the
By the early 1900s, "fall
guy" had entered popular American speech as a generic term for anyone who,
willingly or unwillingly, takes the blame for others' crimes – or any man
who simply loves autumn.
Punctuation. It's Not for
Q. I've noticed watching commercials on TV that
people who produce them don't recognize the distinction between a colon
and a period. For example:
"Parents. The anti-drug."
"Ensure. Nutrition in charge." "Fast. It's not for everyone." (Comcast)
"Ritz. Open for fun." "Different. Bank on it." (CBT Bank). "Your Lexis
dealer. Improving perfection." "Volvo. For life."
"Insurance. In-sync." (The
Travelers) "Comfort. It's what we do." (La Z Boy) Do you think I'm right?
-- Phil, via email
A. Yes. It's what they do.
I'm tempted to say you've performed a colonoscopy on these sentences and
found nothing. And don't even get me started on all the sentence fragments
in those slogans.
These "period pieces" are
designed by the mad men and women of Madison Avenue to simulate the
aggressive, staccato-like nature of American speech today -- Rushed.
But they end up sounding
like the last words of a bullet-riddled gangster dying in the arms of his
capo: "Money. In the safe. Bank on it."
I'm tempted to blame this
horrible trend on the schlocky 1970s song "Feelings," which also begins
with a one-word sentence ("Feelings. Nothing more than feelings . . ."),
but too much of the downfall of Western Civilization has already been
blamed on that song.
Would it make you feel any better to know that Robert Frost once used the
same sentence pattern in a poem?: "Apples? New Hampshire has them." I
didn't think so.
But, let's face it; we've
always cut Madison Avenue some slack when it comes to grammar, usage and
punctuation. After all, the purpose of an advertisement is to pound a
single, simple idea into your head like a nail.
Remember the controversy
over "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should"? English professors and
other members of the elbow-patch crowd argued that the slogan should be
"Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should."
My father actually worked
for the ad agency that devised this line, and I can assure you that the
erudite, scholarly executives at his firm spent about half a second
worrying about this complaint before donning their fedoras, pinching their
secretaries and heading out to a three-martini lunch.
I say let the advertisers
have their period pieces. "Advertising. Selling in charge." "Commercials.
The anti-Grammar." "English teachers. Tortured for life."
These Terms Are Cliche-like
I don't like "like." And, no, this time I'm not, like, railing against
the, like, overuse of "like" by teenagers.
Today my targets are the
weather forecasters and journalists who habitually append "-like" to the
ends of words, as in "fall-like temperatures" and "flu-like symptoms."
Yes, I realize that autumn
temperatures may occur in summer and that diseases that aren't the flu may
share its symptoms. But why not simply say "fall temperatures" and "flu
And now a few more
rant-like observations . . .
-- decisions, decisions –
Speaking of teenagers, any adolescent guilty of any misdeed – from
mischief to murder – is invariably described as having "made a poor
decision." I keep picturing tortured, high-school Hamlets walking around
muttering, "To beer, or not to beer."
-- advanced placement –
These poor decisions are invariably made by kids who are "in the wrong
place at the wrong time." (Apparently it's OK to be in the wrong place at
the right time or in the right place at the wrong
-- architectural digest –
Have you noticed that every Tom, Dick and Lloyd is replacing the nouns
"design" and "structure" with "architecture"? People discuss the
"architecture" of everything from microchips to mergers to martinis.
Frankly, Lloyd, this isn't right.
-- iconic classic – Any
product, person, image or fruit fly that has been in existence for more
than five seconds is now described as "iconic." Rock stars, TV
commercials, comfort foods, Twitter messages and fashion styles are all
"iconic" – unless they're described as "classic."
-- rampant exits –
Political pundits discussing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan invariably
describe the various points at which we might begin to withdraw troops
from that nation as "exit ramps." I haven't seen this many "exit ramps"
since I last drove on the Interstate!
-- different direction –
The trendy euphemism for "you're fired" or "you're not being hired or
promoted" is "we've decided to go in a different direction." I keep
imagining a new title for Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not
Taken": "Going in a Different Direction."
-- pass word – Speaking of
going in different directions, no one says "no" to a proposal, idea or
manuscript anymore. It's always, "We (never I) have decided to pass on
that." Not pass IT on – to another boss, colleague or editor – but pass ON
it – reject it. I'll take a pass on "pass."
Merry 'Pharmers' and Jolly
Whenever I hear the pharmaceutical industry described as "Big Pharm,"
I can't help picturing tractors cultivating acres of Celebrex as silos
filled with Viagra loom in the background. (Alternative name for Big Pharm:
So, you might ask, is there
a linguistic connection between "farm" and "pharmacy"?
Sorry. There's no farmer in
the dell . . . er, pill.
"Pharmacy" is derived from
the Old French "farmacie," from the Greek word "pharmacon," meaning a "a
magic charm, poison or drug." "Farm," a completely unrelated word, derives
from the Latin "firmus" (firm).
But how did "firm" become
"farm"? Scholars say it's because agricultural plots were made firm,
either physically by walls around them or metaphorically by signatures on
If you're feeling a little
queasy about the origins of other "pharm" terms, here's your prescription:
Take one etymology every 20 seconds for the next two minutes.
old-fashioned word for a pharmacist or pharmacy, is derived from the Latin
"apotheca" (storehouse). So when "apothecary" first appeared in English,
it referred to shops that sold a wide range of dry goods in addition to
medicine, just as today's drug stores sell squirt guns, cosmetics and
Jolly Ranchers candy (a.k.a. "Jolly Pharmers").
By the 1500s "apothecary"
had narrowed in meaning to denote a store or person specializing in
medicines. This leaves wondering how Romeo and Juliet might have fared if
the apothecary had replaced his potion with Jolly Ranchers.
If you're all curious about
cure-alls, "panacea" (a remedy for everything)
derives from the Greek words "pan" (all) and "akos" (remedy), while
"remedy" itself comes from the Latin "re-" (again) and "mederi" (to heal).
And "patent medicines" were so-called because their makers (supposedly)
held patents for their recipes.
refers to a quack medicine prepared by someone who makes great claims for
its effectiveness. It's derived from the Latin "noster" (ours) because
charlatans would tout such panaceas and patent medicines as being uniquely
By extension, "nostrum"
came to mean any questionable remedy or scheme. In 1921, for instance, the
alliteratively minded President Warren G.
Harding declared that America needed "not nostrums, but normalcy." As a
native Ohioan eager for a return to small-town values, this jolly ranter
clearly preferred Big Farm to Big Pharm.
Is a Blocked
Highway 'Impassible' or 'Impassable'?
Q. When I look up "impassible" in the online
dictionaries, the definitions are typically "not subject to suffering or
pain; unfeeling." But when I check for usage examples, most deal with
roads made impassible, as by bad weather. Are the roads just insensitive
to the wheels of traffic, or is there a change of meaning taking place
here? -- Tom Rountree, Cheraw, S.C.
A. Well, let's hope those
roads ARE insensitive, considering that they're routinely pounded by
20-ton trucks, studded tires and cars with snow chains. Ouch!
The correct word to
describe blocked highways is "impassable," meaning "incapable of being
traveled; blocked." Though nearly identical in spelling, "impassable" and
"impassible" derive from two Latin roots with identical spellings but
"Impassible" comes from "passus,"
the past participle of "pati," the Latin word for "to suffer," which is
also the root of "patient," "passive" and "passion."
"Impassable" derives from
the Latin noun "passus," meaning "a step or stride." This "passus" is the
root of "pass," "passage" and "pace."
Understandably, people confuse
"impassible," meaning "unfeeling," with "impassable," meaning "blocked."
The most common mistake is using "impassible"
for "impassable," as in "the
highway was impassible."
My method for remembering
the difference is to think of the "a" in "road," but you may choose to
think of the "a" in "highway." In other words, it's my way or the highway.
Q. Is there anything ever
"ulterior," other than a motive? Or is anything "gaping," other than a
hole (or, I suppose, a maw)? How did these words come to be such one-trick
ponies? Were they ever used more broadly? -- Jim Maloy, Greensburg, Pa.
A. I've always been
fascinated by these one-trick ponies. (You might think "one-trick pony" is
an old-fashioned phrase, but it was actually coined during the 1970s to
denote someone skilled in only one area or who has success only once.)
One of my favorite
one-tricks is "whopping," which is invariably used with "increase." As
language maven Edwin Newman once asked, "When does an increase begin to
To answer your question,
"ulterior" was once used to modify many adjectives. The Oxford English
Dictionary lists citations for "ulterior accomplishments," "ulterior
designs" and "ulterior intentions."
Readers, can you pony up
any other words used exclusively in one phrase? Please send me your
Deceivers ‘Euph’anize the
Lord Spratley: Say, did you know that euphemisms help people say what
they don’t want to say?
Lord Stratley: You don’t
Euphemisms are linguistic
brooms that try to sweep everything – from taxes to sex to baldness –
under the rug (in the case of baldness, literally under the rug). Death
insurance becomes "life insurance," indecent exposure becomes a "wardrobe
malfunction" and an "invasion" becomes an "incursion."
Discount stores, for
instance, now call customers "guests" and employees "associates," while
businesses refer to salespeople as "marketing representatives."
The airline industry, given
its association with danger, discomfort and delays, is rife with
sugar-coated words: life preservers are "flotation devices," first-class
seating is now "business class," and the table where you place your coats,
gloves and hats for security screening is called a "divestment table," as
if you were shedding some low-performing stocks.
Even "euphemism" has been
used euphemistically. When the character Honey in Edward Albee’s play
"Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" says she’d like to "powder her nose,"
George asks his wife to "show her where we keep the euphemism."
Let's put the "you" in
euphemisms. See whether you can match each euphemism with its meaning.
1. slumber box 2.
industrial action 3. spend a penny 4. irregularity 5. rightsizing 6.
impaired 7. revenue enhancement 8. armed reconnaissance 9. birthday
suit 10. negative contribution 11. handyman’s special 12. lower ground
floor 13. correction 14. leverage 15. holiday ownership 16.
correctional facility 17. self-deliverance 18. entourage 19. negative
patient care outcome 20. public assistance 21. interfere with 22. hang
paper 23. police action 24. motion discomfort 25. cash flow problem
A. sycophants B. tax
increase C. suicide D. coffin E. death F. dilapidated house G.
urinate H. welfare I. laying off workers J. borrow K.
nakedness L. drop in stock prices M. constipation N. prison O.
financial loss P. assault sexually Q. war R. be broke S. labor
strike T. drunk V. bombing U. pass bad checks W. time share X. car,
sea or air sickness Y. cellar
1. D 2. S 3. G 4. M
5. I 6. T 7. B 8. V 9. K 10. O
11. F 12. Y 13. L 14. J
15. W 16. N 17. C 18. A 19. E 20. H
21. P 22. U 23. Q 24.
X 25. R
Can Be 'Ir'- itating
Q. The Oxford English Dictionary listing for the word "irregardless"
cites the meaning as "regardless." I recollected that the prefix "ir-"
negated/reversed the meaning of the word. I'm confused about this.
-- M. Cameron, Wethersfield, Conn.
A. Your question raises two issues. First, is
"irregardless" even a word? Second, can the prefix "ir-" sometimes
intensify rather than negate a word's meaning?
The answers are "maybe" and "yes,"
"Irregardless," a blend of the synonyms
"irrespective" and "regardless," first appeared as a dialectical term in
western Indiana during the early 1900s.
Since then, usage authorities have
ferociously condemned "irregardless" as a "barbarism," a "nonword," a
"blunder" and a "Hoosier hooliganism" – OK, I made that last one up.
Despite these outcries, "irregardless" is common in spoken English, and it
even appears occasionally in print.
Should you ever use "irregardless"?
Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary offers the best advice: "Its
reputation has not improved over the ears, and it is still a long way from
general acceptance. Use 'regardless' instead."
As for the prefix "ir-," it's one of several
prefixes, such as "in-," "im-," "un-" and "dis-," that sometimes
intensifies or specifies rather than negates a word's meaning.
"Ir-" can be a variant of the prefix "in-,"
meaning "in," "into" or "within." "Irrigate," for instance, derives from
the Latin "in rigate" (to flood into), while "irrupt," meaning "to break
or burst in," comes from the Latin "in rumpere" (to break in).
So "irregardless" joins the ranks of other "unantonyms,"
such as "inflammable," "inhabitable," "unravel" and "unloosen," which mean
the same thing as "flammable," "habitable," "ravel" and "loosen,"
Q. Heard from a technician explaining how
long a procedure will take: "It won't be a minute." But I would ask, "If
it won't be a minute, how long WILL it be?" -- Bruce Powell, Canton, Conn.
A. Good point. What the speaker means, of
course, is that it won't take as long as a minute. But, regarded
literally, the phrase could mean any length of time other than a minute –
a second, an hour, a day.
I once told my then 4-year-old daughter,
"Your friend will be here any minute," and she replied, "You mean ANY
minute? Today? Tomorrow?"
Sometimes it takes a child – or a perceptive
adult from Canton, Conn. – to point out the delightfully illogical idioms
Colleges 'Auto' Know Better
Call it "Driving while Misspelled." On the road, I often encounter
these signs of our linguistic times . . .
-- License To Kill -- Stopped in traffic, I
sometimes find myself behind a license plate frame announcing that the
car's owner is a University of (Your Alma Mater Here) "Alumni." (I won't
name a specific institution here, fearing it will retaliate by putting me
on its fundraising list.)
Now I realize, of course, that it's possible
two or more owners or drivers of the car, perhaps even an entire family,
are graduates of the university in question, which would make "Alumni"
correct. But I suspect that, in most cases, only one person associated
with the vehicle is an alumnus or alumna of said institution.
(True, there's some debate over whether the
Latin masculine plural "alumni" should even be used as a general term for
both male and female graduates. Some dust-covered classics majors still
insist on referring collectively to graduates of a co-ed institution as
"alumni and alumnae.")
That issue aside, would it be too much to ask
college paraphernalia emporiums (formerly known as bookstores) to produce
two versions of these varsity/vanity plates, one reading "Alumnus" and one
Heck, by giving graduates this choice,
colleges could raise the price of these "personalized" plates and sell off
the old "Alumni" plates to college sweethearts who are still married to
each other (God bless 'em) or graduates still struggling with gender
identity issues. Everybody wins!
-- Oversized, Overstuffed and Over Here -- I
often get stuck behind huge trucks carrying mobile homes, nuclear missiles
or pieces of the Alaska pipeline. Invariably, these rigs bear bright
yellow signs reading, "OVERSIZE LOAD."
"Shouldn't that be 'OVERSIZED LOAD'?" you ask.
My point exactly. Like the Captain of the H.M.S. Pinafore, these truckers
never use the big, big "D." Well, hardly ever.
(By the way, don't you think it would be cool
to drive one of those little jeeps with their yellow lights flashing away
that zip around like clown cars in front of these trucks? Me too.)
OK. I can accept other "clipped participles"
(which is what such "D"-less wonders are called): "ice cream" for "iced
cream," "ice tea" for "iced tea" and "toss salad" for "tossed salad."
But to encounter "OVERSIZE LOAD" emblazoned in
big, black capital letters on yellow plastic is grammatically
The Beauty of Our Native Tongue
"Rappahannock." "Allagash." "Monongahela." Were there ever three
more beautiful words for rivers?
All three names (for rivers in Virginia,
Maine and Pennsylvania,
respectively) derive from Native American words.
"I know not a language spoken in Europe," wrote William Penn of Native
American speech, "that hath words of more sweetness or greatness, in
accent or emphasis, than theirs."
English speakers encountering Native American
words sometimes adopted them virtually verbatim. More often, they
shortened, reshaped and Anglicized Native these terms to conform with
familiar English sounds and spellings.
The Micmacs' "maccaribpoo" ("one who paws the
snow"), for instance, became "caribou," while the Algonquian "arakunem"
("creature that scratches with its hands") became "raccoon."
Such altered Native American words provide us
with a rich source of many common English words. Can you match each
English word with its Native American source?
1. opossum 2. Sequoia 3. caucus 4.
succotash 5. squash 6. hickory 7. quahog 8. skunk 9. hominy 10.
menhaden (type of fish) 11. muskrat 12. terrapin 13. toboggan 14.
chipmunk 15. woodchuck
Native American words:
A. segankw B. poquauhock C.
cawcawwassoughes D. munnawhattecug
E. atchitamon F. ockqutchaun G. pawcohiccora H. askutasquash I.
J. aposoum K. torope L. tobakun M. Sikwayi N. msickquatash O. musquash
1. J. aposoum (Powhatan for "white animal")
2. M. Sikwayi (name of a Cherokee chief)
3. C. cawcawwassoughes (Algonquian for "one who advises")
4. N. msickquatash (Narragansett for "boiled corn kernels")
5. H.askutasquash (Narragansett for "squash")
6. G. pawcohiccora (Algonquian for "food prepared from pounded nuts")
7. B. poquauhock (Narragansett for "clam")
8. A. segankw (Algonquian for "he who urinates")
9. I. rokahamen (Algonquian for "pounded meal grain")
10. D. munnawhattecug (Narragansett for "that
which enriches the soil")
11. O. musquash (Massachusett for "muskrat")
12. K. torope (Algonquian for "turtle")
13. L. tobakun (Micmac for "sled made of skins")
14. E. atchitamon (Chippewa for "head first" because these critters like
to descend trees head first)
15. F. ockqutchaun (Narragansett for "woodchuck")
There’s Something Eerie About ‘Aerie’
No subject sparks more debate than pronunciation. (Well, OK, there is that
health-care thing.) Some words cause arguments because they have two or
more acceptable pronunciations.
See whether you can select the correct pronunciation of four of these
tricksters and identify the four words that have two acceptable
1. incongruous – (adj) incompatible, clashing: A. in-KAHNG-groo-wus, or B.
2. credo – (n) belief, creed: A. KRAY-doh, or B. KREE-doh?
3. fracas – (n) noisy quarrel; brawl: A. FRACK-is, or B. FRAY-kis?
4. banal – (adj) trite; commonplace: A. BAY-nul, or B. buh-NAL?
5. waft – (v) to float gently, as if on a buoyant medium: A. WAFT (rhymes
with "raft"), or B. WAHFT?
6. extant – (adj) existing currently or actually A. EK-stint, or B.
7. aerie – (n) elevated nest, position or structure: A. AIR-ee, or B.
8. ration – (n) an allowance or portion of food: A. RASH-in, or RAY-shin?
1. A in-KAHNG-groo-wus. People sometimes mispronounce incongruous because
they associate it with "incongruity," which is accented on the third
syllable – "gru."
2. A. KRAY-doh or B. KREE-doh. "KRAY-doh" is the classic Latin
pronunciation; "KREE-doh" is the Anglicized pronunciation.
3. B. FRAY-kis. Remember that entering the "fray" can lead to a "fracas."
4. A. BAY-nul or B. buh-NAL. "BAY-nul" is more common in America and "buh-NAL"
more common in Britain. When Americans say "buh-NAL," it bears a whiff of
5. A. WAFT or B. WAHFT. Dictionaries formerly preferred "WAFT," but in
recent decades most dictionaries prefer "WAHFT."
6. A. EK-stint. Almost all current dictionaries prefer "EK-stint,"
though "ex-TANT" is still common.
7. AIR-ee or B. EER-ee. Though most authorities originally preferred "EER-ee,"
that pronunciation can easily be confused with "eerie." "AIR-ee"
is consistent with "aerate," "aerial" and "aerobic." For these reasons,
"AIR-ee" seems to be the better choice.
8. A. RASH-in or B. RAY-shin. Until the 1930s, both British and American
dictionaries preferred "RAY-shin," but most now prefer "RASH-in."
Looking Ahead, Our Vision Is
Should we pronounce the current year as "two thousand ten" or "twenty
For the past ten years, most language authorities have quietly tolerated
"two thousand one," "two thousand two," etc.
Not any more. Citing brevity ("two thousand ten" has four syllables;
"twenty ten" has three) and precedent (our great-grandparents said
"nineteen ten"), they insist that we take the training wheels off the 21st
century and say "twenty ten."
But Gene Martin of Hannawa Falls, N.Y., writes me to dissent. He makes a
persuasive case for "two thousand ten," noting that, when we count 2,009
and 2,010 as numbers, we say, "two thousand nine, two thousand ten," not
"twenty oh nine, twenty ten." So why, he asks, should we say "twenty ten"
for the year 2010?
Alas, Mr. Martin, stout-hearted though he be, is
swimming upstream against a raging torrent of usage authorities who
command, "Give me some men who say 'twenty ten'!"
Let's consider two other questions of contemporary usage:
-- Textbook Case -- What's the past tense of the verb "text"? Is it "text"
or "texted"? And, if it's "texted," is "texted" pronounced "tex'd" (one
syllable) or "tex-tid" (two syllables)?
Some verbs do retain their basic form in the past tense -- "thrust,"
"quit," "hit" and "bid" come to mind -- but "text" isn't one of them. Like
most verbs, it simply adds "-ed" to form the past tense.
You might assume that "text" is a new verb coined
during the current text-messaging phase. In fact, the verb "text" dates to
the 1500s, when it had the now-obsolete meanings "to write in a text-hand"
and "to cite texts."
For the past 500 years, writers and speakers have treated "text" as a
regular verb with the past tense "texted," pronunced "text-tid." We should
do the same.
-- "Stem" Cell Breakthrough -- I witnessed the birth of a new transitive
verb the other day when a faculty colleague said, "I hope today's workshop
will stem the conversation about teaching methods."
She clearly meant, not that it would stem (halt) the conversation, but
that it would foster it. While "stem" is widely used as an intransitive
verb to mean "grow from" ("The conversation stemmed from the workshop"),
its use as a transitive verb has, until now, been limited to the "halt"
meaning, as in "stem the tide."
So should we stem (spread) this new usage -- or should we stem (stop) it?
Hmmmm . . .
Brother, Can You Spare an Idiom?
Q. My wife's brother-in-law (my "brother-in-law-in-law"), who came here
from Taiwan a few years ago, ran across the sentence "I can't help but to
go" and asked if it should not be "I can't help but go." I think his point
is correct, but am sure I have heard the expression both ways. What's your
call? -- Jamie Hook, Princeton, N.J.
A. Well, my first call would be to your brother-in-law to apologize for
calling him your "brother-in-law-in-law." One definition of
"brother-in-law" is "the husband of your spouse's sister." Of course,
perhaps your brother-in-law is an attorney, in which case he would indeed
be a "brother-in-law in law."
I guess I'm a little sensitive on this issue because, during the course of
two marriages, I've been fortunate enough to call three fine fellows
married to my wives' sisters "brothers-in-law." One of them taught me to
how to carve a turkey, another how to grill salmon and a third . . . well,
let's just say I know how to hot wire a car.
Your brother-in-law's concerns over "I can't help but to go" are
understandable. Idioms like this are the pirates of English; they're
quirky, illogical and a little dangerous. (Why am I thinking of that third
First, I'd drop the "to"; it's not ungrammatical, but it makes an already
wordy phrase wordier. But is "can't help but go" an acceptable idiom?
Most authorities say yes. While some, like me, would prefer that you drop
"but" and change "go" to a participle ("I can't help going"), most endorse
"can't help but," "cannot help but" and "couldn't help but" as legitimate
After all, they appear regularly in mainstream publications: "I can't help
but wonder . . ." (Houston Post); "One cannot help but rejoice" (New York
Times); "I couldn't help but feel . . ." (New Yorker).
As long as we're on the subject, I can't help listing other similarly
acceptable idioms involving "can" and/or "but." Some may sound stuffy, but
they're still in use:
o "can but" -- I can but weep over the tragedy. No scholar can be but
overwhelmed by the evidence.
o "cannot but" -- I cannot but be moved by you plea. I cannot but think of
my own son.
o "cannot choose but" -- Grammarians cannot choose but be amused by the
vigor and vitality of illogical idioms. Husbands cannot choose but sigh
over the eccentricity of their brothers-in-law.
Origins Served Piping Hot
Mel Kopel of Windsor, Conn., writes to ask why food is served "piping hot"
and a car fresh from the showroom floor is "spanking new" (as opposed to
the "clanking old" clunker you traded in for it).
You could conjure up several tactile or visual explanations for "piping
hot." After all, various types of pipes contain hot water, hot steam or
hot tobacco. Or you might even surmise that the spirals of steam arising
from a hot apple pie reminded someone of vertical pipes.
Alas, these are all pipe dreams. The key sensation behind this phrase is
neither touch nor sight; it is sound.
Food that's hot sometimes makes a hissing or whistling sound as it emits
steam or juices. This sizzling apparently caused someone to think of
musical pipes -- flutes, piccolos, recorders, clarinets, bagpipes. So, a
busy kitchen churning out steaming soups, stews, roasts and vegetables
seemed like a wheezy woodwind ensemble.
As for "spanking new," many amateur word sleuths have succumbed to the "verben
legend" -- that this term derives from the practice of spanking babies
just after birth to start their breathing. And what could be newer than a
seconds- old baby?
It's a charming explanation, but there's no evidence to support it.
Etymologists propose three different origins of "spanking new," and none
involves spanking anyone.
Some contend that the phrase derives from the Scandinavian word "spanke"
(to strut). The idea being that something that struts is good or
exceptionally fine and, by extension, striking or remarkable.
Hence, during the 1700s, people began speaking of a "spanking horse" and
later of a "spanking pace." Soon they were using "spanking" as an adverb,
meaning "extremely," as in "spanking new."
By contrast, the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins traces the
term to a sailor's word for a fresh, lively breeze, the exemplification of
Still others believe "spanking new" is a variation of "span new." As
Charles Earle Funk notes in "Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words," an
old meaning of "span" was "a chip freshly cut by a woodsman's ax," so
"span new" meant "very new."
This meaning of "span" also pops up in another phrase for new or clean --
"spick-and-span." "Spick" is an old word for a spike just off the
blacksmith's forge (presumably, piping hot).
I'm going with the Funky explanation. If you don't agree, spank me!
In Baseball, the Name Is the
Why do baseball players call a fastball a "Linda Ronstadt"? Because she
recorded the song "Blue Bayou," and, if you're a hapless batter, a
sizzling fastball probably just "blew by you."
Why is a fastball that travels more slowly than expected called a "Peggy
Lee"? Because she recorded the wistful ballad "Is That All There Is?"
Why is a batted ball that bounces off the outfield wall called a "Michael
Jackson"? Because he recorded the 1979 album "Off the Wall."
These eponymous phrases are among the more than 10,000 baseball terms
complied by veteran lexicographer Paul Dickson in the newly released third
edition of "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary" (W. W. Norton, $49.95).
Always attuned to lore and language, Dickson ventures far beyond dugout
expressions that have already dug out a place in common American speech --
"pinch hitter," "batting a thousand," "out in left field," "step up to the
plate," "touch all the bases."
His new edition adds fantasy baseball lingo ("Rotisserie League," from the
now defunct New York City restaurant La Rotisserie Francaise, where it was
conceived), terms from our current Moneyball era ("sabermetrics," the
study and mathematical analysis of baseball statistics and records) and
words recently introduced by Latin-American players ("lanzador," Spanish
What's remarkable is how many legendary figures of past times are alive
and well in the lingo of our "national pastime" (a term first used in
A "Michelangelo," for instance, is a superlative pitcher who can paint a
masterpiece from the mound; a "Daniel Webster" is a player who, like the
19th-century orator, is skilled at arguing with opponents; a "Florence
Nightingale" is a sacrifice hitter; a "Jesse James" is an umpire who robs
players; and an "Al Capone" is a twin-killing -- a double-play.
An "Annie Oakley" is a free pass to a baseball game because such tickets
often had holes punched in them, like the playing cards perforated by the
Speaking of accuracy, a "William Tell" is an easily fielded bounding ball
that bounces high enough to knock an apple off a fielder's head. A "Lady
Godiva" is a pitch that has, well . . . nothing on it.
As a former first-baseman, I especially savor the eponymous phrase
"ancient mariner," an inept infielder who, like the inquiring Ancient
Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "stoppeth one of three."
Mrs. Malaprop Is 'Allied' and
may remember Mrs. Malaprop. She's the meddlesome, nettlesome, kettledrum
aunt in Richard Sheridan's 1775 play "The Rivals" who continually
substitutes similar-sounding words for the intended ones.
Mrs. Malaprop tells us, for instance, that she has "little affluence
(influence) over her niece," that a certain gentleman is "the very
pineapple (pinnacle) of politeness," and that another character is as
"headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile."
Judging by a list of quotations recently mailed to me by an anonymous
reader, Mrs. Malaprop is "allied" and well. The reader has collected these
gems over many years; some were uttered by children, some by adults and
some -- yikes! -- actually appeared in print. Can you tell what word or
phrase the speaker or writer meant to use?:
1. Your Honor, my auto insurance collapsed. 2. He lives high like a hog.
3. He's just a prawn. 4. That's a sock and bull story. 5. She has a
6. He's diluting himself. 7. His buddies made out like banshees. 8. They
don't get along; they had a squirmish. 9. I know him like the back of my
own ham. 10. I put her on a pedestool.
11. He's an old stogey. 12. She often goes off on tantrums. 13. I'm tired
of being the meteor between family arguments. 14. She can see into the
future; she's sidekick. 15. We saw the hunchback whales.
16. It's lost to prosperity. 17. I'd call her obeast. 18. She doesn't cow
tail to anyone. 19. He's going to meter out punishment. 20. I had to
rationalize my vaccine.
21. He plans to flea bargain. 22. Don't take your grandmother for granite.
23. Our town is ahead of the curve ball on this. 24. Don't quiver over the
details. 25. She's no rock scientist.
26. They brought the whole kit and kabuki. 27. Let's nip it in the butt.
28. Are you going to put an RV in my arm? 29. We tried, but to no prevail.
30. Q. What was his rationale? A. I think he was a carpenter. Intended
1. lapsed 2. on the hog 3. pawn 4. cock and bull 5. disposition 6.
deluding 7. bandits 8. skirmish 9. hand 10. pedestal 11. fogy 12. tangents
13. mediator 14. psychic 15. humpback 16. posterity 17. obese 18. kowtow
19. mete 20. ration 21. plea 22. granted 23. curve (no ball) 24. quibble
25. rocket 26. caboodle 27. bud 28. IV 29. avail 30. vocation?
Use 'Fewer' Where It Counts
More and more I hear the improper use of the word "less." I was taught
that "fewer" is the word to use when referring to things that can be
counted, however I rarely hear it anymore. Has this word fallen out of
vogue and been replaced with "less" as a one-word-fits-all situation? --
Beulah Dillon, Black River, N.Y.
A. I hereby nominate you for membership in SpuDBuFL -- the Society for the
Preservation of the Distinction Between Fewer and Less. SPuDBuFL was
founded by my seventh-grade English teacher, Emily Morris, who now lives
in Saginaw, Mich., and reads this column regularly. (Hi, Mrs. Morris! I'm
almost done with that extra-credit book report I promised you back in
The rule for "fewer" and "less" remains firm: "Fewer" should be used with
countable items, e.g. "fewer people," "fewer ideas," "10 items or fewer."
"Less" should be used with nouns that typically refer to a mass instead of
an individual item, e.g. "less luggage," "less honesty," "less money."
As with most rules, there are exceptions. "Less than," not "fewer than,"
is used before a plural noun denoting a measure of time, amount or
distance ("less than five minutes," "less than $800," "less than 20
miles"). And "less" can be used with count nouns in the expressions "no
less than, "or less" and "one less" ("no less than 100 people," "25 words
or less," "one less problem to worry about").
The most common mistake is using "fewer" for "less" ("less people," "less
ideas," "10 items or less"). When tempted to do this, pull the SpuDBuFL
membership card from your wallet, and read the slogan Mrs. Morris taught
me: "Use 'fewer' where it counts."
Q. My daughter received this question from her teacher: "How does reading
an eyewitness account of an historical event enrich your understanding?"
Should it be "a historical event"? -- Jan, Windsor, Conn.
A. Traditionally, grammarians have decreed that "a" should be used before
words starting with "h" if the "h" is pronounced. So it would be "a house"
and "a historical event," but "an hour" and "an honor."
But when the accent falls on the second syllable, the "h" is barely
pronounced. So reputable authorities -- even the redoubtable Mrs. Morris
-- now accept the use of "an" before such words, as in "an historical
event" "an habitual offender," "an homogenized mixture." It simply sounds
Is 'These Ones' for
Q. I am hoping that you can settle a long disagreement about
something. Example: Girl goes to the pet store to buy a bird. Salesperson
says, "We have this one here and (points to another cage) these ones."
Isn't "these" plural -- more than one? I hear this everywhere, and it
drives me crazy. -- Jan T., Windsor, Conn.
A. I fully understand why you think "these ones" is for the birds. The
juxtaposition of the plural "these" with a word that epitomizes
singularity -- "one" (even with an "s" attached) -- is indeed jarring.
The word "ones" is what linguists call a "notional singular"; that is,
"one" is so intrinsically associated with the notion of singularity that
its plural form sounds weird.
Grammatically, though, there's absolutely nothing wrong with "these ones."
After all, we say "these books," "these chairs" and "these notional
singulars" all the time . . . well, maybe not "notional singulars."
And, oddly enough, when "one" refers to the number one or to dollar bills,
it's perfectly natural to say, "Group these ones in the left column," or
"Can you give me a $5 bill for these ones?"
But because "these ones" sounds so strange in most contexts, I'd avoid the
phrase altogether. A savvy salesperson will point to another cage and say,
"We also have these birds," or "We also have these," or "Please, please
buy a bird; the only bills I have in my cash drawer are these ones."
Q. I saw a billboard for a couples-matching service today, and it made me
start wondering why "match" is used for both the concept of putting
compatible people, colors, etc., together and for the physical item that
is used to start a fire. Can you light a candle (with a match, maybe) and
enlighten me? -- Carl Guenther, Memphis, Tenn.
A. Wouldn't it be sweet to think that a dating service could spark a fiery
romance between a lad and a lass by "matching" them?
Alas, the "match" that means "a person or thing suitable for another"
derives from the Middle English "macche," a mate or an equal. "Macche," in
turn, derives from the Old English word "macian" (to make), the idea being
that matched items are "made for each other."
The "match" meaning a stick with combustible material on the end comes
from the Middle English "matche," a candlewick. As you requested, I have
"lit a candle" to enlighten you, though somewhat "wick"edly.
Word Twins Are Casualties of
Today, we examine two pairs of words that were separated at birth. These
words originally meant the same thing but have since gone their separate
ways and now won't even speak to each other at family reunions.
-- Casual/casualty. There's nothing "casual" (informal) about a "casualty"
(victim of an accident or war). But despite this stark difference in the
current meanings of "casual" and "casualty," both words ultimately derive
from the Latin noun "casus," meaning "a fall, chance or occurrence."
The adjective "casual," which entered English during the 1300s, originally
meant "occurring by chance, accidental." So when a noun form of "casual"
-- "casualty" -- evolved during the 1400s, it meant "a chance occurrence,
That's the meaning Samuel Johnson had in mind when he wrote in 1777 of a
"happy casualty," that is, a lucky accident.
But, like a wayward brother, "casualty" soon went over to the dark side
and became a very UNhappy "casualty." Because many events that happen by
chance are unfortunate, "casualty" came to become associated exclusively
with unlucky accidents and eventually with the victims of such
misfortunes, as in "battlefield casualties."
Meanwhile, the "good" brother, "casual," continued on his happy way,
playing golf and acquiring sunny new meanings such as "informal" ("casual
clothing"), "nonchalant" ("casual observer") or "temporary" ("casual
water" on a golf course).
That's why, to this day, you almost never see the brothers together.
There's no such thing as a "casual casualty."
-- Veteran/veterinarian. Despite their very different meanings today,
these two words are "old" friends. Literally. Both are derived from Latin
word "vetus," meaning, "old."
One noun form of "vetus" was "veteranus," meaning "an old man," and this
old man, he played one, he played knick-knack in Latin until he became
"veteran" in English, meaning "an experienced person," especially "an
Another form of "vetus" in Latin was "veterinae, "meaning old cattle and
horses." Just as members of the aging Woodstock generation are starting to
feel their aches and pains, the elderly members of the Livestock
generation often needed medical attention.
So the people who treated these "veterinae" ("Does it hurt more BEFORE you
pull the plow or AFTER you pull it?") came to be known themselves as "veterinae,"
which became "veterinarian" in English.
How Do You 'Plead'?
When I was in law school, we were taught to say that your client had
"pled" guilty or not guilty. I'm just wondering what has happened to
"pled." It seems everyone uses "pleaded" now. -- Chuck Fowler, Lorton, Va.
A. Traditionally, "pleaded" has been the preferred past-tense form of
"plead." "Pled," which emerged as a dialectical term in Scotland, during
the 1500s, was carried to America by Scots-Irish immigrants during the
1700s. So while "pled," sometimes spelled "plead," is virtually unknown in
Britain, it flourishes in the United States.
Nevertheless, fussy American usage authorities, many of them Anglophiles,
still condemn "pled." The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance,
decrees, "Do not use the colloquial past tense form, 'pled.'"
I've noticed that Americans tend to use "pled" in legal contexts ("he pled
guilty") but "pleaded" in other situations ("I pleaded with him not to
go"). As a red-blooded American patriot, I love to defy the haughty Brits
every chance I get. So I'm strongly tempted to endorse "pled."
But in good conscience, I can't. Be prudent and use "pleaded" in formal
writing, legal or otherwise. The Redcoats are lurking! The Redcoats are
Q. I am an old lady who is probably the only one in the world who doesn't
know this, but why are psychiatrists called "shrinks"? -- A faithful fan
A. Hmmm . . . And when did you start having these paranoid delusions of
inferiority? In fact, many people have pled . . . er, pleaded guilty to
not knowing the origin of this term.
"Shrink" is a shortening of "headshrinker." Cynics apparently saw a
connection between psychiatrists, who in some cases shrink people's egos,
and tribesmen who shrink dead people's heads.
I'm thinking of Queequeg, the cannibal in Moby Dick who totes a shrunken
head and, when you think about it, does serve as a kind of psychotherapist
The use of "headshrinker" to refer to a psychiatrist first appeared around
1950. It showed up in the 1955 film "Rebel Without a Cause" and the 1957
musical "West Side Story."
The shortened form "shrink" first surfaced during the mid-1960s and was
heard in the 1967 movie "Alice's Restaurant" and the 1968 Frank Zappa song
Not surprisingly, psychiatrists hate . . . er, have developed a hostile
reaction formation . . . to both terms.
A Word -- or Two -- About Usage
our best everyday." "It's all together too difficult." "We see that kind
of behavior alot."
Each of these sentences contains an error involving a choice between one
word or two words. Though we do our best to avoid these mistakes EVERY
DAY, making the correct choice is ALTOGETHER too difficult, so we see
incorrect choices A LOT.
"Everyday," for instance, is an adjective meaning "occurring every day,"
while "every day" is an adverb meaning "daily." "Altogether" means
"completely," while "all together" means "at one place or at the same
time." There is no such word as "alot"; it's "a lot" in all instances.
In some cases, you can use handy devices to test for the right choice. In
choosing between "everyone" and "every one," for instance, substitute
"everybody"; if the sentence makes sense with "everybody," choose
Remember that "already" has to do with time and "all ready" with
preparation. Similarly, "anymore" has to do with time ("Don't get around
much anymore") and "any more" with quantities ("I can't stand any more
arguments"). "Sometime" refers to an unspecified time, usually in the
future, and "some time" means "quite a while."
See whether you can make the correct selection in these sentences. Are you
already, er . . . all ready?
1. Shoplifting is an (everyday, every day) occurrence. 2. It happens
almost (everyday, every day).
3. We sang the passage (altogether, all together). 4. It was (altogether,
all together) too loud.
5. (Everyone, Every one) of us was prepared for the test. 6. (Everyone,
Every one) did well on the test.
7. We were (already, all ready) to go. 8. Dad had (already, all ready)
started the car.
9. He doesn't want (anymore, any more) spaghetti. 10. He doesn't like
spaghetti (anymore, any more).
11. Let's have lunch (sometime, some time). 12. I haven't seen him in
(sometime, some time).
13. The girls played well (alright, all right). 14. Things came out
(alright, all right) in the end.
1. everyday 2. every day 3. all together 4. altogether 5. Every one 6.
Everyone 7. all ready 8. already 9. any more 10. anymore 11. sometime 12.
some time 13. all right (Like "alot," "alright" is still regarded as a
non-word by most traditional grammarians.) 14. all right
The Word Guy: Take A Whirl On The Luggage Carousel
and gentlemen, I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but I'm going to have to go
through your luggage…
-- luggage -- Could this word for fancy-schmancy designer "travel ware"
actually be derived from the word "lug," meaning to drag or pull? Yup --
and it dates all the way back to 1595, when the fancy French ending "-age"
was attached to "lug," like putting a pink ribbon on a bull dog.
The origin of "baggage," by the way, is slightly more elegant. It derives,
not from "bag," but from the French "bagues," belongings.
-- valise -- Speaking of French, "valise" doesn't derive from it. This
term for a small piece of hand luggage originated with the Italian "valigia."
(OK, smarty pants, so the French turned "valigia" into "valise" and then
shipped it to English.)
-- duffel -- If, while waiting in an overcrowded airport, you've ever had
to park your duff on your soft duffel bag, you might wonder whether this
portable marshmallow is dubbed for the derriere.
In fact, it's named for the town of Duffel in northern Belgium, which
became famous for producing a coarse heavy woolen material with a thick
nap. This fabric was used to make coats ("duffel coat") and large carryall
Eventually, "duffel" came to refer to any large bag, whether made of
duffel fabric or not. And speaking of a thick nap, you can also take one
while lying on a duffel.
-- knapsack -- And, no, the word "knapsack" has nothing to do with
catching a few winks. It derives from the German words "knappen" (to bite)
and "sack" (bag). Originally, a "knapsack" was a small bag that held a
soldier's rations, i.e. a bite to eat. Another name for a knapsack is
"rucksack," from the German dialect word "Ruck" (back).
-- portmanteau -- The name for this large leather suitcase that opens into
two hinged compartments derives from the French "porter" (to carry) and "manteau"
(cloak). Its dual compartments also inspired the linguistic term
"portmanteau word," a word formed by merging the meaning and sound of two
existing words, as in "smog" (from "smoke" and "fog").
-- Pullman -- When George Pullman invented the spacious Pullman, a
sleeping car for railroad trains, during the 1860s, the large suitcases
Pullman car passengers brought aboard for overnight trips also became
known as "Pullmans." And, now that such large suitcases have wheels,
they're "Pull-mans" in more ways than one.
Basically, Mistakes Were Made
Bernard Madoff said he "made a mistake." Well, at least he didn't resort
to an even wormier cliche -- "made a poor decision."
Here's a quick look at the current crop of overused terms. Call them "Ponzi
-- Energizing the "Basis." Newscasters have recently been touching all the
"bases." They're continually updating us on a "daily basis," "a regular
basis," "an overnight basis" and even a "need-to-know basis." Basically,
I'd say we need to "No!" "basis"!
-- And Speaking of "Basically" . . . Has there ever been a more overused
word? It's a common sentence starter that should be a "nonstarter"
(another cliche by the way). My first car, a '57 Chevy, was often a
-- In Praise of Athlete's Feat. Alan Clem of Vermillion, S.D., notes that
TV sportscasters invariably refer to the "athleticism" of top performers.
Aren't they all athletic? You may be a jock, but don't be an "athleticism"
-- Pulp "Fic"tion. TV newscasts no longer report horrible accidents; they
report "horrific" accidents. Does that mean that "terrible accidents" will
soon become "terrific accidents"?
-- Kit and Cabootool. OK, so computer programs have toolboxes and tool
bars; ("I'll have a Spellcheck on the rocks"). But the trendiest new tool
phrase is "toolkit." A reporter for NPR recently noted that "personal
information, including biodata, is a toolkit for identity thieves." Come
to think of it, make that drink a "screwdriver."
-- Flush the "System." Alice Lamont of Middletown, Conn., notes that
everything these days is a "system." Tooth whiteners, for example, are
"tooth-whitening systems," and a vacuum cleaner is "a sophisticated
multi-surface cleaning system." What's next? A "toolkit system"?
-- May Tricks. This spring, more and more reporters seemed to be using
"matrix" instead of "factors," "elements" or "issues," as in "This is the
matrix President Obama will have to consider in choosing a Supreme Court
nominee." I know it's a great movie franchise, but give it a rest.
-- Met Tricks. Emailer Robb Stovel (I like the double "b"!) fires a bb at
the trendy term for "measure" or "calculation" -- "metrics," as in "The
metrics aren't there for him to carry Ohio." Robb also targets the
ubiquitous "election cycle," which sounds like an option on a washing
Make that a "wishing machine." Don't you wish all these tired terms could
be washed away?
Summer Visitors -- and Some
James once remarked that the two most beautiful words in the English
language are "summer afternoon." If he had experienced the weather in the
Northeast this summer, he might have found another phrase even lovelier:
"It's stopped raining!"
The English word "summer" derives from the Sanskrit term "sama," which
meant "year" or "season." Occasionally, we still encounter the use of
"summer" to mean "year," as in, "She was a lass of 17 summers" (to
paraphrase the Beatles).
The verb "summer," meaning "to spend the summer," always struck me as a
snooty term that must have evolved during the Gilded Age when the robber
barons started "summering" at Newport. So I was surprised and heartened to
learn that the verb "summer" first appeared during the 1400s to describe
the movement of livestock to a summer pasture for grazing.
Come to think of it, there is a herd-like quality to the wealthy as they
migrate from one trendy summer spot to the next, seeking to be, in F.
Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful phrase, "wherever people are rich together."
(Pet peeve: big shots' saying they "divide their time" between their
winter and summer homes.)
A little-used but noteworthy summer verb is "estivate," which sounds
deliciously naughty -- or at least lucrative.
Sorry to disappoint you. "Estivate," from the Latin word "aestas"
(summer), means the same thing as "to summer," and, like "summer," bears a
zoological meaning. When applied to animals, "estivate," the counterpart
of "hibernate," means to "spend the summer in a dormant or torpid state."
"Hibernate" has taken on the general meaning of "to be in an inactive
state," regardless of the season, producing incongruous sentences such as,
"He's hibernating in the Adirondacks this summer."
Year-round residents of summer resorts have devised many words for
estivators: "summer people," "low-landers," "off-islanders" and a whole
bunch of other names I can't repeat here. (If you know of local terms for
seasonal visitors that I CAN repeat, please send them my way.)
According to a regional note in the American Heritage Dictionary of the
English Language, Maine natives have formulated a characteristically wry
lexicon for such estival invaders. Along the coast they're known as "summercaters,"
inland as "sports" and statewide as "folks from away."
So, from Campobello to Kittery, the most beautiful words in the English
language are "Summah-catahs ah-gawhn!"
Do the Right -- and Left --
What blunder really ticks you off?
A. People who don't use their turn signals! -- Oh, you mean VERBAL
blunder? As I said, people who don't use their turn signals!
Transitions --- words and phrases such as "however," "similarly" and
"therefore" -- are the turn signals of language. By indicating the
relationship between the previous sentence or paragraph and upcoming
ideas, they tell the reader where the writer is going. A writer who fails
to use transitions is as incompetent as a driver who fails to use turn
Transitional words and phrases can indicate several kinds of patterns,
directions or shifts:
-- Sequence: "first," "second," "finally," "lastly"
-- Chronology: "then," "eventually," "later," "still"
-- Addition: "another," "also," "furthermore," "too"
-- Similarity: "likewise," "in the same way," "equally"
-- Exemplification: "for example," "in particular," "such as"
-- Emphasis: "above all," "moreover," "what is most"
-- Result: "consequently," "accordingly," "so," "thus"
-- Concession: "even so," "despite that," "anyway"
-- Contrast: "on the other hand," "by contrast," "however"
-- Digression: "by the way," "incidentally," "in passing"
-- Summary: "in conclusion," "above all," "to sum up"
How skillful are you at using transitions? See whether you can select an
appropriate transition to express the relationship between the first and
second sentences in each pair:
1. Most people believe that we must use less oil. Finding practical
alternatives to petroleum has been difficult.
2. Using less oil will decrease our dependence on foreign countries. It
will help preserve the natural environment.
3. The search for new sources of energy is a top national priority. The
government is spending billions of dollars to fund research in this area.
4. Many forms of alternative energy are being explored or re-examined.
Research is being conducted on bio-fuels, wind power and solar energy.
5. Skeptics of new technologies point out that these sources aren't yet
cost-effective. Continuing research serves our long-term national
6. European nations are searching for ways to lower their greenhouse gas
emissions. The United States is seeking to tighten emissions standards.
Transitions: 1. contrast 2. addition 3. result 4. exemplification 5.
concession 6. similarity
Caution: Verbal Congestion
now a morning drive with Traff Trendspeak, the poster boy of cliche-spouting
TV and radio traffic reporters:
Word Guy: Will we encounter any delays on the interstate this morning?
Traff: Looks like YOUR morning commute will be smooth sailing in YOUR car
on YOUR route to YOUR job.
WG: But what about everyone else's morning commute? Do you think they'll
encounter any delays this morning?
Traff: Just a tap of the brakes near Exit 43, but otherwise clear sailing
through the tunnel? Tap of the brakes.
WG: But if I tap my brakes, it doesn't really slow down the car at all �
Traff: Speaking of dealing with your morning commute, looks like you might
be dealing with a few delays up ahead similar to the delays you were
dealing with yesterday.
WG: I guess we'll just have to deal with it.
Traff: Watch out! There's an accident working in the right lane!
WG: Gee, thanks! By the way, how hard does an accident work? How much does
it get paid? � Uh, OK, now it looks as if the cars in the accident are
being towed away and everyone is leaving.
Traff: Oh, yeah, that accident is in the process of clearing.
WG: Does the accident take away the dishes only, or does it remove the
silverware and wine glasses as well? � Say, what are those police cars
doing on the side of the road?
Traff: Oh, that's police activity. You see that a lot these day, police
WG: But what kind of activity? Manhunt? Hostage standoff? Or just that
thing where two police cars face each other going in opposite directions
on the median so their drivers can talk?
Traff: Those police, they like their activities, ya' know what I�m sayin'?
WG: Hmmm -- I seem to smell smoke.
Traff: Oh, it looks like we might have a smoke situation in the tunnel up
WG: Is that different from a rubbernecking situation, a construction
situation or a merging situation?
Traff: Not really. They're all basically situation situations.
Parker, Colo. -- Land of
near and far come bloopers bizarre. Can you spot the errors?
1. "Parker, Colo., has one of the highest medium household incomes in the
United States." Its fortunetellers are very wealthy. (Spotted by Christina
Gore, Wichita, Kan.)
2. " ... big ticket items including an $80,000 road grater." Works well on
roads that look like Swiss cheese. (Janice Mastriano, Hightstown, N.J.)
3. "He's going to sale around the world." In the merchant marine? (Henry
Smith, East Hartford, Conn.)
4. "[A basketball team]... has become relevant in its own rite." It's
almost a cult. (Wynn Sullivan, Pittsburgh)
5. "... a state entity that overseas seniority issues for public
employees." Does it send their jobs abroad? (Moreland Houck, Trenton,
6. "At the height of his rein, [Blackbeard] commanded a fleet of four
ships." In the horse latitudes? (Charlie Duncan, Potsdam, N.Y.)
7. "For all intensive purposes, our new President, Barack Obama �" Well,
he did overreact to Skip Gates' arrest. (Alan Clem, Vermillion, S.D.)
8. "Mr. Watters asked Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont about that state's
criminal statues." Some of them ARE carrying weapons. (Doris Griffith,
9. "Lavishly... quaffed, with hair that changed color with each episode
..." I guess she drank the expensive stuff. (Lawrence Manion, Glenfield,
10. "Appetizers include muscles in marinara." Cannibal's delight! (John
Daigle, Vernon, Conn.)
11. "He's got to prove his meddle." Or at least that he can interfere just
a little. (Lynn Bethke, Sioux Falls, S.D.)
12. This will keep our dyer needs on the front burner. A colorful
expression! (Mark Lander, Old Lyme, Conn.)
13. "The newspapers were stalked up on the porch." Along with a lot of
Jack's L. L. "Bean" catalogs. (Judy Beck, Sterling Heights, Mich.)
14. "[A driver] was charged with... aggravated alluding." Officer, please
don't treat me like Jean Valjean or Raskolnikov! (Terry Vaughn, Gerretson,
S.D.) 15. "People have demonized eggs and egg yokes." Well, they do make
oxen's necks turn yellow. (Carol Fine, Bloomfield, Conn.)
1. highest median household incomes
2. road grader
3. sail around the world
4. own right
5. oversees seniority issues
6. height of his reign
7. all intents and purposes
8. criminal statutes
9. coifed or coiffed
10. mussels in marinara
11. prove his mettle
12. dire needs
13. stacked up
14. aggravated eluding
15. egg yolks
Scoreless Game Have a Score?
Q. I was watching a
Yankees versus Blue Jays game last week, and after the second inning,
Michael Kay announced that there was no score. Ken Singleton countered
that there was a score: nothing to nothing after two innings. Who's right?
-- Walter Nohstadt Jr., Columbus, N.J.
A. One reason I love baseball is that those pauses between innings allow
time for reflection on linguistic subtleties and, oh yeah, commercials.
Both commentators have scored here. That's because "score" has two
applicable meanings: the tally of points or runs scored in a game, thus
"the score is 0-0"; and the scoring of a point or a run, hence "there is
(or has been) no score since the game began."
Everyone knew what Kay meant, of course; people say "there's no score" all
the time to describe 0-0 games. But, as a nitpicking word nut, my instinct
is to side with Singleton -- there was indeed a score: 0-0. Technically,
Kay should have said, "There has been no scoring."
Q. "Onomatopoeia" is a well-known term for words that sound like their
meaning, such as "buzz," "splash," "zap," etc. But is there a term for
words that sound UN-like what you would expect, given their definition,
such as "pulchritude"? -- Matt McClimons, East Hampton, Conn.
A. I know the kind of word you mean. "Pulchritude," which means "beauty,"
is a great example because it sounds like something, if not exactly ugly,
then puffy, ponderous and unattractive. When I was in college, if one of
my friends had tried to set me up on a blind date by saying, "You'll be
overwhelmed by her pulchritude," I probably would have said, "No thanks."
Similarly, "defenestration" sounds like some kind of dainty decoration or
analytical, cerebral process when in fact it refers to being pushed out of
a window. KERSPLAT! And I've always thought the name "dogwood" was barking
up the wrong (lovely) tree.
Alas, after searching high and low, I can't find any literary or
linguistic term for a word sounding like the opposite of what it means.
So, rather than resort to defenestration, I'll turn to you, my
pulchritudinous readers, for help:
1. Do you know of an existing term for such words?
2. Can you invent a term for such words?
3. Can you provide examples of such words?
In a few weeks, I'll provide a full report on your responses.
I Do! I Do!
my desk, behind a pile of old maps and erudite notes to myself ("Pick up
milk!"), I recently found a year-old letter from Richard Carey of Somers,
Conn., which raised three very good questions:
1. Why do people sometimes write a double "do," as in "they do do that?"
2. Which is correct: "I have drank too many" or "I have drunk too many"?
3. Why don't I have a more organized filing system for readers' letters?
Since I'm already in deep trouble for misplacing Mr. Carey's missive,
let's start with the "do do."
The verb "do," in addition to meaning everything from "accomplish" to
"kill," is also used to show emphasis. So, just as we might say of
disorganized writers, "they do have filing systems" or "they do maintain
folders for unread letters," we say, "they do do some things to control
clutter." All true, by the way.
Now this double "do" construction sounds fine when someone SPEAKS the
sentence, putting the proper emphasis on the first "do": "They DO do some
things to control clutter." But when the sentence is written -- "They do
do some things" -- the double "do" looks, well, "do"bious.
What to do? In formal writing, try to avoid stepping into the double "do."
Instead, use adverbs such as "definitely," "really" or "absolutely" to
convey emphasis, e.g. "They definitely do some things to control clutter."
Just an aside, but don't you love how we now use "do" as a noun to
describe a party ("big do") or a hairstyle ("new do")? Our language is so
Uh, where was before I became drunk on the elixir of English? Oh, yes,
"drunk" and "drank."
The correct inflection of the verb "to drink" is "drink" (present),
"drank" (past) and "drunk" (past participle). So it's "I drink water
today," "I drank water yesterday" and "I have drunk water many times."
In the authoritative guide "Modern American Usage," Bryan Garner suggests
that people often say or write "I have drank" because they associate
"drunk" with being inebriated. My own experience is that this is
especially likely to happen when these speakers and writers are themselves
inebriated. When you are drunk, who wants to say, "I have drunk"?
And, of course, never drink and "drive." This can lead to sentences such
as, "I drived over yesterday" and "I have droven." Pick up milk!
Modifiers Wander, Readers Wonder
happens when a writer puts a word or phrase in the wrong place?
It's not pretty. Consider these examples spotted by readers in newspapers
and magazines . . . or, that readers have spotted in newspapers and
-- "Bring a blanket for sitting on the floor and your friends." Plenty of
baby sitters available. (Spotted by Dick Wenner, West Hartford, Conn.)
-- "Former Sun forward Taj McWilliams became just the 10th player in
league history to score 4,000 points last week." Now THAT's a high-scoring
week! (Spotted by Bill Davies, North Haven, Conn.)
-- "In 1955 we were able to buy a home with a Veterans Administration loan
and indoor plumbing." I guess they were more flush than they thought. (Art
Frackenpohl, Watertown, N.Y.)
-- "Relax after a hard day of shopping in our creek-side pool." Bring your
liquid assets. (B.J. Murray, via e-mail)
-- "Last night in Oviedo a man was shot through his front door." At least
it wasn't his barn door! (Michael via e-mail)
-- "In 1945, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara
Petacci, were executed by Italian partisans trying to flee the country." I
hate to execute and run, but � (John Daigle, Vernon, Conn.)
-- "Cronkite recorded the introduction to the newscast he anchored for
nearly two decades in 2006." Perhaps 2006 just SEEMED like 20 years. (J.
Dexiar via e-mail)
-- "I am unable to identify a particular bug that was problematic in my
vegetable garden, even searching the Internet." That's one tech-savvy
insect! (Norm Stevens, Storrs, Conn.)
-- "Known as the Frick Collection, Helen wanted to keep the house as it
had been lived in �"
That's a cute nickname. (Carol Brinjak, Pittsburgh.)
-- "Declared a World Heritage Site in 2004, UNESCO cited the 14th-century
abbey as an irreplaceable treasure." I guess a lot of international
tourists visit U.N. headquarters. (Alan Clem, Vermillion, S.D.)
-- "Dear Amy: What is the appropriate way to handle canceling gift
exchanges with our family members who live in various states we seldom
see?" On a clear day, you can see Russia. (Jim Rhoades, Uncasville, Conn.)
-- "[A man] was charged with consuming alcohol under 21 years of age." He
served a wine before its time. (Betty Lundy, West Point, Miss.)
Errors of Your 'Ways'
am writing regarding a recent newspaper headline: "It Is Way Better To
Feel Good Than To Look Good." When I was growing up, I would have been
told to use the adverb "much" instead of "way" in that sentence. Could you
please comment on this usage? -- Rob Pease, Hartford, Conn.
A: The use of "way" as an intensifying adverb, meaning "to a great degree,
much," as in "way off base" and "way more than I expected," has popped up
occasionally in English ever since the 1300s. But it didn't become well-
established in standard English until the early 1900s.
During the early 20th century, commentators frowned on this new use of
"way," and it was generally restricted to set phrases involving distance
or time, such as "way beyond," "way up," "way earlier," "way later."
By the 1950s, respectable writers were using the adverbial "way," even
though it still bore a whiff of informality: William H. Whyte -- "� and
that's way, way down"; William Bundy -- "� falls way short of what might
have been done"; William F. Buckley -- " � the market �
was way down." (Given the first name of these writers, you might say,
"Where there's a 'Will,' there's a 'way.'")
In recent years, however, young people have been using "way" as a general
intensifier and applying it to any adjective they can find -- "way cool,"
"way bad," "way random." These extensions of the adverbial "way" beyond
the distance and time phrases may eventually become standard English; for
now, they're not.
This use of "way" as a generational marker has probably made every use of
the adverbial "way" sound nonstandard to mature ears. Even legitimate uses
of "way" may seem suspect.
While I won't try to concoct a hard-and-fast rule about when to use the
adverbial "way," you're safer doing so when "way" can be replaced with
"much" than when it can be replaced with "very." Hence, "way beyond," "way
nicer," "way richer" are OK, while "way annoying," "way nice" and "way
rich" are, well, way annoying.
The "way better" used in the headline, for instance, falls into a gray
area. "Much better" would certainly be more traditional. But "way better,"
while informal, can't really be considered nonstandard. Perhaps the
headline writer was trying to appeal to the younger set.
"Younger set"? Did I just write that? Now there's a generational marker!
Here's Whom to Tell It
Q: Years ago, during an argument or dispute, a popular
expression was, "Tell it to Sweeney!" Who was "Sweeney"? Real or
fictitious? A friendly bartender, or the "Dear Abby" of that time? -- Ed
Lukaszewski, New Britain, Conn.
A: "Tell it to Sweeney," originally meaning "tell it to someone naive or
ignorant enough to believe it," is a variation of another popular phrase,
"Tell it to the marines!"
Most sources believe the latter expression arose in the British navy.
During the early 1800s, British sailors, salty sea dogs that they were,
apparently regarded the marines as gullible greenhorns. So when someone
spun a yarn so outrageous that only a naive person would believe it, the
sailors would say, "Tell it to the marines!"
The phrase was in common use by 1820, even appearing in Lord Byron's poem
"The Island" (1823) and Sir Walter Scott's novel "Redgauntlet" (1824).
"Tell that to the marines -- the sailors won't believe it."
Sometime during the late 1800s, the Brits concocted a new variation: "Tell
it to Sweeney!" Why Sweeney? As the New Dictionary of American Slang
explains it, "Sweeney is one of a group of surely mythical Irishmen, like
Riley, Kelsey and Kilroy, whose names are used apparently for some
When both phrases jumped the pond to the U.S. during the early 20th
century, all heck broke loose. "Tell it to Sweeney," still bearing its
original meaning, became a popular slang term among young people during
And by midcentury, cigar-chomping newspaper editors at big-city tabloids
had given the phrase a new meaning: "Write stories in simple language that
the average working stiff will understand." In fact, John Chapman's
informal history of the New York Daily News, published in 1961, was titled
"Tell It to Sweeney."
Meanwhile, "tell it to the marines" was experiencing an Americanization of
its own. In the U.S., where Marines were regarded as tough, no-nonsense
"leathernecks," "tell it to the marines" came to mean "just TRY to tell
that to that realistic, hard-bitten bunch; they'll never believe it."
That's the meaning President Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind when he
responded laconically to Japan's unverified claims of victory during the
early months of World War II, "Tell it to the Marines." Of course, he also
meant that the U.S. Marines would play a key role in Japan's defeat.
How to Avoid a Splitting
Q: Is it technically
correct to say, "This will allow us to better serve you," rather than
"This will allow us to serve you better"? -- Joyce Nunge, Charlottesville,
A: Ah, the split infinitive question. Perhaps no other grammatical issue
incites more righteous indignation, most of it unjustified.
Just what is a split infinitive? An infinitive is the tenseless form of a
verb preceded by "to," as in "to go" or "to eat." Splitting an infinitive
is placing an adverb or adverb phrase between the "to" and the "verb," as
in "to quietly go" or "to joyfully eat."
The split infinitive was cruising along very happily in English, thank
you, until the late 1800s. That's when classically-minded grammarians
decreed that, because infinitive forms of Latin verbs couldn't be split,
English infinitives shouldn't be split either.
Soon teachers and editors were indoctrinating students and writers with
this pedantic prohibition. As a young English teacher during the 1970s,
for instance, I regularly scolded my students for using split infinitives.
The prohibition on split infinitives does have three seductive charms: 1.
It's a simple rule that everyone can understand. 2. It's sometimes valid.
3. It has a catchy name.
To amplify on No. 2, splitting an infinitive is sometimes unwise because
doing so buries the all-important adverb. "Try to correctly write this"
(split) is weaker than "Try to write this correctly" (unsplit).
But in many cases, a split infinitive sounds smoother and more rhythmic
than an unsplit one. The classic example of a justified split is found in
the phrase from the "Star Trek" TV series: "To boldly go where no man has
gone before." "To go boldly" would sound stilted.
Similarly, "This will allow us to better serve you" sounds more natural
than "to serve you better," especially because the unsplit version places
"better" in the spot where a direct object might be found, as in "This
will allow us to serve you butter."
And sometimes an unsplit infinitive can lead to ambiguity. In the
sentence, "This will allow us better to serve you," for instance, "better"
could modify the verb "allow," which changes the meaning of the sentence.
So, feel free to split an infinitive when doing so prevents awkwardness or
ambiguity. This will allow you to better serve your reader.