Beware the Mad Slasher! Stalking the dark alleys of English, he suddenly leaps from the shadows to slice sentences with his razor-keen blade.
No magazine, memo or monograph is safe from his gash, and he's attacking more frequently and more randomly.
A devil with a knife, the slasher can split ("his/her"), or trim ("care of" to "c/o"), or ...Read more
Early in my freshman year at a college in Massachusetts, a classmate asked me if I wanted go out for a "grinder" and a "frappe" (pronounced "frap").
Being from New York State, I had no idea what he was talking about. But to me, his proposed expedition bore the whiff of something illicit, even dangerous.
"Sure!" I said, only to be ...Read more
When I was in my early 20s, my parents bombarded me with career advice: "Why don't you be a dentist?" or "Why don't you go into accounting?" or "Why don't you write a newspaper column about words?" OK, so I made up the last one.
Annoyed by this nudging, I began to refer to these suggestions as "Why don't yous" or, more accurately, "...Read more
Why is something easy called a "cinch"? And why is something that's absolutely guaranteed a "lead-pipe cinch"?
"Cinch," which first entered English during the 1850s from the Spanish "cincha," means a band, belt or strap encircling the body of an animal, such as a horse, to fasten a saddle to its back.
Because a cinch is secure, "cinch" soon ...Read more
Q: When did the verb "to be" suddenly disappear from proper usage -- specifically, not using "to be" in phrases such as "That light bulb needs replaced"? In a TV commercial for Safelite AutoGlass a technician says, "When your windshield needs fixed, trust Safelight." -- Daniel Murphy, West Hartford, Conn.
Really? Yup. I checked this ad out on...Read more
On the radio the other day, I heard the gifted singer and songwriter, Shara Worden, describe a rejection early in her career as "so angering."
This use of the participle "angering" sounded odd to me. I knew what she meant, of course, but I started to picture a rejection, if there is such a creature, growing red in the face and shooting steam ...Read more
Q. When introducing a returning contestant, the announcer on Jeopardy frequently says, for example, "whose three-day cash winnings total thirty thousand, four hundred, one dollar." Shouldn't he say "dollars"? -- Anne Marie Christensen, Bloomfield, Conn.
A. He should.
In fact, the answer to your question can be found right in your checkbook, ...Read more
What a year it's been for us,
The world, it seems, in such a fuss.
Putin, Isis, Mideast storming,
Not to mention global warming.
Words and phrases took a jump,
Inflated just like Donald Trump.
Give him credit, he's no stooge;
Everything he did was "YUUUUGE!"
Hil met Bernie, he did rail
'Bout focus on her "damn email."
Other pols ...Read more
I, Alexandra (A Legacy of Stehle's Door)William M. O'Brien Jr.
It began very incidentally. One odd occurrence after another. Then came the dreams. And then the apparitions. Alexandra and Stephanie had figured something was wrong early on. Then, one bright Saturday morning, Johanna appeared. Chased into her apartment and hiding in a locked downstairs ...
I'm continually astounded at the ability of the English language to furnish new words for new needs. When innovative technologies, trends or ideas expose gaps in the front line of our vocabulary, we quickly send in fresh soldiers -- new words -- to plug the holes.
People are taking snapshots of themselves with their cell phones? "Selfies!" ...Read more
As the holiday season casts its spell over us, give your favorite word lover (possibly yourself!) one of these new books about words and language.
Speaking of spelling, "Alphabetical -- How Every Letter Tells a Story," by Michael Rosen (Counterpoint, $25) traces the fascinating origins of the 26 English letters. If you turn an "A" upside down...Read more
Why is an informer called a "stool pigeon?"
During the early 1800s, American hunters, in the not-so-subtle process of blasting billions of passenger pigeons into extinction, would attract their quarry with decoy pigeons.
(Trigger alert: Gruesome detail revealing cruelty of 19th Century America coming up).
Sometimes hunters would sew shut ...Read more
Are you a valiant soldier on the front lines of verbal knowledge? Take this quiz on common usage errors to find out. Forward, into the breech ... er, breach!
1. The villagers tried to fill the (a. breech b. breach) in the brick wall with logs.
2. They'll reinforce the foundation as a (a. preventive b. preventative) measure.
3. The diplomats...Read more