Q. Has the adverb "really" completely disappeared from usage? I hear sentences such as: "The shoes are real tight"; "The clerk was real nice"; "It was a real good movie." -- Robert Derosier, West Hartford, Conn.
A. Darn! Thanks to your question, now I can't get the lyrics from a song in the musical "Carousel" out of my head: "This was a real ...Read more
Q. What is the derivation of "pea coat" for the U.S. Navy jacket? It's time I knew, since I was in the Seabees for a few years. -- Kaz Glista via email
A. During college, I worked one summer for two former World War II Seabees who ran a driveway paving business. Nice guys, but, wow, the work was hot and hard!
"Seabees," of course, is a ...Read more
Whether you're headed for peak, park or porch this summer, tote along one of these new books about language.
Visiting England? Be sure to bring along Erin Moore's charming "That's Not English -- Briticisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us" (Gotham, $25.95). The Brits, Moore explains, are more subtle than we Yanks. While we ...Read more
Can you name the innovations that necessitated these new terms: "static billboard," "wet signature," "paper book," "traditional cigarette"?
Think "electronic" -- electronic billboards, e-signatures, e-books and e-cigarettes.
"Wet signature," "static billboard," "paper book" and "traditional cigarette" are retronyms -- words or phrases coined...Read more
Do you know that "masterful," which now means "skilled," once had a distinctly negative meaning: "domineering, dictatorial"? Likewise, "meticulous," which now means "scrupulous, very careful," once meant "overly careful, obsessive."
Linguists call this improvement in a word's meaning "amelioration." I call it "breaking good."
But other words...Read more
Q. My new neighbor is from Sweden. When she saw a dog-grooming shop, she asked what "grooming" had to do with a "groom" at a wedding. We came up with two theories: 1) the need to clean up the future husband for the wedding ceremony, or 2) a "groom," meaning someone responsible for keeping horses in top shape. Is either one correct? -- Cyndi ...Read more
Graduates of the college class of 2015:
I'm honored to be your commencement speaker today ... blah, blah, blah. Let's get right to the important stuff. As you interview for jobs, avoid these verbal potholes:
1. "I graduated college last week..." This phrasing will scorch the ears of anyone over 30. Say: "I graduated FROM college."
2. ...Read more
Today, two questions about plural forms of payment...
Q. Yesterday I used the word "monies," and my 14-year-old daughter accused me of making it up. I was able to convince her it is a real word by using the Internet, but I have been unable to accurately explain to her why we use it and when it is appropriate to use it instead of "money." Can ...Read more
I love palindromes! Or, to put that another way, "Sem ord nil ape. Voli!"
What's a palindrome?
Though the word "palindrome" sounds as if it might refer to a sports arena where good friends race bicycles, "palindrome" actually denotes any word, phrase or sentence that reads the same backward or forward.
"Palindrome" derives from the Greek ...Read more
Q. Why is "No." the abbreviation for "number" ("No. 1 player"), when the word "number" doesn't even have an "o" in it? -- Carl Faith via email
A. Many English abbreviations seem odd because they're derived from Latin. In this case, for instance, the abbreviation "No." is a shortening of "numero," the ablative form of the Latin noun "numerus."...Read more
Welcome to The One-Minute Grammager: straightforward answers to 10 usage questions in just 60 seconds.
--Is it "nerve-wracking" or "nerve-racking"? The latter. "Wrack" means "to completely destroy," as in "wrack and ruin." "Rack" means "to torture, torment," as in "rack your brains" or "nerve-racking."
--Do we wait with "baited breath" or "...Read more
Q. Lately I've been annoyed by the misuse of "after" in news headlines, e.g., "Seven hurt after lightning strike" (print) and "House demolished after two-alarm fire" (TV). The accompanying news stories made it clear that the lightning did indeed hurt the people and the fire did indeed destroy the house. When did "after" become a synonym for "...Read more
Hear ye! Hear ye! The Word Court is now in session. Today we will rule on three cases:
All Tolled vs. All Told
This phrase is most often used to indicate a complete accounting of items, e.g., "All told, 23 women and 24 men enrolled in the course." Some writers use "tolled," perhaps because collecting a toll or tolling a bell might involve ...Read more