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
Q. I've heard that the phrase "pie in the sky" was coined by the radical labor leader Joe Hill. Is that true? -- Carl Faith via email
A. That's not a "pie in the sky" folk tale. It IS true!
Joe Hill, a member of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World, was a legendary labor activist and songwriter. In 1911, he wrote a parody of the...Read more
Q. I recently told a fellow Steinway Society board member that no apostrophe is needed in "winners recital" (a concert featuring several pianists) any more than one is needed in "teachers union." What we have here is a noun modifying another noun. What's that called? -- Fritz Marston, Ewing, N.J.
A. A noun mound? Actually, the term for a noun...Read more
In crafting a college recommendation for a student recently, I unintentionally sailed into the murky mist of ambiguity by writing: "She is very bright, if not brilliant."
Hmm... Does this mean she's very bright but not brilliant, or very bright and maybe even brilliant? I meant the latter, of course, but the "if not" is ambiguous.
So to all ...Read more
Q. Why do we say something "fits to a T"? -- Al Cohen, Newington, Conn.
A. Well, this idiom definitely doesn't come from "fits to a T-shirt," because every T-shirt I've worn lately is either too baggy or too tight. A large T-shirt makes me look like a draped haystack, and a medium makes me feel like a tightly wrapped mummy.
In fact, the "T" ...Read more
See whether you can spot the errors in these excerpts from newspapers and magazines:
1. "Every student ... started out under Weene's tootiledge?" Was he a trumpet teacher? (submitted by Paul Burton, Staten Island, N.Y.)
2. (From a restaurant review) "I look forward to more of the creative and delicious combinations that my pallet so ...Read more
As my friends know, I'm a mild-mannered and easy-going man. (Well... OK, there was that one time when the guy stole my parking space.)
So when it comes to grammar and usage, I often tolerate errors that more doctrinaire word experts would condemn, e.g., the misuse of "disinterested" for "uninterested" ("the students grew disinterested"), the ...Read more
"Gaffer"? "Key Grip"? "Foley Artist"?
As the Academy Awards approach, let's explore the origins of those strange job titles that scroll by during movie credits. We'll get help from Richard Weiner's book "The Skinny about Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads and Other Media Lingo" (Random House, $14.95). Action!
On a film set, the "gaffer" ...Read more
Grab your cudgel, mate! We're plunging into the origins of "donnybrook," "brouhaha" and "ruckus." And, because experts disagree about the sources of some of these words, you can expect a real hair-pulling match as disputatious amateurs and etymologists mix it up.
--Donnybrook: For more than six centuries, from 1204 to 1855, the good citizens ...Read more