History Is a Foible Agreed Upon

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

When, in the course of human events, high school students write American history papers, watch out! Teachers have sent me these delightful bloopers and typos:

"It started a quasi-navel war with France." We were belly to belly, and France blinked.

"Puritans believed that itch craft was the most conspicuous manifestation of Satan's presence." ...Read more

Will You 'Cotton' to These Word Origins?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"I don't cotton to that idea," a friend said the other day. The idea he wasn't "cottoning to" was my theory that Vice President Mike Pence once played the white-haired "Man from Glad" in TV commercials. After all, have you ever noticed that you never see these two guys together in the same place?

My friend's response got me wondering how "...Read more

Find What's Weak, and Make a Tweak

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Sentences, like radios, often require fine-tuning. Misplaced modifiers, ambiguous pronoun references and faulty parallelism can create static. How would you tweak each of these sentences to make its signal clear and strong? (One sentence contains no errors.)

1. Thousands of contestants, hoping to find wealth, adventure or to gain fame, try ...Read more

'Gregarious' and 'Ruminate' Share Beastly Origins

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Whenever a minister speaks of a congregation as a "flock" -- the last time this happened, by the way, was 1958 -- we discover a clue to the origin of the word "congregation."

The Latin noun "grex" meant "herd, flock," and this root (usually changed to "greg") survives in several English words denoting an accumulation or collection.

"...Read more

When Being 'Correct' Can Lead to a Wreck

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A newspaper reporter recently wrote that an Edgar Degas exhibit was "up for fewer than 10 days."

I don't know much about art, but I know what I dislike -- hypercorrection. The reporter knew that "fewer" should be used with countable items, e.g., "fewer paintings," but he applied this precept where it didn't belong. Because time is considered ...Read more

Summer Books for the Alone Ranger

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Whether you're self-isolating at a cove, cabin or campsite this summer, or just stuck at home like the rest of us, you can still savor one of these new books about words and language.

Pronouns, those humble, innocuous stand-ins for nouns, have suddenly become flash points in our current battles over gender equality and fluidity. Many people ...Read more

Are You A-Where of These Regional Terms?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Despite the homogenization of American language during the past century, many delightful words unique to a certain region survive. Can you match each regional term with its definition AND select the region or state where it flourishes?

Regions: New England, New York, Pennsylvania, South, Southwest, Alaska.


1. Intervale.

2. Tumbleset...Read more

The Fake That Launched a Thousand Slips

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

When the origin of a word seems obvious, beware! Consider these tricksters:

Launch: You might assume the small motorboat known as a "launch" is so named because it's "launched" from shore. In fact, "launch" derives from the Malay word "lanchar" (quick) because such small boats were fast.

"Lanchar" was adopted by the Portuguese as "lancha," ...Read more

Are You Game for Some Word Games?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

What is the only letter that does not appear in the name of any U.S. state? What do the city of Paris and the letter "F" have in common? What familiar phrase is represented by the sequence "tu(singing)ne"?

If you answered "Q," "they're both the capital of France" and "singing in tune," you have a knack for word puzzles. Let's try two more ...Read more

Are You Ready for a 'Double-Cross-Word' Puzzle?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Let's play "Guess the Word Origin!" Can you select the correct derivation of these terms?

1. When someone betrays an ally, it's called a "double cross" because ...

A. Writing one "X" over another voids the first X.

B. Two hot-cross buns were used as a signal to begin an attempted coup in England in 1605.

C. The two crosses are associated ...Read more

Slash Your Way Through These Prose Thickets

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Reading awkward, verbose prose can feel like trying to navigate a dense thicket of branches and bushes. You become so snagged, snared and entangled by overgrown verbiage that you can't find the meaning of the sentence.

Below are eight wordy sentences. Grab your machete, and start chopping. Hack away passive verbs; slash redundant words; cut ...Read more

A Trap Play in the Grapefruit League

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

While working as a busboy in the dining hall during my college days, I became the victim of what would become known as "the ol' milk-in-the-grapefruit trick."

After my roommates had finished their breakfast one morning when I was working, they "cleverly" poured milk into the empty rind of a grapefruit half and covered it with a saucer. So, ...Read more

Politicos 'Stand Up' a New Buzzword

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Today, two random dispatches from the Word Front ...

-- "Stand Up" Comedy -- The Washington Post recently reported that the Small Business Administration plans to "stand up a new lending program" to combat the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Did this mean that the Small Business Administration would promise to meet the lending ...Read more


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