Several readers have asked me about the meaning, origin and use of "cisgender," an adjective for a person who identifies with the gender they had at birth.
"Cisgender," pronounced "sis-GEN-duhr," means the opposite of "transgender." While the Latin "trans" means "on the other side of," the Latin "cis" means "on this side of." Thus, ...Read more
I had just been thinking about the odd words "canny" and "uncanny" when an email from a friend arrived asking, "How are the words 'canny' and 'uncanny' related?"
Now, that's uncanny.
If you're a canny connoisseur of language (and if you're reading this column, you undoubtedly are), you know that "canny" means shrewd, prudent, as in "a canny ...Read more
We throw our "suitcases" and other "luggage" into the "trunks" of our cars. But those "suitcases" probably don't contain suits. We've forgotten that "luggage" is a fancy word for something we have to "lug" and that cars once had actual trunks lashed to their rear bumpers.
As technology advances, language often lags. In fact, many commonly ...Read more
The term "cancel culture" has been batted around like a volleyball during the past few weeks. It refers, of course, to the practice of discrediting, boycotting or shunning someone, whether it's a classmate or a public figure, for a perceived offense.
The fierce power of the phrase is deeply rooted in the origins of "cancel," a verb that began...Read more
"God sees everything," says George Wilson, the disconsolate husband in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby." God may not see everything, but He sure sees plenty of ways to sneak his name into our words.
In fact, "god" lies at the heart of the word "giddy." Granted, we might not see God as all that giddy a guy. We're not likely to ...Read more
In the wake of George Floyd's death and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, words and phrases associated with racism and slavery have been toppling faster than Confederate statues.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has ordered the deletion of the phrase "and Providence Plantations" from the official name of her state. New ...Read more
Edith Frankel of Hannawa Falls, New York, sent me this sentence from Science News: "An array of critters, not just the iconic polar bear, make their homes in and on the sea ice." Edith asks, "Is 'critter' now an acceptable substitute for 'creature'?"
(And, yes, I know the collective noun "array" sounds like a singular noun, but the writer is ...Read more
Q: I was taught that a biannual event occurred every other year. Now it seems "biannual" is being used to mean "occurring twice a year." What gives? -- Andrea Mansfield, Trenton, New Jersey.
A: "What gives?" I haven't heard that expression for a while. It's an Americanism that became popular after appearing in the musical "Pal Joey" in 1940. ...Read more
We've all been there. You and your colleagues are brainstorming during a Zoom session, shouting out any idea that comes into your heads, no matter how absurd it might be. And then, after this exhilarating session of free-range thinking, you collectively decide to rename your company "Covid."
That's brainstorming for you. When it works, we ...Read more
Q: In a story I just read, I found this: "I was woken up bright and early." Is "woken" a word? -- June Leeper, Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania.
Perhaps no verb family in English causes more mischief than "wake" and its various forms. The "wakes" are a rough-hewn, rootin'-tootin' backcountry clan with all kinds of eccentric relatives, ...Read more
Why do we say that people enjoying an opulent, elegant lifestyle are living "high on the hog"?
The traditional explanation goes something like this: In Jolly Old England, the most desirable cuts of pork, which came from the upper parts of a hog's body, were reserved for aristocrats. (Picture festive medieval banquets -- goblets, gobbling, ...Read more
Seven-up! Can you spot an error involving the use of the Latin abbreviations "e.g.," "etc.," "et al." or "i.e." in each of these seven sentences?
1) Committing a mistake when using Latin abbreviations is not one of the seven deadly sins, e.g., pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath.
2) Servius Tullius built fortifications on the ...Read more
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