Why is the zippered opening on a pair of pants called a "fly"?
Before you start speculating about body parts lurking near the fly or bodily functions occurring though it, you'll be glad to know that the origin of this "fly" has nothing to do with anatomy.
"Fly" has long meant "to travel through the air," so certain objects that do so, such ...Read more
When a severe ice storm delayed the start of an NFL playoff game in January, a reporter wrote in a game preview, "Weather already has played a factor in the Steelers-Chiefs divisional-round AFC-playoff game."
"Has played a factor"? Something about that phrase sounded odd. But why?
Certainly "has played a role" or "has played a part" would be...Read more
Q: When I was in grade school, we were taught one NEVER begins a sentence with "And" or "But." Can you offer a definitive statement on this roiling controversy? I also have another question: When is it proper to use "further" and/or "farther"? The dictionary seems to say they are interchangeable. -- JR, Greensburg, Pa.
A. Ah, yes. Teachers ...Read more
Q: What is the meaning of the prefix "para-" as in "paragraph," "paralegal," "paradox" and "parasol"? I read your column each Saturday in our local newspaper. I always look forward to the last PARAgraph for a chuckle. -- Lorraine Enlow, Greensburg, Pa.
A: As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," we'll always have "para-"s. ...Read more
Perhaps no English word better suits its meaning. Its "bl" sound evokes the violence of "blast," "blaze" and "blitz"; its "izz" sound imitates the whizz and sting of snow slicing into our faces; and the visual slant of its double "zz" replicates the sharp angles of wind-whipped snow.
But where does the word "blizzard" come from? ...Read more
Popular site reveals the truth about Americans.
Step 1) Enter Name and State, Step 2) See Results....
Carol Szymanski of Cranbury, N.J., recently wrote to ask whether the word "that" was needed in these two sentences:
"If you can't remember that daylight saving time ends soon, you may forget to turn your clocks back."
"Mary needs to go back to the store because she forgot that she needed to buy cat food."
My answer: yes and no.
"That" IS ...Read more
The long winter afternoons and evenings of January invite contemplation, self-reflection, and the occasional glass of wine. So, after raising my wine glass to the New Year, here are my 10 linguistic resolutions for 2017.
--I will choose the specific word over the general word. The verb in this column's first sentence, for instance, was ...Read more
Last spring, Steven Rattner wrote in the New York Times, "With real wages declining for many Americans, the enactment of relatively minor initiatives is small beer."
Was he suggesting that Joe Six-pack is becoming Joe Five-pack?
"Small beer" first entered English during the 1500s to describe an unfiltered, porridge-like brew ...Read more
Secret of the Warlock's CryptTom Hayes
Cryptic drawings, maps, strange symbols. This is what Mike Hilliard discovers as he investigates the long-dead millionaire Titus Morley. The strange symbols & drawings hover in Mike’s dreams as he rambles through the summer with Billy, a photography intern at the historical society ...
The year gone by, oh, what a mess.
It left our language in distress.
The venom of election fuss
With "nasty" insults tortured us.
From Donald Trump came crooked Hils,
While she denounced "deplorables."
He scolded "morons," "hombres" bad,
As "lightweights," "losers," just "so sad."
"Obamacare, repeal, replace"
Became his mantra, fueled ...Read more
Every now and then I like to unleash my readers' pet, "Peeve." While Peeve is a gentle dog in polite company, whenever he spots an error in grammar or usage, he attacks it like a chew toy. Grrrrr ...
Elmer Sullivan of Ewing, N.J., says his Peeve barks whenever he hears politicians and pundits say "unchartered" when they mean "uncharted," as ...Read more
"He's making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who's not eating nice."
Bill Hoelzel sent me this charming rendering of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by his 3-year-old grandson. It's one of many delightful responses I received to my recent request for mondegreens, phrases based on misunderstandings of spoken English. (The term "...Read more
"A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point."
If you find yourself standing under the mistletoe this holiday season, keep that punctuational maxim in mind. It comes from the French actress and singer Mistinguett and appears in Mardy Grothe's delightful compendium "Metaphors Be With You" (Harper Collins, $19.99). It's just...Read more
Could'a, would'a, should'a.
We know it's OK to use contractions in speech, but when should they be used in writing?
Until the early 20th century, most teachers treated contractions like cockroaches scuttling and hissing through students' sentences. These fuming pedagogues fumigated, ordering students never to use contractions. Of course, ...Read more