Why Admirals Use the Big, Big 'D'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In "The Secret Life of Words" (Harcourt, $24), Paul West becomes a tabloid gossip columnist, revealing the skeletons (or "spell-etons") in the closets of famous words.

You might assume, for instance, that "admiral" derives from "admire"; certainly such a high-ranking naval officer is worthy of admiration. But West reveals that admiral comes ...Read more

It's Just 'One of Those' Things

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A recent editorial in the Washington Examiner included this clause: "Say you're one of those who is concerned about Trump's actions in the weeks following the 2020 election..."

Paul Johnson of Alexandria, Virginia, emailed me to ask whether the clause should have read, "Say you're one of those who ARE concerned about Trump's actions."

In ...Read more

If I Were King of the Elves

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. I'm always puzzled about which verb to use following a phrase starting with "if" or "as if." In one instance, I read, "If I were 90 years old ...", and in the next, "If I was doing that ..." Which should it be? -- Jim Bilbrey, Pierre, South Dakota

A. That's an iffy question! When we're talking about situations that are highly improbable or...Read more

Pilot Parlance: Fasten Your 'Speech'-belt

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

People in dangerous, high-pressure jobs sometimes relieve tension with proprietary humor. Nowhere is this more true than in the airline industry. Consider this deadpan conversation among an air traffic controller and two airline pilots:

Tower: "Delta 702, cleared for takeoff, contact departure on 124.7."

Delta 702: "Switching to departure .....Read more

A Brand-New 'Eephus' Fable

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Why do we say something is 'brand-new'?" asks Simon Kravetz of Canton, Connecticut.

Now there's a burning question!

"Brand," derived from a Germanic root that means burn, originally referred to a burning stick or torch. Medieval artisans used intense heat to shape ceramic or metal objects, and when they pulled their creations from the fire,...Read more

Getting Obsessive About the Possessive

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. A postcard states that a certain company has "over 50 years' experience" in a certain field. Is the apostrophe after "years" necessary? -- Maureen, via e-mail

A. After over 50 years' experience in the field of grammar and usage, I can firmly answer "yes." By convention, it's customary to describe amounts of time and money by using ...Read more

History Is a 'Foible' Agreed Upon

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

History repeats itself. After reading these sentences, taken from high school students' history papers and sent to me by teachers, let's hope not.

1. During the Glorious Revolution, Parliament decided to take power away from the thrown. (And soon the king had been overthrown.) 2. The Constitution tried to achieve parody among the states. (...Read more

Was Barbie a Nervous Nellie at the Oscars?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Why is the doll (and movie) called "Barbie"? Why is Nellie nervous, and why is a statuette named Oscar? This column will put you on a first-name basis with terms based on first names.

-- Barbie -- During the 1950s, Ruth and Elliot Handler noticed that their daughter, Barbie, preferred paper dolls resembling adult women to baby dolls. So they ...Read more

The Bridge Between Steel and Art

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Three essential tools on every writer's workbench should be contrast, detail and imagery. Watch how skillfully Bill Bryson handles all three devices in his paean to the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia, from his delightful memoir "In a Sunburned Country."

"The opera house is a splendid edifice and I wish to take nothing away from it, but ...Read more

Bumpkins Get Short End of the Sticks

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Stix Nix Hick Pix," proclaimed a 1935 headline in the entertainment newspaper Variety. Translation: Small-town movie houses don't want films with rural themes.

But why do we call rustics "hicks"?

"Hick" is one of several derogatory terms based on abbreviations of common names. In England during the 1600s, "Hick" was short for "Richard," "...Read more

Share and Snare a 'Like'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Today, two meaty questions involving comparison ...

Jeanette Lendl of Delmont, Pennsylvania, isn't sure about this sentence from an ad: "Ensure has protein, like in meat."

"This sounds stilted to me," she writes. "Is it correct? Should the word be 'as'?"

Advantage Lendl. The use of "like" followed by a prepositional phrase is indeed ...Read more

A 'Soup'er Bowl Packed With Pigskin Palaver

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

The lingo of American football is a soup bowl bubbling with terms from almost every realm of life, from fighting to food to finance.

Not surprisingly, its lexicon bristles with military terms such as "bomb," "blitz," "trenches" and "shotgun." The Visigoths sacked Rome and spiked the torsos of defending centurions; today's players sack ...Read more

Why the Letter 'B' Is Deeply in 'Debt'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Have you ever wondered why we don't pronounce the "b" in debt, the "c" in indict, the "p" in receipt or the "s" in island?

Blame it on 17th-century British scholars.

During the 1600s, England's intellectuals became besotted with classical languages. These bespectacled, bearded dons began speaking Latin, wearing laurel wreaths and chanting "...Read more



1 and Done Scott Stantis For Better or For Worse Gary McCoy Crabgrass Bart van Leeuwen