It's 11:45 a.m. at the faculty lunch table. A heated argument breaks out when an art teacher asks: "Is a moot question a question that's debatable or a question that's insignificant?"
The responses from her colleagues are quick and emphatic.
A history teacher claims: "Moot means debatable! Moot is derived from the Old English word 'mot,' ...Read more
The linguistic purist Tradition Al discusses an alarming trend with his more permissive friend Open Mind Ed.
Al: As a student of linguistics, have you noticed the appalling practice of turning adjectives into nouns? Let me give you a few examples from advertising slogans: Find your fabulous; Rethink possible; Spread the happy; The future of ...Read more
As many of us have discovered during the past year, being in quarantine can really do a number on you. But did you know the word "quarantine" actually contains a number?
During the 1300s, officials of Italian ports, such as Genoa and Venice, feared that sailors on ships entering their harbors might be infected with the Black Plague. So, they ...Read more
"Summer made her light escape / Into the Beautiful," wrote Emily Dickinson. Make your own light escape this summer with one of these new books about language.
Renowned linguist John McWhorter explores the power and peculiarity of profanity in "Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever." These no-nos, he explains, are "...Read more
"All kings is mostly rapscallions," Mark Twain wrote in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Twain's royal flush succinctly captures the anti-imperial feelings of most Americans. As enthralled as we Yanks might be by the Meghan-Harry-Pippa crowd, we've just never had much respect for their royal titles.
When Queen Elizabeth II visited New ...Read more
This spring, we've all been stampeding like panicky buffalo toward herd immunity. But what is it? Will we achieve it? Is there a way to exempt telemarketers from it?
I can't answer any of these questions, but this seems like the perfect moment to visit the zany zoo of names for groups of animals. We all know that geese gather in a gaggle, ...Read more
Let's put the "you" in usage! See whether you can choose the correct word from each pair of oft-confused words:
Even people to the 1) (manner, manor) born can't 2) (hone, home) in on all the usage distinctions that make English a 3) (tortuous, torturous) language.
People trying to 4) (stanch, staunch) the 5) (horde, hoard) of usage errors ...Read more
Q. A friend recently told me that her pottery pieces were being fired in a "kiln," a word she pronounces with a final "n" sound. But my high school art teacher pronounced the word for this potter's oven as "KIL." What's cooking with "kiln"? -- Chris Ryan, New York City
A. "Cooking" is the operative word here, for "kiln" is derived from the ...Read more
The perfectionist Sue Perlative and the pragmatist Ev Reethings Relative visited an antique show on their first date:
Ev: Hey, this grandfather clock is very unique.
Sue: Time out! "Unique" means "one of a kind, without equal," so it can't be modified by "very." The clock is either unique or it isn't.
Ev: But isn't it high time we allowed ...Read more
In golf school, you learn about "course management," and no, it isn't about replacing your divots. It's about achieving the lowest score possible by selecting the shots, clubs and strategies best suited to your skills and limitations -- in other words, to play with your head, not your hubris.
Four principles of course management that help the...Read more
Why is "A" the first letter of our alphabet? Therein lies a "tail."
The ancient Phoenicians, who devised the precursor of our English alphabet some 3,000 years ago, depended heavily on oxen for the necessities of life, e.g., plowing, hauling, clothing, $10 ox milk lattes. The ox was so important that the Phoenicians called the first letter of...Read more
We all have our nasty little habits: binge-eating potato chips, chomping on gum and reading columns about words. And we fall into bad habits when it comes to language as well.
Instinctively, we pop two-word phrases into our mouths like lollipops: cautious optimism, ongoing relationship, serious contender, rising tensions, spiraling costs.