Have you ever wondered why "bravado" means a FALSE sense of courage?
"Bravado" is a linguistic fossil. It retains an old meaning of "brave" that vanished long ago: PRETENDING to be brave. Like a fossilized dinosaur bone, "bravado" provides hard evidence that a now-extinct meaning of "brave" once roamed the Earth.
Let's monitor the thoughts ...Read more
Can you make the correct choice between these often-confused pairs of words?
No. 1: When we're writing on (a. stationary, b. stationery), we hope it will remain (a. stationary, b. stationery).
No. 2: When the (a. hardy, b. hearty) explorers returned from their rigorous journey, their comrades gave them a (a. hardy, b. hearty) welcome.
No. 3...Read more
Did you know there's no "linger" in "malinger," no "butter" in "buttery" and no "rose" in "primrose"? With the help of Hugh Rawson's illuminating book "Devious Derivations," let's examine some words whose "obvious" origins lead us down a primrose path toward etymological perdition.
Though "pester" has come to mean "act like a pest," it ...Read more
Dictionaries are facing what might be called a "defining moment." After all, of what use are these chunky tomes in our era of digital communication, when a new word (or a new meaning of an existing word) can instantly go viral, circling the world like a satellite in a matter of seconds? Have dictionaries become irrelevant?
In fact, the rapid ...Read more
Members of the ever-vigilant Word Guy Blooper Patrol have nabbed a dozen verbal culprits in newspapers and magazines this spring.
Paul Burton of Staten Island, New York, collared this triple negative in a letter to the editor: "I don't believe anyone disagrees it is not a step in the right direction." Huh?
Can you spot the blots in these ...Read more
In English, what you say is often what you get.
During the 1300s, for instance, a protective cloth worn while cooking was called a "napron." But when people spoke fast (as in, "Put on a napron, Beowulf, and help with the dishes!"), the phrase "a napron" sounded like "an apron." Soon "apron" had completely cut its apron strings to "napron" and...Read more
Several readers have recently inquired about the pronunciation and origin of my last name. So, I figure it's high time to share a linguistic saga that involves everything from false umlauts to a family feud to a kiss.
The American life of "Kyff" started in 1891 when my then 23-year-old great-grandfather Leonardus Kyff arrived in New York City ...Read more
When in the course of human events it became necessary for Americans to write a Declaration of Independence, the document they created not only shattered their political bonds with the mother country but also declared their linguistic liberation from the British version of the mother tongue.
The declaration's author, Thomas Jefferson, darted ...Read more
Q: Why do cars drive on a parkway and park on a driveway? -- Johanna Van Valkenburgh, West Granby, Connecticut
A: This verbal enigma is a staple of that chain-letter email "Why English Is Difficult" that has been recycling on the internet for decades.
In fact, "parkway" and "driveway," though often cited as "oxymorons" and examples of "crazy...Read more
"Class, please use your stylus to write the correct answer on your tablet." Are these instructions from a toga-clad teacher to students in ancient Rome?
In fact, these words might be heard in an American classroom today. A "tablet" allows students to use the computer screen as a notepad, writing with a "stylus."
I love to see English clamber...Read more
Today, some random dispatches from the Word Front...
--Power Play -- "What would you like the power to do?" When I first encountered this slogan in an ad for Bank of America, I initially responded, "I want it to stay on, especially during severe weather!"
Silly me. It took just a moment to realize the bank was asking not whether I wanted the...Read more
The English language is a great thief. Like an out-of-control kleptomaniac, our Mother Tongue has raided the supermarket of world languages, helping itself to delectable verbal goodies.
Linguists estimate that as many as 80% of English words originated in other languages. We call these terms "borrowed words" or "loan words," but I have some ...Read more
If you're shipping out for summer, consider toting one of these new books about language aboard. They'll make nifty gifts for grads and dads as well.
Former English teacher Ellen Sue Feld brings patience, positivity and pep to "Comma Sense: Your Guide to Grammar Victory." With chapters on everything from pronouns to punctuation, this friendly...Read more