I was riffling through my mailbox the other day, when I came across this letter from John Daigle of Vernon, Connecticut: "I often hear the 'talking heads' on TV say 'rifling' when I think they mean 'riffling,' as in 'riffling through a file.' Could you spend a paragraph on this sometime?"
At the risk of being called a talking head, I'll ...Read more
Q: When we talk about bailouts of banks, does "bail" refer to bailing out a boat with a bucket or to jumping out of a crippled plane? And what about bailing someone out of jail? Are these "bails" related? -- Chris Ryan, New York City
A: Yes! The bail in all three senses ultimately derives from the Latin "bajulare," meaning "to carry; bear a ...Read more
Q: I'm all for eliminating spaces and hyphens! No more "cell phones!" It should be "cellphones." No more "e-mail"! It should be "email." Please address this in your column. -- NaLo Walls via email (or "e-mail"?!)
A: Sometimes I, too, feel like shouting "No more cellphones or email!" -- but not for the reasons you cite.
As for the hyphens, I'...Read more
Q. When should "enclosed" be used vs. "inclosed"? Is there a difference in meaning? -- Katherine Evans, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania
A. You might assume that "enclose" should mean "to surround something" (enclose the corral) and that "inclose" should mean "to insert something" (inclose a resume).
In fact, "inclose" is a needless variant of "...Read more
Spinster. Gypped. Grandfather clause.
These are among many terms now deemed racist, sexist, ageist or otherwise offensive. Whether you think these linguistic cancellations are long overdue, or you view them as political correctness run amok, it's worth knowing what terms are being challenged and why.
We've happily bid adieux to overtly ...Read more
I recently applied for a refinance of my home mortgage. You know the drill: Scour your files to find 800 gajillion pages of documentation to prove you're not a deadbeat. (By the end of this process, I was surely beat and almost dead.)
But why are people who don't pay their bills called "deadbeats?"
We sniff the trail like bloodhounds for ...Read more
Q: I know that the sentence "He looks like me" is correct usage. Does the same apply in sentences such as "He is like me"? Granted, "He is like I" sounds very clumsy, but I thought the "am" was implied (He is like I am). -- Glenda Fayard, Los Gatos, California
A: "He looks like me" and "he is like me" are correct because, in both cases, "like...Read more
As I write this, I'm watching two loons float calmly across a mountain lake in the northern Adirondacks. Oops -- make that one loon; the other one just dove beneath the surface.
This ornithological display makes me wonder if the word "loon," meaning a bird, is related to "loony" or "lunatic," meaning crazy. After all, loons do engage in ...Read more
Sometimes, when grading my students' papers and tests, I encounter errors that disarm me because they reflect young minds struggling with the complexities of the English language.
While reading a student's history test recently, I came upon this sentence: "President Taft disappointed Progressives with a series of mist queues."
After ...Read more
"The rich are different from us," F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly told Ernest Hemingway.
"Yes," Hemingway is said to have replied. "They have more money." And he might have added, "and more monikers."
But where did our many terms for the wealthy originate?
The one percent -- Using a number to refer to disparities in economic status surfaced ...Read more
I occasionally ask readers to unleash their pet peeves about grammar and usage. While at first, these complaints might seem to be docile house pets, once unleashed, they roar with ferocious fury.
Let's present some objectionable sentences as if they were scampering squirrels and then watch the ferocious peeves pounce:
-- If I would have won ...Read more
Let the games -- and names -- begin! Here's a handy guide to the origins and meanings of Summer Olympics terms.
In freestyle swimming, a "gallop stroke" mimics the stride and glide pattern of a horse's gallop. Instead of taking strokes of equal length with both arms, the swimmer takes a slightly longer stroke on one side, and the extra glide ...Read more
Did you ever wonder why the names for the notes of the musical scale are "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do"? And, sorry "Sound of Music" fans, it's not because a "do" is a female deer or a "re" is a drop of golden sun.
In fact, these musical terms can be traced to the 11th century when the eminent musician Guido of Arezzo was teaching his ...Read more