'Flatten' Down the Hatches!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

The mantra of public health experts during the current coronavirus pandemic has been, "Let's flatten the curve!" (My suggestion for a national motto promoting social distancing: "Let's go the distance!")

"Flatten the curve" refers to a line graph depicting two possible courses for the rate of active cases over time. One arc representing the ...Read more

'Epidemic'/'Pandemic' Distinction Requires Fine-Tuning

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

During the current coronavirus scare, I've been taking comfort in playing the piano. I'm a terrible, self-taught player, yet banging out old show tunes helps me forget my worries. Come what may, "I'm Gonna Wash That Virus Right Outa My Hair!"

But my piano has been sounding like a rusty box spring, so I asked my piano tuner to pay a visit. ...Read more

How a Virus Got Its Name

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

As the current coronavirus disease spreads, several readers have asked me about the origin of its name.

"Coronavirus" is a general term for a wide range of viruses that cause respiratory tract infections. Under an electron microscope, the infective form of the virus has a fringe of bulbous protuberances resembling a crown ("corona" in Latin);...Read more

When Your Name Is Your Game

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

I recently heard a radio interview with a spokesman for Venture Data, a company that conducts telephone surveys. His name? Jeff Call. A friend once worked with a New York attorney named Sue Yoo, and another one had a dentist named Dr. Payne.

I suppose it's not surprising that so many people's names align so perfectly with their jobs or ...Read more

All's 'Fare' in Love and 'Commuting'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: Why do we call someone who travels back and forth to work a "commuter"? -- Chris Ryan, New York City

A: This question really hits home for me because my father was the archetypal commuter, taking the train from Westchester County to his advertising job in Manhattan for nearly 40 years. Yup, the full Don Draper -- fedora, attache case, ...Read more

Taking the Terror out of 'Terrific'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: Could you explain why "terrible" and "horrible" are synonyms but "terrific" and "horrific" are antonyms? -- Richard Katz, Niantic, Connecticut

A: Glad to. All four words started out with the same general meaning: "inducing great fear or distress." Over the centuries, three of them -- "terrible," "horrible" and "horrific" -- have retained ...Read more

Iowa Caucus 'Debacle': Worse Than We 'Thaw't'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Well, we finally found something that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on: The Democratic Iowa caucuses were a "debacle." That's the word reporters and political analysts seemed to seize on most often when describing the recent Hawkeye havoc.

Whence "debacle"?

Picture a February thaw suddenly melting the ice in the Des Moines River. ...Read more

Hacking Around With Backronyms

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

During my first year of teaching, I supervised about 50 boys in a recreational jogging program. It was so low-key and undemanding that the kids called it "Hack," as in "hacking off." Trying to be cool, I scrawled the word "Hack" atop the attendance roster on my clipboard.

When the athletic director spotted my list one day, he asked about its ...Read more

Some Metaphors Are Beyond Comparison

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

We swim in a sea of metaphors. Our everyday conversations teem with the minnows of comparison: We bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board and miss the boat. As consumers, we're stalked by sharklike, predatory metaphors: Budweiser is the king of beers, we're in good hands with Allstate, and Chevy is the heartbeat of America.

And as ...Read more

Sitting in the Cat Word Seat

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

On an evening dark and dreary, I was pondering possible topics for my next column when my gray tabby cat jumped boldly onto my lap. I had found my subject: the origins of familiar phrases involving cats.

"Evermore," purred he.

-- Cat's pajamas: Before you start picturing my tabby in jammies (something from Catoria's Secret, perhaps), you ...Read more

Dad Fires Up His 'Range' Rover

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

My 23-year-old daughter called me the other day to tell me that her landlord had provided a "new oven" for her apartment. "Do you mean you got a whole new range?" I asked.

"What's a range?" she asked.

"It's the entire stove," I explained. "The oven and the burners."

"Oh, yeah, that's what I got."

This conversation set me to wondering -- no...Read more

Bristle While You Work

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

One of the occupational hazards of writing a language column (other than introducing myself and having people say, "Uh, oh. I better watch my grammar!") is being distracted by linguistic errors while trying to read newspaper stories.

Recently, for instance, I was focusing intently on a story about the New York Giants' decision to start Eli ...Read more

Blooper Patrol Finds Cash in the Cellar

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Members of the ever-vigilant Word Guy Blooper Patrol have sent me this latest collection of gaffes, goofs and groaners. Can you spot the blots?

1. "The concrete foundation of his home is being replaced with money from a state grant program." (Submitted by W. K. Lord, South Glastonbury, Connecticut.) I know the U.S. dollar is strong right now,...Read more


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