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Coulda, Woulda, Shouldn't

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"If you would have told UConn basketball coach Dan Hurley six years ago that the LA Lakers would one day offer him a contract worth $70 million, he would have laughed in your face."

When I recently spotted this sentence, I wanted to don a Husky uniform, drive the base line and make two points:

Point No. 1: More and more people are ...Read more

A Summer Feast for Wordies

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

While you're enjoying a deck, a dock or a daiquiri this summer, dip into the one of these new books about words and language.

Did you know that "lick into shape" originated from the medieval belief that bear cubs are born shapeless and are licked into shape by their mothers? Have you heard that "stealing someone's thunder" arose when a London...Read more

Caught Between 'Among' and a Hard-Fought Place

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: I often see this misuse in the newspaper: "between three people." Shouldn't it be "between two people" and "among three people"? -- Mary Ellen Palmer, Frankfort, Michigan

A: Generally, yes. "Between" should be used before two items, e.g., "The money was divided equally between Tom and Sally," and "among" should be used before three items, ...Read more

Some Words Run on 'Fossil' Fuels

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Sometimes a word's archaic meaning is embedded in its modern definition like a fossil in a rock.

When you hear, for instance, that golfers are addressing the ball, you might assume they're speaking to the ball. (Actually, golfers sometimes DO speak to the ball, though not everything they say is printable here.)

But in golf, address has a ...Read more

'Casus Belli' Ignites Linguistic Wars

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Latin plurals have been a casus belli (justification for war) among English speakers for centuries. For example, if you want to start a fistfight, ask two people for the plural of casus belli. Cassi belli? Casus bellis? Cassius' belly? (Which presumably was small because Cassius had a lean and hungry look.)

In fact, the plural of casus belli ...Read more

Peroxide Paradox: 'Blonde' or 'Blond'?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In American lingo today, "blonde" is a word to dye for. Recently published books include Laurence Leamer's "Hitchcock's Blondes," Ally Carter's romance "The Blonde Identity" and Emmett Hardy's crime novel "Blond Hair, Blue Eyes." Joelle Wellington's highly anticipated thriller "The Blonde Dies First" will be published this summer.

A few years...Read more

This Column Is Aimed at the 'Likes' of You!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In an interview for a documentary about Bill Clinton, his White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers made this comment about the extraordinary talents of her former boss: "I just don't think his likes will come our way again."

While many would agree with her suggestion that Bill Clinton was a one-of-a-kind political magician, some might wonder...Read more

And Don't Call Me 'Sirly'!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Medieval aristocrats living in lofty castles looked down on the commoners around them, both literally and figuratively. So it's no surprise that words denoting farmers and townies soon acquired negative connotations. Eventually, in fact, two noblemen could insult each other simply by exchanging "peasantries."

Let's take a look at the rustic ...Read more

The Data Is/Are In: Latin Plurals Are Tricky

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Datum or data? Medium or media? Stratum or strata?

Here's a quick review of these double-dealers:

-- Datum/data: "Datum" means "a single piece of information," and its plural form is "data." But because information is usually a collection of many facts, the singular form "datum" is rarely used these days, and "data" is increasingly treated ...Read more

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

 

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