After a recent visit to the doctor's office, I was asked to fill out a survey on my "patient experience." One question read, "Was the person who roomed you courteous and helpful?"
For a moment, I was perplexed. I wasn't aware that anyone had roomed me (a process that didn't sound like a lot of fun). Then I wondered whether someone had roomed ...Read more
Today, I serve up an alphabet soup of lettery lore. Letter rip!
"Strengths" is the longest word in English to have only one vowel, while "rhythms" is the only common word in English without an a, e, i, o or u.
The word "latchstring" latches on to a string of six consonants in a row (tchstr), while "queueing" (a variant spelling of "queuing")...Read more
What's the deal with "comptroller" and "controller"?
Peter Van Winkle of Boston asked me that question a while ago, and it's time to settle this past-due account. (And no, despite Peter's last name, it hasn't been 20 years.)
To paraphrase Olivia Newton-John, "Let's get fiscal."
Both "controller" and "comptroller" come from the 13th-century ...Read more
Loyal readers have just scooped up the latest batch of errors in newspapers and other publications. Can you spot the blots?
No. 1: "Self-service food bars were closed to prevent too many hands on ladies." Were man "handles" a concern as well?
No. 2: "Investigators chased leads and spoke to witnesses as they honed in on Martinez's killer."
Seventy years ago, on Oct. 3, 1951, New York Giants outfielder and second-baseman Bobby Thomson blasted "the shot heard round the world" -- a three-run homer in the ninth inning of the final playoff game to win the National League pennant for the Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A recent newspaper story described the excitement and pride of ...Read more
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