As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing blasts off, commentators will surely cite the space program as the launchpad for a huge payload of technologies, from freeze-dried food to memory foam. What's often overlooked are the many NASA terms that achieved ignition and liftoff, and then splashed down to a soft landing in our lexicon ...Read more
Did Neil Armstrong flub the first sentence spoken on the moon? The audio transmission of his words seems unambiguous: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." But Armstrong himself always insisted that he had said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
The indefinite article "a" makes a big ...Read more
Well-placed similes are like well-oiled hinges, allowing readers to open doors of meaning with ease and grace. By making a direct comparison using "like" or "as," a simile connects an abstract concept to a familiar object or experience.
Some similes can be sharp and sudden. New Yorker writer Anthony Lane, for instance, once observed that the ...Read more
Like a wandering sailor, the Latin root "porto" has a girl in every ... well, port. "Porto" means "carry," and this roamin' Roman root has sailed into scores of English words, serving us both the steak ("porterhouse") and the sizzle ("sports").
The Latin verb "portare" (to carry) toted many obvious derivatives into English: "portable," "...Read more
If you're bound for the beach, boardwalk or boat this summer -- or just the back porch -- pick up one of these new books about language.
Anyone who writes anything should grab Gary Provost's "100 Ways to Improve Your Writing." First published in 1985 and updated for the first time, this handy guide is a writer's Swiss Army knife. Suffering from...Read more
Every so often, I like to unleash my readers' pet peeves, aka 'pete noires, 'cur'sed terms and 'dog'gerrrrrel.
Emailer Phyllis Aronson unleashes an entire kennel of curs. She hates it when people: 1) use "shrunk" instead of "shrank" as the past tense of "shrink"; 2) insert "of" into "not that big (of) a deal"; 3) use "further" instead of "...Read more
Why is the opening on men's trousers called a "fly"?
Before your speculation starts to soar too high, please note that "fly" refers not to the zipper but to the piece of fabric that covers the zipper.
"Fly," derived from the Old English "flowan" (to flow), has acquired many meanings over the centuries, e.g., a winged insect, a baseball hit ...Read more
Picture a mosquito with a musket, a mantis with a crystal ball, and a larva wearing a mask. Entomology meets etymology, as the Word Guy SWAT team tracks down the fascinating origins of insect names.
-- Mosquito: The Latin word for a fly was "musca," which became "mosca" in Spanish and Italian. Because a mosquito is smaller than a fly, both ...Read more
Can you find and replace each of the 40 usage errors in this account of my spring-cleaning? (The number of errors in each paragraph appears in parentheses.)
The current anti-clutter movement has struck a cord with me, so I've decided to start tossing out things I don't need. It's not that I horde stuff, but I have several cachets of treasured...Read more
Jill Lepore's new book "These Truths," a delightfully quirky and informative romp through U.S. history, serves up many delicious details and anecdotes. Who knew, for instance, that Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring containing a wisp of Abraham Lincoln's hair?
In one passage about presidential rhetoric, Lepore underscores the importance of clarity ...Read more
Q: I was watching a news program, and one of the guests said someone "was in high dungeon" instead of "high dudgeon"! Meanwhile, is "dudgeon" ever preceded by a word other than "high"? -- Linda Rusin, Suffield, Connecticut
A: Oh, the difference a single letter can make. "Dungeon," meaning "a dark, underground chamber for holding prisoners," ...Read more
The ever-vigilant Word Guy Blooper Patrol has been working overtime to apprehend examples of erroneous English:
1. "Not every relationship must somehow hue to a predictable path." Some can even make you blue. (Spotted by Judy King, Farmington, Conn.)
2. "Hopewell Valley Regional School District plans to tackle mental health 'epidemic.'" Is ...Read more
Studying the origins of words can seem like an esoteric enterprise, relegated to nerdy scholars poking around in dusty dictionaries. But sometimes knowing a word's history can inspire us and even improve our lives.
Consider the word "inspire" itself. We all know it means "to influence, guide or motivate," but learning that it's derived from ...Read more