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Ripostes From the Comeback Kids

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A celebrated opera diva once presented a recital for President Calvin Coolidge and his guests at the White House. Due to a case of bad nerves, the singer's performance was, to put it mildly, dreadful.

During the performance, someone whispered into Coolidge's ear, "What do you think of the singer's execution?" The president whispered back, "I'...Read more

Blend Words Make Linguistic Sand'witches'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: In the musical "Wicked," Glinda (the Good Witch) suggests that Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West to be) harbors a secret belief that she's destined to be popular. To encapsulate the concept of a hidden fate, Glinda blends "clandestine" with "destiny" to create the word: "clandestiny." Is there a word for the joining of two words into ...Read more

Put Some 'Clause' in Your Santa!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Your holidays will be jolly days if you give -- or get -- one of these nifty new books about language.

The witty wordsmith Richard Lederer offers a double treat with two simultaneously published books. In "A Pleasury of Word Origins," you'll learn that "the whole nine yards," once thought to have originated with machine-gun ammo belts or ...Read more

Earn Your Chops and You'll Get Props

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A reader writes, "In the newspaper I keep seeing sentences like 'So-and-so showed his acting chops in portraying a demented killer,' and, on sports radio, I keep hearing phrases like 'props to so-and-so for his 10-day hitting streak.' I thought 'chops' were what you got at the butcher and 'props' were objects in theatrical productions. Am I ...Read more

Do You Like Spinach More Than Me?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: In a recent television commercial, someone said, "I am not afraid of companies bigger than us." My mother said that it should have been "bigger than we," with the verb "are" implied. This was my gut reaction, too. Please let me know what you think. -- Justin, West Hartford, Connecticut.

A: Justin, trust your gut -- and your mom. The phrase...Read more

Salty Language That's Nautical, Not Naughty

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main ... " We're all familiar with this exhilarating maritime shanty. But why do we call the ocean the "main"?

"Main" is a shortened form of "main sea," meaning "open sea" or "high seas." Oddly enough, "main" can refer either to the main sea or to the mainland. From 1500 to 1800, for instance, the "Spanish...Read more

Patient Survey Summons 'Room'inations

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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

These Quirky Words Are Spellbinding

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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

Complexities Troll 'Comptroller,' 'Controller'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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

Ladling Out Some Alphabet Soup

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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."

...Read more

The Shot Heard Round the World of Words

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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 Know There's a 'Rifle' in There Somewhere!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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

Bank 'Bail Outs' Reflect Every Sense of the Term

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

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

 

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