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
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
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
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
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
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
Well, that was fun. Whatever you call the past decade -- "the Teens," "the Twenty Tens," "the Twitters" -- we can all agree that our language defined the 2010s.
Every teenager's sentence began with "So ... " and ended with a question mark, and every acknowledgement speech began with "I'm humbled ... " What's not to like?
Long-held linguistic ...Read more
Here's your chance to test your mastery of frequently mispronounced words. I'll even throw in some lively repartee. Which pronunciation would you choose?
1. Repartee: a clever remark or an interchange of witty retorts.
A. rep-ahr-TAY B. rep-ahr-TEE
2. Rathskeller: a basement tavern or restaurant.
A. RAT-skel-ur B. RATH-skel-ur C. ROT-...Read more
Q. I remember hearing or reading that the beatniks took their name from the last sentence in "The Great Gatsby" -- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Any idea whether that's true? -- Mike, West Hartford, Connecticut.
The notion of a literary link between F. Scott Fitzgerald's wistful epigram for ...Read more
With greetings, dear readers, I welcome you here
To ponder the terms that annoyed us this year.
Our demons were legion; they covered a range,
From "vaping" to "trade wars" to world "climate change."
We strived and we struggled to find any exit
From "opioid crisis," "harassment" and "Brexit."
And weather disasters sent chills through our ...Read more
Today, some random dispatches from the Word Front ...
-- Scratching Our U-craniums
Recent testimony in the impeachment hearings has left many of us asking a big question. No, not the quid pro quo question, silly. We want to know how to pronounce "Ukraine."
Most witnesses, interrogators and media commentators have been placing the accent on ...Read more
Anyone who regularly reads this column knows that I'm an easygoing guy who customarily accepts and even welcomes changes in language usage. Henry Higgins' self-description from "My Fair Lady" comes to mind: "I'm a very gentle man ... who you never hear complain,/ who has the milk of human kindness/ by the quart in every vein." (Well, OK, the ...Read more
Put some words in your wassail and some punctuation in your punch this holiday season with one of these new books about language.
Speaking of punctuation, the poor semicolon, long derided as a squishy, halfway compromise between the comma and the period, finally gets its due in Cecelia Watson's "Semicolon: The Past, Present and Future of a ...Read more