We Shouldn't Damn -- or Dam -- English

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"What's happening to the English language?"

I hear that question often -- from readers, friends, relatives, colleagues, even my plumber.

Their queries, of course, reflect different concerns. Some complain about grammatical errors ("Me and him are going to the store"), some about jargon and gobbledygook ("the synergistic parameters empower ...Read more

Unzipping the Origins of 'Fly'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Why is the zippered opening on a pair of pants called a "fly"?

Before you start speculating about body parts lurking near the fly or bodily functions occurring though it, you'll be glad to know that the origin of this "fly" has nothing to do with anatomy.

"Fly" has long meant "to travel through the air," so certain objects that do so, such ...Read more

Evaluating the X 'Factor'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

When a severe ice storm delayed the start of an NFL playoff game in January, a reporter wrote in a game preview, "Weather already has played a factor in the Steelers-Chiefs divisional-round AFC-playoff game."

"Has played a factor"? Something about that phrase sounded odd. But why?

Certainly "has played a role" or "has played a part" would be...Read more

Teachers Told Him To Kick 'But'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: When I was in grade school, we were taught one NEVER begins a sentence with "And" or "But." Can you offer a definitive statement on this roiling controversy? I also have another question: When is it proper to use "further" and/or "farther"? The dictionary seems to say they are interchangeable. -- JR, Greensburg, Pa.

A. Ah, yes. Teachers ...Read more

Let's Go 'Para'-sailing!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: What is the meaning of the prefix "para-" as in "paragraph," "paralegal," "paradox" and "parasol"? I read your column each Saturday in our local newspaper. I always look forward to the last PARAgraph for a chuckle. -- Lorraine Enlow, Greensburg, Pa.

A: As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," we'll always have "para-"s. ...Read more

Become a Blizzard Wizard!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /


Perhaps no English word better suits its meaning. Its "bl" sound evokes the violence of "blast," "blaze" and "blitz"; its "izz" sound imitates the whizz and sting of snow slicing into our faces; and the visual slant of its double "zz" replicates the sharp angles of wind-whipped snow.

But where does the word "blizzard" come from? ...Read more

And That's the Way It Is

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Carol Szymanski of Cranbury, N.J., recently wrote to ask whether the word "that" was needed in these two sentences:

"If you can't remember that daylight saving time ends soon, you may forget to turn your clocks back."

"Mary needs to go back to the store because she forgot that she needed to buy cat food."

My answer: yes and no.

"That" IS ...Read more

Ten ... Well, Nine Linguistic Resolutions for 2017

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

The long winter afternoons and evenings of January invite contemplation, self-reflection, and the occasional glass of wine. So, after raising my wine glass to the New Year, here are my 10 linguistic resolutions for 2017.

--I will choose the specific word over the general word. The verb in this column's first sentence, for instance, was ...Read more

Brewing Up Some 'Small' Talk

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Last spring, Steven Rattner wrote in the New York Times, "With real wages declining for many Americans, the enactment of relatively minor initiatives is small beer."

Was he suggesting that Joe Six-pack is becoming Joe Five-pack?

Not exactly.

"Small beer" first entered English during the 1500s to describe an unfiltered, porridge-like brew ...Read more

The Word Guy: Language of 2016 Was a 'Dumpster Fire'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

The year gone by, oh, what a mess.

It left our language in distress.

The venom of election fuss

With "nasty" insults tortured us.

From Donald Trump came crooked Hils,

While she denounced "deplorables."

He scolded "morons," "hombres" bad,

As "lightweights," "losers," just "so sad."

"Obamacare, repeal, replace"

Became his mantra, fueled ...Read more

Language Goes to the Dogs

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Every now and then I like to unleash my readers' pet, "Peeve." While Peeve is a gentle dog in polite company, whenever he spots an error in grammar or usage, he attacks it like a chew toy. Grrrrr ...

Elmer Sullivan of Ewing, N.J., says his Peeve barks whenever he hears politicians and pundits say "unchartered" when they mean "uncharted," as ...Read more

Jolly Mondegreen Giant Sleeps in Heavenly Peas

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"He's making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who's not eating nice."

Bill Hoelzel sent me this charming rendering of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by his 3-year-old grandson. It's one of many delightful responses I received to my recent request for mondegreens, phrases based on misunderstandings of spoken English. (The term "...Read more

New Word Books Deserve a Kiss

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point."

If you find yourself standing under the mistletoe this holiday season, keep that punctuational maxim in mind. It comes from the French actress and singer Mistinguett and appears in Mardy Grothe's delightful compendium "Metaphors Be With You" (Harper Collins, $19.99). It's just...Read more


Social Connections


Zack Hill Working it Out Mallard Fillmore Diamond Lil Pearls Before Swine Master Strokes: Golf Tips