"The fewer commas you use," Nicholas Baker once wrote, "the more of a tyrant you would be if placed in a position of power."
Baker compared commas to expressive hand gestures in friendly conversations. People who use a lot of commas, he wrote, are generally "accommodating, deferential, clement."
(Memo from Attila the Hun: "Dis guy Baker is ...Read more
A Chicagoan who had just moved to Tennessee was washing his car with a garden hose when his neighbor came over and asked to borrow his hosepipe.
Having no idea what a hosepipe was, the Chicagoan replied, "Sorry, I don't have a hosepipe." The neighbor gave him a strange look, said "OK," and returned home. Only later did the Chicagoan learn ...Read more
When Groucho Marx once asked a female contestant on his TV show, "You Bet Your Life," to describe her family, she replied, "Three children, one adult and one adulteress."
In erroneously using "adulteress" to mean "female adult," this woman was clearly being unfaithful -- not to her husband, but to the true origins of the words "adult" ...Read more
Once upon a time, a sadistic language columnist challenged his readers to find one grammar or usage error in each of these sentences from scrambled fairy tales:
No. 1: Sleeping Beauty, as well as Sneezy and Dopey, were invited to Cinderella's wedding.
No. 2: Neither the Seven Dwarfs nor Goldilocks were invited to the prince's ball.
No. 3: ...Read more
We all know that a gathering of geese is a "gaggle," a passel of fish is a "school," and a herd of sheep is a "flock."
But did you know that a cache of cobras is a "quiver," a stash of starlings is a "murmuration," and a dollop of doves is a "piteousness"?
Lest you think these species names are specious, let me explain how they evolved.
The Jan. 6 Congressional Committee is currently investigating a burning issue: Did former President Donald Trump use a burner phone during the assault on the U.S. Capitol? But I'm more interested in a back-burner issue: Where did the term "burner phone" originate?
For those of you who have never engaged in criminal activity -- and I'm hoping ...Read more
"One false spelling may fix a stigma upon a man for life," wrote the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield in 1750. If you doubt the truth of that statement, just ask the Fourth Earl of Indiana, Dan "Potatoe" Quayle.
In fact, misspelling has not always borne such a stigma. Well into Shakespeare's time, spelling was largely a matter of personal taste. ...Read more
Howard Goldberg of West Hartford, Connecticut, poses this plural puzzler: What's the Latin singular of "mores," meaning "customs, ways," pronounced "MAWR-aze"? Think of Cicero's famous lament, "O, tempores! O, mores!" (Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!).
Before I reveal the answer, can you provide the plural form in English for each of these ...Read more
Is it "Ukraine" or "the Ukraine"? Is the name of the capital city of Ukraine spelled "Kyiv" or "Kiev," and how is it pronounced?
While these linguistic distinctions might seem trivial in light of the recent events in Ukraine, they reflect key differences between how Russians view Ukraine and how Ukrainians see themselves.
-- Ukraine or "the ...Read more
Q: Please explain the difference between "bring" and "take." -- Paul Johnson, Minneapolis
A: In an episode of the old George Burns and Gracie Allen TV show, George asks Gracie where she obtained a bouquet of flowers, and she replies, "You told me when I visited a neighbor to take her flowers, and I did."
In fact, Gracie's mistake is caused, ...Read more
Why is a tournament in which every contestant plays every other in succession called a "round-robin"?
You might assume the bird "robin" is somehow involved. In fact, "round-robin" has two possible derivations -- one naughty and one nautical -- and neither involves our red-breasted brethren.
"Round-robin" first came bob-bob-bobbing along ...Read more
Today, some random dispatches from the Word Front...
-- 2,000 Pound Gorilla -- A recent interview with Olympic snowboarder Fay Gulini triggered an avalanche of "tons": "There's a ton of risk, and there's a ton of fear in what we do," she said.
Columnist Milan Simonich of the Santa Fe New Mexican recently collected a ton of "tons" from news ...Read more