Q: The lead character in the comic strip "Rex Morgan, M.D." recently referred to someone as a "real trooper." That confusion seems to happen over and over again. A "troupe" is not a "troop," but I wonder if they stem from the same antecedent. -- Brock Putnam, Litchfield, Connecticut
A: Lay on, Macduff! You're right on both counts. The correct...Read more
Q: Musicians used to "release" a new album, but now a new album is "dropped." What the heck is that? -- Randy, Green Bay, Wisconsin
A: Indeed. Whenever I hear that a group has "dropped a new album," I always picture an old-fashioned 78 rpm record falling to the floor and shattering. Am I showing my age? Am I starting to sound like a broken ...Read more
"Watch the birds as they hunt for fish using your own binoculars." Will the birds swoop down and grab your binoculars?
"(A suspect) pleaded guilty to criminal tax fraud for improperly pocketing $5 million in state tax money in Albany County Court." Right in front of the judge?
"(The sitcom 'I Dream of Jeannie') featured a childlike blonde ...Read more
In a recent op-ed piece urging us to welcome and celebrate differences among people, Trinity College senior Jessica Duong wrote, "Empathy also includes holding others accountable in situations where people may be othered."
Othered? This was a new term to me. Scurrying to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, I found that the verb "to other" ...Read more
Some random dispatches from the Word Front ...
-- Off With Their "Aheads": When did "ahead of" start to replace "before"? A recent New York Times headline proclaimed "Xi Jinping Will Make First Visit to North Korea Ahead of Meeting With Trump," while NPR noted that the "Philippines' Duterte Remains Popular Ahead Of Midterm Elections," and a ...Read more
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