Q: I was taught that a biannual event occurred every other year. Now it seems "biannual" is being used to mean "occurring twice a year." What gives? -- Andrea Mansfield, Trenton, New Jersey.
A: "What gives?" I haven't heard that expression for a while. It's an Americanism that became popular after appearing in the musical "Pal Joey" in 1940. ...Read more
We've all been there. You and your colleagues are brainstorming during a Zoom session, shouting out any idea that comes into your heads, no matter how absurd it might be. And then, after this exhilarating session of free-range thinking, you collectively decide to rename your company "Covid."
That's brainstorming for you. When it works, we ...Read more
Q: In a story I just read, I found this: "I was woken up bright and early." Is "woken" a word? -- June Leeper, Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania.
Perhaps no verb family in English causes more mischief than "wake" and its various forms. The "wakes" are a rough-hewn, rootin'-tootin' backcountry clan with all kinds of eccentric relatives, ...Read more
Why do we say that people enjoying an opulent, elegant lifestyle are living "high on the hog"?
The traditional explanation goes something like this: In Jolly Old England, the most desirable cuts of pork, which came from the upper parts of a hog's body, were reserved for aristocrats. (Picture festive medieval banquets -- goblets, gobbling, ...Read more
Seven-up! Can you spot an error involving the use of the Latin abbreviations "e.g.," "etc.," "et al." or "i.e." in each of these seven sentences?
1) Committing a mistake when using Latin abbreviations is not one of the seven deadly sins, e.g., pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath.
2) Servius Tullius built fortifications on the ...Read more
When, in the course of human events, high school students write American history papers, watch out! Teachers have sent me these delightful bloopers and typos:
"It started a quasi-navel war with France." We were belly to belly, and France blinked.
"Puritans believed that itch craft was the most conspicuous manifestation of Satan's presence." ...Read more
"I don't cotton to that idea," a friend said the other day. The idea he wasn't "cottoning to" was my theory that Vice President Mike Pence once played the white-haired "Man from Glad" in TV commercials. After all, have you ever noticed that you never see these two guys together in the same place?
My friend's response got me wondering how "...Read more
Sentences, like radios, often require fine-tuning. Misplaced modifiers, ambiguous pronoun references and faulty parallelism can create static. How would you tweak each of these sentences to make its signal clear and strong? (One sentence contains no errors.)
1. Thousands of contestants, hoping to find wealth, adventure or to gain fame, try ...Read more
Whenever a minister speaks of a congregation as a "flock" -- the last time this happened, by the way, was 1958 -- we discover a clue to the origin of the word "congregation."
The Latin noun "grex" meant "herd, flock," and this root (usually changed to "greg") survives in several English words denoting an accumulation or collection.
A newspaper reporter recently wrote that an Edgar Degas exhibit was "up for fewer than 10 days."
I don't know much about art, but I know what I dislike -- hypercorrection. The reporter knew that "fewer" should be used with countable items, e.g., "fewer paintings," but he applied this precept where it didn't belong. Because time is considered ...Read more
Whether you're self-isolating at a cove, cabin or campsite this summer, or just stuck at home like the rest of us, you can still savor one of these new books about words and language.
Pronouns, those humble, innocuous stand-ins for nouns, have suddenly become flash points in our current battles over gender equality and fluidity. Many people ...Read more
Despite the homogenization of American language during the past century, many delightful words unique to a certain region survive. Can you match each regional term with its definition AND select the region or state where it flourishes?
Regions: New England, New York, Pennsylvania, South, Southwest, Alaska.
2. Tumbleset...Read more
When the origin of a word seems obvious, beware! Consider these tricksters:
Launch: You might assume the small motorboat known as a "launch" is so named because it's "launched" from shore. In fact, "launch" derives from the Malay word "lanchar" (quick) because such small boats were fast.
"Lanchar" was adopted by the Portuguese as "lancha," ...Read more