In reviewing a documentary about TV journalist Mike Wallace, critic Kenneth Turan noted that the film's director had "gotten ahold of exceptional footage." That prompted Henry McNulty of Cheshire, Connecticut, to ask whether "ahold" was acceptable in standard English.
To answer this question, let's take Mike Wallace's dig-deep, investigative ...Read more
President Donald Trump's recent suggestion that the G-7 hold its next meeting at his Doral golf resort near Miami has punctilious pundits grinding their molars. Having foreign officials spend millions of euros, Japanese yen and Canadian loonies at Trump's property would be a big no-no, they claim, not only because these dignitaries won't tip ...Read more
Q: Why is the adjective "crack" used to describe someone who's good at something, as in a "crack shot" or "crack troops"? -- Chris Ryan, New York City
A: This is a tough question, but I'll take a crack at it. "Crack," which derives from Old English "cracian" and the Middle English "crakken," first appeared in English as a verb meaning "to ...Read more
Q: I've noticed that the word "masthead" is often used to refer to the name on the front page of a publication, but I learned years ago that this was properly called the "flag." The masthead for me has always been the inside box of information that lists a publication's staff. Can you provide some clarification? I'm also wondering why there is...Read more
Q: I see the following two phrases all too often: 1) "Three (or two or four) times less." I would think "one times less" means it is free, and that "two times less" means you get paid the value of the item if you take it away! 2) "One of the only," as in "one of the only car dealers to offer this." One of the only what? -- Francis Charest, ...Read more
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