'Casus Belli' Ignites Linguistic Wars

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Latin plurals have been a casus belli (justification for war) among English speakers for centuries. For example, if you want to start a fistfight, ask two people for the plural of casus belli. Cassi belli? Casus bellis? Cassius' belly? (Which presumably was small because Cassius had a lean and hungry look.)

In fact, the plural of casus belli ...Read more

Peroxide Paradox: 'Blonde' or 'Blond'?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In American lingo today, "blonde" is a word to dye for. Recently published books include Laurence Leamer's "Hitchcock's Blondes," Ally Carter's romance "The Blonde Identity" and Emmett Hardy's crime novel "Blond Hair, Blue Eyes." Joelle Wellington's highly anticipated thriller "The Blonde Dies First" will be published this summer.

A few years...Read more

This Column Is Aimed at the 'Likes' of You!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In an interview for a documentary about Bill Clinton, his White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers made this comment about the extraordinary talents of her former boss: "I just don't think his likes will come our way again."

While many would agree with her suggestion that Bill Clinton was a one-of-a-kind political magician, some might wonder...Read more

And Don't Call Me 'Sirly'!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Medieval aristocrats living in lofty castles looked down on the commoners around them, both literally and figuratively. So it's no surprise that words denoting farmers and townies soon acquired negative connotations. Eventually, in fact, two noblemen could insult each other simply by exchanging "peasantries."

Let's take a look at the rustic ...Read more

The Data Is/Are In: Latin Plurals Are Tricky

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Datum or data? Medium or media? Stratum or strata?

Here's a quick review of these double-dealers:

-- Datum/data: "Datum" means "a single piece of information," and its plural form is "data." But because information is usually a collection of many facts, the singular form "datum" is rarely used these days, and "data" is increasingly treated ...Read more

Why Admirals Use the Big, Big 'D'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In "The Secret Life of Words" (Harcourt, $24), Paul West becomes a tabloid gossip columnist, revealing the skeletons (or "spell-etons") in the closets of famous words.

You might assume, for instance, that "admiral" derives from "admire"; certainly such a high-ranking naval officer is worthy of admiration. But West reveals that admiral comes ...Read more

It's Just 'One of Those' Things

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A recent editorial in the Washington Examiner included this clause: "Say you're one of those who is concerned about Trump's actions in the weeks following the 2020 election..."

Paul Johnson of Alexandria, Virginia, emailed me to ask whether the clause should have read, "Say you're one of those who ARE concerned about Trump's actions."

In ...Read more

If I Were King of the Elves

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. I'm always puzzled about which verb to use following a phrase starting with "if" or "as if." In one instance, I read, "If I were 90 years old ...", and in the next, "If I was doing that ..." Which should it be? -- Jim Bilbrey, Pierre, South Dakota

A. That's an iffy question! When we're talking about situations that are highly improbable or...Read more

Pilot Parlance: Fasten Your 'Speech'-belt

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

People in dangerous, high-pressure jobs sometimes relieve tension with proprietary humor. Nowhere is this more true than in the airline industry. Consider this deadpan conversation among an air traffic controller and two airline pilots:

Tower: "Delta 702, cleared for takeoff, contact departure on 124.7."

Delta 702: "Switching to departure .....Read more

A Brand-New 'Eephus' Fable

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Why do we say something is 'brand-new'?" asks Simon Kravetz of Canton, Connecticut.

Now there's a burning question!

"Brand," derived from a Germanic root that means burn, originally referred to a burning stick or torch. Medieval artisans used intense heat to shape ceramic or metal objects, and when they pulled their creations from the fire,...Read more

Getting Obsessive About the Possessive

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. A postcard states that a certain company has "over 50 years' experience" in a certain field. Is the apostrophe after "years" necessary? -- Maureen, via e-mail

A. After over 50 years' experience in the field of grammar and usage, I can firmly answer "yes." By convention, it's customary to describe amounts of time and money by using ...Read more

History Is a 'Foible' Agreed Upon

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

History repeats itself. After reading these sentences, taken from high school students' history papers and sent to me by teachers, let's hope not.

1. During the Glorious Revolution, Parliament decided to take power away from the thrown. (And soon the king had been overthrown.) 2. The Constitution tried to achieve parody among the states. (...Read more

Was Barbie a Nervous Nellie at the Oscars?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Why is the doll (and movie) called "Barbie"? Why is Nellie nervous, and why is a statuette named Oscar? This column will put you on a first-name basis with terms based on first names.

-- Barbie -- During the 1950s, Ruth and Elliot Handler noticed that their daughter, Barbie, preferred paper dolls resembling adult women to baby dolls. So they ...Read more



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