This Quiz Leaves No Room for Error

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Roominate" on the choices posed by this usage quiz as it races from the classroom to the emergency room:

A. Though the lecture took (a while, awhile), the students clearly (benefited, benefitted) from it. Their teacher held a (master's, masters) degree in English, and, when it came to grammar, she expected students to (tow, toe) the line. ...Read more

A Fortuitous Encounter With Al Michaels

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

During a recent NFL playoff game, veteran NBC sportscaster Al Michaels reported that an official's placement of the football had been "very fortuitous" for the Philadelphia Eagles because it had given them a first down.

For linguistic purists watching the telecast -- and yes, some of them do follow football -- Michaels' use of "fortuitous" to...Read more

The Revel Is in the Details

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A vivid passage from Michelle Obama's memoir, "Becoming," refreshed my appreciation for the intense power of concrete details in writing. It describes Obama's girlhood experience as she rode the bus each morning through downtown Chicago en route from her South Side neighborhood to an elite magnet school:

"Through the window, I watched men and...Read more

Don't Be Judgy about 'Backflash'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Some random dispatches from the Word Front, including one from the War Front:

Flashback to "Backflash"

Retired Gen. John Allen was on CNN discussing the possible U.S. military withdrawal from Syria when he said, "We're in the process of stabilizing that population so Isis doesn't backflash in our faces."

Backflash? This term, which first ...Read more

What 'Caws'es Us To Say 'Crowbar'?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. What's the origin of "crowbar"? -- Al Cohen, Newington, Connecticut

A. A crow, a robin and a parakeet walk into a bar. ... OK, just kidding.

Five hundred years ago, someone probably did walk into a bar -- an iron bar that had been curved at the end for use as a lever or prying tool.

The scenario might have gone something like this ...

...Read more

This 'Calling Card' Hasn't Expired

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

When a TV weather forecaster described a November blast of cold air as "winter's calling card," I wondered how many viewers would know that "calling card" originally referred to a card left at a home to indicate a visitor had stopped by while the residents were away.

This gracious practice faded away, along with the buggy whip and the ...Read more

Here's Why Someone Can Utter Utter Nonsense

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Is there any connection between the verb "utter," meaning "to speak or express," and the adjective "utter," meaning "complete, absolute"?

Surprisingly, yes. Both derive from the Old English adverb "ut" (out). The verb "utter" originally meant "to put out" or "put forth." People spoke of "uttering" goods for sale; "to utter" money meant to ...Read more

Words That Go Bump in the Night

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

As a young graduate student, I once took a flight to Minneapolis that left LaGuardia Airport in New York City at 3:15 a.m. No, my plane wasn't delayed; that was actually the scheduled departure time.

Apparently, Northwest Airlines had to shuttle an empty 747 to the Twin Cities overnight, so they decided to sell cheap tickets. So five hapless ...Read more

What Are the Rules for 'Fewer' and 'Less'?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

My seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Morris, was a formidable and forthright woman. And when it came to the proper use of language, she was a matron on a mission. Picture Kathy Bates teaching a grammar lesson. Ouch!

The mistake that most annoyed Mrs. Morris was the misuse of "less" for "fewer." "Fewer," she insisted, should always be used ...Read more

A Look Back at the Words of 2018

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

My goodness, what a year we had,

With mayhem, storms, and fires so bad.

Our language seemed to fall from grace,

Sometimes nasty, sometimes base.

With "fire and fury" we rudely "threw shade,"

Aspersions flew like hand grenades.

Online postings spiked great tensions,

"Hashtags," "likes" and multiple "mentions."

Reporters just could not ...Read more

Political Potshots Have Always Packed Punch

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

If you think today's political insults are nasty, consider these mud bombs hurled at Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce and Grover Cleveland, respectively: "A drunken trowser-maker!" "The pimp of the White House!" "A moral leper!" John Adams was called "a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character....Read more

Good Folks Peppered With Salty Language

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. Why do we call virtuous people "the salt of the earth?" -- John S., West Hartford, Connecticut

Though "salt of the earth" is a venerable expression with biblical origins, it has still managed to provoke a salty linguistic controversy. The phrase derives from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: "You are the salt of the earth." Matthew 5:13. Jesus ...Read more

New Books on Language Bring Holiday Cheer

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

There's no place like tome for the holidays. These new books will delight the word-lovers on your shopping list -- and you as well.

Did you know that "acronym" refers only to abbreviations pronounced as words ("NASA"), while those pronounced as letters ("UFO") are called "initialisms"? Veteran word master Charles Harrington Elster explains ...Read more


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