Is "spray," meaning "an arrangement of flowers," related to "spray," meaning "particles of water"?
Because flowers are often spread out in a pattern resembling a shower or fountain, you might think so. But the flower "spray," which first appeared in Middle English during the 1200s, is unrelated to the liquid "spray," which came into English ...Read more
Q: How in the world did Bill come to be a nickname for William; Bob for Robert; Chuck for Charles; Dick for Richard; Jim for James; and Jack for John? -- Monte Miller, Simsbury, Connecticut
A: Exploring the origins of these nicknames lures us into the Funhouse of English, with its convoluted passages, distorted mirrors and moving floors. ...Read more
"Physician, heal thyself!"
When I see that subject line in my email inbox, I know exactly what's coming: a message from an eagle-eyed reader noting a typo or other error in my column.
Can you spot my mistakes?
No. 1: Someone watching cows chewing their cud was reminded of a person mulling over an idea.
No. 2: The little flash of light that...Read more
Did the expression "peter out" begin with a guy named "Peter"? Who are those Joneses we're always keeping up with? And is there an actual Susan behind "Lazy Susan"?
Several proposed explanations for the origin of "peter out" have, well, petered out. Some people attribute the term to St. Peter, whose support for Jesus gradually withered. ...Read more
With sadness, dear readers, I'm here to review
The words of the year we've all just been through.
The language we used in this time of duress
Reflected our anger, despair and distress.
The virus infected not only our lungs,
But spread a pandemic of terms on our tongues.
"Corona," "the rona" and "COVID-19"
Brought "face masks" and "...Read more
"These guys never waiver in supporting me."
When I read that sentence recently, I thought, "What a wonderful tribute to loyal friends -- and what a great opportunity to discuss a common usage error."
"Waiver" is a noun meaning "a voluntary relinquishment of a right or advantage," while "waver" is a verb meaning "to vacillate, falter." So, ...Read more
In case you hadn't noticed, Michigan has been in the news a lot lately, what with a plot to kidnap its governor, disputes about the integrity of its election, and the summoning of its legislative leaders to the White House, presumably to discuss how to improve their golf games.
But these divisive events are nothing compared to a bitter debate...Read more
During this pandemic-punctured holiday season, why not brighten the lives of your friends and family members with a lively new book -- or even a game! -- about language?
In "25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way," Geraldine Woods shows how distinctive sentences by great writers exemplify useful writing techniques, e.g., contradiction: ...Read more
Who said fairy tales were simple? See whether you can choose the correct words on this quiz about Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
1. Mama Bear's entreaties to buy a home security system had been in (vain, vein). 2. Papa Bear (trolled, trawled) for salmon with a huge net.
3. After Goldilocks awoke, she (bid, bade) farewell to her ursine hosts...Read more
Complete each of these familiar quotations: 1. "A penny for your ... " (John Heywood); 2. "Variety is the ... of life." (William Cowper); 3. "Birds of a feather ... together." (Robert Burton); 4. "Music hath charms to soothe the savage ... " (William Congreve).
If you supplied "thoughts," "spice," "flock" and "beast," you're almost right. The...Read more
It's "H" Hour! Can you choose the correct derivation for each word beginning with "h"?
1) Harbinger: A) a corruption of "messenger"; B) a variation of "bringer"; C) from the French word for a lodger; D) a contraction of "hearty binger," referring to the warning signs of alcoholism.
2) Halo: A) from the Greek for a threshing floor, where oxen...Read more
We all encounter recurring questions about grammar, usage, punctuation or spelling that bedevil us every time they pop up. Here are some of mine:
-- The Powerses That Be?
How should I render a family name ending in "s"? For instance, are families with the names Lyons, Howells or Powers "the Lyons," "the Howells" and "the Powers" or "the ...Read more
Q. "My boss insisted on using the word 'strived' in a letter he wrote to an important client. I researched the word at a library, and everyone there said the past tense of 'strive' is 'strove.' Which is correct: 'strived' or 'strove'?" -- George, Memphis, Tennessee
A. You clearly STROVE to find the correct choice, and now you know my ...Read more