"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
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
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
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
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 ...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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