Insidious invaders have infested the homestead museums and historic houses across our great land. No, they're not termites, rodents or carpenter ants, but instead innocent-looking docents and tour guides.
Beguilingly bedecked in bonnets and breeches, they cheerfully explain that the expression "sleep tight" arose because the ropes supporting ...Read more
Q: Why are hand weights called "dumbbells"? -- J. H., West Hartford, Connecticut
A: It's hard to imagine these clunky pieces of iron having anything to do with a church, but that's where this term began.
The earliest meaning of "dumb," a word that appeared in English around A.D. 1000, was "incapable of speech, mute." This gave us "dumb show"...Read more
Q: We have seen signs that read "Historical Site" as well as "Historic Site." Which is correct? -- S. Crowley, via email
A: If these signs refer to places that have significance in history, such as Valley Forge or the birthplace of Kim Kardashian, they should read "Historic Area." That's because "historic" means historically significant, as ...Read more
Q: When is it correct to use the word "farther" as opposed to "further"? Both words seem to fit grammatically when used in a sentence such as, "We get thirstier the farther/further we hike." -- Seth Chizeck, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
A: Perhaps I can provide a cool drink from the spring of knowledge.
Although "farther" and "further" were both...Read more
"It's as clean as a whistle," my father would often say after washing the family car. I always thought the phrase referred to the purity of a whistle made with the lips. After all, what could be cleaner than the clear sound of a human whistle? (Well, maybe not a wolf whistle.)
In fact, the phrase refers to a small wind instrument played by ...Read more
The ever-vigilant members of the Word Guy Blooper Patrol have sent me these errors from newspapers and magazines:
1. "It was just a sugar pill -- you know, the gazebo effect." Well, it is a sweet little structure. (Submitted by Ruth Beebe, Potsdam, New York)
2. "The buffet ... offered great food at bargain, all-year-can-eat prices." Sounds ...Read more
Today, some random dispatches from the Word Front ...
-- Prep School -- A while back, I scolded "prep perps" -- people who use the wrong prepositions after verbs. A lot of good that did!
Since then, I've seen or heard these gems: "He feels guilt for it," "He's excited for the big day," and "The Americans were thankful of the British aid."
We hoped for agreement and concord this year;
Instead we faced anger, contention and fear.
Our language was "toxic," profanity common;
We yelled and we howled like a "QAnon Shaman."
A claim that some rascals had "rigged the election"
Divided the nation and sparked "insurrection."
The chant "parents matter" discord did provoke;
A judge ...Read more
A celebrated opera diva once presented a recital for President Calvin Coolidge and his guests at the White House. Due to a case of bad nerves, the singer's performance was, to put it mildly, dreadful.
During the performance, someone whispered into Coolidge's ear, "What do you think of the singer's execution?" The president whispered back, "I'...Read more
Q: In the musical "Wicked," Glinda (the Good Witch) suggests that Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West to be) harbors a secret belief that she's destined to be popular. To encapsulate the concept of a hidden fate, Glinda blends "clandestine" with "destiny" to create the word: "clandestiny." Is there a word for the joining of two words into ...Read more
Your holidays will be jolly days if you give -- or get -- one of these nifty new books about language.
The witty wordsmith Richard Lederer offers a double treat with two simultaneously published books. In "A Pleasury of Word Origins," you'll learn that "the whole nine yards," once thought to have originated with machine-gun ammo belts or ...Read more
A reader writes, "In the newspaper I keep seeing sentences like 'So-and-so showed his acting chops in portraying a demented killer,' and, on sports radio, I keep hearing phrases like 'props to so-and-so for his 10-day hitting streak.' I thought 'chops' were what you got at the butcher and 'props' were objects in theatrical productions. Am I ...Read more
Q: In a recent television commercial, someone said, "I am not afraid of companies bigger than us." My mother said that it should have been "bigger than we," with the verb "are" implied. This was my gut reaction, too. Please let me know what you think. -- Justin, West Hartford, Connecticut.
A: Justin, trust your gut -- and your mom. The phrase...Read more