Double Takes on the 'Read' Carpet

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Are you sometimes confused by look-alike celebrities? Is that Carey Mulligan or Michelle Williams? Daniel Radcliffe or Elijah Wood? Danny DeVito or a walnut with arms?

Similar confusion can occur when we encounter words that look alike and overlap in meaning. Linguists have a fancy term for this muddling of two similar words: "conflation."

...Read more

Word Hawk Swoops in on 'Fell'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"One fell swoop." Most scholars believe it was William Shakespeare who first used this phrase, and he imbued it with the most negative meaning possible.

In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," when Macduff learns that his wife and all his children have been murdered, he laments, "What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?" Macduff ...Read more

'Unpack' Explodes Like An Overstuffed Suitcase

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Remember when Americans hated to unpack? You know, dumping the suitcase on the bed, sorting dirty socks from clean socks, discovering that the bottle of mouthwash has leaked -- a depressing chore indeed.

But not anymore. We're gleefully "unpacking" all over the place. "Unpack" has become our trendiest term for "sort out, analyze, deconstruct....Read more

Will 'Trumpcare' Flourish? It's Hard To Say

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

When President Barack Obama first proposed his health care plan in 2009, Republicans gleefully dubbed it "Obamacare," eager to drape what they hoped would be a disastrous program around his neck.

Now the Democrats have turned the tables by labeling President Donald Trump's health care bill "Trumpcare." But the term "Trumpcare," like the bill ...Read more

This Word's Meaning Is Terri'fickle'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Two months before the stock market collapse of 1929, the economist Roger Babson wrote, "[A] crash is coming and it's going to be terrific."

Terrific? The Crash of '29 and the Great Depression that followed were certainly not good things. Did Babson somehow think this impending catastrophe would provide a welcome corrective to the stock market...Read more

Time for a 'Fulsome' Court Press

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Oyez, Oyez! The Superior Court of Usage Trends in the United States (SCUTUS) is now in session.

Case No. 1 -- Fulsome Meaning "Full" vs. Fulsome Meaning "Excessive"

Plaintiff: While "fulsome" once meant "copious, generous," about 150 years ago it acquired a negative meaning: "excessively flattering, insincere, overdone," as in, "Eager to ...Read more

The Warp and Woof of Words

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

The act of writing is often compared to weaving cloth. After all, both crafts involve blending linear elements -- lines of words and threads of fabric -- to produce useful and beautiful creations.

So we "fabricate" stories, "spin" yarns and "stitch together" plots. As the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst put it, "The true storyteller is a ...Read more

Is Having Two Meanings a Plus?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Don't get me started on the misuse of "nonplussed." In fact, don't even put the key in the ignition ... or swipe the fob, or press the button or whatever they're doing to start cars these days.

After all, here was this nice, wholesome word "nonplussed" -- a good kid, raised on a farm (well, OK, a French farm), but still, as I said, a good kid...Read more

Is Trump Beyond Comparison? Hardly

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Political commentators have spewed a spate of disparaging metaphors to describe President Donald Trump: "drunk uncle," "dumpster fire," "wrecking ball," "carnival barker," "human Molotov cocktail."

But what many of these commentators miss is that Trump himself is a master of metaphor. Anyone seeking to understand his appeal would be wise to ...Read more

We Shouldn't Damn -- or Dam -- English

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"What's happening to the English language?"

I hear that question often -- from readers, friends, relatives, colleagues, even my plumber.

Their queries, of course, reflect different concerns. Some complain about grammatical errors ("Me and him are going to the store"), some about jargon and gobbledygook ("the synergistic parameters empower ...Read more

Unzipping the Origins of 'Fly'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Why is the zippered opening on a pair of pants called a "fly"?

Before you start speculating about body parts lurking near the fly or bodily functions occurring though it, you'll be glad to know that the origin of this "fly" has nothing to do with anatomy.

"Fly" has long meant "to travel through the air," so certain objects that do so, such ...Read more

Evaluating the X 'Factor'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

When a severe ice storm delayed the start of an NFL playoff game in January, a reporter wrote in a game preview, "Weather already has played a factor in the Steelers-Chiefs divisional-round AFC-playoff game."

"Has played a factor"? Something about that phrase sounded odd. But why?

Certainly "has played a role" or "has played a part" would be...Read more

Teachers Told Him To Kick 'But'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: When I was in grade school, we were taught one NEVER begins a sentence with "And" or "But." Can you offer a definitive statement on this roiling controversy? I also have another question: When is it proper to use "further" and/or "farther"? The dictionary seems to say they are interchangeable. -- JR, Greensburg, Pa.

A. Ah, yes. Teachers ...Read more

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