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."
"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
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
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
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
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 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
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
You Shall Know Our Names (The Judah Halevi Journals) (Volume 1)Ezekiel Nieto Benzion
When Ezekiel Benzion's grandfather handed him the dusty journals written by Doctor Judah Halevi Nieto, he begged, "Before I die, tell me why our family protected these for two hundred years. Who were these men? And why were they revered?" The search for answers led to ...
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
"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
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
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
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