(Note: This post originally appeared on the Grammarphobia Blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.) Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey? A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which... ? Read More: Turkey Day
Q: Your post about “no money in the till” made me wonder whether “till,” the cash box, is related to “tilling” the fields to make money. Or perhaps not make money if the till is empty. A: No, the verb “till” (to cultivate land) and the noun “till” (a money box) aren’t related, though... ? Read More: On tilling and tills
Q: I beg to disagree with you about the use “inter” for ashes placed in a columbarium. Actually, the proper verb is “enniche” because “cremains” are placed in a niche. Just sayin’. A: Our “Burial Ground” post was about whether the verb “inter” could be used for remains placed in a niche in a columbarium.... ? Read More: Enniched, inurned, and entombed
Q: As I understand it, “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge about something, while “stupidity” is doing something when you know it’s a mistake. I ascribe a sort of willfulness to “stupidity.” Is my view reasonable? Is there a better word for this concept of stupidity? A: Although the two words are often used interchangeably,... ? Read More: On ignorance and stupidity
Dear Readers, There were several errors in today’s post about Brighton Rock slang. We fixed them in the late morning, so if you read an earlier version, check out the latest. Pat and Stewart
Q: In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s characters use “polony” and “buer” for a woman of loose morals, but I can’t find the terms in dictionaries. I know that if I use them in Scrabble I will get challenged! A: You can find both words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “buer” as a woman,... ? Read More: Brighton Rock slang
Q: I’ve been waging a losing battle over the creeping use of “pant” vs. “pants.” As far as I’m concerned, “pant” is what a dog does on a hot day, not something I’d wear. If you feel I’m a cranky, persnickety nitpicker and should just start wearing skirts, I’ll abide by your ruling. A: Keep... ? Read More: Is the “s” in “pants” out of style?
Q: After reading your post about the “master” controversy at Yale, I was shocked to be driving by an Ivy League campus in upstate NY and seeing a sign that pointed the way to “Cornell Plantations.” A: It’s interesting that you should write to us about this, since Cornell University is even now reconsidering the... ? Read More: Plantation mentality
Q: I’m accustomed to the use of “thing” with a modifier to mean a fad (“X is the next big thing” or “I’m sick of this X thing”), but now I’m seeing it used by itself in that sense (“X is now a thing”). Your thoughts? A: We discussed the history of the word “thing”... ? Read More: The thing about thing
Q: What’s the deal with “askance”? It’s invariably used with “look” (or “watch”), as in “They looked askance at her unorthodox proposal.” Would it be correct to say someone “listened askance”? A: It’s possible to read too much into a word, as you’ve done here. In the case of “askance,” you’re taking a figurative usage... ? Read More: Can you listen askance?
Q: Have you ever addressed the issue of “wait tables” rather than “wait on tables”? The dropping of the preposition gives me indigestion. A: There’s no reason to get heartburn over this. The two versions showed up around the same time in the 19th century. And the one you prefer is itself a clipped version... ? Read More: When a waiter waits
Q: When we describe a range of time, we say “from 3 to 4 p.m.” or “between 3 and 4 p.m.” What preposition should we use when there’s a hyphen between the two numbers? For example, “Our shop is open from/between 1-2 p.m.” A: This is a style issue, and our go-to source for a... ? Read More: A timely hyphen
Q: I’ve often wondered if there’s a connection between the “stool” one sits on and the “stool” one evacuates. So I’m asking. A: The noun “stool” has referred to a toilet seat for hundreds of years. Hence, the use of “stool” for the fecal matter discharged while sitting on the toilet. Here’s the story. When... ? Read More: Between two stools
(Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween a year ago.) Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right? A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it! As... ? Read More: Hallowe’en be thy name
Q: I’m confused by the “so … as” and “so … that” constructions in these sentences: “The word is so rare as to be almost obsolete” and “The word is so rare that it is almost obsolete.” Are they both correct? Do they mean the same thing? A: Your two examples are grammatically correct. The... ? Read More: So … as, so … that, so what?
Q: What is the difference between “plaid” and “tartan”? I’ve found many answers online, but they’re not consistent. Can you help? A: We can see why you’re confused. The terms “plaid” and “tartan” are often used interchangeably, and the definitions in standard dictionaries differ in one way or another. To confuse things more, the same... ? Read More: Words with a checkered past
Q: I am wondering why everything being sold is “on sale,” but only promoted items with special pricing are “for sale.” Can you help? A: We’ve often wondered about this ourselves. As all shoppers know, everything that’s “on sale” is “for sale.” But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. Show More Summary
Q: My boss and I have a disagreement about the phrase “at my instance,” which I think should be “at my insistence.” The first time he wrote “at my instance,” I thought it was an auto-corrected version of “at my insistence,” but he insists it’s a common phrase. I’ve never heard it before, and to... ? Read More: At the instance of a reader
Q: I assume the “yarn” one tells is somehow related to the “yarn” one knits with, but how are they related? A: Terms from sewing, knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts have long been used in a literary sense, though the relationship between the “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with is somewhat... ? Read More: Spinning a yarn
Q: Which is correct: “lord it over” or “laud it over”? A: The verb here is “lord” (to act in a lordly manner), not “laud” (to praise). Interestingly, the two usages first appeared in writing in the same work, Piers Plowman (1377), a Middle English allegorical poem by William Langland, according to citations in the... ? Read More: Laudy, Laudy!