Q: I found your post about the use of “head” for toilet very illuminating, although I was surprised by the euphemistic use of “lavatory,” probably derived from a Latin word for “wash,” rather than the more precise “crapper,” which, as I recall, derives from the name of the person who invented the first flush... ? Read More: Toilet training
Q: I watch the PBS series Midsomer Murders. In a recent episode, a character appears who sometimes exclaims, “Steady, the Buffs” and “Stiffen the Prussian Guard.” I tried to find their source, with little luck. They sound like something in a novel aboaut the Napoleonic Wars, or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What do... ? Read More: Steady, the Buffs!
Q: My child got back a spelling test in which she was marked wrong for writing “ante meridiem” as the full name of the abbreviation “AM.” The teacher’s spelling list had it as “antemeridian.” Is this some variant I’m unaware of? A: Your child’s paper should not have been marked wrong.... ? Read More: Ante meridiem or antemeridian?
Q: Your article about “masthead” raises an interesting question: how about the naval term “head” as a place for defecation? A: When the word “head” was first used in a nautical sense back in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled heafod in Old English), it referred to a ship’s figurehead. By the 1400s, the term... ? Read More: Why is a ship’s toilet a head?
My wordies — how time has flown! If it’s March 4, it’s National Grammar Day once again, and here’s MRP with some goodies. Just. For. You. First, h/t to one of my roving reporters for this little tidbit, spotted in Minneapolis. Oh dear, will no one think of the childrens and add an apostrophe to […]
On my neighbour’s house. (Thanks, Vanya!)
Snapped in the City of London. I’ve never seen this peculiar apostrophe placement before and the supernumerary ‘O’ is puzzling. (Thanks, Tristan Oliver!)
Dymocks is a National chain of book stores, with more than 70 stores locally, and more offshore. I hope this abuse hasn’t been perpetrated across all the shelves in all the stores! (Thanks, David!)
Q: The use of “kick the can” now in vogue among pundits and politicians has nothing to do with the childhood game I played 60 years ago. How did kicking the can “down the road” become such a common cliché? A: The expression “kick the can down the road,” meaning to procrastinate or... ? Read More: Kick the can down the road
Q: As a civilian conducting research for the US military in Afghanistan, I came across a reference to the Women Ordnance Workers during World War II. The women were referred to by the acronym “WOW,” which led me to your post about the origins of the exclamation “Wow!” Interested? A: As we said... ? Read More: When a woman was a WOW!
Q: What does “taking candy from a baby” mean? It seems to me that it would be hard to take candy from a baby, but I hear people using the expression to mean something that’s very easy to do. A: The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says “like taking candy from a... ? Read More: Taking candy from a baby
Q: Here goes … effective vs. effectual vs. efficacious. Any difference? A: The adjectives “effective,” “effectual,” and “efficacious” have the same primary meaning: producing or capable of producing a desired effect. When used in that sense, the only reason for picking one over the others is style. The best one is the... ? Read More: How effective is effectual?
Q: Is a “rescue dog” one that rescues (like the fabled St. Bernard with a cask of brandy strapped under its neck) or one that is rescued (like an abused puppy that ends up in a shelter)? A: The phrase “rescue dog” has two meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “(a) a... ? Read More: Rescue dog: rescuer or rescuee?
Q: I know you’ve discussed the plural of “octopus” on the blog, but there’s one point I’ve never seen addressed anywhere. The word was adopted into English in the mid-18th century. So what did English speakers call the octopus before then? A: While the creature itself has been known since ancient times, the... ? Read More: An octopus by any other name
Q: Why is a “cakewalk” something that’s easy to do? It doesn’t make sense. Or does it? A: The Dictionary of American Regional English says the term “cakewalk” originally referred to a contest among African-Americans in which “a cake was the prize awarded for the fanciest steps or figures.” Historians generally believe... ? Read More: Why is a cakewalk easy?
Q: I have a question that three history teachers couldn’t answer. Why do we call Central and South America “Latin America”? And why are the inhabitants called “Latinos”? My only guess is that these areas were colonized by Spaniards and they spoke Latin for religious services. A: The term “Latin” has been used... ? Read More: The Latin beat
Q: After mistaking someone in a store for someone else the other day, I thought to myself, “Wow, that person is a dead ringer.” Where in the world does that term come from? A: Sometimes a nonliteral usage makes sense only if you use your imagination a bit. This is one of those... ? Read More: Why is a dead ringer a double?
Q: I see both “jibe” and “jive” used to mean agree, as in “His testimony did not jibe/jive with what he said earlier.” As a sailor, I know “jibe” refers to changing tack while sailing downwind. “Jive,” on the other hand, refers to deceptive talk. How on earth did we get from point A... ? Read More: Jibe, gibe, and jive
Q: I’ve always been amused by the expression “bruising the gin,” which seems to me the kind of thing one of Bertie’s pals at the Drones Club might utter. What’s the origin/history of “bruise” used in this context? A: When the verb “bruise” showed up in Old English in the ninth century (spelled... ? Read More: Don’t bruise the gin
Q: Some geographical nouns seem to require “the” while others don’t. She vacations on Cape Cod, but climbs the Alps. We sail up the Nile, but swim in Lake George. Is there any logic here? A: The definite article “the” was once seen more often in place names than it is today. But... ? Read More: Why the Rockies, not the Ranier?