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One never knows, do one?

Q: Why do people use “one” instead of “I” or “me”? I would love to know the history of this one. A: As you might guess, “one” is among the earliest words in recorded English. In early Old English, it could be a noun or an adjective (expressing the simple numeral) as well as an... ? Read More: One never knows, do one?

Let’s talk turkey

Q: How did our native Thanksgiving bird get named for a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia? A: Yes, turkey, the main event at Thanksgiving dinners in the US, is native to the Americas. The big bird came to the attention of Europeans in 1518 when the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva encountered... ? Read More: Let’s talk turkey

Mon dieu! Le typo!

Here’s a tasty little typo that turns chicken with wine (coq au vin) into chicken with vine. Whatever that would be. I’m a little afraid to ask. And, not for nothing, it’s written correctly directly above where it’s written incorrectly. Kinda makes you want a glass of vin, no? Le sigh.         […]

Queues and lines

Q: I am given to understand that what is referred to as a “line” of people in the US is called a “queue” in the UK, though both Americans and British use “queue” the same way in its computer sense. How did all this come about? A: Broadly speaking, you’re right—people ranked in an orderly... ? Read More: Queues and lines

Stumbling over and through Drink Wisconsinbly

Earlier this year, I started noticing t-shirts and hoodies bearing the phrase 'Drink Wisconsinbly', like in the image here. (And, yeah, it comes in green and gold as well as red and white.) Clever, right? But I don't read t-shirts all that closely and I saw it a few times before I realized that it doesn't work at all for me phonologically... Show More Summary

Member’s Get An Extra Apostrophe

This was their recent flyer near the register. (Thanks, NorthWind!)


Nacho’s what? (Thanks, NorthWind!)

It’s two for one at Burger King!

I found this at a Burger King in Minnesota in 2013. First I thought I’d captured ONE mistake. I could hardly believe it when I found the SECOND. Merry Christma’s! (Thanks, Heidi Armstrong!)

How healthy is “healthcare”?

Q: Here’s a headline from an editorial in the journal Health Care Management Review: “It’s health care, not healthcare.” What are your thoughts? A: With Ebola still in the news, we’re seeing a lot of this term, and it’s written every which way—sometimes one word and sometimes two, sometimes with a hyphen and sometimes without.... ? Read More: How healthy is “healthcare”?

New journal alert

The world seems to be bursting at the seams with linguistics news... Word of the Year stuff is cranking up, and the frenzy over mapping language continues (see this cool piece from WaPo) and I'm more puzzled than ever about how language works.But there's also a new journal, Ampersand, that just published its first article. Show More Summary

Aunt-ing and uncle-ing

Q: When a possessive pronoun like “my” is used with a title like “aunt” or “uncle,” is the title capitalized? Example: “At 10, my uncle Bob (or my Uncle Bob”) will arrive by train.” My students like concrete answers. Ha! A: This is a matter of style rather than grammar, so we’ll go to a... ? Read More: Aunt-ing and uncle-ing

A little black dress

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “little black number,” synonymous with Coco Chanel’s “little black dress”? Why is it called a “number”? A: The word “number” is often used in ways that have nothing to do with arithmetic, and this is one of them. Since the late 19th century, according to the Oxford... ? Read More: A little black dress

A doozy of an etymology

Q: Do you have any information on the word “ripstaver”? A: A “ripstaver” is an impressive person or thing—a beaut, a corker, a crackerjack, a doozy, a humdinger, a knockout, a lollapalooza, a jim-dandy, or a ripsnorter. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as a colloquialism that originated in the US in the early... ? Read More: A doozy of an etymology

How to capitalize food names

Q: I’m never sure about how food names are capitalized? Is it “Waldorf salad” or “waldorf salad”? “Swiss cheese” or “swiss cheese”? “French fries” or “french fries”? And so on. A: The one thing we can tell you for sure is that the generic noun in these dishes—the “salad,” the “fries,” and so on—is lowercased.... ? Read More: How to capitalize food names

The “c” word in fact and fiction

Q: In Colleen McCullough’s historical novel Fortune’s Favorites, one of the characters mentions the Latin term cunnus, which I found means vagina. So Latin is apparently the source of the dirtiest word in the English language, right? A: No, the word “cunt” is not derived from Latin—it came into English from ancient Germanic sources. Show More Summary

Big announcement from Mr. Verb -- Career change

Dear readers,You should be the first to know. After literally decades of studying how language works and changes and what it tells us about the mind, I'm moving on. From this day forward, I'll be studying ancient mating habits.Yes, linguistics...Show More Summary

Is it “shined” or “shone”?

Q: I use “shined” with an object and “shone” without one. But lately I’ve read a lot of books whose authors use “shined” in all contexts. Have you ever written on the difference between those two words? A: No, we haven’t written about the the verb “shine,” but thanks for giving us the opportunity. Standard... ? Read More: Is it “shined” or “shone”?

Spa’s & Saunas

If it’s spelled with one vowel, it needs an apostrophe. If it’s spelled with more than one, it does not. What is it about this that’s so hard for you to understand?? From San Mateo, California on a very busy main drag. (Thanks, Kevin F!)


This pavement board stopped me in my rush to get to a meeting! And the two girls sitting next to it couldn’t work out what the problem was. I guess the apostrophe indicates that the ‘e’ is omitted. (Thanks, David!)

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