Q: My boyfriend and I are having an argument over whether the word “fart” is vulgar. I say “yes” and he says “no.” I’ve searched your blog, but don’t see anything about it. Can you help settle this? A: Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, differ on how to label this word. It’s variously described... ? Read More: Breaking wind
Q: I’ve just used “misgiving” in an email, but it strikes me now that the word doesn’t make much sense. How can adding a negative prefix to “giving” result in a word that means a feeling of doubt or distrust? A: The verb “give” once meant to suggest, so to give something was to suggest... ? Read More: Misgivings about ‘misgiving’
Q: I’ve always thought of a “regime” as an autocratic government, and a “regimen” as something like a diet or exercise plan. However, I often hear people refer to the latter as a “regime.” What is the difference between these two words? A: The word “regime” can refer to either a government (especially an authoritarian... ? Read More: Can a ‘regime’ be a ‘regimen’?
(Note: We’re repeating this post for Presidents’ Day. It originally appeared on May 13, 2011. Q: On a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial in DC, I noticed that there were no commas in the Second Inaugural Address carved into the wall. There are dashes and periods, but no other punctuation. Did writers of... ? Read More: With malice toward none
Q: My dorm roomie is a chess fiend, hence my question. Is the “mate” in “checkmate” related to the “mate” in “roommate”? A: No, they aren’t etymological mates. The one in “checkmate” comes from Arabic and Persian, while the one in “roommate” has been traced back to prehistoric Germanic. The chess term, which English borrowed... ? Read More: Checkmates and roommates
Q: Why does “biscuit,” which literally means “baked twice,” refer to food that, in most instances, is not baked twice? A: When the word “biscuit” showed up in English in the Middle Ages (spelled “besquite”), it did indeed refer to food that was baked twice. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word is derived “from... ? Read More: When biscuits were baked twice
Q: I am having a discussion about “older” and “oldest” with several friends. We know the general rule, but the issue concerns a family with three children, and reference is made to two of them. Are they the two “older” or “oldest” children?” A: There’s disagreement among language authorities about what you refer to as... ? Read More: Comparatively speaking
Q: A recent headline on the website of the NY Times refers to prostitutes as “sex workers.” For me, “sex workers” is bloodless and sanitized. What’s the latest on the usage here? A: You can find both “prostitute” and “sex worker” in the New York Times, though “prostitute” is found much more often. A recent... ? Read More: Prostitute or sex worker?
Q: Why do people say “I don’t have a dog in this race” when the word should be “fight,” not “race”? A: Those people may be conflating two figurative expressions that mean the same thing: “I don’t have a horse in this race” and “I don’t have a dog in this fight” (“this” is often... ? Read More: A dog in this race?
Q: My companion and I were wondering about the origin of the term “companion,” so we’re going to our go-to source. A: We, in turn, are going to some of our go-to sources. Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, a “companion” is “someone who shares your ‘bread’ with you.” Ayto says English... ? Read More: Companion piece
Q: I’m watching Wormwood, a Netflix miniseries about the mysterious death of a CIA scientist in the 1950s. I’ve read that the title refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation, but what is the origin of the word “wormwood” and its sense of bitterness and grief? A: The word “wormwood” comes from wermod,... ? Read More: The bitterness of wormwood
Q: Can you write on whether a company should be referred to as “it” or “they” when writing in the third person? Similarly, should a company’s name get a plural or singular verb? Does it depend on if the proper name appears singular or plural? A: As we said in our recent post about the... ? Read More: Is GM an “it” or a “they”?
Q: In The Dark Defile, Diana Preston’s 2012 book about the First Anglo-Afghan War, the reputation of the British army is defiled in the defiles of Afghanistan. What can you tell us about this interesting word? A: As you point out, the title of that book about a 19th-century British military disaster can be read... ? Read More: A defiling moment
Q: Which “light” came first, the one that refers to illumination or the one that means not very heavy? Is one of them the source of the other? A: The “light” that shines and the one that’s easy to carry both appeared in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, but they aren’t etymologically related.... ? Read More: The lights of our lives
Q: If I “turn into” a driveway, am I located in the driveway or have I become the driveway? In other words, does a driver “turn into” or “turn in to” a driveway? I’ve found many conflicting answers on the Internet. A: A driver “turns into” a driveway. And no, that doesn’t mean he becomes... ? Read More: How to turn into a driveway
Q: Does the “mare” in “nightmare” have anything to do with the word for a female horse? A: No, the two terms aren’t related. The “mare” of “nightmare” comes from mære, an Old English term for an evil spirit that was supposed to settle on a sleeper’s chest and cause a feeling of suffocation. The... ? Read More: The ‘mare’ in ‘nightmare’
Q: There’s a grammatical quirk in northern New England in which a negative is used affirmatively: Example: “I love it when the leaves turn in the fall.” … “Oh, so don’t I. It’s my favorite time of year.” Any ideas where that might have come from? A: You’re right that this quirky use of “so... ? Read More: Can ‘so don’t I’ mean ‘so do I’?
(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted an update indicating the latest preferences.) Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Show More Summary
Q: I saw this the other day in the NY Times: “I love these African wood sculptures, and the antique Buddha head. You and your wife have a great eye.” That sounds odd! How can two people have “a great eye”? A: Steven Kurutz, a Times feature reporter, made the comment in interviewing the “60... ? Read More: A great eye for art
Q: I often put captions above photos that I embed in emails, but I always have this problem: Should it be “Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” or “Mary and I at the Eiffel Tower”? And why? A: It doesn’t matter. Either caption is OK. “Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” and “Mary... ? Read More: Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower