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When “mortify” meant to kill

Q: At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley is “mortified” by Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. I’ve read the novel umpteen times, but it just struck me that “mortify” must have something to do with death. What is the connection? A: Yes, the verb “mortify” has a deadly history. When English adopted it in... ? Read More: When “mortify” meant to kill

The emperor’s cold feet

Q: Professor Wadding, a minor character in The Transit of Venus, says the expression “cold feet” comes from Emperor Henry IV’s waiting in the snow at Canossa to meet Pope Gregory VII. Is this etymology too good to be true? Yes, that’s a fictitious story, but don’t blame Shirley Hazzard, the author of the novel.... ? Read More: The emperor’s cold feet

Is “monthslong” a word?

Q: Is “monthslong” a new word or did the editors at NPR slip up? A recent story referred to “a monthslong campaign of racist bullying.” A: Yes, “monthslong” is a word—a unit of written or spoken language—and it’s not all that new. But is it really a word, one that’s alive and well in writing... ? Read More: Is “monthslong” a word?

“Intend on” vs. “intend to”

Q: I hear people saying things like “I intend on getting back to you” instead of “I intend to get back to you.” I wonder if they’re conflating “intend to” and “intent on.” It sounds incorrect to me. Or is “intend on” correct? I’m intent on knowing. A: The verb “intend” has been used in... ? Read More: “Intend on” vs. “intend to”

Little Buttercup, disassembled?

Q: While playing oboe for a D’Oyly Carte tour, I heard that Little Buttercup may really mean “disassembled” when she tells the Boatswain in Pinafore that she has “dissembled.” Have you ever come across this alternate definition? A: Does Little Buttercup use “dissembled” to mean “disassembled” in H.M.S. Show More Summary

Coming for to carry me home

Q: I’ve come across the use of “for to” instead of “to” in a number of songs, poems, and other writing. In fact, a post of yours includes an example from Chaucer: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.” In what context is this usage correct? A: The old phrase “for to” is now considered... ? Read More: Coming for to carry me home

Suck, sucker, and sucking up

Q: How did “suck,” a verb apparently derived from an ancient root related to creating negative pressure to draw liquid into the mouth, give us the noun “sucker” for a foolish or gullible person? A: When the verb “suck” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it usually referred to what a baby does at its mother’s... ? Read More: Suck, sucker, and sucking up

Can a ‘run-on’ sentence run on?

Q: I’m puzzled by this sentence: “Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers.” Technically, it’s a run-on sentence and incorrect. But it feels so right. What are your thoughts?...Show More Summary

Shards or sherds?

Q: Seeing “filled with centuries-old pottery sherds” in a poem made me wonder if the poet intentionally changed shards into sherds or made a mistake. But then I googled “sherds” and got many hits. My spellchecker still wants to change it to “shards.” Your comments? A: The word for a piece of broken pottery, glass,... ? Read More: Shards or sherds?

Adjectives galore

Q: I was telling a friend about the “fresh flowers galore” at the produce outlet in Dover, Delaware, when I got to thinking about “galore.” Is there any other adjective (if it is an adjective) that always goes after the noun? A: Yes, “galore,” meaning “in abundance,” is an adjective. Technically, it’s a postpositive adjective—one... ? Read More: Adjectives galore

‘Interested in’ vs. ‘interested to’

Q: I’m interested in hearing what you think about the use of the infinitive in “I’m interested to hear what you think.” A: Let’s begin by discussing the use of “interested” with “to hear” and “in hearing.” We’ll get to other complements later. Show More Summary

Which egg came first?

Q: Is there a connection between the noun “egg” and the expression “egged on”? A: No, the two terms aren’t etymologically related, though English got both from Old Norse, the language of the Viking raiders in Anglo-Saxon times. It turns out that there were two forms of the Old Norse word egg: a neuter noun... ? Read More: Which egg came first?

Lay waste to Carthage?

Q: I never see “lay waste” used correctly, as in “lay Carthage waste.” Instead I see “lay waste to Carthage.” Though a voice crying in the wilderness, perhaps I could enlist your help in staying this devastation of the language? A: Traditionally, as you point out, “lay” is a transitive verb that takes a direct... ? Read More: Lay waste to Carthage?

Fatal or mortal?

Q: I’d be grateful for your thoughts on whether “fatal” or “mortal” better describes a gunshot wound that someone dies of. A: Either “fatal” or “mortal” may describe a deadly wound. However, each adjective has several other meanings of its own. “Fatal” may also mean, among other things, decisive (“a fatal moment”), causing failure (“a... ? Read More: Fatal or mortal?

Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

Q: Where do you stand on the debate in academia over whether Jane Austen winkingly used the name “Fanny Price” for her Mansfield Park heroine? A: There’s no chance that Jane Austen was slyly winking at her readers when she used that name in Mansfield Park (1814). The British use of “fanny” to mean the... ? Read More: Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

Like a death’s head at a feast

Q: My mother used to use the expression “like a death’s head at a feast” to describe a particularly disagreeable person at a social function. I use it myself, from time to time, much to the amusement of my adult children. Can you shed any light on the origin of this expression? A: A death’s... ? Read More: Like a death’s head at a feast

Elder vs. older: an eald story

Q: The NY Times recently referred to Ivanka Trump as Donald Trump’s eldest daughter. Why do we have two sets of words—“elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest”? A: More than a thousand years ago, the Old English versions of “elder” and “eldest” were the original comparative and superlative forms of “old.” They meant the same thing as the... Show More Summary

Scratch made

Q: I’ve heard several commercials referring to “scratch-made” baked goods. The usage makes my skin crawl. Is this an acceptable alternative for “made from scratch” or just an annoying bastardization? A: The expression “scratch made” is, as you suggest, a variation on the more common and somewhat older idiom “made from scratch.” However, both are... ? Read More: Scratch made

A mite interesting?

Q: I’m curious about this Bloomberg sentence: “Finding twice as many old regulations to cut may be a mite challenging—less so at first, more so as time goes by.” Is the word “mite” a typo? A: No, “mite” in that Bloomberg opinion piece isn’t a typo. It’s part of the idiom “a mite,” which means... ? Read More: A mite interesting?

An adverb, forsooth!

Q: Your post about “needs must” is very interesting, but try as I might I find it hard to construe “nights” and “days” as adverbs in “She works nights and sleeps days.” They just feel too like nouns, being the object of “works.” Can you give any other examples of “-s” and “-es” adverbs in... ? Read More: An adverb, forsooth!

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