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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!

Here’s to hoppiness

Q: I’ve noticed that “hop” and “hops” seem to be used interchangeably. Thus the “Hop Growers of America” have a report entitled “USA Hops.” And “hopped” and “hopping” appear on beer menus regularly, as well as expressions like “a high-hops pale ale.” I would be interested in your take on the “hop” family. A: As... ? Read More: Here’s to hoppiness

Arrival time

Q: Reading “arrived to” drives me nuts. Why not “arrived at”? When did this start? A: People used to arrive “at,” “in,” “into,” “on,” “to,” and “upon” their destinations. It wasn’t until the 1700s that language commentators began expressing preferences for one preposition over another. Show More Summary

Why surgery is an operation

Q: My wife and I were talking about the way the word “operation” seems associated most often with surgery. Do you have any idea how this came about? A: Why does the word “operation” often call up images of surgery? Perhaps because the surgical sense is one of the oldest meanings of the word. For... ? Read More: Why surgery is an operation

When “and that” is “and so on”

Q: I hear people say things such as “We need to get hot dogs, buns, and that.” Where does this use of “and that” come from? Is it regional? A: The phrase “and that” in your example (“We need to get hot dogs, buns, and that”) is another way of saying “and so forth” or... ? Read More: When “and that” is “and so on”

“Mammalogy” or “mammology”?

Q: I’m perplexed by the spelling of “mammalogy.” Shouldn’t it be “mammology” or “mammalology,” as per “biology,” “neurology,” and other subjects of study with an “-ology” suffix? A: You’re not the first person to question the legitimacy of “mammalogy.” People began complaining about it soon after the word showed up in English in the 19th... Show More Summary

Why the racket sport is “squash”

Q: I know “squash,” the food name, comes from a Native American word that sounded like that to the Pilgrims. How did “squash,” the sport, get its name? A: We’ve written on the blog about the “squash” that’s a vegetable and the “squash” that means to crush. As we say in a 2012 post, the... ? Read More: Why the racket sport is “squash”

Needs must when the devil drives

Q: What is the grammar of “needs must,” as in “needs must when the devil drives”? I’ve seen online discussions of the etymology, but not the grammar. A: The word “needs” here is a very old adverb meaning “of necessity,” “necessarily,” or “unavoidably.” It’s considered obsolete now except in the idiomatic expression “needs must” (or... Show More Summary

When “we” is “you”

Q: It bothers me to be addressed by a clerk or server as “we” instead of “you.” For example, “Are we enjoying our meal?” or “Are we ready to check out?” I find this a putdown. It reminds me of how some people speak to a child. I know the server means no offense, but,... ? Read More: When “we” is “you”

Keeping up with the Joneses

Q: I read an article by John Updike in an old New Yorker that says the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is believed to come from the lavish lifestyle of the family of Edith Wharton (née Jones). Is that true? A: No, Edith Wharton’s family is not responsible for the expression. In fact, that... ? Read More: Keeping up with the Joneses

Breaking the ice

Q: How did “break the ice” come to mean get a conversation going? Does it have something to do with the ice cubes in a drink at a cocktail party? A: No, this figurative use of the expression “break the ice” doesn’t have anything to do with scotch on the rocks or any other drink... ? Read More: Breaking the ice

Drones, bees and otherwise

Q: I would have thought that the word “drone” in reference to a remote-controlled plane was a recent neologism. However, I found “droneplane” in a New York Times crossword puzzle from 1953 as an answer to the clue “Remote-controlled aircraft.” How long has “drone” actually been used for an unmanned aircraft? A: The word “drone”... Show More Summary

Does a doorway need a door?

Q: I have always used the word “doorway” to describe the opening where a door might be located, whether or not there is a door. For example, a door-less passageway between rooms. Is this correct or should another term be used? A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and most of them define “doorway” as an... ? Read More: Does a doorway need a door?

How French is “Des Moines”?

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the city of Des Moines got its name from a Native American word for a path. I always thought the French named it for the monks, or moines, in the area. A: No, the monk story is a popular myth, or as historians call it,... ? Read More: How French is “Des Moines”?

When “old chestnut” was new

Q: You’ve used the expression “old chestnut” on your blog, but you’ve never explained its origin. Where does it come from? A: There’s no definite answer here, but all the evidence points to an origin in 19th-century show business. Before going on, we should mention that the word “chestnut” was spelled “chesnut” for much of... ? Read More: When “old chestnut” was new

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