Q: Is the expression “You can’t win for losing” as simple as it sounds? Or is there a deeper meaning and significance? A: We don’t see anything particularly deep about the expression. It’s just another way of saying “You can’t win if you’re losing all the time.” The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.) says... ? Read More: Can’t win for losing
Q: I’m struck by the strangeness of the phraselet “at all.” It seems to pop up everywhere, with a clear connotation but not much denotation at all. Is it shorthand for “at all events”? Seems to me it’s used in cases where the full phrase wouldn’t work at all. A: “At all” is one of... ? Read More: No problem at all
Q: The new CEO of a local organization recently emailed this: “It is with humbleness and excitement that I take on this leadership role.” Why back-form a clumsy-sounding noun from an adjective when we already have a perfectly good noun—“humility”? A: One of the blessings of English is its flexibility. We have umpteen different ways... ? Read More: In our humble opinion
Q: How come the ornament pinned over my wife’s clavicle, a “brooch,” is pronounced like “roach” and not like “smooch”? A: Yes, “brooch” is usually pronounced in the US and the UK to rhyme with “roach,” but some American dictionaries recognize a variant pronunciation that rhymes with “smooch.” And some US dictionaries also recognize the... Show More Summary
My dad has had to listen to me talk about linguistics for over 30 years now, but the other night he asked me what linguists say when people ask why it's important to maintain, revitalize, and reclaim languages. It was probably on his mind because of McWhorter's recent column on the topic. Show More Summary
Somebody just told me about looking through the lists of original members of the Linguistic Society of America — they'd talked to someone at another university who'd actually investigated this in detail for their institution. The list...Show More Summary
There's a great new project on the development of English in Chicago. It's the Chicago Dialect Project. Check it out on Facebook here. And here's a link to the blog associated with it, which doesn't have much on it yet but will.Say what you will about the Bears and the Cubs, they have a pretty interesting dialect down there in that part of Flatlandia.
Q: Why does a wine critic say a Bordeaux “drinks well”? A food critic wouldn’t say the carpaccio “eats well.” Does this usage have a history or is it just recent jargon? A: Yes, the usage has a history—a long history! The verb “drink” has been used intransitively (that is, without an object) since the... ? Read More: Why wine drinks well
Q: I’m fascinated by reduplicatives, especially those whose segments have no particular meaning on their own: “bow-wow,” “choo-choo,” “flim-flam,” “helter-skelter,” etc. I’ve often wondered why we refer to them as “reduplicatives” rather...Show More Summary
Q: You say in your post about the American term for a curriculum vitae that it can be spelled “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.” But how is it pronounced? If one uses two accents, for example, is it pronounced REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may? A: British dictionaries (which define the term as a summary, not a list of... ? Read More: REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?
Q: I recently wrote a criticism of a certain individual, calling him “incompetent,” then escalating to “inept.” Or so I thought. Are those two terms in fact synonyms, as some on the Internet claim? I thought ineptitude was a step further than incompetence. A: When “inept” and “incompetent” took on their usual modern meanings in... ? Read More: When “inept” is inapt
Q: I had hoped your “ongoing” article would opine about “on an ongoing basis” and similar constructions. I see phrases like “on a going-forward basis” and “on an expedited basis” more and more (perhaps because I read a lot of documents written by government lawyers). They set my teeth on edge and seem at best... ? Read More: Is “basis” loaded?
Q: I’m trying to find the origin of “a hit and a lick,” a saying I learned while living in East Texas. I found an article about “a lick and a promise” on your site. I suspect the meaning is similar, but I’d like to have your input. A: We haven’t been able to find... ? Read More: A hit and a lick
Ever start something that becomes so successful you can't manage it at some point? Welcome to the lives of the people who started the Sociolinguistic Events Calendar. Dave Sayers just posted this to the Variationist List (go here to subscribe). Show More Summary
Q: Why are certain men’s names abbreviated in old books and records? Examples: “Geo.” for George, “Thos” for Thomas, “Jos.” for Joseph, “Wm” for William, and “Chas” for Charles? A: Men’s names aren’t the only ones. Women’s names areShow More Summary
Pass the word...Next Thursday afternoon at the Portland meeting of the LSA, there will be a special session on the Publishing Process, cosponsored by the Committee of Editors of Linguistics Journals and the Committee on Student Issues and Concerns (Troy Messick, Chair). Show More Summary
Q: Do you have any idea as to the origins of the expression “a hand in the game” and how old it might be? A: We’ve found examples of “a hand in the game” in British and American writing—fiction as well as collections of letters and so on—dating back to the early 1800s.... ? Read More: A hand in the game
Q: Some sources list “cud” as an uncountable noun while others say it’s countable. What’s your opinion? A: A countable or count noun, as you know, is one that can be modified by an indefinite article (“a” or “an”) or a number: “a book,” “three dogs,” “seven dollars,” etc. A mass or uncountable noun represents... ? Read More: Ruminations on chewing the cud
Q: I’m curious to know if Amy Chua originated the phrase “tiger mother” or if it’s something that was around before her book. I (a possible Tiger Mom) can’t remember if I ever used it before Ms. Chua’s book and the subsequent media blitz. A: No, Amy Chua didn’t coin the phrase in Battle Hymn... ? Read More: The original tiger mother?
Q: Is the word “disconnect” properly used as a noun? A: Yes, “disconnect” has been a noun for more than a century, though the contemporary sense of a difference or an incompatibility is relatively new. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) considers the newer sense informal, but the other six standard dictionaries we’ve checked... Show More Summary