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You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

Q: A post about the word “rat” as it relates to despicable, disloyal, or deceitful people would be interesting, don’t you think? A: When “rat” showed up in Old English (as “ræt”) it meant the rodent that we’re all familiar with. It didn’t refer to human rats until hundreds of years later. Here’s the story.... ? Read More: You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

Fractious or fractured?

Q: A recent edition of The Hill described President-elect Trump’s relationship with the New York Times as “fractious.” Isn’t “fractured” the right word in this instance? A: We wouldn’t use either term to describe the President-elect’s...Show More Summary

Grass widow or grace widow?

Q: Lately, I’ve noticed the use of “grace widow” for a woman living in grace after being abandoned by her husband. Thinking it may be related to “grass widow,” I checked some non-scholarly sources online. Now I’m more confused than ever. Can you lexical experts clear things up? A: The term “grass widow” has gone... ? Read More: Grass widow or grace widow?


Q: I hear educated people pronounce the word “congratulations” as if it were spelled “congradulations.” This occurs to the point that many people must believe it is spelled that way too. Is this an example of a spelling change based on a common mispronunciation? A: You’re right that many people spell “congratulations” with a “d”... ? Read More: Congradulations!

Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

(We’re repeating this post for Thanksgiving Day. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2012.) Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”? A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real... ? Read More: Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

Emigrate or immigrate?

Q: I was just reading an email announcement from the BackStory website in which “immigrate” was used where “emigrate” should have been. Is this a case of sloppy copy-editing? Or is this distinction no longer considered meaningful byShow More Summary

Is “posse” racist?

Q: “Posse”? Racist? I trust you know the current controversy over that word. If a black celebrity says it is, I guess that makes it so, but has it been? Where does this come from? A: Is “posse” a racist term? Not necessarily. But it has a negative, “gang” connotation in some dictionaries. And an... ? Read More: Is “posse” racist?

Dial A for Anachronism

Q: When I call a doctor’s office, I always hear this message: “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” The terms “hang up” and “dial” were meaningful in the days of rotary phones. But I imagine that millennials must find them quaint or silly. How long will it be before they’re replaced?... ? Read More: Dial A for Anachronism

A copper’s nark

Q: I’ve been doing a bit of time travel these days via old radio recordings. On a 1950 broadcast of Whitehall 1212, a program based on Scotland Yard cases, a key character is a “copper’s nark.” In the states he’d be called a “stool pigeon.” How did Brits come up with “copper’s nark”? A: The... ? Read More: A copper’s nark

A Melican man

Q: In your “Phoo, pfui, and phooey” post, you reference a 1926 Lorenz Hart lyric from “A Melican Man.” I remember my mother singing such a song back in the ’50s (she was born in 1907). Can you tell me something more about the song? A: “A Melican Man” was written for the musical Betsy... ? Read More: A Melican man

A richly woven tapestry

Q: The fabrics in our lives assume multiple meanings, as in, “I didn’t cotton to him because he tried to pull the wool over my eyes.” A topic for the blog? A: Fabric and sewing terms are often used figuratively. To borrow a cliché of book reviewing, English is a richly woven tapestry. We’ve written... ? Read More: A richly woven tapestry

It’s powwow time

Q: I assume “powwow” comes from a Native American language, but how did this word spread to all parts of the country when the indigenous peoples spoke so many different languages? A: You’re right in thinking that “powwow” was an indigenous American word. You’re also right in suspecting that it wasn’t originally used throughout the... ? Read More: It’s powwow time

Testing the waters

Q: Do you know when the phrase “to test the waters” came to mean “to float an idea.” I can’t help wondering if it once had something to do with “to take the waters,” as at a spa. A: The expression “to test the waters” (or “water”) has been used literally since the 19th century... ? Read More: Testing the waters

When “tract” is off track

Q: Several educated people I know use “tract” when they mean “track,” as in “The political science tract is one path to law school.” My desultory search of reference works finds nothing on this usage. Do you condone it? A: No, “tract” and “track” are not synonyms. They mean different things and are not interchangeable.... ? Read More: When “tract” is off track

Two for the price of one!

A sign advertising a Christmas party features two abuses! (Thanks, Chris W!)

Is America Losing Its Way

A tweet by Donald Trump. It’s difficult, even for high IQ graduates of Wharton School of Finance, to use “its” and “it’s” properly. National Review is a failing publication that has lost it's way. It's circulation is way down w its influence being at an all time low. Sad! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January […]

Which one is it? Or it’s?

This is in every Bandanas restaurant in the country. (Thanks, Tom Guelker!)

The great Irish education system

This sign is outside a school in County Roscommon, Ireland. (Thanks, Diane!)

Iv’e Seen This in Florida

This was an ornament I recently saw at a gift shop in Myakka River State Park, in Florida. (Thanks, NorthWind!)

Cheffin’s Effin’ Apostrophe Problem

Thi’s food truck’s menu also include’s many inconsistencie’s with regard’s to a certain punctuation mar’k. (Thanks, MattDuffy!)

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