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Pissy language

Q: Where does “pissed off” (as in “angry”) come from? I know this sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious question! A: Our serious answer begins around the year 1300, when English adopted the verb “piss” from the Anglo-Norman pisser. Although the word is “now chiefly coarse slang,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary,... ? Read More: Pissy language

Pudding and other ing-lish words

Q: For some reason I hate the world “pudding”—it’s like nails on a blackboard to me. Aside from that, why do we have “-ing” words that aren’t participles or gerunds? A: Your instincts are right. There is something repulsive about “pudding,” at least its etymology. As they say about sausage, you might not want to... ? Read More: Pudding and other ing-lish words

What’s in a word?

Q: Why aren’t these words, and can they be: “vigorance” or “vigorence” (instead of “vigorousness”) and “analgesity” (meaning pain resistance)? A: Put simply, a word is a unit of language that has meaning, can be written or spoken, and is used to form sentences. By that definition, the terms you’re asking about are already words,... ? Read More: What’s in a word?

Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu? A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price... ? Read More: Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Why verb a noun? Why not?

Q: A few aspects of verbing puzzle me. Why does “Bowdler” give rise to “bowdlerize,” but “Boycott” to “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this? And is it verbing if there’s a suffix? To “Shanghai,” yes, but what about “Londonize” and “New Yorkify”? Finally, is verbing peculiar to English? A: As you know, some language... ? Read More: Why verb a noun? Why not?

“Shoulder,” a term with legs

Q: What is the purpose of the “-er” suffix in “shoulder”? Is it a comparative (as in “stronger”) or an agent (as in “farmer”). And is “shoulder” related to “shield,” as some suggest? A: The “-er” in “shoulder” is not a suffix. It’s merely part of the word. And while “shoulder” may have some distant... ? Read More: “Shoulder,” a term with legs

On dentists and dontists

Q: Why is a regular tooth doctor called a “dentist” while a specialist is a “dontist,” as in “periodontist” or “orthodontist”? A: To begin at the beginning, the “dent“ (in “dentist”) and the “odont” (in “orthodontist”) are ultimately...Show More Summary

To be or not to be a question

Q: Often, when I write emails to finalize appointments, I end as follows, “Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you.” Although this would seem to be a question, I am not clear as to whether it really is one and needs a question mark. A: No question mark is necessary. Although... ? Read More: To be or not to be a question

And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling for foreign-sourced words.Show More Summary

An old usage risen from the dead

Q: In a usage that I hope is not becoming common, my 21-year-old grandson said he had “deaded” a former friend he had argued with. Are others using dead as a verb? A: Well, the usage is out there, and it occasionally shows up in print. Here’s an example from a brief item in the... ? Read More: An old usage risen from the dead

On dysphemism and euphemism

Q: I know that a euphemism is an inoffensive substitute for an expression considered offensive. But is there a term that refers to an offensive substitute for an inoffensive expression, such as using “death tax” for “estate tax”? A: Yes, there is such a term—“dysphemism,” a word that’s about 150 years old. A “dysphemism” is... ? Read More: On dysphemism and euphemism

We can’t help but change

Q: It bothers me to hear actors or see writers (who should know better) say things like “I couldn’t help but cry over that.” I thought “help” should be followed by a gerund. I can’t help wondering where those “professionals” learned English. If I’m wrong, would you be so kind as to straighten me out?... ? Read More: We can’t help but change


Q: When I was growing up in New Haven, CT, my mother told me that saying “rabbits” as the first word of the month brings good luck. I’ve lived elsewhere since then and many people haven’t heard of the word’s lucky powers. Where does this belief comes from? A: The custom has been around for... ? Read More: Rabbits!

Old-fashion or old-fashioned?

Q: What would you say is more acceptable as a modifier, “old-fashion” or “old-fashioned”? One hears both interchangeably. A: The usual form, and the only one accepted in standard dictionaries, is “old-fashioned.” We did find a mention of “old-fashion” in one standard dictionary, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. Show More Summary

Faux French: un oeuf, already?

Q: Is there a term for a word like toupee that looks and sounds as if it’s taken from a foreign language (in this case, French) but doesn’t actually exist in that language. A: We don’t know of a technical term for such words, but many of them, if not most, are faux French, so... ? Read More: Faux French: un oeuf, already?

Why is “have to” so needy?

Q: I know what the phrase “have to” means, but it doesn’t make sense if you take the individual words literally. For example, “I have to wash the dishes.” It would make more sense to say “need to” or “must.” Is “have to” a vestige of Old English? A: You’re right in suggesting that the... ? Read More: Why is “have to” so needy?

G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)

Q: I can’t find to whom the appellation “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest Of All Time) was first applied: Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali, etc. I’d like to learn it was Vin Scully, whose retirement this year after his last broadcast, in late September, will be a BIG deal. Can you figure it out? A: The word “goat” has... ? Read More: G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)

A guerrilla of France

Q: In A Hero of France, Alan Furst’s latest World War II thriller, one of the characters uses the phrase “guerrilla warfare.” Did the word “guerrilla” really refer to an unconventional war in the early 1940s, when most of the novel takes place? A: Yes, “guerrilla” has been used that way for more than 200... ? Read More: A guerrilla of France

A reactionary usage

Q: I’ve been seeing the use of the word “reactionary” for “reactive.” Have you noticed this? A: No, we haven’t noticed it and none of the standard dictionaries we rely on have entries for the adjective “reactionary” that include “reactive” as a meaning. Show More Summary

The singular life of “they”

Q: I’m a 69-year-old psychotherapist who learned his grammar from a Jesuit-trained teacher obsessed with diagramming. As a stickler for good usage, I’m especially troubled by the use of “their” for “his” or “her.” Am I nuts or is the usage changing? A: No, you aren’t nuts (as you ought to know, since you’re a... ? Read More: The singular life of “they”

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