(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 26, 2006.) Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how... ? Read More: Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?
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
Q: I keep seeing “bogus” used in ways that seem too colloquial. Somehow saying Colin Powell made bogus claims about WMDs just doesn’t possess the right connotation. So is my claim of excessive informality correct or bogus? A: We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries and none of them suggest that “bogus” is anything but... ? Read More: Bogus origins
Q: Is the subject grammatically correct in the title “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”? That’s how it appears in our hymnal. Astonishingly, this is a practical issue, since we display the words during church services via video projection. Show More Summary
Q: The next time Pat appears on the Leonard Lopate Show, she should tell Leonard that here in England we don’t all eat “drippings” (“dripping” in British English) for breakfast! The last time I tasted dripping was after the Second World War when food was still rationed. I’ve certainly never heard of it for breakfast.... ? Read More: Bread and dripping
Q: I’m flummoxed by the word “it” in a sentence such as “I like it when you sing.” What in the world is “it” doing there? A: The sentence that puzzles you, “I like it when you sing,” is a familiar construction, especially in spoken English. We find nothing grammatically wrong here, as we’ll explain... ? Read More: Deconstructing “it”
Q: Near the bottom of your home page, you ask, “Have you GOT rhythm?” No, Simple Simon Babblers, I AIN’T GOT NO rhythm. I’m sick of YOU GOT. What ever happened to YOU HAVE? Correct English would be “Have you rhythm?” A: Calm down. The title “Have you got rhythm?” on our home page uses... ? Read More: Have you got rhythm?
Q: In respect to your article about “little shaver,” the phrase actually comes from bitti chavo (“little boy”) in Romanichal, the Romany language spoken in England. It’s ultimately derived from chavo, Romany for “youth.” A: Yes, theShow More Summary
Q: On this morning’s news show, someone said people should “educate” themselves on the dearth of women in computer science. To my mind, people should “inform,” not “educate,” themselves on issues. Am I wrong? A: In modern English, the verb “educate” can mean either to teach or to inform, so one can be educated in... ? Read More: How educated is your English?
She discusses books, blogs, and journalism in an interview with Grammarist.
Q: We had cherry pie with vanilla ice cream on Thanksgiving, which inspires this question: Who is responsible for the use of a French expression at even the most humble American diners to describe such desserts? A: The use of the expression “à la mode” to mean “served with ice cream” first showed up in... ? Read More: How pie became à la mode
People are talking today, rightly, about John McWhorter's piece in the NY Times, "Why save a language?". But a similar question is treated beautifully in a piece by Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins and colleagues (University of Victoria) in the Times Colonist, "Language a strong symbol of cultural identity". Show More Summary
Nice piece about Minnesota English by Andy Rathbun available here. Looks like he talked to about everybody you could on the subject, including some nice on-the-ground stories from speakers.People like to compare Minnesota and Wisconsin, it seems like. Show More Summary
Q: Which is more wonderful: “wonder” or “wonderment”? I wonder. A: Standard dictionaries generally define the nouns “wonder” and “wonderment” much the same way: astonishment, awe, puzzlement, or something that arouses such emotions.Show More Summary
Q: Any idea where the “get along famously” phrase originated? I like to use it as much as I can, but sadly I have the feeling that most people don’t know what I mean when I say it these days. A: When the adverb “famously” showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant... ? Read More: Getting along famously
Happy Giving Tuesday! The Endangered LanguageFund is sending around this: GivingTuesday is today!!! What is GivingTuesday? We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting dea ls. Now, we have GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to giving back. Show More Summary
Q: Standard dictionaries define “craven” as cowardly, but I can’t recall hearing or reading it used that way in the last 10 years. It’s usually used to mean brazen or shameless. Are the dictionaries just not keeping up on this one? A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all of them define the adjective “craven”... ? Read More: Craven images
I was fighting the urge to post about this piece on Slate, about how to pluralize your last name, and now officially give up. Anything that has this line is hard to resist reacting to: It’s Christmas! Celebrate by not doing violence to the laws of pluralization. Show More Summary
Q: Why do people use “one” instead of “I” or “me”? I would love to know the history of this one. A: As you might guess, “one” is among the earliest words in recorded English. In early Old English, it could be a noun or an adjective (expressing the simple numeral) as well as an... ? Read More: One never knows, do one?
Q: How did our native Thanksgiving bird get named for a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia? A: Yes, turkey, the main event at Thanksgiving dinners in the US, is native to the Americas. The big bird came to the attention of Europeans in 1518 when the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva encountered... ? Read More: Let’s talk turkey