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
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?
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?
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)
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
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
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”
Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense? A: We don’t want to shock you, but our... ? Read More: When “bourgeois” became bull
Q: Why is it that when I say I’m working out of my home, I’m actually working at an office in my home? A: The compound preposition “out of” usually refers to moving from, or being away from, something, and it’s had that meaning since Anglo-Saxon days. In early Old English, according to the Oxford... ? Read More: When out of your home is in it
Q: I have wondered how “chandler,” the word for a candle-maker, came to mean a supplier of ship’s provisions. A: Originally, a “chandler” was someone who made or sold candles. Later on, the word was used more generally for a retailer of groceries and other goods, and eventually it came to mean a supplier specializing... ? Read More: Shining a light on candles
Q: I’ve just read Pearl Buck’s final novel, The Eternal Wonder, which was discovered dozens of years after her death and may have been a first draft. At one point, she describes a character who scarcely listens while “storing away unconsciously” the conversations around him. Show More Summary
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Q: Is the “kin” in words like “pumpkin,” “catkin,” and “Watkins” related to the “kin” that are your relatives? I’m guessing it’s not. A: You’re right. The noun “kin” that means your relatives is no relation to the suffix we see in words like “catkin.” The noun “kin” has conveyed the same general notion—roughly, a... ? Read More: Watkins, catkins, and other kin
Q: In an NPR piece, the owner of a violin business in Chicago plays a Stradivarius violin worth millions and says, “Joshua Bell has concertized with it on three occasions.” Turning the noun “concert” into a really odd-sounding verb stopped me. Is this just a classic case of trying to use fewer words by inventing... ? Read More: Does “concertize” sound odd?
Q: I’m a non-native English speaker from Hong Kong. I read the following online: “Had I not had you in my life, I would not be who I’m today.” Is it correct? Wouldn’t it be better to begin with “If I had not had you in my life”? A: The problem with that sentence is... ? Read More: When a contraction won’t do
Q: I assume that shopkeepers who refer to their shops as “shoppes” are trying to add a patina of Old English tradition to their establishments. But was “shop” really spelled “shoppe” in Anglo-Saxon times? A: No, the Old English word was “sceoppa,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was rarely used. In fact,... ? Read More: Ye olde bookshoppe
Q: What’s up with “what” in the following sentence? “What with two jobs, enormous debt and an unhappy marriage, he just could not cope.” And what part of speech does it play here? A: What with one thing and another, we haven’t written about this age-old use of “what.” So what better time? This construction... ? Read More: What with one thing and another
Q: I got an email the other day from Corey Johnson that said: “I hope to see you tonight at the Stonewall Inn as we vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando.” Could this be the first instance of “vigil” used as a verb? Sounds terrible to me, but who am I? A:... ? Read More: Did you vigil for Orlando?
Q: Why is “went” the past tense of “go”? I don’t see the connection. Am I missing something? A: The connection is another verb that means to move along—the old “wend,” which we don’t often hear today. English speakers adopted “went,” the past tense of “wend,” because they apparently felt that “go” didn’t have a... ? Read More: Why is it “went,” not “goed”?
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