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Run the gambit?

Q: I keep hearing “gamut” misused, as in “run the gambit,” which doesn’t make sense. What’s the deal with people confusing these two words? A: Yes, “run the gambit” is on the loose, but “run the gamut” is much more popular in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and News on... ? Read More: Run the gambit?

Snob appeal

Q: What is the origin of the word “snob”? Is it an acronym like “posh”? A: No, “snob” isn’t an acronym, and “posh” isn’t either. We wrote a post about “posh” in 2011. The origin of the adjective is unknown, but it may have been influenced by the rare use of “posh” as a noun... ? Read More: Snob appeal

An ‘utter’ and an ‘utter’

Q: Is the “utter” that means “absolute” related to the “utter” that means to “make a sound”? A: Yes. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “English has two distinct words utter, but they come from the same ultimate source—out.” In Old English, the adjective “utter” (spelled útera, úterra, úttera, etc.) was... Show More Summary

Months of our lives

Q: Why do September, October, November, and December come from Latin numbers, but the rest of the months aren’t numerical? A: We inherited the names for our months from the Romans, who used numerals for some and other designations for the rest. In fact, the Romans sometimes went back and forth, switching from a number... ? Read More: Months of our lives

Leery of leers?

Q: I was recently struck by two words that seemed related, but didn’t have an apparent connection in meaning: “leer” and “leery.” I found that interesting. So what’s with these words? A: As it turns out, “leer” and “leery,” two words with negative connotations, began life innocently in Anglo-Saxon times, though their Old English ancestors... ? Read More: Leery of leers?

Is flyering the new leafleting?

Q: The other day I read that someone volunteered to help by “flyering,” as in handing out flyers. It’s not in my dictionary. How about yours? A: It’s not in any of our standard dictionaries either. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. But standard dictionaries do... ? Read More: Is flyering the new leafleting?

On sloth, human and arboreal

Q: Is the slow-moving sloth that lives in trees the source of our word for laziness? Or vice versa? A: Vice versa. The noun “sloth” (idleness, indolence, or laziness) is derived from the Old English adjective sláw (slow), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Show More Summary

Mrs. Elton’s ridicule

Q: Why did Jane Austen call Mrs. Elton’s handbag a “ridicule” instead of a “reticule”? Was it a mistake? Is that why many modern editions of Emma have changed “ridicule” to “reticule”? A: No, it wasn’t a mistake. Both words referred to a woman’s small handbag when Austen was writing the novel in the Regency... ? Read More: Mrs. Elton’s ridicule

That’s all, ffoulkes!

Q: Why do some British surnames begin with “ff”? Is this an Anglo-Saxonism? I find “ffoulkes,” “ffarington,” “ffolliott,” and others effing peculiar. A: No, the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames didn’t originate in Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language spoken from roughly 450 to 1150. Show More Summary

Do you give good meeting?

Q: I’ve been hearing people say things like “He gives good meeting” and “Do you give good meeting?” I find it strange that “give” is used here, and even stranger that it’s used without an article. Thanks for any insight. A: One might conduct, hold, lead, or run a meeting, but it’s not idiomatic to... ? Read More: Do you give good meeting?

Supremacist or supremist?

Q: Is it just me, or is the term “supremacist” mispronounced as “supremist” more often than not these days? It’s driving me nuts. I was about to punch a wall, but decided to write you instead. A: The word “supremacist” has only two standard pronunciations, suh-PREM-a-cist or soo-PREM-a-cist, according to the 10 dictionaries we’ve checked.... Show More Summary

“Valet”: VA-lay, VA-let, va-LAY?

Q: It’s recently come to my attention that “valet” should rhyme with “mallet.” The problem is, I don’t know anyone who has this pronunciation. So how does one to ask for “valet parking” properly without seeming like a contemptible snoot? A: It’s hard to mispronounce the noun “valet.” We’ve checked nine standard dictionaries and found... Show More Summary

To each their own

Q: This plural use of “each” in the Washington Post strikes me as wrong: “The two proposals—one from Tillis and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and the other from Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.)—each seek to check the executive branch’s ability to fire a special counsel.” A: That passage (from an... ? Read More: To each their own

A last-ditch attempt

Q: Does the expression “last ditch” come from trench warfare during World War I? A: It does indeed come from the excavated defensive positions used in warfare, but the fighting that inspired the phrase “last ditch” took place hundreds of years before World War I. The usage can be traced back to William of Orange’s... ? Read More: A last-ditch attempt

Locked and loaded

Q: I’ve been thinking about “locked and loaded” since President Trump used it last week to warn North Korea. Why is it “locked and loaded” when the logic of it is “loaded and locked”? Where did this begin? A: We think “locked and loaded” makes sense, especially when used literally on the firing range. But... ? Read More: Locked and loaded

An uncommon courtesy

Q: “Courtesy” as a verb? This is from a local Fox News employee in Austin, TX: “We would courtesy you.” A: It’s not just Fox News in Austin. We’ve found many examples of the identical wording from broadcasters around the country in offering people credit for using their online videos. Here’s a request by an... ? Read More: An uncommon courtesy

Either or neither of three?

Q: I was under the impression that “either”/”neither” constructions are used with only two alternatives. But I often see them with three or more. Am I too restrictive? A: Yes, you’re too restrictive. “Either” and “neither” usually refer to only two things, but not always. When “either” showed up in Old English as ?ghwæðer (also... ? Read More: Either or neither of three?

She Who Must Be Obeyed

Q: If someone referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” becomes the object of a preposition, should it be “She” or “He”? A: We’d treat the noun phrase “She Who Must Be Obeyed” as any other noun. We’d use it as a subject or an object, just as we’d use “Queen Victoria,” “Catherine the... ? Read More: She Who Must Be Obeyed

Hit right on the screws

Q: After a fielding play, a baseball announcer recently said the batter “hit it right on the screws, but the first baseman snared it.” This caused me to wonder about targeting phrases like “on the screws,” “on the nose,” and “on the button.” How old are these and how did they develop? A: “Hit on... ? Read More: Hit right on the screws

Sense and synthesis

Q: I have long used “keyboard grabber” for the person who organizes the creative, smart, or silly ideas generated at a meeting of hand-waving academics or lawyers. But I heard only derision when I used the term recently and had zero hits when I googled it. What term can you recommend for this concept? A:... ? Read More: Sense and synthesis

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