Q: Why do we “spay” a female cat or dog, but “neuter” a male? Why don’t we have a single, unisex word for the procedure? A: You’re right that we usually say a female cat or dog is spayed, while a male is neutered. However, “neuter” (as well as “sterilize” and “desex”) can be used... ? Read More: Why ‘spay’ her, but ‘neuter’ him?
Q: I was taught that “persuade” is used with “to” and “convince” with “of” or “that.” This rule must have changed when I wasn’t looking, since I can’t for the life of me figure out how the two verbs are being used now. Your help would be appreciated. A: Yes, “convince” and “persuade” once had... ? Read More: The convinced and the persuaded
Q: The earliest citation that my OED CD-ROM has for “nonfiction” (it’s hyphenated there) is from 1903. What was it called before then? And why doesn’t “nonfiction” have its own name instead of being defined as not something else? A: The term “nonfiction” (or “non-fiction”) is older than you think. Show More Summary
Q: Our local public radio station advertises that it broadcasts “digital.” This doesn’t sound right to me. I would say that it broadcasts “digitally.” Am I correct? A: It doesn’t sound right to us either. A radio station broadcasts “digitally,”...Show More Summary
Q: I have never been able to parse the expression “turn state’s evidence.” Does the witness turn himself into evidence for the state, or turn over evidence to the state? A: A convicted or accused criminal, as you know, “turns state’s evidence” by testifying in court against former accomplices. Why “turn” evidence? We don’t know,... ? Read More: Turning state’s evidence
Q: I saw “good grief” used in a story recently, and first encountered it as a child from Charlie Brown. Is it a euphemism for something else? A: Yes, “good grief” was originally a mild oath. It’s “a euphemism for ‘good God,’ ” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed.), by Christine... ? Read More: Good grief!
Q: “John has few friends” implies that John is pretty lonely, while “Frank has a few friends” implies that Frank knows some people he can go to a movie with. How does that “a” change the meaning from meager to adequate? A: This is a subject that demands more than a few words. The Cambridge... ? Read More: Is ‘few’ fewer than ‘a few’?
Q: Please talk about the origins of the word “pot,” as in “pot luck,” “melting pot,” “potboiler.” Does it refer to mixing things together? A: Almost all uses of “pot” are derived in one way or another from the word’s original sense: a cylindrical container to hold or heat liquids and other substances. “Pot” comes... ? Read More: Pots to cook in, pee in, melt in
(For the Fourth of July holiday, we’re republishing two related posts from 2011. Here is the first one.) Q: Populists often stress democratic values by invoking the phrase “we the people,” but lately they’ve taken to using it not just as a subject but as an object as well. Thus: “We must never allow [insert... ? Read More: ‘We the people’ v. ‘us the people’
(For the Fourth of July holiday, we’re republishing two related posts from 2011. Here is the second one.) Q: I’m trying to understand the implications of your post last May about “We the People.” In particular, can I use it as the object of a sentence for rhetorical impact if it’s in quotes? I’d like... ? Read More: It’s all about ‘we the people’
Q: In one of her essays, a college professor has the following sentence: “I replied that I wouldn’t answer questions until I’d had time to consider the charges.” Why is the past perfect used after the word “until”? I believe the simple past would suffice. A: We think the professor’s choice of words was appropriate.... ? Read More: When past perfect is just perfect
Q: I saw this headline on BuzzFeed: “These Brownies Have Literally Taken Over The Dessert Game.” Literally? How about apple pie, strawberry shortcake, and pistachio ice cream? A: The word “literally,” as you know, means “to the letter,” and that’s the way we use it. On the other hand, that is a helluva brownie on... ? Read More: Literal minded
Q: Have you folks ever done something with the “-en” ending? I’m thinking of “widen,” “strengthen,” “deepen,” etc. Sounds like it must be of Anglo-Saxon origin. A: We’ve discussed the “-en” suffix several times on our blog, including...Show More Summary
Q: Is “crescendo” a lost cause? I hardly ever hear it used properly to mean a gradual increase in sound. As a music lover, it pains me to hear it mean a climax. A: Most standard dictionaries now accept both uses of “crescendo”: (1) a gradual increase in intensity, and (2) the highest point of... ? Read More: The lowdown on ‘crescendo’
Q: I don’t hear “common day occurrence” a lot, but the expression does crop up from time to time, and the other day I found myself using it. A friend questioned me and I couldn’t recall where I’d picked it up. Any idea where or when this phrase originated? A: The expression “common day occurrence”... ? Read More: Common day occurrence
Q: While looking into the common but erroneous substitution of “flaunt” for “flaut,” I was flabbergasted to find no entry for “flaut” in any of the dictionaries OneLook.com aggregates. Did I slide into an alternate universe where this word doesn’t exist, or am I simply deranged? PS: To prevent Google Mail from flagging “flaut’ as... ? Read More: Flaunting and flouting
Q: I’ve been struck by how often the prefix “post-” has been used lately: “post-religion,” “post-truth,” “post-contemporary,” and of course “postmodern” as well as “post-postmodern.” What do you think? A: Yes, the prefix “post-” gets a workout these days, but it’s been a workhorse for centuries. A lot of the early uses are now obsolete,... ? Read More: A ‘post-’ post
Q: I came across a T-shirt on Amazon that shows a sewing machine and the words “never trust a seamstress, she’s likely biased.” As a sewer who sometimes cuts fabric on the bias, I’m curious about where all the biases come from. A: English adopted “bias” in the early 1500s from Middle French (spoken from... ? Read More: Our slant on ‘bias’
Q: My dictionary has the word “trepidant,” but no definition or example. I believe it means timid, but I’d like to see how it’s used in a sentence before I use it myself. A: We’ve found the adjective “trepidant” in several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which defines it as “timid, trembling.” But it’s rarely... Show More Summary
Q: Is the proper form “egoist” or “egotist”? Without the “t” it always sounds wrong. A: The short answer is that you can’t go wrong with “egotist” unless you’re discussing philosophy or ethics. Technically, “egoism” and “egotism” have different meanings, though the meanings differ from dictionary to dictionary and overlap considerably. Show More Summary