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The lowdown on ‘crescendo’

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’

Common day occurrence

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

Flaunting and flouting

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 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

A ‘post-’ post

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

Our slant on ‘bias’

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’

Trepid, trepidant, trepidatious

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

Ego trip: “egoist” vs. “egotist”

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

When ‘to have’ is ‘to allow’

Q: What does “have” mean in “I won’t have you stay out all night”? I understand the sentence, but I can’t figure out what “have” is doing there. The usage sounds contemporary to me, but you’ll probably tell me that Alfred the Great coined it. A: The verb “have” in your example means “to allow... ? Read More: When ‘to have’ is ‘to allow’

No traffic in both directions?

Q: New York’s MTA uses a construct I haven’t noticed elsewhere: “There is no F train service between West 4th St. and 42nd St. in both directions.” Standard usage, in my book, would be “in either direction.” Is this usage unique to the MTA? Or is it common transit-speak? A: No, the usage isn’t unique... ? Read More: No traffic in both directions?

When roads squeaked

Q: I was reading a free 1904 translation of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education on my Kindle, but it was so klutzy that I downloaded Helen Constantine’s 2016 translation. For example, “the road-metal grated” (1904) versus “the macadam squeaked” (2016). Show More Summary

Is ‘kaput’ a loanword?

Q: Is there a better expression than “loan word” to describe “kaput”? I’d say “restaurant” is certainly now an English word on loan from French, but “kaput” seems in a different class—a German word in international use, like “schadenfreude.”...Show More Summary

An “ough,” already

Q: My son recently asked me why “ough” words (like “ought,” “tough,” and “though”) are pronounced so differently. Can you help? A: The combination of “gh” after vowels (or vowel pairs) has given English a lot of odd-looking spellings, including those of the “ough” words your son has asked about. The short answer is that... ? Read More: An “ough,” already

You've been warned, interwebs ...

What you thought was the cold lifeless corpus of Mr. Verb may be twitching again... stay tuned.Bwahahaha.

From Mrs. and Miss to Ms.

Q: Your article about “Mrs.” and “missus” doesn’t mention “Ms.,” which I believe showed up in the 17th century but died out before being revived centuries later. Would you like to fill in the blanks? A: You’re right that “Ms” (without the dot) showed up occasionally in the 1600s as an abbreviation for “mistress,” a... ? Read More: From Mrs. and Miss to Ms.

A ‘post-’ post

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... ? Read More: A ‘post-’ post

Fifty shades of ‘they’

Q: I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Pat defending the singular use of “they” on the radio. Say it ain’t so. A: “They” is a legitimate way of referring back to an unknown person or persons, neither singular nor plural, masculine nor feminine. So there’s nothing wrong with this kind of sentence: “Nobody... ? Read More: Fifty shades of ‘they’

What’s the matter?

Q: I was listening to an Oliver Sacks book on my commute and was struck by his repeated use of “the matter,” as in “What seems to be the matter?” and “There’s nothing the matter.” I’m curious as to the history of this usage. A: Let’s begin with the word “matter,” which comes via Anglo-Norman... ? Read More: What’s the matter?

Believe you me

Q: This headline was on a book review in the New Yorker: “Believe You Me.” I’ve heard the expression many times, but the construction is really odd. Where does it come from? A: The verb “believe” has been seen since the 1500s in various expressions used to strengthen an assertion. These parenthetical expressions are usually... ? Read More: Believe you me

On digesting food and fact

Q: How did the digestion of food come to mean a digest of information? A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the two senses showed up in English about the same time, and the Latin source for both referred to the digesting of information, not food. When the word “digest” appeared in Middle English... ? Read More: On digesting food and fact

Is it a fray or an affray?

Q: Is there a difference between “fray” and “affray”? A: “Fray” and “affray” are about as closely related as two words can be, but like human relatives they’ve grown apart over the years The story begins in the 1300s when Middle English adopted “affray” from Anglo-Norman, first as a verb and later as a noun.... ? Read More: Is it a fray or an affray?

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