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Why the dead are “late”

Q: Why do people refer to a deceased person as “late”? I googled the question, but found no satisfactory answers. A: To begin at the beginning, the adjective “late” meant “slow,” “sluggish,” “idle,” or “negligent” when it showed up in Old English and other Germanic languages, including Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Old High German.... ? Read More: Why the dead are “late”

Graphic language

Q: I had to unsubscribe to your emailed posts after receiving one at work that discussed certain masturbatory terminology. I strongly suggest that you stop emailing such unprofessional content or notify people signing up for email delivery that some content may not be appropriate for the workplace. Should you choose to keep PG-13 rated material... ? Read More: Graphic language

Relational therapy

Q: Could one use either “related” or “relayed” in the following sentence? “Scott had already related to Ivan what Russ had said in Baton Rouge about the gathering at Fred’s apartment.” A: Yes, both verbs, “relate” and “relay,” can be used in that sentence, though “relay” is more precise. “Relate” means, among other things, to... ? Read More: Relational therapy

When chairmen carried chairs

Q: I came across an old penny dreadful online that refers to one of the bearers of a sedan chair as a “chairman.” Is that the original meaning of the term? A: No, the word “chairman” meant pretty much what it means today when it showed up in the mid-1600s. However, the use of the... ? Read More: When chairmen carried chairs

When “my wife” is “the wife”

Q: Why does a husband refer to his spouse as “the wife,” not “my wife,” and a wife likewise to “the husband,” not “my husband”? Any insight would be greatly appreciated. A: English speakers have been using “the” in place of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “your” in reference to relatives (husbands, wives, fathers,... ? Read More: When “my wife” is “the wife”

Melania’s pussy bow

Q: In honor of one of my fave blog topics, why is it called a “pussy bow”? PS: I long for the days when we could giggle at newscasters who had to say “Pussy Riot.” A: “Pussy bow,” a term for a large, floppy bow at the neck of a woman’s blouse, has been in... ? Read More: Melania’s pussy bow

Needlework: sewer or sewist?

Q: Some in our sewing group think a person who sews is a “sewer,” while others prefer “sewist.” To me, “sewer” is more natural, but others say it looks like the drain pipe. (We all agree that “seamstress” sounds too businesslike for a hobbyist, and besides it rules out men.) A: One who sews is... ? Read More: Needlework: sewer or sewist?

Is “pussy” a dirty word?

(Note: We’re repeating the following post because of its newsworthiness this weekend. It originally ran on Dec. 28, 2015) Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.”... Show More Summary

What is a con-see-AIR?

Q: Your “prix fixe” post reminds me of encounters with people who try too hard to pronounce French-derived terms. For example, a hotel receptionist in Texas once invited me to use the services of the con-see-AIR. The latter threw me for a loop until I realized it was supposed to be “concierge.” A: Some English... ? Read More: What is a con-see-AIR?

A stiff upper lip

Q: Why do the British use the expression “stiff upper lip” in reference to their fortitude? And when did they begin using it? A: Although the expression is now a cliché for British determination in the face of adversity, it actually originated in the United States in the early 1800s. Why “keep a stiff upper... ? Read More: A stiff upper lip

Make no bones about it

Q: What is the origin of the expression “to make no bones about it,” and what are these “bones” supposed to be? A: The expression evolved from a 15th-century saying, “to find no bones” (that is, difficulties) in one’s figurative soup. So in the 1400s, “to find no bones” in a situation meant to see... ? Read More: Make no bones about it

The “potter” in “potter’s field”

Q: I’m an environmentalist doing research on Hart Island, the site of the potter’s field in NYC. How did a burial site for unclaimed bodies get this particular name? A: An old sense of the word “potter” as a vagrant or an itinerant peddler led to the use of the term “potter’s field” as a... ? Read More: The “potter” in “potter’s field”

A note to our readers

We have substantially revised our recent post on the proper verb to use with constructions like “one of those who.” A new post has replaced the one that ran on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016.

Does Sam Weller speak cockney?

Q: I’ve read that Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers is supposed to be a cockney. But the main peculiarities of his speech (using “v” where there should be a “w,” and “w” where there should be a “v”) doesn’t sound like any cockney accent I’ve heard. A: You’re right. The dialect spoken by Sam... ? Read More: Does Sam Weller speak cockney?

When horses stalked

Q: I know that the phrase “stalking horse” means a sham candidate or a ruse used to disguise a hidden purpose. But were there ever real stalking horses, and what did they stalk? A: Yes, there were real stalking horses, but they didn’t actually stalk anything. They helped hunters stalk game birds. When the phrasal... ? Read More: When horses stalked

When “one” isn’t the one

Q: This grammar question was posed by a friend on Facebook: Which is correct? (1) “She is one of the few freshmen who understand” or (2) “She is one of the few freshmen who understands.” At first I thought #2 was the answer. Now I’m not sure. A: The first example is correct. The verb... ? Read More: When “one” isn’t the one

The awkwardness of “awkward”

Q: “Awkward” is an awkward-looking word, with a “w” on each side of the ”k.” Online sites only categorize it as an adjective, while its brethren and sistren (like “forward” and “backward”) can be adverbs or adjectives. I wonder if it’s related to “gawk” or “gawky.” A: Yes, “awkward” is an awkward-looking word, one that... Show More Summary

Priority: the highs and the lows

Q: Settle our nitpicking debate about the term “priority.” It implies importance, so is a qualifier necessary in “high priority,” and is a “low priority” even a priority? A: Yes, something can be a “high priority” or a “low priority.” But the noun “priority” has several other meanings, which may lead to confusion and even... ? Read More: Priority: the highs and the lows

Jerk, jerky, and jerking off

Q: What’s with “jerk”? A great verb and a greater noun. And what about “jerk seasoning”? And “jerk-offs” need their moment. Which leads me to this slur from my adolescent past: “He’s off jerking his gherkin.” It’s better with a Brooklyn accent! A: There are several “jerks” to be considered here, not all of them... ? Read More: Jerk, jerky, and jerking off

On rifling and riffling

Q: I’m seeing the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” used interchangeably. I’d use “rifle” (pronounced like the weapon) for searching through a box for something, and riffle” (to my mind, beautifully onomatopoeic) for going through papers. Are...Show More Summary

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