(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted an update indicating the latest preferences.) Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Show More Summary
Q: I saw this the other day in the NY Times: “I love these African wood sculptures, and the antique Buddha head. You and your wife have a great eye.” That sounds odd! How can two people have “a great eye”? A: Steven Kurutz, a Times feature reporter, made the comment in interviewing the “60... ? Read More: A great eye for art
Q: I often put captions above photos that I embed in emails, but I always have this problem: Should it be “Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” or “Mary and I at the Eiffel Tower”? And why? A: It doesn’t matter. Either caption is OK. “Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” and “Mary... ? Read More: Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower
Q: The verb “dumbfound” leaves me dumbfounded. How does combining “dumb” and “found” give us a word that means to bewilder? A: “Dumbfound” began life in the 17th century as a combination of “dumb” (speechless) and “confound” (to surprise and confuse). It was originally spelled “dumfound,” and is still sometimes seen that way. The Oxford... ? Read More: Are you dumbfounded?
Q: Why do our British cousins say “happy Christmas” while we say “merry Christmas”? A: You can find “merry Christmas” and “happy Christmas” in both the US and the UK, though Christmas is more often “merry” in American English and “happy” in British English. Our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the... ? Read More: Merry or happy Christmas?
Read Pat’s essay today in The Paris Review about The Reader Over Your Shoulder, a guide to writing, written in the 1940s by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. The essay is excerpted from Pat’s introduction to a new edition of the book, scheduled to be published this year by Seven Stories Press.
Q: I’m dreaming of a “white sale” so I can replace my threadbare linens. In the meantime, can you enlighten me about the history of the expression? A: The phrase “white sale” showed up in the late 1800s in reference to a January or February sale of household linens, also known as “white goods,” at... ? Read More: Dreaming of a white sale
(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Dec. 15, 2011.) Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it. A: The word “holiday” was... ? Read More: On holy days and holidays
Q: I’m curious about the origin of the New Yorkism “on line” for “in line,” and why this regionalism has persisted for so long when it’s not particularly correct. A: We’ve written twice about the usage on our blog—in 2007 and 2010—but we haven’t found any evidence indicating how the regionalism originated. In our 2010... ? Read More: In line, on line, and online
Q: I just wanted to call your attention to an interesting article in the NY Times that says the phrase “running amok” originated in the Malay language. Have you ever written about this usage? A: No, we haven’t written about “running amok,” at least not until now. It does indeed come from Malay, a language... ? Read More: Running amok
(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 24, 2012.) Q: Santa Claus is male, so why isn’t he Saint instead of Santa? Does he have a gender issue? A: In English the name of a canonized person, whether a man or a woman, is traditionally prefixed by the word “Saint”... ? Read More: Does Santa have a gender issue?
Q: Did botanical “wallflowers” and “shrinking violets” inspire the timid human ones? A: Yes, though we wouldn’t describe botanical wallflowers and violets as timid or inconspicuous, especially when planted in a bed or border of a garden. Show More Summary
Q: This sentence is on a literary agency website: “We offer our clients unusually meaningful editorial guidance and inspiration, and serve as their advocate throughout the publishing process.” Shouldn’t “we” take the plural “advocates”?...Show More Summary
Q: Why is a person who rapes called a “rapist” and not a “raper”? A: Someone who rapes can be called a “raper” as well as a “rapist,” though “rapist” is much more common and slightly older. You can find both terms in several standard dictionaries. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines a “raper” as “one... ? Read More: A rapist or a raper?
Q: What’s the difference between “repository” and “depository”? Why, for example, is the Beinecke library at Yale often referred to as a repository while that notorious building in Dallas was called the Texas School Book Depository?Show More Summary
Q: Is the use of “even” correct in all these sentences? (1) “Even when he is sick, she works.” (2) “She works even when he is sick.” (3) “She even works when he is sick.” Thanks for any insight you can provide. A: All three are correct: #1 and #2 mean the same thing, but... ? Read More: When ‘even’ is odd
Q: Why do the British use “plimsolls” for what Americans refer to as “sneakers”? A: The British generally use “plimsolls” or “plimsoll shoes” for low-tech athletic shoes with canvas uppers and flat rubber soles. They use “trainers” or “training shoes” for more serious athletic footwear. Show More Summary
Q: How did an “intercontinental ballistic missile” become an “ICBM” instead of simply an “IBM”? A: The original abbreviation for “intercontinental ballistic missile” was indeed “I.B.M.” (with dots), and some standard dictionaries—Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example—still include both “IBM” and “ICBM” as the abbreviations. Show More Summary
Q: In reading my mother’s 1931 diary, I’ve noticed the expression “kicking over the lighter,” as in “The boys tried kicking over the lighter.” I can’t believe it should be taken literally. Any thoughts? A: We aren’t familiar with “kicking over the lighter,” and we haven’t found the expression in slang and etymological dictionaries or... ? Read More: Kicking down the ladder
Q: What are your thoughts about using “I bet” versus “I’ll bet” to introduce a statement? I prefer “I’ll bet,” but I can’t explain why. A: The verb “bet” has several meanings in addition to its usual gambling sense: 1. to agree (“I was bummed out” … “I bet you were”); 2. to disagree (“I’ll... ? Read More: ‘I bet’ or ‘I’ll bet’?