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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
Q: I recently saw Kenneth Branagh on the Stephen Colbert show. When Shakespeare’s Henry V came up, Colbert referred to it as “Henry Five,” Branagh as “Henry the Fifth.” Are both correct? A: The customary way to pronounce Henry V is “Henry the Fifth,” though some people think it’s creative or cute to say “Henry... ? Read More: Henry the Fifth or Henry Five?
Q: What is the grammar of phrases like “fuck you,” “screw him,” and “damn them”? They seem imperative in force, but who is being damned and who is doing the damning. Could we call these constructions subjectless hortatives? A: We don’t think those expressions are either imperative (ordering an act) or hortative (encouraging an act).... ? Read More: A lesson in pornolinguistics
Q: When did expressions like “rising sophomore” start? It’s new to me, a great-grandmother who was last in college 20 years ago. A: It was new to us too, but not to the lexicographers at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). In addition to defining the adjective “rising” as ascending, developing,... ? Read More: A rising sophomore?
Q: I was under the impression “nitpicking” was a seriously racist phrase, originating from when slaves picked cotton. Am I incorrect about this? A: “Nitpicking” isn’t racist, and it doesn’t come from picking cotton. The term originally referred to picking nits, the eggs of lice, from hair, and later to picking out the lice themselves,... ? Read More: Let’s pick a few nits
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’?