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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?

How ‘Mrs.’ became ‘missus’

Q: Your recent post about “Mr.” and “mister” aroused my curiosity about “Mrs.” and “missus.” A: The story begins with the word “mistress,” which English adopted in the 1300s from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, as we noted in 2013. The courtesy title “Mrs.” showed up in the late 1400s as a shortening of... ? Read More: How ‘Mrs.’ became ‘missus’

Fits and starts

Q: My pet peeve is “in fits and starts.” Both “fits” and “starts” denote motion, while my choice, “in spurts and stops,” really conveys what should be said, with the added advantage of alliteration. A: We rather like “in fits and starts.” It has a jerky quality that seems to capture its meaning very neatly.... ? Read More: Fits and starts

Hello, Minnie!

Q: We saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and noticed that the Italian libretto makes generous use of “hello,” notably with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” at the saloon. I don’t see anything about “hello” on your blog. Would you like to correct this oversight? A: We’ve discussed “goodbye” in several posts (most recently, in 2011),... ? Read More: Hello, Minnie!

A decadent chocolate cake

Q: I’ve always thought “decadent” describes the careless and cavalier waste of resources. But a friend of mine says the root of the word is decay, as in drugs, tattoos, piercings, and angry music. Tell me he’s wrong and I’m right! A: You’re both right. The adjective “decadent” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin... ? Read More: A decadent chocolate cake

A saboteuse? A chanteur?

Q: Some English words of foreign origin are gender specific, such as “executor”/“executrix,” “masseur”/“masseuse.” I’m wondering about two French words: Do we have “saboteuse” and “chanteur” in English? A: Yes, “saboteuse” and “chanteur” are words in English, though they’re rarely used and barely register in dictionaries. Show More Summary

How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Q: I wonder how “master” became “mister,” and why “master” refers to a young man, and “mister” to an older man. Can you enlighten me? A: We discussed the origin of “master” on the blog in 2015, but we’ll summarize it here to set the stage for the appearance of “mister” and the evolution of... ? Read More: How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Another thing (or think?) coming

Q: Which is correct: “If you think that, you have another thing/think coming”? I see “thing” more often, but “think” makes more sense to me. A: The two expressions, which are used to express disagreement, showed up in print within a couple of months of each other in the late 19th century. The editors at... ? Read More: Another thing (or think?) coming

Hello, Minnie!

Q: We saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and noticed that the libretto makes generous use of “hello,” notably with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” at the saloon. I don’t see anything about “hello” on your blog. Would you like to correct this oversight? A: We’ve discussed “goodbye” in several posts (most recently, in 2011), but... ? Read More: Hello, Minnie!

The poop about pooped

Q: After separating the recyclables into three bins and dragging them out to the street, my hubby turned to me and said he was pooped. Speaking of which, where does “pooped” come from? A: The adjective “pooped” (or “pooped out”), meaning exhausted or worn out, showed up in the early 20th century in American English.... ? Read More: The poop about pooped

Compounding the problem

Q: In your “Compound fractures” post from 2012, you discuss hyphenating “potentially confusing compounds.” Shouldn’t that be “potentially-confusing”? I’m not being snarky, mind you, just trying to understand. A: The use of hyphens in compounds is pretty straightforward—except when it isn’t. Show More Summary

Batten down the hatches

Q: We’re having a big storm in Grand Rapids and I’ve battened down the hatches. I assume this originated as a nautical expression. When did it come ashore? A: Yes, “batten down the hatches” does indeed come from seafaring lingo. The nautical expression showed up at the turn of the 19th century, and took on... ? Read More: Batten down the hatches

Was Elizabeth Bennet blowsy?

Q: I just finished reading your dispatch about whether a “blown rose” is in bloom or has finished blooming. I’m surmising the adjective “blowsy” is related to the “past-its-prime” meaning of “blown.” Yes? A: Etymological bloodhoundsShow More Summary

A ‘fount’ or ‘font’ of knowledge?

Q: In your recent post about “cold feet,” you refer to a character in Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus as a “font of academic gobbledygook.” Don’t you mean “fount”? A: Both “font” and “fount” are derived from the Latin fons (a spring or fountain) and its combining form, font-. One figurative meaning of... ? Read More: A ‘fount’ or ‘font’ of knowledge?

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