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Bated Breath

Margaret from Traverse City came across the phrase with bated breath and wondered what it meant and where it came from. It is considered a cliché. The first thing to observe is that the spelling is b-a-t-e-d, not b-a-i-t-e-d. A person with baited breath would have been eating worms or minnows. Show More Summary

Translating the Umbrella Revolution

Far from prohibiting translation (see the last item here), the young demonstrators in Hong Kong are offering free translation services for the media and others who may be in need of them. The following photograph was shared on Twitter by Newsweek's Lauren Walker: While I'm not sure I'd fully rely on the guy on the […]

Will learning new languages help you pick up girls?

Last summer, a huge publication asked if I would write an article for them about How learning languages will help you chat up girls. … As nice as it would have been to be in that big magazine, I said no thanks. Then, since it was just before the World Cup, they made me a […]

Getting involved

Q: Which preposition should follow “involve”—“in” or “with”? I must be using the “wrong” preposition in casual conversations, because I seem to use the two interchangeably. Is there an easy rule to follow? A: We have a hunch that you’re mostly concerned with the use of “involve” in the passive (“to be involved”) or as... ? Read More: Getting involved


From David Donnell: "Not for nothin'," as the native NY'ers say, but I saw this commercial on the idiot-box tonight and was tickled by the play on words. Surprised to google and discover "half-fast" has been around for some time. But the TV ad still makes me laugh!


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Tasteless coffee

From "Signspotting around the world: Funny fails", a "Lonely Planet travel signs" feature of CNN Travel, I have selected an ensemble of four signs to illustrate different types of translation difficulties. The first was spotted in a Beijing cafe: X?láitè k?f?i ????? That would be "X?láitè Coffee", with "X?láitè very much having the look of […]

Historical Synonym Word Clouds.

From “Spiflicated, mopsy, and spondulicks: historical synonyms for everyday things” at the Oxford Dictionaries blog: In Words in Time and Place, David Crystal explores fifteen fascinating sets of synonyms, using the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. We’ve turned selections from six sections of Words in Time and Place into word clouds, arranged in […]

Mari and Udmurt dictionaries for Kindle (with caveats)

There are fairly ample Mari-Russian and Udmurt-Russian dictionaries in the Goldendict format (get them here). And there is a toolchain that can convert a Goldendict dictionary to Mobipocket format for use on the Kindle and other e-readers. Show More Summary


I mentioned in this post, a few days ago, that I was starting The Manticore; I have now almost finished it, and I continue to enjoy the odd bits of knowledge I’m picking up. For instance, a character’s remark that “Diarmuid began to call me Sir Edward, in reference to Marshall Hall” led me to […]

Must-read for Wednesday afternoon

Josef Fruehwald, "America's Ugliest Accent: Something's ugly alright", Val Systems 10/1/2014.  

Do fish have tongues?

Q: I recently returned from a vacation in Newfoundland, where I enjoyed the regional dish of “cod tongue.” Or should it be “cod’s tongue”? Or maybe “cods’ tongues”? I suspect that “cod” in “cod tongue” is an adjective (telling us what kind of tongue), not a noun (telling us whose tongue). A: The word “cod”... ? Read More: Do fish have tongues?

A hoax upon both your houses!

So there was a bit of a kerfuffle the other week when the article “Actress Betty White, 92, Dyes Peacefully In Her Los Angeles Home” hit the airwaves. I first spotted the headline when a friend posted the article on Facebook with the comment “RIP.” ’Cause I’m a word nerd like that, the first thing […]

Failure not to make payment

From Dick Margulis, for the misnegation files: The source is a Facebook post, which you may or may not be able to read. Another picture of (another copy of?) the sign is here.

No, the Other Right!

Mark Liberman at the Log follows up on Bob Ladd’s suggestion for a post “about inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another.” It’s turned into a really interesting discussion,...Show More Summary

Looking for ‘Arses.

No, not the arses you think; from BBC Radio: Ian McMillan goes on a quest to find one of Britain’s strangest linguistic features. Somewhere between Sheffield and Chesterfield, people stop saying house and say something that sounds a lot more like ‘arse. It’s an isogloss, a kind of linguistic boundary line where accent and dialect […]

Names for the months in Northern Mansi

I’ve always found native names for the months of the year interesting, and in the past I’ve presented here the Udmurt system, and the Mari system is also fun. Here are the names from a Northern Mansi dialect that József Erd?di collected in December 1970. Show More Summary

Um, fill(er) words

Do conscientious people say I mean and I know more often? When we think of language we often think of neatly constructed sentences, but everyday casual conversation is peppered with hesitations, repetitions and sounds that you may not necessarily find in the dictionary. Show More Summary


This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts. It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why […]


Terri asked about the word token, especially as it appears in a token of my esteem. The word originated in a wide cluster of related languages (Old Germanic, Old Scandinavian, Old English), and in each case it carried the meaning of teaching, demonstrating, or showing. Show More Summary

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