Blog Profile / Wordmall

Filed Under:Academics / Linguistics
Posts on Regator:412
Posts / Week:0.9
Archived Since:February 24, 2008

Blog Post Archive

Oneth, Twoth, Thresh

Judy from Elk Rapids asked why we use the adjectives first, second, and third instead of oneth, twoth, and threeth. After all, the rest of the numerical adjectives (fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.) routinely end in – th or – eth. First of all, we need to make a distinction between types of numbers. Show More Summary


Last Sunday’s Traverse City Record-Eagle ran this teaser in a box at the top of page 1: “World’s fastest man ‘Bolts’ into action at the Olympics.” The reference was to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, and the verb bolts was used with the meaning to proceed rapidly. Show More Summary

Starboard and Port

Bob from Traverse City asked about the nautical terms starboard and port—specifically, he wondered why sailors don’t simply use the words right and left. Right and left are relative terms; they depend on the direction you are facing....Show More Summary


Geoffrey wrote, “Yesterday I was at the local saddle and bridle store (Square Deal Country Store) and I thought, this is the tack store. So my wife and I are wondering about the origin of the word tack as it refers to horses, bridles, saddles, etc.” Tack came from similar words that existed in German, Dutch, French and Celtic. Show More Summary

Putting on the Dog

Danielle Arens asked about the phrase, “putting on the dog.” It means to dress fashionably and somewhat formally in order to impress your audience. There is no unanimous opinion as to its origin. One patently ridiculous explanation (although...Show More Summary

Cuffed in the Buff

Marge from Suttons Bay cited a story in the Record-Eagle that spoke of an intoxicated woman who was “cuffed in the buff.” That sounds like something out of Dr. Seuss. She was found hiding naked behind a tree in Leelanau County before being led away in handcuffs. Show More Summary

French fried vs. French fry

Roger Funkhauser wrote to me at and asked. “Is it more proper to use ‘ice tea’ instead of ‘iced tea’ or doesn’t it make a difference?" It should definitely be iced tea. It has to be the past participle form. Ice tea would be made from ice. Show More Summary


10 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Bill from Merritt, Michigan, mused on the word scale, which can encompass diverse meanings from relative size to the covering on a fish to a musical progression. As with many words having multiple meanings, though the spelling is identical, the origins may have absolutely nothing in common. Show More Summary


10 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Gifford Haddock asked about a word that appears in Acts 26:14. The word is goads, and it appears in this context: “ And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you...Show More Summary


10 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Fred asked about the word foist. It shows up in settings such as this: “Don’t let them foist their shoddy goods on you.” In this sense, it means to palm off or surreptitiously force items on someone. “To palm off” is quite accurate because the word originally meant to conceal a token in your hand or fist and then make it appear as if by magic. Show More Summary

Just Call It A Couch!

11 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Mike from Cadillac called in a question that has come up before: why is a certain piece of furniture called a davenport? My immediate thought was that it must have been manufactured in Davenport, Iowa, but I was mistaken. It has all sorts of cousins. Show More Summary


11 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Kevin asked about the connection between stuffing oneself with food (gorge) and the narrow opening between hills (gorge). They definitely are connected. In each case a throat shape is involved. The word probably came from a Latin word, gurgulio, which meant the windpipe. Show More Summary

You’re Smart, but That Smarts!

11 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Phil from Traverse City asked about the connection between smart (intelligent), and something that smarts (hurts). Oddly enough, both meanings attach to the same word. Tracing the meaning through the centures by using the Oxford English Dictionary makes things clear. Show More Summary

Umlaut or Diaeresis?

11 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Carol from East Bay asked about the double dots used above some vowels, such as Häagen-Dazs. Though they look identical, there are two different elements that use these dots: the umlaut and the diaeresis. The umlaut [Ger. changed sound] is strongly Germanic and changes the sound of a vowel. Show More Summary


12 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Melody asked about the word castigate. It means to correct, to rebuke, to subdue. It comes from the Latin verb castigare, to correct or reprove. In turn, that came from the Latin adjective castus, pure. Related forms are castigation, castigative, castigator, and castigatory. Show More Summary


12 months agoAcademics / Linguistics : Wordmall

Doug from Traverse City asked about the word raunchy. Originally, it meant sloppy and unkempt. It then came to mean bawdy and off-color. Most dictionaries declare that its origin is unknown. It first shows up in print in the 1930s, and it may have been Army-Air Corps slang—a reference to an improperly worn or cared-for uniform. Show More Summary


In the last couple of weeks, a few listeners have expressed an interest in particular homophones—words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Dave from Traverse City called in with pray and prey. Pray came from an Anglo-Norman word that developed from Latin. Show More Summary

Senior Citizen Spelling Bee

Sponsored by the Traverse Area District Library:


Tanya asked about the word indolence. These days, it is a classy way of saying laziness, sloth, inertia. Lethargy, languor, and torpidity are upper-level synonyms. The literary level is represented by hebetude. The strange thing is that indolence originally meant without pain. Show More Summary


Mark asked why we use the word shot in the phrase a shot and a beer. Shot comes from an Old English word— sceot —that described a darting, rapid motion. When most Americans drink from a shot glass, they do not sip delicately; they throw the contents back quickly, swallowing in one go. Show More Summary

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