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Blog Profile / Wordmall

Filed Under:Academics / Linguistics
Posts on Regator:647
Posts / Week:2
Archived Since:February 24, 2008

Blog Post Archive


In a move that caught me by surprise, the word junket came up several times during last Tuesday’s program. I mentioned that it had been one of my least favorite childhood desserts because of its slimy texture. Jim from Petoskey mentioned that, in contrast, he had loved it, especially the maple-flavored variety. Show More Summary


Eileen asked about a word that she saw in a financial management ad: stewardship. Today, it refers to the duties of a trained advisor, especially in managing the property of clients, their financial affairs, their estates, and so on....Show More Summary

Pardon My French

Daniel from Traverse City asked about the use of, “Forgive/Pardon my French.” Today, it is usually uttered to soften the use of profanity by transparently and facetiously pretending that it is a foreign utterance. Why French? Well, ever...Show More Summary

So Long!

Steve from Cadillac, Michigan, asked why we say “so long” when we are leaving someone’s presence. He also asked if there might be a connection to shalom. So long is said in parting from someone. It is probably a shortened version ofShow More Summary

Cat's Meow

Don asked about the phrase the cat’s meow. It was 1920’s slang for something worthy of admiration. It was allied to the cat’s whiskers and the cat’s pajamas. For some reason, it became a fad during the Jazz Age to use fanciful animal images to express approval. Show More Summary


Bill from Merit, Michigan, called during Tuesday’s show to highlight one of his pet peeves: the use of irregardless when one means regardless. While it shows up in speech and is even discussed in some dictionaries, it is definitely nonstandard. Show More Summary


An unnamed caller to Words to the Wise asked about the word smithereens, as in, “the children smashed the piñata into smithereens.” Invariably, it seems to go with verbs of violence, such as blow, punch, shatter, knock, split, and pound. Show More Summary


Ron Jolly asked about a word that he encountered in a book about the northern Michigan of days gone by: “Let us take you into the fastnesses of the primeval forest.” The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that one of the meanings of the word was the state of being dense, compact, and solid. Show More Summary


Nancy--a seasonal resident of Traverse City--wrote, " Since I am a snow bird (or is it one word: snowbird?), I began to wonder what the origin of that term is." The original snowbird (1680) was any species of bird that showed up in the winter when there was snow on the ground. Show More Summary


Don asked why cats are said to have nine lives. When you consider that some cultures think that cats have only seven lives, it does seem rather arbitrary. It’s a superstition based on the observation that cats seem to have a knack for escaping death because of their speed and agility. Show More Summary

Facetiously Sarcastic

Wendy asked for a comment on the words facetious and sarcastic. My immediate on-air reaction was that something facetious is positive and stands on the lighter side, while something sarcastic is negative and is meant to hurt. This is borne out by their respective etymologies. Show More Summary

Inter-, Intra-

As a commissioner, I attended the Michigan Commission on Services to the Aging last week. Among business items was an examination of the state formula used in Michigan to distribute federal money to be used for senior services in all 16 regions of the state. Show More Summary


Dan asked about the origin of the word sandwich. I can’t help it, but every time that I hear the word sandwich, I think of the old elementary school joke: Q. Why can’t you starve in the desert? A. Because of the sand which is there. Sorry about that. Show More Summary

The Small –o

Anna asked why the suffix –o shows up in so many product names. She cited Jello, Beano, and Brillo as examples. To be honest, I don’t know how many brand names use the –o- ending. Off the top of my head, I can add Oreo, Eggo, Zippo, and Crisco. Show More Summary


Lou asked about the phrase slapstick comedy. It is a low form of comedy in which the humor is predominantly physical—people slipping on banana peels, getting doused with water, receiving a pie in the face, or unexpectedly getting slapped with a loud whack. Show More Summary


David from Traverse City asked about the origin of the word cockamamie. Today, it means ridiculous and laughably implausible (what a cockamamie idea! ), but it started out in a much different context. In the 1860s, a particular art and hobby form came into prominence. Show More Summary


Bob from Glen Arbor asked about the word bootleg. Originally, from the 17 th century onwards, it was quite literal: the tall leg or upper part of a leather boot. It was a handy place to conceal a knife, a derringer, or a flask of whiskey. Show More Summary


Evelyn wrote that she heard this on CNN the other day: “Two NCIS agents assisted in the exfiltration of the wounded officer.” Exfiltration is the opposite of infiltration. It was built from ex-, out of, and -filtr -, which basically meant a filter. Show More Summary


Jeff from Traverse City asked where the prefix mal - came from, as in malcontent, malnutrition, and malware. It came to us from the Latin, where the adjective malus meant bad, wrong, or improper. No newcomer, it’s been used in English for centuries but is still quite useful, as the word malware shows. Show More Summary


Roland wrote, “I’ve been puzzling over the word protest. If you protest, you are actively and vocally against something. But I thought that the pro- prefix means for or in favor of. Any help with this?” You are correct in noting that...Show More Summary

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