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Blog Profile / Wordmall

Filed Under:Academics / Linguistics
Posts on Regator:686
Posts / Week:1.9
Archived Since:February 24, 2008

Blog Post Archive


Carol from Old Mission asked about the word speakeasy. A speakeasy was the name given to a club or establishment that sold liquor illegally during Prohibition (1920 – 1933). The import of the word is harder to pin down. One theory is...Show More Summary

Hot to Trot

Frank from Elk Rapids asked about the phrase hot to trot. There are many meanings derived from the original meaning of hot – characterized by a high temperature or sensation of heat. The hot in hot to trotsignifies burning with desire, eager, keen to get started. Show More Summary

Jolly Roger

A listener asked why the flag flown on a pirate ship was called a Jolly Roger. The Oxford English Dictionary brands this popular story as folk etymology: Their red flag was called Joli Rouge (pretty red) by the French, and may have been corrupted into English as Jolly Roger. Show More Summary


Doug asked about the word crotchety. It is frequently—and unfairly—applied to an old person, and it means cranky and bristly. Synonyms include bad-tempered, cantankerous, choleric, crabby, cross, crusty, curmudgeonly, fractious, grumpy,...Show More Summary


Kim from Old Mission called to say that a word caught his attention while he was watching The Hobbit. At one point, the character Gandalf says something like, “At least he had the nous to get out of this situation.” In context, Kim reported, nous seemed to mean intelligence or knowledge. Show More Summary


Penny from Benzonia, Michigan, called to confirm a word origin that she had heard about. The word was terrific, and she was told that it originally meant terrifying or frightening. Her information was correct. The word entered English as the equivalent of a Latin verb that meant to terrify. Show More Summary

Fewer or Less?

Dave from Traverse City, Michigan, asked about the proper use of less and fewer. It's a question that has come up before, but the last time I covered it in this blog was about 8 years ago. Since it is a frequent question on my radio program, I'll cover it again. Show More Summary


Michael from Douglas Lake, Michigan, asked about a word used in the movie Rio Bravo. He said that it was used in a sentence that ran something like, “Take care of your own truck.” Curious to see if I could find the line in its original context, I ran a google search. Show More Summary

Don't Interrupt Me!

Karl wrote with a punctuation question. “I frequently find myself adding information midsentence, usually a definition or an example, but using all those commas gets pretty tiresome. Are there alternatives?” The first thing to consider is not interrupting yourself midsentence. Show More Summary


Gary from Cross Village, Michigan, called Words to the Wise to ask why the implement used to strike the ball in baseball is called a BAT. The basic reason is that the word was already long in use in a somewhat similar stick-and-ball game, cricket. Show More Summary


Gwen from Lake Ann, Michigan, called in to ask if the term redneck was due to the red clay prevalent in Georgia. It seems to me that redhand would have been the designated term if digging in the dirt had been the cause. The most likely reason for the nickname is the sunburned neck of a farmer working in hot climates. Show More Summary

Untenable or Untenuous?

Steve from Traverse City called in to say that he heard President Obama misusing a word. Steve thought he heard the President say that “we are facing an untenuous fiscal situation.” My first reaction was to agree that untenuous is simply not a word. Show More Summary

Please Vote

Words to the Wise has been nominated for the category “Language Professional Blogs”. The voting phase lasts from May 20 nd to June 9 th. During this period, everyone can vote for their favourite language lovers in the five social media categories. Show More Summary


A listener asked about the word perspicacity. It means insight, the ability to go beneath the surface, the act of seeing through a situation. It comes to us from two Latin words: per, through, and specere, to see or observe. Its obsolete opposite was imperspicuity. Show More Summary

May Have Went?

Ron Jolly had a question about the boldfaced words in the following newspaper article: (Walker, MI) -- Police are searching for a man who robbed the Chase Bank branch inside a Meijer store in Walker around 6 p.m. yesterday. The suspect is a white male who did not wear anything to hide his identity during the heist. Show More Summary

Begging the Question

I concede that the battle is going badly and that ignorance has almost won one more round, but I still cringe when I hear newscasters saying, “that begs the question,” as if it meant, “that brings up or raises the question.” TV Guest...Show More Summary

Sally Port

Tim from Traverse City asked about sally port. A sally port is an entryway, but unlike a normal door or opening, it is scrupulously secure and controlled. It shows up in fortifications, prisons, police stations, courthouses, and some places of business, such as a jewelry store. Show More Summary

Get it?

Mike from Traverse City asked if it’s ever correct to use the verb got. Hypercorrectionists have a field day with this one. Some go so far as to say never use get or got, but as one caller pointed out, the three absolutely legitimate principal parts for that verb are get/got/gotten. Show More Summary


I received three “Is that really a word?” inquiries last week. There’s a strong subjective element involved. The questioner will often say, “that just doesn’t sound right.” Kelley objected to the phrase preheat the oven,claiming that you are simply heating the oven. Show More Summary

Read the Riot Act

To read someone the riot act is to berate that person for unwanted behavior and to threaten him or her with consequences if the behavior doesn’t cease. The fact is, there was an actual Riot Act, and it was passed into law in Great Britain in 1715. Show More Summary

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