Blog Profile / Wordmall

Filed Under:Academics / Linguistics
Posts on Regator:345
Posts / Week:0.9
Archived Since:February 24, 2008

Blog Post Archive


Greg from Thompsonville, Michigan, encountered the word warren a couple of times in the last month. The first instance occurred in an email from a friend who had visited Nepal. He wrote, “ Kathmandu was a loud and busy tourist city... Show More Summary

Tic-Tac-Toe, Anyone?

David asked about the hashtag, a symbol used in various social media. He expressed confusion because he had learned it as the pound sign. The function of the hashtag is to turn the un-spaced words that follow a hash sign (#) into a searchable link. Show More Summary


Roger asked about the word hack, which has been prominent in the news since North Korean hackers breached Sony’s computer files. To those outside the avid computer community, it means gaining access to a computer’s content illegally....Show More Summary


Bill from Maple City asked about the word contrite. From the context of what he was reading, he figured that it meant sorry. In popular use, that’s true, but it can also range up to an industrial-strength level of remorse. In its original sense, contrite referred to a physical state. Show More Summary

Near Miss or Near Hit?

David from Traverse City called to complain about the use of near miss in place of near hit or near collision. If I am slavishly literal, a near miss is actually a hit: “I nearly missed you with my car, but I finally managed to bring...Show More Summary

Something Akin to Kinship

Mike from Glen Arbor, Michigan, asked if the words kin and akin are connected. Indeed, they are. They come from a cluster of Germanic, Scandinavian, and Dutch words that meant to produce, to engender, to beget. In turn, those words are related to the Greek ????? (genos), which would show up in a word like generate, and the Latin genus. Show More Summary

Comprise & Compose

The following sentence appeared in an editorial in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on Sunday, November 23, 2014: “Safe Harbor, comprised of 23 area churches that open their doors to the homeless during the winter months, has said the group can’t continue indefinitely.” My quibble is with the wording comprised of. Show More Summary


A listener who wished to remain anonymous asked if I knew the name of the syndrome in which a person sneezes when suddenly exposed to light. I didn’t, but I found it online. It’s called photic sneeze reflex. There’s some confusion about its cause, but here are links to a couple of articles that take a stab at an explanation. Show More Summary

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Evelyn wrote to say that she had come across a strange and unfamiliar word last week while browsing through the offerings in her local library’s semi-annual book sale. The word was quassation. The word is strange and unfamiliar to most of us because it is obsolete. Show More Summary

Wearing a Mackinaw Coat in a Dearborn Carriage

Jeff from Gulliver asked about the Mackinaw coat and the Dearborn carriage and whether they had a Michigan connection. The answer is yes and no. The Mackinaw coat was born when a post trader named John Askin commissioned some local women to sew 40 woolen coats for a British Army post near the Straits of Mackinac. Show More Summary

Election Vocabulary

Dan from Traverse City asked about the origin of a couple of election words. Specifically, he asked about ballot and precinct, but I’ll expand the question a bit. Ballot came from French and Italian words that meant a small ball. The election sense of the word owes its origin to the Venetian Republic. Show More Summary

Consort & Concert

Having heard music by the Quadriga Consort, Francine asked about the possibility of a connection between the words concert and consort. It turns out that in a limited sense, there is. But first let’s distinguish between two nouns with identical spellings and some overlapping meanings. Show More Summary


Mac asked what a meme is, commenting that the term is showing up everywhere. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. Show More Summary


Conrad from Traverse City brought up the word commission as yet another example of a word with multiple meanings. It came from a Latin verb, committere, to entrust. Here’s a rundown of the meanings that evolved over the years. · order,...Show More Summary

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


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


Rita asked about the word element –sist–. It appears in a number of words that alter the basic meaning by adding different prefixes. The core comes from the Latin sistere, to cause to stand. Let’s list some of the words that rely on this root, giving a rough and ready definition that shows how the standmeaning runs through all of them. Show More Summary

Apprise me of the Appraisal

Recently, I’ve been pigging out on reruns of The Artful Detective, a detective series set in 19 th century Toronto. In one episode, Detective Murdoch is sternly admonished by the Superintendent to “keep me appraised of developments." Unfortunately, bad word choice. Show More Summary


Vic asked about the word fend, as in, “to fend off evil.” It is a shortened version of defend, which came from the Latin defendere, to ward off or protect. The de - element means “away from oneself.” Fend also shows up in the phrase,...Show More Summary


A listener named Adele called to say that her son had snickered when she told him that her uncle, a naval engineer, had worked in the bowels of a ship during World War II. I guess her son would have preferred engine room, on the basis that bowels is too graphic an image. Show More Summary

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