Blog Profile / Wordmall

Filed Under:Academics / Linguistics
Posts on Regator:695
Posts / Week:1.9
Archived Since:February 24, 2008

Blog Post Archive


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


Ben from Traverse City and someone else whose name I failed to record asked about the proper use of commas. Like it or not, some technical terms must be reckoned with in order to place commas correctly, so let’s start with a quick review. Show More Summary

Positioning the Lake

Jim Sofonia from Traverse City, Michigan, asked, “Can you explain why some lakes are Name Lake, and others are Lake Name ? Examples include Lime Lake and Lake Ann.” Generally, larger lakes tend to have the word lake first: Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Ontario, etc. Show More Summary


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

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