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“Appendices” vs. “appendixes”

Q: A burning question in publishing: Books may have appendices, but what about people? If a doctor removes more than one appendix, has he removed appendices? We suspect not.

A: The short answer is yes, way back when.

Over time, plural endings of foreign-derived words tend to become Anglicized. Many English dictionaries now list “gymnasiums” before “gymnasia,” “memorandums” before “memoranda,” “syllabuses” before “syllabi,” “cactuses” before “cacti,” and so on.

Similarly, 150 years ago, your dictionary would have recommended “appendices” for the plural of “appendix” (in both the literary and medical senses). These days “appendixes” is preferred for both. Many dictionaries, however, give the two plurals, as in this entry for “appendix” in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

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In the mind of the beholder

Q: A Brazilian friend of mine is taking English language lessons in Rio. She used the term “in the mind” with her teacher and she was told that this usage was incorrect. I told her that her teacher was mistaken. Who is correct? Is “in the mind” correct English?

A: I see nothing wrong with “in the mind.” For example: “Pain is all in the mind,” or “Who knows what’s in the mind of a terrorist?”

But there’s another expression without the article: “in mind,” as in “That’s not what I had in mind.” Perhaps your Brazilian friend should have used “in mind” and didn’t need the article.

I’d have to know the context to tell whether your friend was using “in the mind” correctly.

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Is it “militate” or “mitigate”?

Q: When did “militate against” (correct) become “mitigate against” (wrong)?
Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly used the latter in her public statements.

A: “Militate” and “mitigate” do not mean the same thing, despite Ms. Rice’s remarks. And the use of “against” with “mitigate” makes no sense. To “mitigate” is to moderate, to make milder. To “militate” is to influence or have an effect—either for or against.

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Straight from the horse’s mouth

Q: Does the expression “straight from the horse’s mouth” have anything to do with actual horses?

A: The expression, which means reliable or on good authority, has two possible origins. The most likely is that it comes from horse-racing circles: a tipster supposedly has inside information so good that it comes straight from the horse. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the expression goes back to 1917.

The second possibility is that the phrase comes from the world of horse-trading, but I can find no good evidence to support it. According to this explanation, a smart buyer examines a horse’s teeth to determine its age and general health, so reliable information about the animal comes from its mouth. This, by the way, is the origin of the expression “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” (don’t quibble about something you aren’t paying for).

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What’s the skinny on “skinny”?

Q: Perhaps you can put me out of some minor misery by answering this question: why is the expression “the skinny” used for the word “information”? This usage has me baffled and irritated.

A: The use of “skinny” as a noun meaning information is relatively new. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first published citation as 1959, when the question “What’s the skinny?” was translated as “What’s up?” The OED describes the usage as chiefly American slang.

There’s no reliable explanation for the origin of the expression, but it’s been speculated that “to get down to the skinny” (that is, to get the essential information about something), was like getting down to the skin of an issue. Well, that’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.

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“Woe is I” vs. “Woe is me”

Q: I love your book, but I have a question about the title. How come it’s Woe Is I and not Woe Is Me or Woe Am I? Is there a reason?

A: I chose the title Woe Is I to poke fun at hypercorrectness—that is, incorrectness used in the mistaken belief that one is being  ultra-correct. (A good example is a sentence like “Give your seat to whomever needs one.”)

In the case of the book’s title, the butt of the joke is the old rule of English grammar (now considered excessively formal) that required the nominative case after the verb “to be.” (Example: using “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It’s me.”) I wanted to show how ridiculous we sound when we go overboard in the name of correctness.

As I wrote in the preface to the second edition, “the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”

Check out our books about the English language

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Whose name is mud?

Q: I heard you on the radio discussing the expression “his name is mud.” I did some research online and it seems that Dr. Samuel Mudd was the man who mended John Wilkes Booth’s leg and this is where the expression comes from. Just thought I’d let you know.

A: Thanks for the information on Dr. Mudd, but he isn’t the origin of the phrase. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun “mud,” meaning a stupid (thick) fellow, dates back to 1708, and the expression “his name is mud” dates back to 1823. Booth shot Lincoln in 1865.

So, it isn’t true that Dr. Mudd’s example inspired the expression, although that explanation has been widely disseminated on the Internet.

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Is a person a “that” or a “who”?

Q: I constantly hear people say “the man that did something” or “the woman that went somewhere.” Shouldn’t it be “the man who did something” or “the woman who went somewhere”? Or did I fall asleep again in English class?

A: Despite what many people believe, a person can be either a “that” or a “who.” There’s no grammatical foundation for the belief that it’s incorrect to refer to a person as a “that” (“the man that I marry,” “the girl that married dear old dad,” and so on).

A thing, on the other hand, is always a “that.” As for pets, they aren’t people, but they aren’t quite things either. If an animal is anonymous, it’s a “that.” If it has a name, it can be either a “that” or a “who.” (“I’m looking for a dog that can act; Lassie is a dog who could direct her own movie.”)

Getting back to people, there may be a “politeness” issue here. Some folks seem to think using “that” in place of “who” or “whom” demeans or objectifies a human being. Still, there’s no grammatical reason for such a rule, even though many style books persist in spreading the misconception.

A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, has this to say on the issue: “That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. … Three hundred years ago who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things. This left English with more relative pronouns than it has any use for. … Who may in time drive out that as a relative referring to persons, but it has not yet done so.”

For more about these two little words, see the “Who’s That” box in the first chapter of Woe Is I.

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Why is there an “e” in Pat’s last name?

Q: My last name is O’Connor and I was always told by my Irish relatives that there was no such spelling of O’Connor with an “er” at the end. Can you explain why Patricia’s last name ends that way?

A: Your family is right. The correct spelling of our last name is “O’Connor.” In my case, the name got misspelled somewhere along the way, beginning with my father’s generation. My birth certificate actually has the misspelling, as does my sister’s. I always wanted to change it back but never did and now it’s too late. Sigh.

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Much ado about “doable”

Q: Would you comment on the overuse of the word “doable”? I hear it all the time. Also, why do people coin a new word like that when there are plenty of older ones around that can do the job? How about “achievable,” “attainable,” “conceivable,” “possible,” “viable,” and “workable”?

A: I do agree that “doable” (meaning able to be done) is vastly overused, and often there’s a better alternative. In addition to the ones you mention, “practicable” and “feasible” come to mind.

In its defense I should mention that “doable” is not a recent coinage. Believe it or not, this adjective has been in use for well over five centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary cites published references that go back to 1449. The noun “doer” (meaning one who does) is even older, with the earliest published reference from the 1300s.

So yes, “doable” is overused. But it’s a legitimate usage and still with us after all these centuries, probably because none of the alternatives have exactly the same meaning.

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Why isn’t “email” more like “mail”?

Q: I have been an Internet technologist and heavy email user for 20 years. I love Woe Is I, but I find your use of “an email” and “a few hundred emails” really grating. I’ll admit that this has become common usage, but I cannot understand why you would condone it. Until the Internet went public, “email,” like “mail,” was a mass noun. To me this makes a lot of sense. I certainly wouldn’t say “I wrote my grandmother a mail”; nor would I write “the postman pushed several mails through the slot.” Why not “I just received three pieces of spam, two replies regarding the bid, and a video clip of Wendy’s dog,” rather than “I just received six emails”? Or why not say “I’ll send it to you as an email attachment” instead of “I’ll email it to you”? Isn’t meaning being lost?

A: When I wrote the second edition of Woe Is I, there were style issues to be decided: how to write the word “email” (hyphen? capital?); whether to use it as a verb (“to email”); whether to use it as a noun meaning a single email message (“an email”); whether to use “emails” as the plural form (“three emails”), and so on. At the time, usage was all over the map. I weighed the alternatives, took into account what newspapers and book publishers were doing, kept abreast of changing dictionary usage, tuned in to what email users themselves were writing and saying, and most of all tried to anticipate emerging preferences and decide what seemed most natural and most likely to enter the public lexicon.

I think I made the right choices. There are no good reasons to prohibit using “email” as a verb or as a noun in both singular and plural forms. Otherwise we’re stuck with confining “email” to an adjective or to a generic noun meaning the medium itself.

Yes, meaning is being lost if you say “I just received six emails” instead of “I just received three pieces of spam, two replies regarding the bid, and a video clip of Wendy’s dog.” But there’s nothing to prevent you from being more specific if you want to be. Lots of people do. The point is, we have choices. In the end, individuals don’t decide what becomes “acceptable” English. The world at large does. Like it or not (and I don’t like a lot of it), common usage eventually becomes the standard. Thanks for your thoughtful email message. (Is that OK?)

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What’s the origin of “hinky”?

Q: I heard you discussing the word “hinky” on the air. A friend of mine from California uses it to mean “shifty” or “jumpy” or “nervous.” It has a vaguely criminal connotation. Did you ever find out where it comes from?

A: The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an entry for “hincty,” which it describes as a Black English term dating from the 1920s. It originally meant snobbish, fastidious, or aloof. Random House says the origin is unknown. The Oxford English Dictionary says some people have suggested “hincty” might be a clipped form of “handkerchief-head” (that is, an Uncle Tom), but the connection hasn’t been demonstrated.

Back to Random House: A later variant (spelled variously “hincty,” “hinkty,” “hankty,” and finally “hinky”), is described as an underground or police term for suspicious, wary, paranoid, nervous, jumpy, or even arousing suspicion (as in “Something hinky is going on”). Urbandictionary.com describes “hinky” as meaning, among other things, “Something as yet undefinable is wrong, out of place; not quite right.” Many online slang sites say much the same.

The question arises whether these are really two different terms—one meaning snobbish, the other meaning paranoid—or whether one meaning evolved from another.

It’s hard to say. But it’s worth noting that the OED has an entry for “hink,” an old and obscure Scots noun meaning a hesitation or a misgiving; a separate verb form means to limp or falter. This might indicate that the “hinky” that means nervous or jumpy is a different “hinky” altogether. We may never know.

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Is “none” singular or plural?

Q: My question is whether the word “none” can ever take the plural, as in “none are.” I see “none” as a contraction of “not” and “one,” and if this is true it should obviously be followed by “is.” But I hear “none” used in the plural so often—even by fine writers—that sometimes I wonder. If it is strictly a singular word, we need one for the plural, maybe a contraction of “not” and “any,” something like “nany.”

A: The word “none” can be either singular or plural, but it’s more likely to be plural.

Contrary to what many people think, “none” does not always mean “not one.” Historically, its derivation is closer in meaning to “not any.”

The word in Old English was nan, so your suggestion of a contraction “nany” isn’t all that far out.

What to remember: When “none” means “none of them,” it’s plural. Example: “None of the cookies were eaten.” When “none” means “none of it,” it’s singular. Example: “None of the cake was eaten.”

If you really do mean “not one,” my advice is to say “not one.”

You can find more misconceptions about English in “The Living Dead” chapter of my book Woe Is I or on the Grammar Myths page of Grammarphobia.com.

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Is it “fewer” or “less”?

Q: Which is correct: “Less than five percent of the people came” or “fewer than five percent of the people came”?

A: Strictly speaking, “fewer” should refer to plural nouns (“fewer kittens”) and “less” to singular nouns (“less milk”).

But with percentages (say, “five percent of the people”), the answer isn’t so black and white. I think (and Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage agrees) that in this case “less” is better. To me, “the people” is closer to a collective mass noun than to a collection of individuals counted up. So I’d suggest “less than five percent of the people.”

There are intelligent arguments for “fewer,” but “less” would be my choice, since percentages suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

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Some “gruesome” thoughts

Q: In the course of your recent fun discussion with Leonard Lopate about the English language, you speculated that “gruesome” was derived from the old English word “grue.” I suggest that a more likely origin is the German “grausam.” Do you have any further thoughts on this subject?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary says “gruesome” comes to us from the Middle English verb “grue,” which means to feel terror. The word “grue,” in turn, may have been borrowed from similar words in old German, Dutch, Danish, or Swedish languages. So, one can make the case that both the English word “gruesome” and the German word “grausam” are derived from the various Germanic versions of “grue.” The OED’s earliest reference for “grue” is from 1300 and its earliest reference for “gruesome” is from 1570.

An interesting footnote: John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins points out that “gruesome” was used in only Scotland and northern England for more than two centuries. It didn’t become a common English word until Sir Walter Scott began using it in his novels in the early 19th century.

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When the issue is “issues”

Q: I heard you discussing the frequent use of the word “issue” these days to mean an objection or a complaint, as in “to have issues with somebody.” This isn’t a question, but the discussion reminded me of a less frequent use of the word “issue” now: Henry the VIII had issues. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the male issue he wanted until he’d gone through 3 wives!

A: Reminds me of an old Burma Shave ditty: “Henry the Eighth … sure had trouble. … short-term wives … long-term stubble. … Burma Shave.”

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference for the use of “issue” as offspring dates back to the late 14th century. The OED‘s earliest citation for “issue” as a subject of controversy or dispute dates back to the early 15th century. But my CD version of the OED doesn’t include the phrase “to have issues with,” indicating that the usage is relatively recent. A discussion about the expression on Google Answers suggests that it might have originated as college slang in the 1990s or Gateway computer jargon, though I can’t vouch for either.

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Assure, ensure, and insure

Q: I am a puzzled editor. I cringe every time I see the word “insure” used in a non-financial sense in respected publications. I am under the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that “insure” should be used in regard to finances, and “ensure” in a more abstract and wider sense. I would appreciate any light that you can shed on this.

A: Three often-confused verbs—“assure,” “ensure,” and “insure”—all mean roughly “to make secure or safe or certain.” In my book Woe Is I, I used this sentence to illustrate the traditional differences among them: “I assure you,” said the grieving widow, “I ensured he was insured to the hilt.”

In standard usage, “to assure” is to set someone’s mind at rest; “to ensure” is to make certain of something; “to insure” is to issue or buy insurance against financial loss. So your understanding of the meanings of “insure” and “ensure” conforms to standard usage. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (1999 edition) and The Associated Press Stylebook (2000 edition) both recognize this difference between them: “insure” should be used only in the Mutual of Omaha sense, while “ensure” means to guarantee in the general (not the commercial) sense.

Some dictionaries, however, now list “ensure” as a secondary meaning of “insure.” What this means is that many educated users of the language no longer acknowledge much of a difference.

Complicating matters is the fact that in Britain, the verb “assure” sometimes means to underwrite financial loss, though most British speakers use the term the same way American do: to reassure or remove doubt.

But rest assured that your impression is correct. You’re safest sticking to it.

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Should “Ms.” have a period?

Q: The Chicago Manual of Style says “Ms.” should have a period, but Gloria Steinem and the other feminists who popularized the term don’t use a period. Which is right?

A: In matters of style, there’s no absolutely correct or incorrect call. In grammar perhaps, but not in style.

Most American stylebooks, however, will advise using a period for an honorific, with the exception of “Miss,” which is not an abbreviation. One might argue that “Ms.” isn’t an abbreviation of anything, either. But the fact remains that it is not a noun on its own, and exists only as a courtesy title before a name.

It’s worth noting that in Britain, “Mr” and other titles are used without periods. That’s a peculiarity of British style.

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With John and “me”

Q: My boss corrected me for writing “with John and me” in a memo. He insisted that I should have said “with John and I.” I didn’t want to get into an argument, but he was wrong, wasn’t he?

A: Yes, you were right. Mistakenly using “I” for “me” is probably the most common grammatical error in English. Nobody makes a mistake when “I” or “me” is used alone. No one (at least no grown-up) says “with I” or “me went.” So if you can’t choose between “I” and “me,” it helps to mentally eliminate the other guy: “with [John or] me” or “[John and] I went.” You can find more hints about solving “I” vs. “me” problems in the first chapter of Woe Is I.

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Why do we say “eighty-six it”?

Q: Where did the slang expression “eighty-six it” come from? The common understanding of this phrase is to get rid of something, but how did this come to be?

A: The noun “eighty-six” is restaurant slang “indicating that the supply of an item is exhausted, or that a customer is not to be served,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s earliest published reference is from 1936: “Eighty-six, item on the menu not on hand.”

The verb “eight-six,” according to the OED, means “to eject or debar (a person) from premises; to reject or abandon.” The OED gives this citation from 1959: “Eighty-sixed some square bankers from the temple.”

As for the origin of “eighty-six it,” the short answer is that the expression probably originated as rhyming slang for “nix it.” But there are a lot of other theories, including one supposedly involving a Prohibition-era speakeasy named Chumley’s at 86 Bedford Street in New York City. Michael Quinion’s Web site World Wide Words has an informative item on “eighty-six.”

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Why do Americans say “horseback riding”?

Q: I am English and I don’t understand why Americans say “horseback riding.” In England, we just say “riding” or “horse riding.” It’s taken for granted that the back is the place of choice. I don’t know why it bothers me so much.

A: The term “horseback” is very old, and published references go back to the late 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. You can find it used as a noun, which sounds very odd to modern ears, and even as a verb. More commonly, it has been used as an adverb or adjective. Here’s an OED citation from 1390: “This knight, whiche hoved and abode Embuisshed upon horsebake.”

Now, to your question. The expressions “horseback ride” and “horseback riding,” according to the OED, are now “used chiefly in U.S.; in England, ride, riding are understood to be on horseback, unless otherwise expressed or implied, as ‘a ride in a wagon,’ ‘a bicycle ride.’ “

I haven’t found any reason for this difference in contemporary usage. It’s been my experience, though, that horsemen and horsewomen in the U.S. use “ride” and “riding” the same way they’re used in the U.K. Non-riders or occasional riders in the U.S. are more likely to refer to “horseback riding.”

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Where ignorance is bliss

Q: Does the old expression that begins “where ignorance is bliss …” finish with “it follows to be wise” or with “ ’tis fallow to be wise”? The first one makes little sense to me. I think the second is right because it uses the agrarian idea of a field left fallow, where nothing productive is growing.

A: The expression comes from Thomas Gray’s poem “On a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The lines read, in part: “… where ignorance is bliss, / ’Tis folly to be wise.” You can find the whole poem on Bartleby.com.

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A dotty question

Q: I use a lot of dots like these ……….. in my e-mail. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness thing …….. a conversational way of expressing myself. What’s the correct way to use them?

A: The dots you’re talking about are called ellipsis points or ellipses. They usually come in threes, like so … and they’re supposed to signal that the writer has deliberately omitted something. When the omission comes at the end of the sentence, there’s a period added, so there are then a total of four dots. But in the middle of a sentence there should be only three.

You frequently see ellipsis points in quotations, since the writer often doesn’t want to quote everything the speaker said: Mr. Smith said, “I’m happy to be here … and to see all my old friends.” That indicates the quote was actually longer but the writer is omitting some of it. Or maybe there was an obscenity the writer doesn’t want to repeat: “Get your … feet off the table!”

Another use of ellipsis points is to indicate a trailing off at the end of a sentence, often with the final period omitted, like this: I saw the train hurtling toward the bridge, then …

As for the “stream of consciousness” stuff, some people use these dots in their e-mails to string together a bunch of disorganized ideas. Not a good use of ellipsis points!

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How do you say “affluent”?

Q: Senator John Edwards uses the word “affluent” frequently and pronounces it with the accent on the second syllable. My dictionary says it should be on the first syllable. Can you tell me what is correct?

A: The correct pronunciation is “AFF-loo-ent” (short “a” as in “apple,” accent on the first syllable). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language allows a second pronunciation for “affluent” with the stress on the second syllable. It’s less common, though, and it doesn’t sound very fluent to me.

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The origin of “sex maniac”

Q: I used the expression “sex maniac” (pardon me) in a paper I wrote about a story written in the early 1900’s. I was told the term would have been an anachronism at that time. Where can I find out when it came into use?

A: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first published reference to “sex maniac” appeared in 1895 in a novel, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, by Hamlin Garland: “The brakeman came through and eyed her with the glare of a sex-maniac.”

Garland (1860-1940) was a prolific and popular American novelist. This novel is about a farm girl who, much like Garland himself, leaves farm life behind to become an author.

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Is she an “actor” or an “actress”?

Q: You said on the air that the word “actor” should be used for both men and women. I disagree. The word “actress” is in widespread use—including, of course, annually at the Oscars (audience: one billion?). “Poetess” and “Jewess” are not widely used; my hypothesis is that they both add a syllable, whereas “actress” has the same number of syllables as “actor.” Americans always want to say it faster—and saving even one syllable counts! What’s wrong with using “actress” for a woman?

A: All the “actresses” I know refer to themselves as “actors,” despite the Oscars. Of course, I can understand why the Academy Awards people use the term “actress”—it gives them a chance to differentiate the women’s Oscars from the men’s. Besides, this doubles the number of actors that are honored! Imagine the howl from the acting community if the Academy decided to be nonsexist and simply designate a “best actor in a leading role” and “best actor in a supporting role,” without reference to sex!

We seem to be getting away from “ess” and “ix” endings to differentiate women from men. We no longer use “aviatrix,” “executrix,” “stewardess,” and so on. This tendency may have something to do with linguistic simplification. Languages have a tendency to simplify and drop syllables or letters. In this case, though, the advent of the women’s movement has certainly speeded up the process.

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Wear heart on sleeve

Q: Does the expression “heart on sleeve” come from jousting? In medieval times, a knight would wear a piece of silk the color of his lady’s livery on his sleeve as a sign to spectators of his devotion.

A: The earliest published reference, as far as I can tell, comes from Shakespeare. In Othello, Iago says: “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.”

Where Shakespeare got it, heaven only knows. But I think you’re right—the jousting business sounds like the most plausible explanation.

In tournaments in the tilting-yard at Whitehall, the knight designated as the “champion” of Queen Elizabeth I wore the Queen’s glove pinned to the flap of his hat.

According to the 19th-century Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, in medieval times a knight would tie his lady’s “favor” (scarf or ribbon or whatnot) around his arm as a way of symbolically dedicating his performance in the tournament to her. Thus, you might say that just by looking at his sleeve, an observer would know to which lady his “heart” was dedicated.

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Why is a frank a “hot dog”?

Q: Do you know the etymology of “hot dog”? I presume it’s American.

A: Yes, “hot dog” (meaning the frankfurter in a bun) was American student lingo, probably originating on the Yale campus circa 1894-95.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first two citations for “hot dog” (in the sense of a hot sausage or a sausage inside a roll of bread) are from 1900. Both are American. But there’s more to the story. It’s been the subject of some dissension over the years.

One common myth is that the name “hot dog” was coined by the cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, known as Tad, in the early 1900’s when he drew hot dogs as dachshunds in buns. Other myths are that the hot dog was first sold at the Polo Grounds, Coney Island, or the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Barry Popik and other word sleuths have found that in the late 19th century Yale students began referring to the lunch wagons that sold hot sausages in buns as “dog wagons.” In 1895, the Yale Record referred to these sausages as “hot dogs.”

If you’d like to know more, Michael Quinion’s website, World Wide Words, and Barry Popik’s website, The Big Apple, have informative entries about the origin of “hot dog.”

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Don’t dis the verb “disrespect.”

Q: Is it grammatically sound to use the word “disrespect” as a verb, as in “You are disrespecting me” or “Please don’t disrespect your father”? By extension, is the verb “dis” accepted now?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary is full of surprises. “Disrespect” has been used as a verb since the early 17th century. The OED, whose first citation is from 1614, defines the verb “disrespect” this way: “The reverse of to respect; to have or show no respect, regard, or reverence for; to treat with irreverence.”

By extension, as you say, the short form “dis” makes a lot of sense. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language now recognizes “dis” as an “informal” verb meaning “to show disrespect to” someone.

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Did Mencken coin the word “bloviate”?

Q: I see the word “bloviate” whenever I pick up a newspaper. I’ve heard that it was created by H.L. Mencken in reference to Warren G. Harding. Is there more to the story?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “bloviate” as to “discourse at length in a pompous or boastful manner.” It’s a wonderful word—the very sound of it suggests terms like “blowhard” and “windbag.” It’s one of those humorous mock-Latin formations (like “absquatulate” and others), in this case formed around “blow” in the sense of “boast.” But it didn’t originate with Mencken as you suggest.

The word is an Americanism, probably originating in Ohio in the mid-19th century, and was a favorite of President Warren G. Harding, who was a native of Ohio and something of a bloviator himself. Mencken couldn’t stand Harding’s writing, and said of him: “… he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.” (The quotation comes from a 1921 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun entitled “Gamalielese.” Gamaliel was Harding’s middle name.)

Because Harding is associated with the word “bloviate,” and because Mencken famously criticized Harding’s blowhard writing style, some sources may have mistakenly credited Mencken with inventing the term “bloviate.” But it goes back further than that.