The Grammarphobia Blog

Conceptual arts

Q: In the design community in NYC, the word “concept” is often used as a verb, as in, “Let’s get together and concept about the new product later.” This drives me nuts.

A: I have been spared “concept” as a verb—so far! It’s quite an atrocity, especially since “concept” is weak enough as a noun. What would people getting together to “concept” in fact do? Come up with concepts? No doubt they’re being paid handsomely to do so!

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I should mention that way back when the word “concept” did indeed exist as a verb: it meant to conceive in the womb. Here’s a citation from 1643 in the Oxford English Dictionary: “It [the Soul] is concepted by the woman through the concurrance of the seed of both sexes.”

The noun “concept,” which comes from the Latin concipere (to conceive), has been around since the mid-16th century, according to the OED. It initially meant an idea, an opinion, a fancy, or a frame of mind. But by the mid-20th century, it had been watered down to what the OED describes as “a general notion or idea, esp. in the context of marketing and design.”

As for the verb, spare me from that concept!

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Self improvement

Q: I’d like to know if using the reflexive pronoun in the following sentence is correct: “John invited my mother and myself.” If not, is it my imagination, or are more people using reflexive pronouns incorrectly more often now than before?

A: Your instincts are right. The example you sent should read: “John invited my mother and me.” And, no, it’s not your imagination. The overuse of “myself” is reaching epidemic proportions these days because people have forgotten how to use “I” and “me.” Faced with the choice of “I” or “me,” they wimp out and pick “myself.”

I answered a similar question on The Grammarphobia Blog last summer about “self” words (that is, reflexive pronouns), but I think it’s time for a repeat performance.

As a general rule, “myself” and the other “self” words (“herself,” “themselves,” etc.) should not be used to replace ordinary pronouns like “I” or “me,” “she” or “her,” “they” or “them,” “he” or “him,” and so on. A good rule to follow is that if you can substitute an ordinary pronoun, don’t use a reflexive pronoun.

There are only two legitimate reasons for resorting to a “self” word:

(1) For emphasis. (“I made it myself.”)

(2) To refer to a subject already named. (“He beats up on himself.”)

That said, people often use “myself” or “himself” or “herself” deep into a sentence when the ordinary pronoun would seem to get lost. I wouldn’t call such a usage a misuse, or a grammatical error—just perhaps a stylistic issue.

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The vision thing

Q: Occasionally I’ll hear or read that someone is a visionary as though it’s some sort of compliment. However, a visionary to me has always meant an empty-headed dreamer. When did the word lose its original meaning as applying to pie-in-the-sky dreamers? Or is that still the meaning and people simply use it wrong?

A: For centuries, the noun (as well as the adjective) “visionary” was applied to people who were unrealistic, impractical, influenced by illusions and pure fancy. In other words, dreamy airheads.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations supporting this view dating back to the early 1600s, when someone who was “visionary” was prone to seeing visions. This view persisted well into the 20th century, since my 1954 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (2d ed.) has similar definitions.

Only in the last few decades has “visionary” taken on a positive spin, meaning somebody with foresight and imagination, a person who’s able to anticipate what’s ahead and capitalize on it.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists this new definition first in its “visionary” entry, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) begins its entry with the old definition and ends with the new one.

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People, places, and names

Q: The noun for a member of a nation or region is often the same as the adjective (Canadian, American, Chinese, etc.), but there are many exceptions (Frenchman, Spaniard, Swede, and so on). Is there any rule or guideline in all this?

A: There is no hard-and-fast rule about how to form English nouns for people living in a nation, region, city, or whatever. And some of these words are surprising. El Pasoan, for instance, makes sense, but how about Michigander, or Liverpudlian, or Hoosier?

The names for people from particular places are called “demonyms.” Although there are wild variations in English, many are formed by adding suffixes to the roots of the place names. Common suffixes include “an” (as in American), “ian” (Italian), “ine” (Argentine), “ite” (Muscovite), “i” (Israeli), and “ese” (Viennese).

Some demonyms are the same as the English names for the languages spoken by the people: German, Russian, Italian, Norwegian, and so on. Others include part of the place names or adjectives (like Dane, Finn, Pole, Turk, Swede), and still other demonyms are just plain irregular, like Hoosier.

If you’d like to know more, there’s an interesting article in Wikipedia about demonyms.

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Young Frankenstein

Q: Although this is somewhat outside your bailiwick, it might intrigue you. In the film “Young Frankenstein,” the brain that Igor is originally sent to get (and drops) is that of Max Delbrück. I recently read that a participant in the famous 1932 Copenhagen conference in quantum physics was named Max Delbrück. The question, of course, is whether this is a coincidence?

A: I think you’ve got the wrong Delbrück. In the film, the brain that Igor steals is labeled “HANS DELBRUCK (Scientist & Saint).” Freddy Frankenstein tells Igor that Hans Delbrück was “the finest natural philosopher, internal medicine diagnostician, and chemical therapist of this century.”

In real life, the father of the Nobel Prize winner Max Delbrück was named Hans, but he was a military historian, not a scientist.

I suspect that Mel Brooks, the director of “Young Frankenstein,” or Gene Wilder, who wrote the screenplay, saw or heard the name “Hans Delbrück” somewhere and decided to use it in the film, perhaps because “Delbrück” almost rhymes with Mel Brooks.

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Breaking the codology

Q: My father emigrated from Ireland in 1924 with a head full of nonsense. He was never at a loss for something to say. I have lived my life by one of his expressions: “It’s a long road that has no turns.” In time he acknowledged that it was all “codology” (his word). I have come to realize, and accept, over time that the Irish are a very verbal race, and I regret that I did not pay more attention to the codology that he tried to fill my head with. He is long deceased but I have often wondered if there is such a word as “codology.” Hope you can help me.

A: Your father didn’t make up the word “codology.” In fact, James Joyce (the first person to use the word in print) probably didn’t make it up either. A likelier story is that both your father and Joyce absorbed it from their Irish surroundings.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “codology,” which it defines as “hoaxing, humbugging,” first appeared in print in Joyce’s novel Ulysses in 1922. Here’s the citation: “The why and the wherefore and all the codology of the business.”

The OED’s next published reference for the word is in a 1928 article in the Daily Express: “There is in Ireland a science unknown to us in England called Codology… The English is ‘leg-pulling’… When I received an invitation to breakfast at the Dublin Zoo I thought that I could detect the hand of the chief codologist.”

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the word actually dates from around 1910, which would precede the Joyce reference by quite some time. It defines “codology” as “the practice of chaffing and humbugging.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang also dates “codology” to about 1910, and defines it as “the practice of disinformation, thus nonsense.”

Having had an Irish grandfather myself, I can tell you that he was a world-class codologist.

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Key bored

Q: It seems as if the word “key” has been increasingly used as a shortcut to indicate a crucial element when the speaker or writer can’t (or is too lazy to) identify a more specific modifier. This often results in an annoying phrase like “something was KEY.” Am I being too picky?

A: I’m glad to know that I’m not the only person out there who’s annoyed by the use of “key” as a stand-alone adjective (or predicate adjective), as in “the time frame is key.” But this usage is not exactly new and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

“Key” has a long and interesting history. As a noun for the device used in a lock, it goes back to about the year 1000 (it used to be pronounced “kay”).

As an adjective, now long obscure, “key” (or “kay”) meant “left,” so someone who was “kay-fisted” or “key-pawed” was left-handed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 1990s, “key” acquired a new notoriety—as a verb meaning to vandalize a car by scratching it with a key. (As a matter of fact, our Subaru wagon was “keyed” and I can show you the scratch mark to prove it!)

The noun “key” has been used metaphorically from the very beginning. The word passed into use as an adjective meaning important in the early 20th century. The OED cites published references to “key fact,” “key industries,” “key offices,” and “key position” in the teens and twenties.

Not until the early 1970s did “key” appear as a predicate adjective (“Two ideas were key” … “this is what’s key”). The usage has now been around for more than three decades, and it’s probably here to stay. But that doesn’t mean we have to use it ourselves.

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Quoth the raven

Q: When using quotations, does punctuation belong inside or outside the quotation marks? Does the type of punctuation (e.g., comma, period, question mark, etc.) affect the location? If you would be so kind, please clarify.

A: Standard American punctuation calls for putting periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points INSIDE quotation marks. ["Let's go," he said. "Please." "But why?" she asked. "We'll have fun!"]

Colons and semicolons go OUTSIDE the quotation marks. [Their favorite song was "Misty": the first tune they'd ever danced to. They also liked "My Funny Valentine"; they knew the lyrics by heart.]

Exceptions: a question mark or exclamation point goes OUTSIDE the quotation marks if it’s not actually part of the quotation. [Why do they like "Misty"? I can't stand "My Funny Valentine"!]

I hope this helps.

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Mavens, shmavens

Q: I have long thought that the word “maven” had a certain ironic or humorous tone to it. I thought it referred to a self-appointed expert, someone who is self taught, not formally educated in his area of expertise. I was surprised to see that the Oxford American Dictionary defines it as an expert or connoisseur. Has the definition changed over the years? Do you know when it first appeared in standard dictionaries?

A: The word “maven” is derived from the similarly pronounced Yiddish word for expert, which in turn comes from the Hebrew for one who understands. In English, it means a person with special knowledge or experience.

The first published reference in English appeared in the Jewish Standard of Toronto in 1950, though it was then spelled “mayvin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the next couple of decades the word appeared in several different spellings (“mayvin,” “mavin,” “mayven,” and the eventual winner, “maven”).

I can’t tell you when it first first showed up in dictionaries, but it’s not in my 1954 Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.) or in a 1972 Merriam-Webster pocket edition under any of those spellings. I do find it in a 1979 Webster’s New World edition (spelled alternately “maven” and “mavin”), with this definition: “an expert or connoisseur, often esp. a self-proclaimed one.” Current dictionaries, however, don’t include the “self-proclaimed” angle.

The OED suggests that the word “maven” may have been popularized in English by a Vita Herring advertising campaign in the mid-60s. The dictionary includes this 1965 citation from the Hadassah News:

“Get Vita at your favorite supermarket, grocery or delicatessen. Tell them the beloved Maven sent you. It won’t save you any money: but you’ll get the best herring.”

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Plurals of wisdom

Q: I recently purchased Woe Is I Jr. for some little friends and enjoyed reading it myself. However, there is one little thing that I must take issue with in the section on plurals. You have the words “beau” and “chateau” made plural with an “s.” I was raised in the French tradition and believe those two words and others that end in “u” should be made plural with an “x.”

A: Let me explain my advice on forming the plurals of words derived from French and other languages. As the years go by, nouns of foreign origin (like memorandum, stadium, appendix, and so on) tend to lose their foreign plural endings (memoranda, stadia, appendices), and adopt Anglicized plural forms (memorandums, stadiums, appendixes).

As I point out in my adult grammar book, Woe Is I, the foreign plurals of these and other words would have been preferred a century (or even 50 years) ago, but preferences gradually shift as English endings become more common. Dictionaries eventually recognize this by listing the Anglicized version first instead of second.

There’s often a period in which the two versions are equally common. For example, the contest between referendums and referenda is almost a tie these days (referendums wins by a nose). Of course, if the Latinate plural, referenda, appeals to you, by all means use it. It’s not incorrect. But when you want to go along with current preferences, consult a usage guide or pick the plural that’s listed first in the dictionary. It’s likely to be the one most commonly used.

I’d like to emphasize that the old foreign plurals are not wrong! They merely become less common in ordinary usage. The choice is still yours to make. With that in mind, here’s a partial list of current preferences:

Anglicized plurals preferred: antennas (except those on insects), appendixes, beaus, cactuses, chateaus, curriculums, formulas, gymnasiums, indexes, memorandums, millenniums, referendums, stadiums, syllabuses, symposiums, tableaus, ultimatums, virtuosos.

Foreign plurals preferred: addenda, algae, analyses, antennae (on insects), axes (for axis), bacteria, bases (for basis), crises, criteria, fungi, hypotheses, kibbutzim, larvae, oases, parentheses, phenomena, radii (but radiuses is gaining fast), stimuli, strata, theses, vertebrae.

I hope this clarifies the subject (or subjects)!

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STOMP!

Q: I enjoyed your blog item about “champing/chomping” at the bit. I wonder whether this shift is akin to “stamping/stomping” ground.

A: Your instincts are right. The word “chomp” (and “chomping”) arose as a popular variant of “champ” (and “champing”). The same thing has happened with “stomp” (“stomping”) and “stamp” (“stamping”). This time, too, the “amp” version preceded the “omp.”

“Stamping” dates from 1375, and the American phrase “stamping ground” dates from 1821, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The variation “stomping” (which is defined as “stamping”) dates from 1819, and “stomping ground” from 1854.

But the newer “stomping ground” now has overtaken the older expression. According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, “stomping ground” outnumbers “stamping ground” by 3-to-1 in print sources. Either version is now considered standard American usage.

In closing, I should mention that I jokingly refer to one of my two black Labs (the one with the biggest appetite) as Noam Chompsky. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist mentioning that!

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We the People

Q: Why are there so many seemingly random capital letters used in the preamble to the Constitution and in the Bill of Rights? Were the rules of capitalization different or nonexistent in those days?

A: Capitalization is more a matter of style than of grammar or usage. That’s why each newspaper, book publisher, and magazine has its own rules of capitalization. And, of course, that’s why each age has its own ideas about capitalization.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says there’s a “modern trend away from capitalization, resulting in a minimalist rule: unless there’s a good reason to capitalize, don’t.”

No wonder the capitalization in the preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights seems random to you. Jefferson would probably feel the same about the capitalization on The Grammarphobia Blog.

Much of what you see as random in the Constitution may be attempts to emphasize certain words, like “Union,” “Tranquility,” “Liberty,” and “Posterity.” Of course magazine ad writers do the same thing these days.

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Do you pronounce the “t” in “often”?

Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the version with the audible “t” occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some.

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today. Even a word like ‘oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.

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A noble stand of lime trees?

Q: This isn’t exactly a language question, but in a way it is. I was reading one of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels and I saw a reference to a noble or stately stand of lime trees. Are there noble stands of lime trees in England?

A: The simple answer is yes, but not much is simple in the language world.

The English, it turns out, use the term “lime tree” to refer to what Americans would call a linden. The word “lime” in this case appears to be an alteration of the Old English terms “lind” and “linde,” which gave us the word “linden.”

The tree, whether you call it a “lime” or a “linden,” is a member of the genus Tilia, which includes some two and a half dozen species, including American and European lindens. European lindens can grow to 100 feet or so, and they are indeed noble and stately.

The linden (or, if you prefer, the lime tree) isn’t related to the shrubs and small trees that give us limes and other fruit from members of the genus Citrus (grapefruit, lemon, orange, etc.). But I’ve heard from fellow gardeners that citrus plants can grow outdoors in sheltered areas of southern England. (The fictional county of Barsetshire is believed to be modeled after Somersetshire in southwestern England.)

The first published references for the use of “lime tree” to mean linden date from the early 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Lime trees figure in the works of many English writers, including Dryden, Pope, Swift, Austen, Tennyson, and Trollope. In The Warden (1855), the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, the Rev. Septimus Harding paces “hour after hour, under those noble lime-trees.”

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“Disreputable” contractions

Q: I teach ESL (that explains why I e-mail you so often). The text I use for my grammar class has a chart of contractions that includes “there’re” for “there are.” Please tell me this is wrong.

A: In my grammar book Woe Is I, there are lists of commonly accepted contractions as well as “disreputable” ones. “There’re” is among the disreputables. It’s common in speech, but written English is not yet ready for it.

In case you’re interested, here are the contractions I believe are not appropriate for written English. Leading the pack, of course, is our old friend ain’t. Now for the rest, in manageable bunches.

Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve, might’ve, must’ve.

Also, it’d, that’d, there’d, this’d, what’d.

And how’d, how’ll, how’re, how’s, when’ll, when’re, when’s, where’d, where’ll, where’re, why’d, why’re, why’s.

Also, that’ll, that’re, that’ve, there’ll, there’re, there’ve, this’ll, who’re.

And that’s all for now!

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So she’s like, “I hate LIKE!”

Whether you love “like” or hate it, read Pat’s “like”-minded “On Language” column in the latest New York Times Magazine :

Like

By PATRICIA T. O’CONNER

Like is a friendly word. As a verb, it gives off affectionate vibes. In other parts of speech, it’s a mensch as well, emphasizing what things have in common, not what separates them. But there’s another like in the air, a gossipy usage that has grammar purists — and many parents of teenagers — climbing the walls.

This upstart like is the new say, and users (or abusers, depending on which side you take) find it a handy tool for quoting or paraphrasing the speech of others, often with sarcasm or irony. Linguists call it the “quotative like,” but any 16-year-old can show you how it works.

For example, like can introduce an actual quotation (“She’s like, ‘What unusual shoes you’re wearing!’ ”) or paraphrase one (“She’s like, my shoes are weird!”).

Or it can summarize the inner thoughts of either the quoter or the quotee (“She’s like, yeah, as if I’d be caught dead in them! And I’m like, I care what you think?”).

Like even lets a speaker imitate the behavior of the person being quoted (“She’s like . . . ” and the speaker smirks and rolls her eyes).

This like is not to be confused with the one that sticklers see as a meaningless verbal tic (“The band was, like, outrageous!”). Linguists would argue, however, that even that one has its uses — to emphasize something (“I was, like, exhausted!”) or to hedge a statement (“We had, like, six hours of homework!”).

But back to the like that’s used as a marker to introduce quotes (real or approximate) as well as thoughts, attitudes and even gestures. Parents may gnash their teeth, but language scholars like like.

For the rest of the column, click here.

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Little Shavers

Q: I am a summer associate at a New York law firm and share an office with someone who used the phrase “little shavers” to refer to my kids. (He suggested I take my “little shavers” to a ball game.) I asked him the origin of this expression but he didn’t know where it came from and we can’t find it anywhere. I’m hoping you can help resolve this!

A: The term “shaver” was used to mean a man (or chap or fellow) as long ago as the late 16th century. The phrase “old shaver” (old man) was recorded in the 1590s, and “young shaver” (a youth) occurred as early as 1630, according to several slang dictionaries I consulted. I’m told this was a reference to the male tendency to shave facial hair.

According to the lexicographer Eric Partridge, the term “shaveling” meant a youth because of “the infrequency of his need to shave.” In modern usage, a “shaver” means a child, and is often preceded by “young” or “little.”

I would have guessed that “shaver” was a reference to the kind of wood shaving created by a carving tool or a carpenter’s plane. Not even close!

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The following question

Q: I make a daily stop in Dunkin’ Donuts and one clerk, when she’s finished with a customer and wants to get the attention of the next one, loudly states: “Following customer, please.” This makes me cringe. I’ve chosen not to correct her, though, fearing for my daily latte. Is this phrase being used correctly?

A: You aren’t the first to raise this question (many bank tellers and postal clerks, I’m told, also make a practice of referring to the “following” person). I can’t account for the practice, except to guess that the clerks may think it’s inelegant to speak of each subsequent customer as the “next” one in line.

I don’t especially like this usage, but it’s not grammatically wrong. The word “following” has been used as an adjective meaning next in order or coming after since around 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Living Carcasses design’d / For death, the following day, in bloodie fight.”

To call someone “the following customer,” however, raises questions: Following whom? Or what? By the time the person reaches the front of the line, he’s no longer BEHIND anybody. Any usage that makes an ordinary, intelligent person look around and scratch her head in wonder has something wrong with it.

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Size matters

Q: In describing a tech device, “the size of a pack of cigarettes” seems to be a dying locution. Of lung cancer, presumably. I prefer “the size of a PDA” (i.e., like a palm handheld).

A: You can never tell which expressions of comparison are going to become dead locutions and which aren’t. Just look at “bigger than a breadbox.” The phrase was popularized by Steve Allen when he was a regular on the old “What’s My Line” television show; panelists asked yes-or-no questions, and Allen’s ”Is it bigger than a breadbox?” became a familiar refrain. Real breadboxes aren’t seen much anymore, but you can still hear that old expression.

As for “the size of a cigarette pack,” no one is likely to forget where that one came from any time soon (unfortunately!).

Many phrases live on even after most people have forgotten where they came from. “Bellwether” is a good example; it refers to the lead sheep in a flock (the castrated ram, or “wether,” that wears the bell). “Linchpin” is another: a pin inserted into the end of a shaft or axle to keep a wheel from falling off. The meaning was once “real” but now it’s purely metaphorical.

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Over the hump

Q: Are you familiar with the term “CamelCase” for a compound word (like “PhotoShop”) with uppercase letters in the middle? I encountered it working with a smart copyeditor.

A: The term “CamelCase” (sometimes written “camel case” or “Camel Case”) describes a spelling with a dromedary-like bump or two in the middle, like “WordPerfect” or “HarperCollins.”

It’s a relatively new term and hasn’t made it into the three dictionaries I consult the most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) uses the term “midcap” to describe a brand name or company name with two or more words mushed together and a capital letter or two in the middle.

The term “CamelCase” may have originated among techie types. A 1995 posting to a Unix newsgroup refers to “eMpTy (Oooo Camel Case)” and a 1996 message to a programming group mentions “a single word Camel-caser (like camel humps).” The 1996 post is part of an exchange that includes the verb “to camel-case.” A 1998 post on another programming newsgroup has the two words linked and the second “c” capitalized.

I find the ubiquitous commercial use of interior caps ugly, but it’s not particularly new. The “CamelCase” item in Wikipedia points out similar business usages going back half a century (“CinemaScope” and “VistaVision,” for example).

I may not like the usage, but I think “CamelCase” is a wonderfully descriptive term for it, much more colorful than synonyms like “midcap” or “mixed case.” So I wouldn’t be surprised if “CamelCase” has legs as well as humps!

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1 prof. emeritus + 1 prof. emeritus = 2 ?

Q: I’m a college administrator and I was wondering how to use “emeritus” when referring to more than one professor of that ilk. Would it be “professors emeriti”?

A: The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) recommends “professor emeritus” (sing. masc.); “professor emerita” (sing. fem.); “professors emeriti” (pl. masc. or both masc. and fem.), and “professors emeritae” (pl. fem.).

The Chicago Manual also notes that “emeritus,” “emerita,” and so on are honorary designations and do not simply mean retired.

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What do you call that thingy?

Q: I’ve searched for the answer to this question for five years: What do you call those short, sturdy posts that are used to keep vehicles off sidewalks, traffic islands, and so on? I just ran across the word, though I expect that you already know it: “bollard.”

A: No, I didn’t know it. Thanks for ending the suspense! “Bollard” goes into my list of “what do you call that thing” words, along with a little history about the term.

The word, I learn, has been around since the mid-19th century. At first, it referred to a post (on a ship or boat or dock) that was used for securing rope.

By the mid-20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was also being used for a post on a traffic island. One of the first published references for the second usage is in a 1955 article in the Times of London: “The woman was waiting between the bollards in the middle of the crossing.”

Where does “bollard” come from? The OED says the word’s origin is unknown, but the dictionary speculates that it might be derived from “bole” (the trunk of a tree).

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) describe “bollard” as primarily British. But Wikipedia says the term has been making inroads in the U.S., especially on college campuses with traffic problems.

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The “i” in iPOD

Q: Here’s a question for Steve Jobs. IPod: May we cap the “i” at the beginning of a sentence, Mr. Jobs?

A: If I hear from him, I’ll let you know. As for whether “iPod” should be capitalized at the start of a sentence, this is something that has been much debated on copy desks. Since it’s an issue of style rather than grammar, I’ll go straight to the horse’s mouth: The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed).

When a term like “iPod” or “eBay” appears at the beginning of a sentence, The Chicago Manual recommends “either capitalizing the first letter in that position or, better, recasting the sentence so the name does not appear at the beginning.” (Section 8.163)

It may be a cop-out, but I also prefer the second choice: rewriting the sentence to avoid the problem.

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Is “bête noire” politically incorrect?

Q: I was reading your item about “niggardly” and it reminded me of something. I used the term “bête noire” recently and I was told that it’s now politically incorrect. Do you know the origin of the term and if it is now considered P.I.?

A: I’m dismayed to hear that “bête noire” has been impugned! Neither The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) nor Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) describes it as insensitive.

“Bête noire,” which literally means “black beast” in French, is a figurative expression used to refer to someone or something that is to be avoided or dreaded. It’s a vivid metaphor that has been used in English since the 19th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest published reference for the expression is in a Thackeray novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844): “Calling me her bête noire, her dark spirit, her murderous adorer, and a thousand other names indicative of her extreme disquietude and terror.”

Almost anything (any word or expression) is capable of offending SOMEBODY if the circumstances are right. Words themselves (except for the notorious exceptions) aren’t insensitive; people are insensitive.

For instance, there’s nothing wrong with “offhand remark,” but you might not want to use it to describe the comments by a man who’d just had a hand amputated. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with “bête noire,” but it might be unwise to use it in reference to, say, an African-American politician. If a little bell might go off in the listener’s brain, you choose another term, that’s all.

If we were to forbid every word and expression with any capability of offending anyone, we’d have to go around with duct tape over our mouths.

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Good job, Spot!

Q: I often hear young parents coo at their offspring with a throaty, high-pitched “good job” for every form of behavior, from eating to climbing aboard a bus to playing. I am tempted to snarl at the cooing parents, “That (behavior) is not a job.” How does such an attitude convey or encourage respect, responsibility, self-discipline, and love? I would certainly appreciate your comments.

A: I too have heard “good job” a lot lately and even catch myself perpetrating it. But I believe the intent is a lot more idiomatic and less literal than you seem to think.

The phrases “good job” and “bad job” have been used since the early 1700s to refer to fortunate or unfortunate occurrences, events, facts, or states of things, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s an OED citation from The Master of the Ceremonies (1886), a novel by George Manville Fenn: “It is a jolly good job the old woman is dead.”

In the dog-training world, Americans often use “good job” the way the British use “well done.” My husband and I used to compete in obedience matches and trials with our two black Labs. I noticed that competitors often rewarded their dogs verbally by saying “Good job, Abby!” or “Good job, Rooney!” One British woman invariably said to her Pekinese, “Well done, George!” (You might argue, of course, that obedience WAS the dogs’ job!)

You are right, though, that it seems preposterous to celebrate with praise some routine human activity like eating or playing or making poo-poo in one’s potty chair. The self-esteem movement in child-rearing has gotten out of control.

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Tricky relationships

Q: If I can extricate myself from a relationship I don’t want, why can’t I intricate myself into one I do want?

A: The verb “extricate,” which has been around since the early 17th century, means to get someone or something, including oneself, out of a difficult situation. It comes from the Latin verb extricare (to disentangle).

I don’t think you’re really looking for a word that’s the opposite of “extricate.” You might want to free yourself from a messy relationship, but you wouldn’t want to get yourself into another fine mess.

Finding a good relationship is complicated enough. I’d go for simple language to describe it. So good luck in your efforts to “find” or “begin” or “start” or “get into” a relationship you want.

As for “intricate,” it comes from the Latin verb intricare (to entangle). Most modern dictionaries describe it as an adjective meaning complicated or elaborate. But the Oxford English Dictionary includes several published references for “intricate” as a verb meaning to entangle—yes, the opposite of “extricate.”

Both “extricate” and “intricate” have roots in the Latin word tricae (perplexities). In one case, you’re freeing someone or something from a perplexing situation; in the other, you’re enmeshing someone or something in such a situation.

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Is “niggardly” a no-no?

Q: An African-American colleague was grievously offended when someone used the word “niggardly” in a meeting. The ensuing brouhaha escalated to a formal complaint of racism and was only defused when another African-American colleague explained to the complainant that there’s nothing racist about the word “niggardly.” Any thoughts?

A: The word “niggardly,” meaning miserly, comes from a Scandinavian root meaning stingy. It’s entirely unrelated to the word “Negro,” meaning black, which has its roots in Romance languages. As far as I know, “niggardly” has no etymological relationship to any racist terms for African-Americans.

The adjective or adverb “niggardly” has been used in English since at least the 16th century. The noun “niggard,” meaning a stingy person, has been around even longer. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference is in the first English translation of the New Testament, the Wycliffite Bible (1380).

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define the word in its traditional sense and make no mention of a racial association.

The MSN Encarta Dictionary agrees that “niggardly” is by no means a racist slur, but MSN Encarta says “the fact that the word sounds as if it might be one is reason to consider context very carefully before using it.”

I’m reluctant to avoid using a perfectly good word, but I think MSN Encarta’s advice makes sense. I’d be careful about using “niggardly,” especially in conversation, unless I’m sure of my audience (perhaps a group of linguists or lexicographers).

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Hey, whaddaya say?

Q: If you were to ask a person named David Jay what he had to say, how would it be printed? 1) “Whaddaya say David Jay?” 2) “Whaddaya say, David Jay?” 3) “Whaddaya say? David Jay.”

A: The answer: 2) “Whaddaya say, David Jay?”

We generally use commas before and after the name of somebody we’re talking to (“Hey, David Jay, whaddaya say?”).

But the first comma is dropped if the name comes at the beginning of a sentence (“David Jay, whaddaya say?”) and the second one is dropped if the name comes at the end of a sentence (“Whaddaya say, David Jay?).

Also, you can skip the first comma if all that precedes the name is “and” or “but” (And David Jay, whaddaya say?).

For more about punctuation, check out the “Comma Sutra” chapter in my grammar book Woe Is I.

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A nonsecurity blanket

Q: I found a reference in a tech publication to “an older, nonsecure version of an application.” I’ve seen “nonsecure” used quite a lot lately, especially about computer software. Is there such a word? Shouldn’t it be “insecure”?

A: The word “nonsecure” hasn’t made it into The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Even my spell-checker doesn’t recognize it, and wants to make it “nosecone”! But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does include “nonsecure,” without any definition or comment, in a long list of words with “non” prefixes.

My bet is that American Heritage and other dictionaries will soon follow M-W‘s suit, and that all the dictionaries will include definitions. The term “nonsecure” has become extremely common in the world of information technology to describe data or software that’s not secure.

“Nonsecure” seems a more likely choice for this usage than “insecure,” which has psychological overtones. Though I have seen “insecure” used to describe unsafe data or software, “nonsecure” is used much, much more often.

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A mute point

Q: My boss once said something was a mute point because it was no longer relevant. Would you correct her if she were your boss? I don’t want to insult her, but I don’t want her to look bad either.

A: I’ve bitten my tongue more times than I can remember. If I were you, I’d remain mute, unless the boss asked my opinion (or, for example, asked me to correct a letter or other document).

You don’t get to be the boss (at least not always) because you use good English. When you’re the boss, you can correct people. Till then, bite your tongue.

By the way, the history of the word “moot” is more complicated than many people think. For more, see the “moot point” entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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“Ex” hits the spot

Q: I’m a photography instructor and one of my students corrected me for referring to an “ex-student” instead of a “former student.” I looked at a few websites, but I couldn’t find anything definitive on the issue of “ex” vs. “former.” Is “former” preferred, as my student suggested?

A: I see nothing wrong with using “ex” to mean “former.” The only rule associated with this usage (at least the only one I can find) is that it’s hyphenated. Both “ex” and “former” are proper English, though “former” sounds a bit more formal to my ear.

The adjective “former,” meaning earlier in time, is a very old word, dating back to the 12th century. But the use of the word in reference to an earlier job or position (office holder, wife, student, etc.) appears to be more recent.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the newer usage (in the political sense) is in a 1905 article in the New York Herald: “Former President Cleveland is among the arrivals of the week at the Lakewood Hotel.”

Interestingly, the earliest citation in the OED for “ex” as an adjective meaning former is much older. Here’s a quote from The Age of Bronze, an 1823 poem by Byron:

Her eyes, her cheek, betray no inward strife,
And the ex-empress grows as ex a wife.

Or, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster in the P.G. Wodehouse novel Barmy in Wonderland (1952), you never saw an ex any ex-er than that.

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