The Grammarphobia Blog

Rail birds

Q: I always thought the expression “thin as a rail” referred to fence rails, but I’ve read recently that it actually refers to a skinny bird called a rail. Which is correct?

A: Although quite a few birdwatchers and ornithologists believe the expression refers to avian rails (members of the family Rallidae), the rail in question is of the fence variety.

The Oxford English Dictionary has five entries for the noun “rail,” but all of its published references for “thin as a rail” or “lean as a rail” are listed under the entry for the “rail” that means a rod, stick, bar, etc. The word is derived from the Latin regula, meaning a straight stick – that is, a ruler.

The OED’s first citation for “thin as a rail” comes from Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872): “You’ll marry a combination of calico and consumption that’s as thin as a rail.” A 1927 quotation in the dictionary, “as thin as a lath or rake or rail,” reinforces the idea that the rail involved is something man-made.

Many of the feathered rails are skinny (or, as ornithologists are wont to say “laterally compressed”), but the evidence for an avian connection to the expression is thin.

If any birders out there still have doubts, here’s a quotation from the Audubon web page for the Virginia rail (Rallus limicola):

“Although ‘thin as a rail’ refers to the rail of a fence, it aptly describes the Virginia Rail, whose narrow body allows passage through the thick vegetation found in fresh and salt water wetlands.”

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To dot or not to dot

Q: Can you tell me if Ms (as in Ms Jean Smith) requires a period? I never use one because Ms is not an abbreviation, unlike Mrs. (an abbreviation of Mistress) or Mr. (Mister).

A: Although the courtesy title “Ms.” is not a true abbreviation, style manuals generally recommend using a period. As the Chicago Manual of Style website explains, “Chicago style is to use a period after ‘Ms.’ even though it’s not technically an abbreviation, following Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which suggests that ‘Ms.’ is a shortened form combining ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ “

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which includes the dotless “Ms” as an acceptable, though less common, variation, has an interesting usage note on the history of the term:

“Many of us think of Ms. or Ms as a fairly recent invention of the women’s movement, but in fact the term was first suggested as a convenience to writers of business letters by such publications as the Bulletin of the American Business Writing Association (1951) and The Simplified Letter, issued by the National Office Management Association (1952).”

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Going to business

Q: At a recent reading, Mary Gordon spoke of her mother’s use of “going to business” rather than “going to work” when talking about women in clerical positions. A woman in the audience wondered if the expression was used mainly by Irish Catholics. But my mother came from a different background and used it too. I felt it was a foolish attempt to give everyday “work” a higher status by using the word “business.” Could you comment on this usage?

A: I don’t find many references to the expression, but it seems to have been used in England in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, as well as in the United States in the mid-20th century.

Here’s an amusing use of the expression by P.G. Wodehouse in his short story “Extricating Young Gussie” (1915):

“I was surprised to find the streets quite full. People were bustling along as if it were some reasonable hour and not the grey dawn. In the tramcars they were absolutely standing on each other’s necks. Going to business or something, I take it. Wonderful johnnies!”

In the Wodehouse example, “going to business” clearly means going to work, a concept that’s obviously foreign to the narrator!

Here are a couple of quotations from novels:

“And now let’s go to business, gentlemen, and excuse this sermon.” (Thackeray, The Great Hoggarty Diamond, 1841)

“The thing is, she says she is sick and tired of going to business.” (Gordon Lish, Dear Mr. Capote, 1986)

The expression “going to business” does not appear in any of the phrase finders I use. But at least we know that it wasn’t confined to women or to Irish Catholics.

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Mano a mano

Q: I’ve noticed that some people use the term “mano a mano” to mean man to man. What puzzles me is that mano means hand in Spanish, not man, so “mano a mano” should mean hand to hand. Why do people misuse this term and how did the mistake come about?

A: You’re right: mano does mean hand in Spanish, and mano a mano literally means hand to hand in Spanish. But Spanish speakers use the phrase to mean between the two of them, especially between two men. So, two Chilean legislators could have a mano a mano debate, and two Spanish bullfighters could have a mano a mano in the ring.

In English, the expression refers to a direct (think “hand-to-hand”) conflict or competition between two people, such as a mano-a-mano playoff between two golfers or a mano-a-mano struggle between two prize-fighters.

The term “man to man,” on the other hand, means frank and honest (as in a man-to-man talk) or refers to a one-on-one defense in sports, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Many people, though not dictionaries, think that “man to man” also means hand to hand (as in man-to-man combat), which probably accounts for much of the confusion between “mano a mano” and “man to man.”

What’s more, the Spanish word for brother, hermano, has a slang version in Spanglish: the short form mano. So “Hey, mano” is a rough equivalent of the greeting “Hey, man.” This usage, which cropped up in the 1960s, is probably influenced by the English word “man,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Thanks for the interesting question. You deserve a hand!

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Hey, ucalegon man!

Q: I saw your blog item on “ucalegon” and I just had to use that odd word in a limerick.

Ucalegon must be in town.
I heard that your house had burned down.
The one with a porch on it?
Hun, how unfortunate.
All you have left is that gown?

O.V. Michaelsen (Ove Ofteness)

A: Thanks for the limerick, Ove. I love rhymes like “porch on it … fortunate.” Bravo!

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Majority rules

Q: Help! I work for a nonprofit policy-research organization. Which of these sentences is correct?
1. “A majority of workers has access to some paid sick days, but a substantial minority of them does not.” 2. “A majority of workers have access to some paid sick days, but a substantial minority of them do not.”

A: “Majority” is a collective noun, and collective nouns can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you’re talking about a group of individuals or the individuals in the group.

If you’re talking about the group itself, use the singular (“the majority is significant”), but if you’re talking about the individuals, use the plural (“a majority of the residents were polled”).

Here’s a trick from my grammar book Woe Is I: The word “the” before a collective noun (“the majority”) is usually a tip-off that it’s singular, while “a” before the noun (“a majority”), especially when “of” comes next, usually indicates a plural.

So, getting back to your question and putting the little trick to work, number 2 is correct: “A majority of workers have access to some paid sick days, but a substantial minority of them do not.”

Some other examples of collective words are “couple,” “none,” “number,” “any,” and “all.” As with “majority,” they can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you’re talking about the group or the members of the group. I discuss “none,” which trips up a lot of folks, in the Nov. 18, 2006, entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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“STOP” watch

Q: I was listening to you on the Leonard Lopate Show when Leonard remarked on all the English words that the French were using. He gave the stop sign as an example. Actually, the word stop is French and comes from the verb stopper. We have had stop signs in France forever and never used arrêt signs as the Canadians do.

A: I’m no expert on Gallic etymology, but I suspect that the French did indeed borrow the word stop from English, though this isn’t exactly breaking news. My French language references have many citations for stop and stopper over the last century. But the few that are any older, such as one in Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons, seem to be derived from the English “stop.”

In fact, the verb stopper doesn’t appear in any of the online Académie Française dictionaries until the eighth edition, which dates from the early 1930s. And the ninth edition suggests stop is derived from the English word.

The English “stop,” on the other hand, is very old, going back to Anglo-Saxon days. It comes from the Old English forstoppian (occurring only once) and is similar to words in other early Germanic languages.

By the way, the stop sign originated in the U.S. in 1915, according to Wikipedia, and went through various shapes and colors before settling on the familiar red-and-white octagon in 1954. Stop signs usually have the same shape and color all over the world, but the wording may differ from country to country. Signs in Latin America say “PARE” or “ALTO,” for example, while signs in China, Japan, Thailand, and the Arab countries use their own alphabets.

All the European Community countries, including France, have used the English word in stop signs since the 1970s, when road signs were standardized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. In Quebec and some other areas of Canada, the signs say “ARRÊT,” “STOP ARRÊT,” or “ARRÊT STOP.”

And now, I believe, it’s time to stop.

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A snark in the grass

Q: I’m hearing the expression “snarkfest” used all over the place, even by Brian Lehrer. What does it actually mean?

A: The term “snarkfest” hasn’t made it into the three dictionaries I consult the most: the Oxford English Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). But that doesn’t mean it won’t get there one of these days. I had 25,000 hits when I googled “snarkfest,” so the word is getting around.

The online Urban Dictionary, whose users define slang terms, suggests that a “snarkfest” is a nasty affair in which bloggers may be set up to be attacked as liars. But the FAQ of Snarkfest 3.0, an online forum, says: “Don’t personally attack other posters.” H-m-m. This is a word that’s still baking in the oven.

Earlier this year, The Grammarphobia Blog had an item on the origins of “snarky,” which means snide or sarcastic or snotty. (No, it doesn’t come from Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark.)

It would seem that a “snarkfest” (and here language is evolving before our very eyes) is an extended session of snarky exchanges. In other words, a feeding frenzy of snarkiness.

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Who put the “howdy” in Houston St.?

Q: In New York, you can tell someone’s a tourist when he asks for directions to Houston Street and pronounces “Houston” like the city in Texas. Why is “Houston” pronounced “HEW-ston” in Texas and “HOW-ston” in New York?

A: I’ve wondered about that myself, but I never got around to checking it out. Luckily, the New York Times recently discussed the subject in an article offering tips to out-of-towners arriving in the city for their freshman year at college.

The article had a history and pronunciation lesson for any newbies who plan to visit the street in Lower Manhattan that “put the H in SoHo.” As it turns out, the city in Texas and the street in New York are named for two different guys.

The city is named after the first president of the short-lived Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, while the street is named for William Houstoun, a Georgia delegate to the Continental Congress who married into a Manhattan family that owned land on the street.

The street, whose name was shortened from Houstoun to Houston in the early 1800s, runs east-west across Manhattan from the Hudson River to the East River. Greenwich Village and the East Village are to the north; SoHo (South of Houston) and the Lower East Side are to the south.

If you don’t want to sound like a tourist when asking a cabbie to take you to Houston Street, just remember that the first syllable of “Houston” sounds like the “how” of “boy howdy.”

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Gay Paree and the Eye-Full Tower

Q: I have a question about foreign places. Why don’t we use the same names and pronunciations as the people who live in those places? Why do we use “Germany” instead of “Deutschland,” “Italy” and not “Italia,” “Spain,” not “España”? It isn’t as if those names contained sounds we don’t have in English.

A: You might as well ask why the French and the Spanish don’t say “United States” instead of “États-Unis” and “Estados Unidos.” Or, for that matter, why Spaniards and Italians don’t say “table” instead of “mesa” and “tavola.”

What’s “Deutschland” to Germans is “Germany” to us, “Allemagne” to the French, “Alemania” to the Spanish; and “Germania” to the Italians (as it was to the ancient Romans). Americans and Britons say “London” and “Paris”; the French say “Londres” and what sounds like “Paree”; the Italians say “Londra” and “Parigi.”

The point is that geographical names, like other words, are different from language to language. Does this mean that every culture is committing “linguistic imperialism” upon every other culture? No. We don’t say “Paree” but neither do we pronounce “Detroit,” “Baton Rouge,” or “St. Louis” as the Frenchmen who named them.

If a country asks others to adopt its preferred version of a geographical name, the rest of the world usually complies, though the transition may take a while and may be a messy process. In this way, Bombay has become Mumbai in English, Burma is now Myanmar, and Peking is Beijing.

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Whither or not?

Q: I often see “whither” in titles, perhaps too often, and it doesn’t always make sense to me. My understanding is that “whither” means wherever, but how do you explain it in, say, Monty Python’s “Whither Canada” episode?

A: I imagine that John Cleese and the other Monty Python writers were just having some withering fun. I too have had my fill of “whithers”: “Whither Imus?” “Whither the Dollar?” “Whither Socialism?” “Whither Newspapers?” Lazy editors use it a lot in headlines to mean “Where Goes X?” or “Where Has Y Gone?”

“Whither” is an extremely old word, dating back to the 800s. It means to what place, situation, position, degree, or end, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). In other words, “whither” essentially means where or wherever.

The two most famous uses of “whither” are in the Bible: “Whither goest thou?” (the Vulgate translation of Quo vadis?) and “Whither though goest, I will go” (the Book of Ruth).

Today, “whither” has the flavor of antiquity and is rarely used except by those who like its quaintness. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that in modern times, “whither” has been replaced by “where.”

We see “whither” almost exclusively these days in newspaper or magazine headlines in which the verb is either understood or dropped: “Whither the Middle East?” (Where Goes the Middle East?); “Whither the Moderates?” (Where Have the Moderates Gone?), and so on. And on and on!

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A dubious etymology

Q: I’m a bit skeptical about using “dubious” in place of “skeptical.” Do you have any thoughts on this usage?

A: “Dubious” implies vacillation or uncertainty. It comes ultimately from the Latin verb dubitare (to vacillate or waver), which is related to the Latin dubius (doubtful). In the Latin roots you can recognize the “twoness” (from the Latin duo) that’s involved in being hesitant. When we can’t decide or are dubious about something, we sometimes say we’re of two minds.

The classical roots of the word “skeptical” mean simply inquiring or reflective. But in ancient Greece several schools of philosophy emerged, arguing that knowledge is limited (even impossible) and that all inquiry should start with doubt. Disciples called themselves the Skeptics (Skeptikoi). Thus the adjective “skeptical,” when adopted into English in the 17th century, referred not to someone who was inquiring and reflective but to someone who was doubtful.

So much for the history. Today’s definitions of the words overlap a lot. Someone who’s dubious about something harbors doubt – he’s hesitant or undecided. Someone who’s skeptical also harbors doubt, but perhaps disbelief or incredulity besides. So if you’re talking about a doubting person, you could use either adjective, but if the person is also a bit incredulous, “skeptical” would be a stronger word.

A warning, though. “Dubious” is a two-edged sword. It can mean harboring doubt: an undecided person might be dubious about something. But it can also mean arousing doubt: a dubious expense sheet, for example, is one whose veracity is in question. So if you want to avoid casting aspersions on somebody or something, “doubtful” might be better than “dubious.”

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Annus horribilis

Q: I’ve been seeing much of the Latin phrase “annus horribilis” lately. It’s been in the New York Times in reference to Britney Spears, Michael Dell, Martin Amis, and many other people in the news. Can you tell me something about the expression? Did it originate with Queen Elizabeth II?

A: The Queen used the phrase in her 1992 Christmas message at the end of a scandalous year for the royal family that included a fire at Windsor Castle. Although she popularized “annus horribilis” (horrible year), she didn’t coin it.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1985 article in the Guardian newspaper. The author uses the term as a play on the expression “annus mirabilis” in The Engineer of Human Souls, a novel by Josef Skvorecky.

As for “annus mirabilis” (wonderful year), it’s been around for centuries. The OED’s first reference is in the title of a 1667 poem by Dryden about the English defeat of the Dutch navy and London’s recovery from the Great Fire.

I imagine that the Queen (or her speechwriter) was aware that fire played a major role in both Dryden’s “annus mirabilis” and Elizabeth’s “annus horribilis.”

I agree with you that we’ve been seeing a lot of “annus horribilis” lately. Too much, as far as I’m concerned. It’s getting to be horribly tiresome.

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Badged, badgered, and bewildered

Q: I was recently listening to a police lieutenant describe how he drove from Jersey City to Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. The New Jersey Turnpike was closed to all but military vehicles but he “badged” his way on so he could get to the scene. I hadn’t heard that usage before, but it makes perfect sense to me.


A: Thanks for the observation. I’ll make note of it.

Interestingly, “badge” has been used as a verb as far back as the 14th century. Over the years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has meant to mark or distinguish, to buy something for resale, and to harvest a crop.

Here’s a quotation from Macbeth for the first meaning: “Their Hands and Faces were all badg’d with blood.” The second meaning (to buy for resale) is a reference to the old term “badger” (a middleman or itinerant dealer). The third definition (to harvest) may be related to the words “bag” or “batch.”

The verb “badge” comes, as one might expect, from the noun “badge,” but the origin of the noun is unknown. Etymologists have speculated that it might be derived from Anglo-Latin or Anglo-French words for emblem.

As for the quadruped that we call a “badger,” the origin of the word is uncertain, though some wordsmiths speculate that it might refer to the white marks or badges on the animal’s head.

I won’t badger you any more about this, except to note that the verb “badger” (to pester or persecute) comes from badger-baiting or badger-drawing, a so-called sport in which dogs were once used to draw captured badgers from artificial dens. Shades of Michael Vick!

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Good caramel

Q: I have a couple of questions about pronunciation. I can’t stand it when people say CAR-mel for “caramel” and va-NELLA for “vanilla.” Am I too uptight or do I have a right to be annoyed?

A: “Caramel” can be pronounced with two syllables or three, according to modern dictionaries. Some reference books list the twosome first and some go first with the threesome, but both are correct.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) leads off with the two-syllable version (CAR-mel) while The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) goes with the three-syllable job (CAR-a-mel).

Dictionary palates aren’t quite as indiscriminate about “vanilla,” but you can find different pronunciations in the standard references. In Merriam-Webster’s, for instance, there are two pronunciations (va-NILL-a and va-NELL-a). American Heritage has only one (va-NILL-a).

Dictionaries often list several pronunciations for an individual word. All are usually acceptable, and the difference between them (as far as how common each is) may be so slight as to be negligible.

So, loosen up, or one of these days you’ll be singing: “You say va-NILLA and I say va-NELLA. Let’s call the whole thing off!” (My apologies to Ira Gershwin for playing with his lyrics!)

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The art of the fugue

Q: I was reading an Op-Ed piece that used the medical term “fugue” to describe that dreamlike state of consciousness that so many survivors had after 9-11. Is this term related etymologically to the musical “fugue”?

A: Both words come from the Italian word fuga, meaning flight, which is ultimately derived from the Latin verb fugere (to flee).

The psychiatric “fugue” (think of it as a flight from reality) refers to a sort of amnesiac state in which someone does various things but has no awareness of them when he returns to normal consciousness.

The musical “fugue” (think of it as a flight of harmony) is a composition that weaves one or more melodies in different voices.

The musical “fugue” entered English in the late 16th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a musical composition in which “one part beginneth and the other singeth the same, for some number of notes (which the first did sing).”

The first medical reference in the OED is from a 1901 English translation of a book by Pierre Marie Félix Janet, The Mental State of Hystericals, which describes the condition as “those strange excursions, accomplished automatically, of which the patient has not the least recollection.”

The Latin word fugere and its relatives have also given us “centrifuge,” “fugitive,” “refuge,” “refugee,” “subterfuge,” and others.

I’ll knock off now and take one of my favorite musical flights, with Glenn Gould and the Well-Tempered Clavier.

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What a shambles!

Q: Lately, I’ve noticed the increasing use, or rather misuse, of “shambles” as a plural (“His house was in shambles”) instead of a singular (“His house was in a shambles”). This is on my list of 250 worst language offenses. What has become of the language?Amazon.com.

A: “Shambles” is a very, very old word that has had more makeovers than an aging socialite. We’ve had it in one form or another since the 9th century. Various spellings include shammel, shamil, shamwelle, shammoulle, sheamble, schambylle, shambulles, chambulles, and shambylles.

It’s been singular and plural as well as noun and verb. As a noun, it’s meant a stool, a butcher’s table, a scene of bloody mayhem, and a plain old mess, among other things. As a verb, it’s meant to walk or shuffle or stumble or cut up or slaughter.

In the 9th century, the noun sceamol was an Old English word for a stool or table (it came to us in a roundabout way from the Latin scammelum, a bench). By the 10th century, the word was being used to mean a table in a shop or market, and by the 1300s it meant specifically a butcher’s table or stall – that is, an area for the slaughter and sale of meat.

Over the years, a “shamble” or “shambles” came to mean a slaughterhouse, and eventually, by extension, a disorderly scene of carnage, ruin, or devastation.

By the 1500s it was used mostly in the plural and had acquired a “b” along the way. Even when used with an “s” at the end, however, the word was generally treated as a singular (similar to words like “measles,” “checkers,” and “news”). In 1610, for example, the poet John Donne wrote of “a spirituall shambles” of souls and “a Temporall shambles” of bodies.

In the 20th century, the word lost much of its blood and gore. We now use the noun “shambles” to refer to any chaotic or messy situation.

Back to your question: Is it correct today to say “in a shambles” or “in shambles”?

Modern dictionaries describe “shambles” as a plural word that’s usually treated as a singular. The examples given nearly always include the article “a.” But these dictionaries may be behind the times. In practice, the word is now used more often without the article. I just did a bit of googling and got these results: “in a shambles” (132,000 hits) and “in shambles” (678,000).

I believe either expression is OK, but you can always say, “What a dump!”

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From the word go

Q: I have always tried to instill in my children the correct use of English. But they (and all their friends) insist on substituting the word “go” for “say” in colloquial speech: “After my question, he goes, ‘I don’t get it,’ and I go, ‘What’s not to get?’” I would have been ostracized for this in my younger days. Has it become acceptable? Have I become superannuated?

A: Linguists call this usage the “quotative go.” Is it acceptable? Well, it all depends on whom you ask. It drives a lot of parents crazy, but language scholars generally like it.

I recently did a piece for the New York Times Magazine on the use of quotatives, “like” in particular. But “go” is in the same category, as is “all.” (Example: “I’m all, ‘Where’s the car?’ And he’s all, ‘Don’t tell me it’s stolen!’”)

You can find the On Language column on my website. It says in short that quotatives are OK in informal speech, but not in situations requiring your best English.

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That’s amore

Q: I sometimes see people write “enamored of” and sometimes “enamored with.” Which is correct and why?

A: A handy book called Words Into Type, familiar to journalists, is often helpful for questions like this. It has a section called “The Right Preposition” that consists of a long list of words and the prepositions they take.

For “enamored,” the book recommends “enamored of” if the object is a person, and “enamored with” if the object is a scene (and here I’d extrapolate other inanimate things). So if you’re on a trip to Italy, you can be “enamored with” the view from the Boboli Gardens and “enamored of” your guide, Luigi.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) seems to agree. Under the entry for “enamor,” it has these examples: “was enamored of the beautiful dancer; were enamored with the charming island.”

Shakespeare also seems to go along with this usage, if you’re willing to expand the definition of “person” to include a donkey. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titiana tells Oberon: “Methought I was enamoured of an ass.”

Well, as Dean Martin sang, “That’s amore.”

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Thonx to the Bronx

Q: Why is it the Bronx? It’s not the Manhattan. Nor the Queens. What’s unique about the Bronx that it’s the Bronx?

A: The Bronx got that “the” because it’s named after the Bronx River, which runs through the center of the borough. The last time this came up, I cited Dr. Peter Derrick of the Bronx Historical Society. For more, check out the Dec. 19, 2006, entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

I’m sure you’re aware of the two-line poem about the Bronx that Ogden Nash wrote in 1931:

The Bronx?
No, thonx!

But you may not be aware that Nash apologized for it in verse in 1964 in a letter to Abraham Tauber, dean of the faculty at the Bronx Community College:

I wrote those lines, “The Bronx? No thonx”;
I shudder to confess them.
Now I’m an older, wiser man
I cry, “The Bronx? God bless them!”

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Artsy-fartsy

Q: I’m an artist and I always cringe when I hear people describe something as “artsy.” The word seems to carry a denigrating tone that suggests to pretend to be artistic. Is this true? If one used “arty” instead wouldn’t that imply something neutral or positive?

A: The word “artsy” had its origin in 1902 as part of the phrase “Artsy-Craftsy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The expression was originally capitalized because it was a reference to the Arts and Crafts Movement.)

Soon “artsy-craftsy” (and later “artsy” by itself) became a generic term for something artistic in a self-conscious or pretentious way. The variation “artsy-fartsy” was first recorded in 1971, according to the OED.

The word “arty” can mean either (1) “of or relating to artists or the fine arts,” which would be neutral, or (2) “artsy,” which is “showy or affectedly artistic,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.)

To be on the safe side, maybe you should stick to “artistic.”

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Turn of the century

Q: As the millennium approached, I wondered when people would realize that the term “turn of the century” was ambiguous. Well, 1-1-2000 came and went and the term has persisted, even in books that people may be reading years after publication. I believe I have seen it as late as 2005, still clearly intended to refer to circa 1900. Isn’t it time to turn the page on this expression?

A: For whatever reason, “turn of the century,” like “fin de siècle,” has generally stuck to one historical period and is very rarely applied to our own new century. I occasionally see “turn of the 21st century,” but it’s obviously an awkward allusion to the REAL turn of the century.

Dictionaries define “fin de siècle” as the last years of the 19th century, but I can’t find a definition for “turn of the century” in the two references I consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as “the beginning or end of the century under consideration,” suggesting that it could be applied to any century, but the online version of the OED doesn’t have any post-millennium citations for this usage.

So what does “turn of the century” refer to now? Unless it’s modified (as in “turn of the 21st century”), I think it’s still assumed to mean the period around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Like “fin de siècle,” it’s idiomatic – at least for the time being.

One of the few exceptions I’ve found is a website, turn-of-the-century.com, run by two people devoted to the fine old craft of … woodturning.

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Exquisite expressions

Q: I’ve tried to call you on the air about the word “exquisite,” but I haven’t been able to get through. When I was in school 30 years ago, I was taught that the first syllable should be stressed. These days most people seem to stress the second. Am I wrong? Have things changed? Should I adapt?

A: My old Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.), which goes back half a century, lists only one correct pronunciation, with the stress on the first syllable.

Times have changed, however. Both pronunciations are correct these days. Some modern dictionaries list one first and some the other, but the order means little, if anything.

The initial pronunciation in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) stresses the first syllable, while the initial choice in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) stresses the second.

The word “exquisite,” which dates from the 15th century, can be traced to the Latin exquirere (to search out). In the early days, it meant carefully chosen, but by the 16th century the meaning was pretty much the same as it is now – beautiful, excellent, elaborate, or intense (as in exquisite pain or pleasure).

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It does mean a thing (if it’s got that “ing”)

Q: I go nuts when I hear people say things like “Do you mind me smoking?” And not just because smoking is such a vile habit. The grammar is all screwed up too. Shouldn’t it be “Do you mind my smoking”?

A: A lot of people get this wrong. In my grammar book Woe Is I, I refer to it as the Gordian knot of possessive puzzles. But this knot isn’t hard to untie once you know a trick or two.

“Smoking” in your example is a gerund, a word that is made up of a verb plus “ing” and that acts as a noun. Since “smoking” acts as a noun, it should be treated like a noun.

To see what’s going on here, let’s replace “smoking” with a real noun – say, “habit.” Which of these two examples is correct?

(1) “Do you mind my habit?”

(2) “Do you mind me habit?”

The first one is obviously right. So here’s a hint: if you can substitute a noun for an “ing” word, then treat it like a noun.

Of course not all “ing” words act as nouns. Some act as adjectives (“Has he found a smoking gun?”) and some are parts of verbs (“Is he smoking out the scandal?”).

In a couple of cases, you may not want to treat an “ing” word like a noun even if it’s acting as a noun.

Sometimes it’s too clumsy to use a possessive with a gerund – for instance, when you have to make a whole string of words possessive, not just one.

Here’s an example from Woe Is I: “Basil objects to men and women kissing in public.” Using the possessive (“men’s and women’s kissing”) would create an ugly monstrosity.

Another complication is the kind of sentence that could go two ways. Here’s what I mean:

(1) Basil dislikes that woman’s wearing shorts.

(2) Basil dislikes that woman wearing shorts.

Both are correct, but they mean different things. In the first, Basil dislikes shorts on the woman. In the second, he dislikes the woman herself.

And that’s the long and the short of it.

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Are you feeling gruntled?

Q: Is there a name for a word like “gruntled” (as in “disgruntled”) or “ruth” (as in “ruthless”) that exists only within another word?

A: The term you’re looking for is a “cranberry morpheme.”

A morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit. A bound morpheme (a prefix or a suffix, for example) must be attached to another linguistic unit. A free or unbound morpheme (a word like “cat,” “got,” or “yes”) makes sense on its own.

A cranberry morpheme (also known as a fossilized term) is a kind of bound morpheme. In theory, it doesn’t mean anything by itself, but many were once legitimate words and some have become words again, often used for comic effect.

The verb “gruntle,” for example, meant to grunt like a pig as far back as 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By the 16th century, it meant to grumble or complain. A century later, the prefix “dis,” meaning very, joined in, giving us our modern words “disgruntle” and “disgruntled.”

You rarely hear “gruntle” or “gruntled” used alone now, except in humor, as in this quote from P.G. Wodehouse: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

The words “ruth,” meaning compassion or pity, and “ruthless,” meaning pitiless, have been around since the days of Chaucer, but the OED doesn’t have any published references for plain old “ruth” since the 19th century.

Many cranberry morphemes appear in only one form. The “cran” of “cranberry” used to be one of them (excluding a few obscure terms like the one denoting the capacity of a herring barrel). But in recent years Ocean Spray has used “cran” (the ur-cranberry morpheme) in the names of new juices like Cran-Apple, Cran-Cherry, Cran-Grape, and Cran-Mango.

Now, where did “cran” come from? There are two theories: One is that cranes used to visit bogs and eat the berries. The other is that the stem, calyx, and petals of a cranberry flower resemble the neck, head, and bill of a crane.

Note: If you google “Jack Winter” and “New Yorker,” you should find a story written about a dozen years ago called “How I Met My Wife.” Every sentence has at least one cranberry morpheme.

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Inchoate of many colors

Q: I know “inchoate” means “I am in and I ate the chocolate,” but I have never heard anyone actually use it in conversation, with the possible exception of William F. Buckley. I would like to start a petition to retire “inchoate” from the English language. I would have it spend its remaining years on Buckley Island – reserved exclusively for the founder of the National Review and words only he uses in conversation. To visit “inchoate” and its friends, dock at the Harbor of Pretentiousness, make your way up Snob Beach to the Blackford Oakes Housing Project, whisper the password (“boola boola”) … and you’re in!

A: Yours takes the Grammarphobia.com prize for funniest e-mail of 2007 (so far)! Your island is a very good idea, and I love the password. But I don’t think “inchoate” is as retiring as you seem to believe. I just googled it and came up with nearly a million hits. Yikes!

I’ve learned from Wikipedia that an “inchoate offense” is conduct deemed criminal without actual harm being done. Could “inchoate” itself be charged with the offense if it plots to leave the island?

The word “inchoate,” which means (I’m sure you know) in the early stages, comes from the Latin incohare (to begin). It’s been around for quite some time: the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1534.

What catches my eye is a 1993 addition to the OED with a new meaning of this old word: disordered, incoherent, or confused. How did a word meaning just beginning come to mean messy? One possibility, according to the OED, is that people simply mixed up “inchoate” and “chaotic.”

English, it seems, is a messy (or, dare I say, inchoate) business.

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A tricky situation

Q: I’m a newspaper reporter who’s done a story that a copy editor wants to change. I’ve written that a particular financial relationship is tricky, meaning it’s complicated and requires caution, and the editor wants to change “tricky” to “problematic.” I’ve objected, but I’m not getting anywhere. I have no idea where to turn and I thought you might be able to help me out.

A: I don’t know how much help I can be, but here’s my take on the situation.

“Problematic” isn’t an exact synonym for “tricky,” so they’re not interchangeable. Something that’s “problematic” poses a problem or a difficulty. But something that’s “tricky” requires caution or skill.

Whether the substitution is justified depends on the context. If “tricky” fits exactly, and if switching to “problematic” would change the meaning, then I’d stick with the original wording. From what you’ve said, I’d go with “tricky.”

If I had to guess, I’d say the copy editor is troubled by “tricky” because it has another meaning (given to trickery). But I think your intended meaning is quite clear and unlikely to be misunderstood by newspaper readers.

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Throatwobbler Mangrove

Q: Why do so many Americans mispronounce last names that end in “stein,” including their own? There is only ONE correct pronunciation of “stein” in names like “Bernstein,” “Goldstein,” “Weinstein,” etc., and that is “stine.” The “steen” version is completely wrong and not accepted by any German-speaking people.

A: I’m no authority on German phonetics, but I’ve read that “stein” may indeed be pronounced “steen” in some local dialects of Swiss-German. Be that as it may, I don’t believe a name, especially your own, must be pronounced the same as in its country of origin. Once your family emigrates, all bets are off!

If you check Leonard Bernstein’s entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), you’ll find two pronunciations for the last syllable of his surname, long “i” and long “e” (both “stine” AND “steen”).

Cesar Milstein, the Nobel Prize-winning immunologist, pronounced the last syllable of his name “steen,” but the violinist Nathan Milstein was a “stine.” I’ve heard different Weinsteins pronounce their names differently. (I’m leaving aside the “stain” pronunciations, and the ones in which “st” is pronounced as “sht.”)

These choices should be left up to immigrants and their descendants. Would you require a woman of Hispanic ancestry named Linda Martin to pronounce her name “LEEN-da mar-TEEN” because that’s how it’s pronounced in Latin America? Of course not. The choice of pronunciation is hers. And if she chooses an Anglicized version, we respect her choice.

All this talk about pronunciation reminds me of that bit from Monty Python: “Ah, no, no. My name is spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.”

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Naturalized citizens

Q: One quick question: When using a non-English word, should the plural be in the original language or in English? Example: In Italy, you buy one cappuccino or two cappuccini, whereas here it’s one cappuccino or two cappuccinos. What is the correct convention?

A: The proper convention is to use English plurals for foreign words that have been absorbed into our language. How do you tell if a foreign-born word is now a naturalized citizen or still on a green card? Go to the dictionary!

For that frothy Starbucks special, the singular is “cappuccino” and the plural is “cappuccinos,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

In the “Plurals Before Swine” chapter of my grammar book Woe Is I and in the July 22, 2007, entry on The Grammarphobia Blog, I discuss foreign words that have been Anglicized and those that still have their old plural endings.

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A subtle difference

Q: I was listening to you on WNYC the other day and I was struck that you did not mention the word “subtle” while discussing dropped sounds in consonant clusters. As I was growing up, I often came across the word in print and looked it up if I couldn’t remember what it meant. At the same time, I had no idea what the word pronounced “suttle” meant when I heard it in conversation.

A: We were talking on the air about words with consonant clusters in which one of the consonant sounds had been dropped over the years for ease of pronunciation. Examples of this can be seen in “often,” “soften, “listen,” “handkerchief,” “handsome,” “raspberry,” and others.

“Subtle” is a different case. The “b” sound was never pronounced. In fact, the “b” wasn’t even part of the word in early spellings.

Until sometime in the 14th century, the word was spelled “sutil,” “sutile,” or “sotil,” a borrowing from the Old French word sutil. The “b” was added to the spelling under the influence of Latinists who believed that English spellings should reflect a word’s classical history – or supposed classical history.

The ultimate source of the word was the Latin subtilis. Thus the silent “b” crept into the spelling. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first editions of nearly all of Milton’s poems use the spellings “suttle,” “suttlety,” and “suttly.” The exception is Paradise Regained, which has “subtle” and “subtilty.”)

During the Renaissance, an entire class of words acquired silent letters because classical scholars wanted English to imitate Latin wherever possible. This is how “island” got an “s,” how “debt” and “doubt” got a “b,” and how “people” got an “o,” among others. (Sources were the Latin insula, debitum, dubitare, and populum, though “island” actually comes from the Old English iegland, not the Latin insula.)

If you’d like to read more about the pronunciation of consonant clusters, check out the “often” item on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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