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How should you answer the phone?

Q: Please help! What should I say when I answer the phone and someone asks for me? I object to “It is I” because this sounds stuffy, but I don’t feel comfortable with “It’s me” because I was always told it’s wrong. What should I do?

A: If you want to be strictly correct, say “This is she” or (responding to a question) “Yes, it is I.” Many people find these too formal, however. A somewhat less stuffy response might be “Speaking” or “Yes, speaking” or “You’re speaking to her” or something like that.

But this is a case where English in changing. As I say in my grammar book Woe Is I, language is a living thing, always evolving, and “It is I” is just about extinct. In all but the most formal writing, “It’s me” is now acceptable.

A venerable old rule of English grammar (now considered rather formal) calls for using the nominative case (“I,” “he,” “she,” etc.) after the verb “to be.” (Examples: “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It’s me”; “This is she” instead of “This is her”; and “That is he,” instead of “That is him” or “That’s him.)

Most of us find the old usage awkward, though I must admit that I still use “This is she” when someone asks for me on the phone. Old habits die harder than old rules.

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Right on the money

Q: My husband and I hate the plural “monies.” Argh! We refuse to use it. I’m 44 and he’s 47. I guess we’re “old school” in that it was drilled into us that the plural of “money” is “money.” We can’t use “monies” – it’s too painful.

A: I too despise “monies.” Notice that only bureaucrats use it. Normal people never say things like, “Oh gee, I left my monies at home.” Or, “I’ve got to transfer some monies into checking.”

Why do bureaucrats use it? Because it seems to camouflage the fact that they’re talking about real MONEY; that is, actual dollars and cents. Calling it “monies” makes it sound like figures being moved from one column into another, with no reality attached.

As you’re probably aware, dictionaries accept “moneys” and “monies” as legitimate plurals meaning funds or sums of money. Even my 50-year-old Webster’s New International Dictionary includes “moneys” (and “monies” as an irregular plural).

But I’m with you on this one. You’re right on the money.

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Keep your shirt on!

Q: Do you know the origin of the word “shirty”? I heard it spoken by a British woman about someone who was being an annoying pest.

A: “Shirty” is an adjective meaning irritable or ill-tempered or angry. It’s chiefly British, and the Oxford English Dictionary dates it from 1846.

Here’s the word in action, via the P.G. Wodehouse novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934): “But don’t tell me that when he saw how shirty she was about it, the chump didn’t back down?”

“Shirty” is derived from a now defunct expression, “to get one’s shirt out” (meaning to get annoyed), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. That idiom is, of course, the opposite of a still surviving expression, “to keep one’s shirt on” (meaning to keep calm and NOT get annoyed).

So what does all this shirt business have to do with being annoyed? A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge suggests that it comes from the custom of taking off one’s shirt before fighting. I wouldn’t argue with that.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin

Is pronunciation your forte?

Q: How is the word “forte” pronounced in this sentence: “Pronunciation is not my forte”? I usually hear people say “FOR-tay,” as in the Italian word for loud. Shouldn’t it be “fort,” as in the French word for strength? Has FOR-tay become acceptable through wide usage?

A: You’re right about the noun “forte,” meaning a strong point. It comes from French and by tradition should be pronounced like “Fort” Knox. The other pronunciation, FOR-tay, is a musical term, meaning loud, and comes from Italian. (In Italian it’s also an adjective meaning strong.)

Be that as it may, the two-syllable version is so entrenched, doubtless because of the Italian influence, that dictionaries now accept it. In fact, the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) overwhelmingly prefers the FOR-tay pronunciation, though FORT is also standard English.

Be advised that some sticklers will turn up their noses when “forte” is pronounced with two syllables, but many more people will respond with a “Huh?” when it’s pronounced with one.

So which pronunciation should you pick? A usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers this advice: “You can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.”

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By the seat of one’s pants

Q: I’ve often wondered what aviation has to do with the expression “to fly by the seat of one’s pants.” Can you enlighten me?

A: The expression originated as an aeronautical term in Canada around 1930 or perhaps earlier, according to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge. It originally meant to fly by instinct rather than instruments, but acting “by the seat of one’s pants” is now used more generally to mean doing something by intuition or improvisation.

Partridge traces the expression to the early pilots who flew transport planes over the unmapped Canadian North. One of the things they used to judge turn-and-bank positions, stresses, vibrations, and such was the feeling of centrifugal force against their bottoms.

The press helped popularize the expression in the United States by using it to describe the flying technique of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, who flew from New York to Ireland in 1938 when he was supposed to be flying to California. He attributed the flight to a navigational error, but many people believed it was deliberate. The government had previously refused to let him make a transatlantic trip, saying his plane wasn’t up to the ocean crossing.

And we complain about air travel today!

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A “bitch” of a word

Q: I take my beagle puppy, Lucy, to obedience class, but it makes me uncomfortable whenever the instructor refers to her as a bitch. I can’t help thinking about the word’s other meaning. Did it always have a negative connotation?

A. The word “bitch” is quite old and was around for centuries before it took on its negative meanings. It comes from an Old English word, “bicce,” which dates back to the year 1000 or so and means a female dog.

The Old English word, in turn, may have come from Old Icelandic or Old Danish. Hugh Rawson, in his book Wicked Words, suggests that it may also be related to “bestia,” the Latin word for beast.

“Bitch” didn’t become a derogatory term for a woman until the early 15th century. The first published negative reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from about 1400 and apparently refers to a lewd woman.

Interestingly, the word was used for men as well as women from about 1500 to the early 20th century, according to the OED, but the meaning was more humorous than disparaging when applied to men. It meant something akin to the word “dog” in the contemporary expression “you old dog.”

The noun “bitch,” which has taken on additional meanings over the years, is now used for a female dog, a nasty woman, a complaint, a difficult task, or a tough problem, among other things.

By the way, the next time you’re in obedience class, remember that “bitch” has been used for a nice puppy a lot longer than it’s been used to mean a nasty woman.

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On “farther” and “further”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 30, 2019.]

Q: I was taught that “farther” refers to a greater distance and “further” to a greater degree, but I see the two words used interchangeably all the time. Has the distinction been lost?

A: The words “farther” and “further” come from the same roots (both are comparative forms of “far”), and for most of their history they’ve been used interchangeably. Distinctions like the one you mention have been made in modern English, though they’re not as clear-cut as you might think.

Until recently, the conventional practice has been to use “farther” for purely physical distance, and “further” for metaphorical distance or for a greater degree or extent. But now “further” has taken over some of the territory once reserved for “farther.”

Here’s today’s usage in a nutshell: Either “farther” or “further” can be used for distance, whether the distance is physical or merely figurative, though only “further” is used when no idea of distance is involved. This is what Pat says in the fourth and most recent edition of her book Woe Is I:

FARTHER/ FURTHER. Use either one for distance, whether actual or metaphorical. “I’m walking no farther [or further] than this bench,” said Lumpy. “Nothing is farther [or further] from my mind.” But use only further if there’s no notion of distance. He refused to discuss it any further. “I have nothing further to say,” he added. The upshot is that if you’re in doubt, choose further.

Many standard dictionaries agree. This, for example, is from a usage note about “farther” and “further” in Merriam-Webster Online:

“As adverbs they continue to be used interchangeably whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved. But where there is no notion of distance, further is used: ‘our techniques can be further refined.’ ”

And this is from a usage note in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online):

“Where the sense is ‘at, to, or by a greater distance,’ there is no difference in meaning, and both [further and farther] are equally correct. Further is a much commoner word, though, and is in addition used in various abstract and metaphorical contexts, for example referring to time, in which farther is unusual, e.g. without further delay; have you anything further to say?; we intend to stay a further two weeks.”

With that, we hope there are no further questions.

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Mind your p’s and q’s

Q: I’m a teaching assistant and the expression “mind your p’s and q’s” came up in my fourth-grade class. The students wondered about the phrase’s origin and what the p’s and q’s represent. Can you be of some assistance?

A: There are a number of theories about the origin of the expression, but there’s no solid evidence to back up any of them. The two most likely, in my opinion, are these:

(1) It refers to the actual letters “p” and “q,” and it was a reminder to children who were learning the alphabet to keep those letters straight.

(2) It refers to the pints and quarts on a tavern patron’s tab, and it was a reminder to bartenders to be accurate when keeping track. (Yes, beer and ale and such were indeed consumed by the pints and quarts in 18th-century England!)

The first published reference to the expression dates from 1779, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was in the farce Who’s the Dupe? by the English playwright Hannah Cowley.

I was so pleased to get this question! My new children’s grammar book, Woe Is I Jr., which is coming out in May, includes an example that uses the expression “mind your p’s and q’s.” (It’s in a section on the plurals of individual letters like “p” and “q”). My husband wondered whether students in the fourth to the sixth grade would be familiar with that phrase. Now I know that at least some of them are!

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin

Do we say “an herb” or “a herb”?

Q: Tarragon, dill, rosemary, and thyme are herbs. The “h” is silent in describing them generically. Ergo, does one say tarragon is an herb or tarragon is a herb? My Microsoft Office spell-checker is flagging the latter.

A: In the United States, the “h” in “herb” is silent. In Britain, it’s sounded. We say “an ’erb” while the British say “a herb.”

No matter which side of the Atlantic we hail from, we generally use the article “an” before a vowel sound (like a silent “h”) and “a” before a consonant sound (like a pronounced, or aspirated, “h”).

If you’re an American, give your spell-checker a pat on the back. If you’re a Brit, give it a good, swift kick. Spell-checkers can be useful (say, to point out typos or repeated words), but if you automatically make all the changes they suggest, your writing will be riddled with errors (often hilariously so).

PS: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. Here it is, broken into paragraphs to make it more readable:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

By the way, the “h”-less American pronunciation of “herb” is the original pronunciation of the word in Middle English, when it was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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Is it forego … or forgo?

Q: I’m a copy editor and I have a question about the word “forego.” I’ve always thought that it derives from “foregone,” as in “foregone conclusion,” and that it needs to keep that middle “e.” But I frequently see it spelled “forgo,” which looks either sloppy or erroneous (or both). Your opinion?

A: There are two separate verbs here: “forego,” which means to go before, and “forgo,” which means to go without. They have their own histories and meanings going back to the days of Old English. But people have used the two words interchangeably in recent years, blurring the distinction, which is too bad.

Some newer dictionaries have thrown in the towel. Cowards! The most recent editions of both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now list the spellings as mere variants of one another.

As for the respective adjectives: You used the expression “foregone conclusion” correctly, since the implication is that the conclusion was obvious ahead of time (it came before). If something is “forgone,” it’s given up. (“His doctor advised him to forgo alcohol, but it was unlikely that much booze would be forgone.”)

Hope this isn’t muddying the waters further.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Tom, Dick, and Harry

Q: I heard you suggest on WNYC that no one knows the origin of the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” I do! It’s from a Thomas Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd.

A: Thanks for your comments, but I’m afraid the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry” predates Thomas Hardy. His novel Far From the Madding Crowd was published in 1874, but the earliest published reference to the generic male trio occurred more than 200 years earlier.

Pairs of common male names, particularly Jack and Tom, Dick and Tom, or Tom and Tib, were often used generically in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II has a reference to “Tom, Dicke, and Francis.”

The earliest citation for “Tom, Dick, and Harry” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1734: “Farewell, Tom, Dick, and Harry, Farewell, Moll, Nell, and Sue.” (It appears to be from a song lyric.) The OED and A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge have half a dozen other references that predate the Hardy novel.

But a reader of the blog has found an even earlier citation for “Tom, Dick, and Harry” than the one in the OED. The English theologian John Owen used the expression in 1657, according to God’s Statesman, a 1971 biography of Owen by Peter Toon. [Note: This update was added in 2009.]

Owen told a governing body at Oxford University that “our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

Interestingly, the reference in Far From the Madding Crowd is to “Dick, Tom and Harry,” not to “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” But we won’t hold that against Hardy!

[Note: On Feb. 27, 2016, a reader named John (who has both a father and an uncle named John) wrote to say that when he was born, Uncle John told his mother: “Don’t name him John. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named John.”]

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Which “orange” came first?

Q: I am an ethnobotanist studying the connection of plants and people (and language sometimes). One thing I have always wondered is why the color orange is the same as the name of the fruit in so many European languages. I wondered if the name for the fruit came from the name for the color or vice versa. Do you have any insight into this botanical/language puzzle?

A: The short answer is that the color was named for the fruit.

So we’ll trace the fruit first. It originated in China, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and moved westward, first to India, then the Middle East, then into Europe, and eventually the Americas. Not surprisingly, the word for the fruit followed, changing a bit en route.

Now for the color. Each step of the way, the word for the color seems to have followed the word for the fruit. Our word for the fruit, “orange,” may have originated in Dravidian as a word meaning something like “fragrance” (Dravidian is a family of languages, including Tamil, from the Indian subcontinent).

It’s then thought to have entered Sanskrit as narangah, then moved into Persian as narang, and Arabic as naranj. Arabs introduced the orange into Spain (it’s naranja in Spanish), and from Spain it spread to the rest of Europe. I’ll skip the French and Italian versions of “orange,” and go directly to English.

“Orange” (the noun for the fruit) entered English in the 1300s, but “orange” (the color, both noun and adjective) wasn’t recorded until the 1500s. (Why did it take the English-speaking world 200 years to see this connection? One of the great mysteries of linguistics. No doubt the fruit was a rarity and not often close at hand.)

So what did we call the color before we had the word “orange”? It seems that the color was known in Old English as geoluhread, which meant (and even sounded like) “yellow-red.”

Why did we switch to “orange” for the color? I can only speculate that when the fruit (and the noun for it), came along, it was a perfect match for a color that previously had been only imperfectly described. Small cries of “Eureka” must have followed the orange around the globe.

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Ducks in a row

[Note: An updated post on “getting one’s ducks in a row” appeared on Jan. 8, 2021.]

Q: What’s the origin of the phrase “to have one’s ducks in a row”? I’d like to believe that it pokes fun at self-important people who make too much of their preparations. I’ve noticed that ducks get themselves in a row quite naturally without any real effort on our part.

A: I hate to disappoint you, but the expression actually comes from duckpins, a version of bowling, rather than from waterfowl, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

“To have one’s ducks in a row” means to have things organized—that, is lined up like the pins, or ducks, in the sport of duckpins, which originated over a hundred years ago.

Duckpin bowling, which has smaller balls and shorter, squatter pins than those used in the more popular ten-pin bowling, is found mostly on the East Coast of the United States.

The name “duckpins” comes from the way the pins scatter when hit by the ball, like ducks when a shot is fired, according to an article in the New York Times.

For more quackery, see the “duck soup” item in The Grammarphobia Blog.

Note: In bingo, the number 22, which looks like two ducks swimming side by side, is often referred to as “a couple of ducks” or “ducks on a pond” or “ducks on the water.” This comes from A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge. It isn’t what you asked about, but I thought I’d throw it in anyway.

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What’s the singular of “scissors”?

Q: We’re having a heated debate in the Teachers’ Lounge regarding the word “scissors.” I offered someone a “scissor” and got lambasted! I was told it’s always “scissors.” Was I incorrect?

A: We’re sorry that you were lambasted, but “scissors” is an invariable noun that exists only in the plural. There’s no noun “scissor,” though there’s a verb “scissor” that means to trim with scissors. An invariable noun has only one form (that is, in the sense of singular vs. plural). There are three kinds:

1) Nouns that exist in the singular sense only (these are often the names of academic subjects, diseases, or games that may sound plural): mumps, measles, billiards, physics, mathematics, music, homework, rain, snow, and others. These nouns generally take singular verbs.

2) Nouns that exist in the plural sense only (these are often the names of things that have two parts): scissors, trousers, jeans, vermin, spectacles (as in eyeglasses), livestock, folk, thanks, outskirts, congratulations, alms, amends, and so on. These nouns take plural verbs.

3) Nouns that exist in only one form but may be either singular or plural: fish, sheep, aircraft, species, series, headquarters, etc. They can take either singular or plural verbs, depending on your meaning.

We hope this helps!

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The “It” Squad

Q: My son, a 10th-grader, is always mixing up “it’s” and “its.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to explain the difference to him. Do you have an easy trick to help him understand?

A: The “It” Squad gives lots of people fits, and not just 10th-graders. Luckily, you don’t have to be Strunk or White to figure out whether “it’s” or “its” is correct.

“It’s” is a contraction—two words (“it is” or “it has”) mushed into one, with an apostrophe standing in for what’s missing. But “its” (no apostrophe, please) is a possessive, a word showing ownership, like “his” or “hers” or “ours.”

Here’s an easy way to keep “it’s” and “its” straight:

If you can substitute “it is” or “it has” and still make sense, “it’s” is right. Otherwise, choose “its.” (“It’s feeding time when my parakeet begins screeching in its cage.”)

For more, see “An Itsy-Bitsy Problem” in my grammar book Woe Is I.

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A hair-raising subject

Q: Could you please enlighten my son and me as to the origins of the expression “It made my hair stand on end”?

A: The expression in its various guises has been around for centuries. You can find references in both Shakespeare and the Bible. The Ghost in Hamlet, for example, speaks of a tale that would make “each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”

Indeed, the phrase can be traced all the way back to the Latin verb “horrere” (meaning to bristle or stand on end), which has given us such scary words as “horror,” “horrible,” “horrendous,” and “horrific.” The related Latin word “horrificus” (think of the dark-magic “Horcruxes” in the Harry Potter books) literally means making the hair stand on end.

Pretty hair-raising stuff, isn’t it? Well, there’s a physiological reason for equating the bristling of our hair with feelings of terror. We shiver and get goose bumps (or gooseflesh) when we’re cold or terrified because the skin contracts, making the hairs stand erect. Two technical terms for this condition are “horripilation” (another word from “horrere”) and “cutis anserina” (the Latin for goose skin).

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“Fulsome” prison blues

[The Grammarphobia Blog revisited this subject on Nov. 3, 2014. See our new post.]

Q: I’m an investment banker who’s driven crazy by people using the term “fulsome” for abundant. Any advice on how to correct them without being obnoxious? Please say something about this during one of your appearances on the Leonard Lopate Show.

A: I haven’t found a graceful way to correct people’s English, so I don’t. Leonard once joked on the air that anyone who misuses “fulsome” should be sent to Folsom Prison. But s
eriously, the word “fulsome” has been confused so much over the years that it may be beyond saving.

In modern times the accepted meaning has been disgustingly excessive, overly flattering, or insincere. But once upon a time it carried no suggestion of insincerity or excessiveness, especially in phrases like “fulsome praise” and “fulsome apology.”

The fact is that “fulsome” didn’t always have negative connotations. The word meant just “abundant” when it first appeared in print back in 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the centuries, it came to mean overdone, cloying, gross, nauseating, disgusting, loathsome, and so on.

A case can be made that the folks who misuse “fulsome” now are simply reviving the original meaning of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, in its “fulsome” entry, appears to take that position, saying such a usage “is etymologically justified.”

But the dictionary recommends using “abundant” or “full” in place of “fulsome” to avoid raised eyebrows or misunderstandings. I concur. Let’s give “fulsome” a rest.

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Is a double negative a no-no?

Q: I don’t see anything wrong with using two negatives in a sentence like this one: “He’s not unkind.” Is it true that a double negative is always incorrect?

A: My grammar book, Woe Is I, offers this advice about double negatives: “Never say never.”

For centuries, it was OK to use double and even triple negatives to show how really, really negative something was. Chaucer and Shakespeare did it all the time. (In Twelfth Night, for instance, Shakespeare has Viola using the triple negative “nor never none.”)

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the double negative was declared a no-no on the ground that one negative canceled out the other.

If you want your writing to be taken seriously, stay away from examples like “I can’t see nobody” or “He didn’t do nothing.” But a sentence like the one you mentioned (“He’s not unkind”) is perfectly good English.

A double negative comes in handy when you want to avoid saying something flatly or hurting somebody’s feelings. Instead of blurting out “Your blind date was a dog,” for example, you might use a double negative to say, “Your blind date was not unattractive.”

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An inflammatory question

Q: I hear people using the words “flammable” and “inflammable” to mean the same thing—easily burnable. Shouldn’t “flammable” mean burnable and “inflammable” mean not burnable? It doesn’t make sense to me. Help, please!

A: Historically, both “flammable” and “inflammable” have meant the same thing, easily ignited and capable of burning rapidly. “Inflammable” is by far the older word, dating back to at least 1605, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Flammable,” the new kid on the block, didn’t appear in print until more than 300 years later.

The cause of all the confusion is the “in” at the beginning of “inflammable.” As it turns out, “in” can be either a negative prefix or an intensive prefix (one that shows increased emphasis). It’s negative in words like “incapable” or “inflexible,” while it’s an intensifier in words like “inflate” or “inflame” or “inflammatory.”

Here’s the history. “Inflammable” comes from the Latin “inflammare,” meaning to inflame, while “flammable” comes from the Latin “flammare, which means to set on fire. The word “flammable” was coined in the early 19th century, but it was rarely used for decades, according to The Mavens’ Word of the Day, a Random House website.

Insurers and scientists revived “flammable” in the early 20th century as a replacement for “inflammable,” which was considered confusing because of that two-faced “in” at the beginning. After World War II, the British Standards Institution took up the campaign, encouraging the use of “flammable” vs. “non-flammable” rather than “inflammable” vs. “non-inflammable,” according to the Random House website.

So which word should a careful writer use today? The American Heritage Book of English Usage recommends going with “flammable” when clarity is important, such as in warning signs. I second that opinion.

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Easy as duck soup?

Q: Why is something easy as duck soup? I’ve never made it, never tasted it, never seen it on a menu, never found a reference book that answers my question about it. Do you know the origin of the expression?

A: The earliest published reference to “duck soup,” meaning something that’s a cinch, dates from 1902. The American cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, known as TAD, used the term for the caption of a drawing showing a man juggling a bottle, a pitcher, a plate, and a salt shaker, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

As to where Dorgan got the expression and exactly what he meant by it, we may never know. Was he inspired by the term “sitting duck”? Did a duck floating in a pond remind him of a crouton in a bowl of soup? Questions, questions!

In the immortal words of Chico Marx, “Why a duck?” In fact, Groucho was asked to explain the title of the 1933 Marx Brothers film “Duck Soup,” according to the Internet Movie Database. I’ll leave the last word to him:

“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.”

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Isn’t it ironic?

Q: I’m always hearing newscasters use the words “irony,” “ironic,” or “ironically” for something that’s surprising or coincidental. I thought “irony” is supposed to be when you say something but mean just the opposite. Or has its meaning changed while I wasn’t looking?

A: No, the meaning of “irony” hasn’t changed, but the more it’s used these days, the more it’s abused. Now, that’s ironic. Here’s the story: “Irony” is saying one thing when you mean pretty much the opposite. Something is “ironic” when it’s the opposite of what you’d expect.

If something is coincidental or surprising, like the burglary of a jewelry store on the same date two years in a row, it’s not ironic. But if the burglars stole a diamond necklace with a homing device that led the police to them, that’s ironic.

Language does change, but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language still overwhelmingly objects to the use of “irony” and company to refer to something that’s improbable or coincidental. Amen!

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English language Uncategorized

On “enormity” and “enormousness”

Q: I heard you say on the Leonard Lopate Show that it’s incorrect to use the word “enormity” to mean hugeness. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary disagrees with you and argues that critics of this usage don’t recognize its subtlety. Any comment, please?

A: I have to disagree with that usage note in Merriam-Webster’s. Where is the “subtlety” in abandoning the long-established distinction between “enormity” and “enormousness”? Traditionally, “enormity” refers to something that’s immensely wicked or monstrous or outrageous, while “enormousness” refers to size alone.

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says careful writers still observe the distinction: “The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled. Enormousness = hugeness, vastness. Enormity = outrageousness, ghastliness, hideousness.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says 59 percent of its Usage Panel “rejects the use of enormity as a synonym for immensity …. Writers who ignore the distinction … may find that their words have cast unintended aspersions or evoked unexpected laughter.”

Imagine, for instance, an Op-Ed piece about the artist Christo, remarking on the “enormity” of his works. Does the writer mean to comment on their size or their hideousness? The mushing together of these ideas can result only in ambiguity, not subtlety.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, and many, many other usage references agree that “enormity” should not be used in the sense of largeness.

Lexicographers, the folks who write the dictionaries, must document the language as it is used, not the language as it OUGHT to be used. It may be that the old distinction between “enormity” and “enormousness” will eventually break down and be lost. For now, we still have it, it’s still useful, and we would do well to observe it.

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English language Uncategorized

Capital punishment

Q: I have a grammar question about capitalization and proper nouns. I write for a community college with a long name that I use fully on the first reference. When I refer to it subsequently as “the college,” should I capitalize the word “college”? What about other institutions with names like “center” or “system” or “institute”?

A: This is a matter of style, not grammar, but my answer is that it’s wrong to capitalize subsequent references to “college” or “center” or “system” or “institute.” In these instances, the word is generic (even if it refers to a specific college or system or center) and it’s not a proper noun.

But the reality is that colleges, corporations, agencies, and such will persist in capitalizing themselves (the College, the Corporation, the Agency), whether language mavens like it or not. It’s the rare college bulletin, government pamphlet, or corporate report that can resist the urge to capitalize generic references to its parent organization and its chiefs.

One other consideration. Many organizations have their own “house style” for things like capitalization, and if you work for one you’re expected to do as you’re told.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Impacted wisdom

Q: I tried to call you on the radio about the misuse of the word “impact,” but I couldn’t get through. More and more, I hear “impact” used as a verb meaning to affect. This sounds just awful to me. It isn’t correct, is it?

A: The word “impact” has been used since the beginning of the 17th century as a verb meaning to pack together or wedge in or press down. (That’s where our old friend the impacted wisdom tooth comes from!) Since the early 20th century, “impact” has also meant to collide forcefully with something.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that it began meaning to affect. Many authorities frown on this usage. I find it to be particularly obnoxious in the past tense: “My bunion negatively impacted my performance in the marathon.” What’s wrong with “hurt”?

I believe “impact” should be used only as a noun, and “impacted” only in reference to dental work. Most usage experts agree.

That said, I have to admit that many dictionaries now accept “impact” as a verb meaning to have an effect on or to affect. Perhaps this explains why so many people who don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” resort to “impact.”

I may cringe, but “impact” is slowly making its way into the language as a verb meaning to have an affect or impact on. That doesn’t mean WE have to use it that way. I hope I don’t sound too cranky!

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English language Uncategorized

The “flea” in “flea market”

Q; My dictionary says “flea market” is a translation of a French term, but I’ve heard otherwise. When New York was a Dutch city, there was an open-air market on Vlie Street. In Dutch, “vlie” was pronounced “flea.” Thus the derivation. Have you ever come across this explanation?

A: Yes, I’ve heard the story and similar ones. The most common version is that the term comes from the Fly Market, which operated in old New York until the early 19th century. (The word “fly” was apparently pronounced “flea” after the old Dutch name for the market.)

Unfortunately, the first published reference to “flea market” in English didn’t appear until 1922, more than a century after the Fly Market had closed. It seems doubtful that the term could have anything to do with a long-defunct market or its Dutch predecessor.

The most likely explanation is that “flea market” does indeed come from Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, a sprawling old market in northern Paris (“marché aux puces” means “market of the fleas” in French). The marché, which has been around since 1885, is relatively upscale now, though I imagine the word “fleas” once referred to the uninvited guests that came with the clothes.

If you’re not ready to flee from this subject, check out the “itch to shop” entry on Evan Morris’s website, The Word Detective.

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English language Uncategorized

Nibble, nibble, toil and “kibble”

Q: When the vet told me to feed my cat half a cup of kibble each day, I asked him where the word “kibble” came from. He didn’t know. Then I spent two hours on the Internet, but I didn’t find the answer. Can you help me?

A: The verb “kibble,” meaning to grind grain or cereal into rough bits, has been around since the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “kibble” is even older, dating from the early 15th century, but it had nothing to do with pet food (or bits of grain) in the early days. It meant, among other things, a cudgel, a cobblestone, a piece of coal, and a kibble-hound–a cross between a beagle and the old English hound. (The OED speculates that the “kibble” in “kibble-hound” may have referred to a family name.)

The first published reference to “kibble” as pet-food pellets, according to the OED, was in the early 1930s. The origin of the word is uncertain. One theory is that “kibble” might be related to the word “cobble.” (In the late 19th century, cobbles—small, cobblestone-like chunks of coal—were referred to as “kibbles.”)

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English language Uncategorized

Bewitched, bothered, and “nonplussed”

[Note: An updated and expanded version of this post was published on Aug. 5, 2015.]

Q: The word “nonplussed” used to mean baffled or confused. But now it seems to mean calm and collected. This is driving me crazy! Which is correct?

A: Despite widespread misuse in recent years, “nonplussed” doesn’t mean calm and collected; it means just the opposite: bewildered, puzzled, lost in thought.

I suspect that many people mistake “nonplussed” for “nonchalant.” One way to remember the correct meaning is to think of its roots: “non” means no, and “plus” means more. When you’re nonplussed, you feel as if you can do no more. In other words, you feel helpless.

I added an entry on “nonplussed” to the second edition of my grammar book Woe Is I. Unfortunately, it’s a word that’s almost NEVER used correctly now, which probably bodes ill for its survival.

Most dictionaries still list only the traditional definition, but Encarta now includes “cool and collected” as an informal, secondary meaning. Yikes!

It’s a wonderful word, and I’m sorry to see it abused. When the meaning of a word like “nonplussed” gets stretched beyond usefulness, English loses some of its nuance, its elasticity, and its specificity. Too bad!

English English language Usage

The downside of “crescendo”

[An updated and expanded post about “crescendo” appeared on June 23, 2017.]

Q: I am a musician and one of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word “crescendo.” I take exception to a phrase like “building to a crescendo.” In music, a crescendo is a growing louder, not a climax or a peak.

A: You’re right, of course. A crescendo is an increase in volume in a musical passage. Used figuratively, as in describing a bitter political campaign, the word “crescendo” should refer to an increase in bitterness, not to the peak that an increase is leading to.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language acknowledges that “crescendo” is widely used to mean a peak or a climax, but the dictionary says a majority of its Usage Panel rejects this practice.

The first published use of “crescendo” in English dates from 1776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the first nonmusical citation is from 1859. The earliest published use of “crescendo” to mean peak (“caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo”) is from The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But I don’t mean to criticize Scott. As Gatsby’s Dad said, “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

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