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A moment of truth

Q: I’ve always been annoyed by a sentence like this one: “The plane will land momentarily.” It’s my understanding that passengers wouldn’t have time to disembark if the plane landed only momentarily. Am I right?

Q: The adverb “momentarily,” meaning for a moment, goes back to the mid-1600s. But a newer usage, meaning in a moment, dates from the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, this second meaning creates problems when a statement might be taken two ways.

A sentence like “The plane will land momentarily” could mean either for a moment or in a moment. That’s why many usage authorities have argued against the newer meaning.

The “momentarily” entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English (4th ed.), for example, notes that the newer meaning is unacceptable to 59 percent of the dictionary’s Usage Panel.

Nevertheless, the upstart usage has become so widespread, especially in the United States, that it’s probably here to stay. You’ll certainly be hearing it for a long time, not just momentarily.

[Update, Aug. 11, 2012: Since this post was written, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has appeared in a new fifth edition, and its  usage note for “momentarily” has changed. The editors now say that while the Usage Panel still “shows some dissatisfaction” with the use of the word to mean “in a moment,” the panel’s “resistance is waning.” Sixty-eight percent of the panelists now accept the nontraditional usage.  And 58 percent approve of a vaguer sense of the word, meaning “for the time being,” as in “The file server is momentarily out of order.”]

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Heteronyms and homophones

Q: What do you call words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and pronunciations? I’m thinking of words like “tear” (as in rip) and “tear” (as in crying) or “dove” (the bird) and “dove” (did a belly flop). Any thoughts?

A: Words with the same spellings but different pronunciations and meanings are called heteronyms: like “desert” (to abandon) and “desert” (the Sahara) or “wind” (breeze) and “wind” (to twist).

Homophones are words that sound the same but differ in meaning. They can be spelled differently (like “night” and “knight”) or the same (like the “bark” of a dog and the “bark” of a tree)..

Isn’t English fascinating?

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Q: I’ve been curious about the word “monkeyshines” since I was a child and visited my grandmother, who was born in the early 20th century in a small town in Kansas. As we drove away, she’d make odd gestures and call out “monkeyshines.” I know that the word means acting up, but I wonder where it comes from. Does it have its origins in vaudeville or minstrel shows?

A: The word “monkeyshine” (often “monkeyshines”), referring to a mischievous or playful trick, has a very interesting and disturbing history.

It first appeared in 1828 (as “munky shines”) in a song by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a popular white comedian who performed in blackface. In the song, called “Jump Jim Crow,” Rice sings and dances as an old plantation slave: “I cut so many munky shines, I dance de gallopade.” (The gallop, or gallopade, was a 19th-century dance.)

The song also gave us the term “Jim Crow” for segregation and other discrimination against African-Americans. But the use of the word “shine” as an abusive term for a black person may have nothing to do with Rice’s song. The usage didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century, well after the song’s heyday, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Your guess that “monkeyshine” comes from minstrel shows was right on target. In fact, some people consider “Daddy” Rice to be the father of minstrelsy.

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Don’t fold and mutilate!

Q: I’m a big fan of WNYC and I listen all day, but everyone who talks on the air seems to misuse the word “fold.” I go nuts every time I hear one of the talk-show hosts or news readers do it. Next time you’re on the air, could you bring this up?

A: I’m so glad you mentioned this problem. In my writing book Words Fail Me, I did an entire chapter about the ways in which people mutilate numbers . I cringe when I hear or read that something has increased “X-fold.”

In the book, I used this example: “Babe’s flock of ten sheep increased threefold last year.” Then I went on to explain why the flock did NOT increase to thirty!

Using “fold” is a very fuzzy way of indicating that something has multiplied. It may be read any number of ways.

It could be that each “fold” represents a doubling (to a total of 80 sheep). Or “threefold” could mean an increase of three times the original number, in which case you’d end up with 40 sheep—the original 10 plus three times that number.

Any way you look at it, “fold” is a bad way to approach the problem. Even if you get it right, you’ll probably be misunderstood.

The solution? Don’t use “fold” to say something has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled. Just say that it has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled: “Babe’s flock of ten sheep tripled last year.”

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Plastered in Paris

Q: This isn’t a question, but a comment about a WNYC show. You were discussing the term “plaster of Paris” and its origin. Paris was indeed a center for the production of gypsum-based plaster. I live on the hill of Belleville, previously a village near Paris known for its vineyards and gypsum quarries. Even today, the presence of these quarries is felt.

We say that Belleville is a “gruyère,” or Swiss cheese, full of holes. One of these holes just down my street is currently being filled. The porous soil also leads to the formation of underground rivers and streams, and the area was first exploited by monasteries that created a network of underground aqueducts. Several access points, known as “regards,” remain today. Our street names show this heritage: rue des Cascades, rue des Rigoles, rue de la Mare, all related to water. Here’s a link to a “regard” up the hill.

A: Thanks for the very illuminating e-mail, and for the beautiful picture. What gorgeous old stone! How lucky you are to live there. Must be fascinating. Meanwhile, regards!

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Three sheets to the wind

Q: I was wondering about the phrase “three sheets to the wind,” meaning intoxicated. Any ideas of its origin? Why “three” instead of “one” or “two” sheets?

A: It’s an expression from the era of sailing ships. The “sheets,” it turns out, are lines (ropes, to a landlubber), not sails, as many people think.

Why three sheets? One explanation may be that a sloop, the most common sailboat, has one mast, two sails, and three sheets. (The sheets are used to trim, or adjust, the sails, making the most efficient use of the available wind.)

The expression was originally “three sheets in the wind,” but now it’s usually “three sheets to the wind.” Most language references explain it this way: If the sheets are loose, the sails can flap around, not unlike drunken sailors stumbling back to their ship after a night on the town.

The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1821, but I prefer a scene in the Dickens novel Dombey and Son (1848) where Captain Cuttle believes Bunsby “was three sheets in the wind, or, in plain words, drunk.”

I once made a mess of the nautical terms when I tried to explain all this on the air, but a listener kindly straightened me out. I hope I have the terminology right this time. My sailing experience is limited to capsizing a Sunfish every few years, so please excuse my shaky sea legs.

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Is “death knell” overkill?

Q: I noticed a headline in the New York Times that said “Death Knell May Be Near for Public Election Funds.” Isn’t the phrase “death knell” redundant? My dictionary says “knell” indicates the end or failure of something. So it seems that “knell” alone would be sufficient. What do you think?

A: A knell is an ominous sound or a slow and solemn tolling of a bell, as if for a funeral or as a signal of disaster or destruction. Since it isn’t exclusively a funeral thing, it’s not really redundant to say “death knell.”

You’re right in that it does seem to signal the end of something. But I think most people would find “knell” all by itself a little puzzling, no? Just my opinion.

The word “knell,” by the way, is very, very old. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 10th century (it was spelled “cnyl” in those days). The OED’s first reference for “death knell” is in “The Lord of the Isles” (1814), a poem by Sir Walter Scott: “I must not Moray’s death-knell hear!”

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On cows and cowlicks

Q: You were asked on WNYC about the origin of the word “cowlick.” I have no evidence to cite, but I’ve always assumed the word comes from the appearance of a newborn calf licked dry by its mother. The calf’s hair stands up in swirls rather than lying flat as it naturally will a few hours later.

A: Several listeners e-mailed this explanation and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s on the money, but I couldn’t verify the calf angle in any of the language references that I usually go to.

The word “cowlick,” which refers to a wayward tuft of hair that won’t lie flat, first appeared in print back in 1598, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was in an English translation of an Italian treatise on art: “The lockes or plaine feakes of haire called cow-lickes, are made turning upwards.” (A “feake,” according to the OED, is a “dangling curl of hair.” )

Most of the language sources I’ve checked believe a cowlick does indeed have something to do with the way hair looks after being licked by a cow, but none of them refer specifically to a cow’s licking a calf.

The OED notes, however, that the term “calf-lick” means pretty much the same as “cowlick,” which may give credence to your explanation, though the evidence isn’t quite hair-raising.

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Excuse me, Mr. Trump!

Q: On “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump says things like “You will be joining so-and-so and I in the boardroom” or “You will be joining so-and-so and myself in the boardroom.” Do you think “I” or “myself” will become accepted in sentences like those? (I don’t think so!) If not, do you think someone should tell Mr. Trump?

A: No, we don’t think “I” or “myself” will ever be acceptable in place of “me” in the examples you gave. And we think someone should tell Mr. Trump. (Someone who DOESN’T work for him!)

Mixing up “I” and “me,” we believe, is the single most common mistake in American English. We’re sure you’re aware that Donald Trump has a lot of company. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are serial offenders (“with Hillary and I” … “from Laura and I”).

Luckily, there’s an easy way to help decide whether to use “I” or “me.” Just mentally eliminate the other guy and the correct word becomes obvious : “You will be joining … me in the boardroom.”

And using “myself” when you can’t decide between “I” and “me” is a cop-out.  The word “myself” should be reserved for two uses: 1) To emphasize something (Let me do it myself). 2) To refer to oneself (I can see myself in the mirror).

In the contest between “I” and “me,” the booby prize goes to “myself.”

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Hacking it

Q: Why do we use the same word, “hack,” for a cab driver, a forgettable writer, and a horse?

A: The word “hack,” meaning the driver of a hackney carriage, first appeared in print in the late 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the turn of the century, the word was also being used to mean a drudge or a person hired to perform whatever needed doing; for example, a literary “hack” would be a writer who hired himself out as a mere scribbler.

During the 18th century, “hack” came to mean a hackney carriage itself, a carriage horse, or any horse, especially an ill-bred one, used for ordinary riding. Nowadays, it also refers to a taxicab and someone who drives one.

I’ll save the word “hacker” for another time. (I’d better update my antivirus program first!)

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Is “scot free” a slur on Scots?

Q: What’s the origin of “scot free”? Is it an insult to people from Scotland?

A: Contrary to what you may think, “scot free” has nothing to do with Scotland or the Scots.

The word “scot” in the expression dates back to the 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and means money (or a tax) assessed against someone, or somebody’s fair share of an expense (for instance, a bill for drinking or entertainment). It’s derived in part from an Old Norse word, skot, and an Old French word, escot.

The expression was around in medieval times, when towns levied taxes in proportional shares for things like a poor fund. The tax was called a “scot,” and somebody who wriggled out of paying it got off “scot free.”

Nowadays, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, to get off “scot free” can mean either to avoid paying for something or to escape punishment.

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An etiquette lesson

Q: Do you know how the word “etiquette,” which means label in at least three languages (French, Italian, and Spanish), came to mean proper behavior in English?

A: The behavior of the word in those four languages isn’t as different as you imagine. Although the French, Italian, and Spanish versions (étiquette, etichetta, and etiqueta) do indeed mean label, they can also mean proper behavior. And the French étiquette gave us the English word “ticket,” which comes close to meaning label.

Here’s the story. The Old French word estiquette (meaning a soldier’s billet or order for lodgings) evolved into étiquette (meaning label) in modern French. The word came into English, Italian, and Spanish in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In English, it referred initially to correct behavior at court and later to proper social or professional conduct. It’s not certain how a word for a soldier’s billet in Old French and a label in modern French came to mean proper behavior in English (not to mention in French, Italian, and Spanish). Etymologists have offered several possibilities.

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology suggests that a soldier’s billet may have included written instructions for good behavior. And John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that étiquette might have once referred to a small card with written or printed directions on how to behave at court.

I wonder what Miss Manners would make of all this.

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More “bone” mots

Q: Regarding your blog entry on “make no bones about it,” is there a connection with “have a bone to pick”? In French, we say “il y a un os” (there is a bone) when an unexpected problem arises and things cannot go as planned.

A: To “have a bone to pick,” meaning to have something you want to argue about or settle, refers to the image of two dogs fighting over a bone and picking it clean. Another expression, “bone of contention,” also comes from the image of dogs scrapping over a bone.

Both of these expressions date back to the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Similarly, in olden times to cause trouble between two people was to “cast a bone between them,” meaning to give them something to fight over.

To “make bones about it,” as the blog item notes, is another usage from the same era but with a different image as its likely source: bones in soup made it harder to eat, so to “make bones about something” meant to make difficulties, according to the OED.

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“Ditto,” a word with a past

[An updated post about “ditto” appeared on March 14, 2014.]

Q: Do you know the origin of the word “ditto”? I use it all the time, but I have no idea where it comes from.

A: Believe it or not, “ditto” has ancient beginnings. It comes from the Latin dictus (having been said), which evolved into detto in standard Italian. In the Tuscan dialect, detto became ditto, which entered English in the early 17th century (the first published reference dates from 1625).

When it first appeared in English, “ditto” was used to avoid having to repeat a month or year in a date. Someone might have written, for example, “on 22 January and 25 ditto” to avoid having to say “on 22 January and 25 January.” Half a century later, in 1678, “ditto” was being used in a more general way to mean the same or aforementioned.

This information comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

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“Gender” bending

[Note: An updated post on “sex” and “gender” ran on May 25, 2016.]

Q: Is “gender” a substitute for “sex”? (It’s a good thing I used quote marks!) I’ve always thought “gender” should be used for words that change endings in other languages. When we speak of someone’s sex, shouldn’t we use “sex” instead of gender?

A: I also prefer the word “sex” in referring to the two sexes, but “gender” has become an acceptable substitute. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary accept phrases like “the feminine gender” or “gender roles.”

Nevertheless, I’d hate to see “gender” replace “sex.” The word “sex” (from the Latin sexus) has long meant either of the two divisions – male or female – that characterize living things. By extension, it has come to mean the sex act.

“Gender,” on the other hand, has long been a grammatical term that describes the way some languages categorize words by sex (masculine, feminine, or neuter).

Perhaps it’s inevitable that as we speak more openly about sex we feel a need for a more neutral word to refer to the Great Divide. But to my ears “gender” sounds prudish as an alternative to “sex.”

I should note, however, that both “sex” and “gender” have been used over the years to refer to the sexual act as well as the sexual divide. The noun “gender,” for instance, was used for the male or female sex back in the 14th century, and the verb “gender” was used for the sex act as far back as the 15th century.

Now that’s an example of “gender” bending!

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Mash notes

Q: Is the word “masher” (a guy who comes on to women) a contraction of the French “ma chère”? And by extension does the phrase “mash note” come from the same source?

A: You’re not the first person to wonder if we have “ma chère” to thank for “masher.” Back in the 1890s, the humorist Max Beerbohm wrote about the issue and concluded that “masher” actually came from the chorus of a music-hall song: “I’m the slashing, dashing, mashing Montmorency of the day.”

Around the same time, Charles Godfrey Leland, a humorist, amateur linguist, and student of gypsy culture, suggested that “masher” was derived from a Romany word meaning to entice, according to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says the verb “mash” (to put the make on someone) may indeed come from the gypsy word for entice.

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, however, offers a more prosaic explanation for the origin of “masher.” The dictionary says it probably comes from the verb “mash” as in to mash potatoes. A masher, according to Barnhart, is a man who presses or forces his attentions on a woman (think of a potato masher), trying to turn her emotions into a mash.

The word “mash,” originally meaning to mash malt or grapes, is quite old and can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “masher,” one who mashes malt or grapes, first appeared in print around 500 years ago.

The first published reference to “masher” as a man who makes advances to women dates from 1875, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. The dictionary’s earliest citation for “mash note” (initially, “mash letter”) is from 1880.

I don’t think we’ll ever know for certain the origin of “masher.” As with so many other words, the trail is as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

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Incentive payback

Q: A curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was quoted as saying that “risk has been incentivized.” Yuck! Any comments?

A: Someone in the arts has no business using that kind of bureaucratese. Leave it to the CEOs and politicians.

In fact, the “incentivize” entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives an example of the word at work by quoting a politician: “This bill will help incentivize everybody to solve that part of the problem.”

While we’re on the subject, “incentivize” is bad enough, but people are now using “incent” as a verb. (“We need to incent our sales team.”) Jeepers! What’s wrong with offering the sales team an incentive? Both “incent” and “incentivize” leave us incensed.

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A tough row to hoe

Q: I’m always hearing people say “a tough ROAD to hoe.” Hoeing a road is probably illegal, and using that expression should be illegal too. What are your thoughts?

A: We don’t know if hoeing a road is illegal, but an asphalt road must be a mighty tough road to hoe. The correct expression is, of course, “a tough row to hoe,” and it refers to hoeing rows on a farm. To have a “tough” or “hard” or “long” or “difficult” row to hoe means to have a daunting task to perform.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the correct expression is of American origin and dates back to the early 19th century. The first OED citation is from the March 24, 1810, issue of the New-York Spectator:

“True, we have a hard row to hoe—’tis plaguy unlucky the feds have taken him up.”

And here’s an example from An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, an 1835 book by the frontiersman Davy Crockett: “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”

Interestingly, the “road” version of the expression showed up soon after Crockett’s book. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Dec. 3, 1842, issue of the Daily Atlas (Boston).

A farmer, describing his long journey to take wheat to market, writes: “ ‘Truly you have a hard road to hoe,’ you will say; ‘why don’t you sell your wheat nearer home?’ ”

We sympathize with you, but we think substituting “road” for “row” in the expression is a misdemeanor and doesn’t deserve hard time. Definitely no more than an hour on a road crew!

A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2017.]

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You send me

Q: I was struck by the name of one of your books, You Send Me. I’ve heard that phrase a lot, especially in older R&B songs. Can you tell me a little about its origins?

A: The word “send” in the name of the book is a reference to sending e-mail. You Send Me (written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman) is about online writing. The title echoes the song “You Send Me,” originally recorded by Sam Cooke.

The song was a No.1 hit in 1957 and has been recorded by many other artists over the years, including Nat King Cole, the Drifters, the Everly Brothers, Jose Feliciano, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, the Steve Miller Band, and Rod Stewart.

Charles “L.C.” Cooke (Sam Cooke’s brother) is listed as the writer of the song. Here’s how the lyrics begin:

Darling you send me
I know you send me
Darling you send me
Honest you do, honest you do
Honest you do, whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.

Hope this answers your question.

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On “whinge” and “whine”

Q: The word “whinging” jumps off the page whenever I see it in British fiction. We don’t use it in the U.S. Why is it used in Britain?

A: In modern English, “whinge” and “whine” generally mean the same thing, though “whinge” (it rhymes with “hinge”) isn’t often heard in the United States except in the mouths of Anglophiles.

They come from two Old English words: “whine” from hwinan (to make a whizzing or humming sound, like an arrow in flight), and “whinge” from hwinsian (to make a sound like a dog whimpering). We probably get “whinny,” or horse talk, from the same root.

Both words are very old; “whine” dates from 1275 and “whinge” from 1150. Originally, “whine” referred merely to the sound. But “whinge” implied a wailing or crying: the sound was one of distress. Eventually, to “whine” also came to mean complain or express discontent.

Though Americans use only one word, “whine,” the British use both: “whining” covers a variety of meanings, including sounds made by people, animals, or inanimate objects, and “whingeing” (also spelled “whinging”) is more specifically for peevish or fretful complaining. The British sometimes use the terms together for emphasis: “Stop your whingeing and whining!”

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The great divide

Read Pat’s review in the New York Times today of two new language books.


Speech Crimes


Get a few language types together, and before long someone will bring up the great divide between the preservers and the observers of English, the “prescriptivists” and the “descriptivists” — those who’d rap your knuckles for using “snuck” versus those who might cite Anglo-Saxon cognates in its defense.

The truth is that the divide isn’t nearly as great as it’s made out to be. Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Ben Yagoda, the author of “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” is with the right-thinking folks in the middle. His book, an ode to the parts of speech, isn’t about the rights or wrongs of English. It’s about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean (to whom we owe “slud,” as in “Rizzuto slud into second”).

If you’re old enough to have learned the parts of speech in school, you probably think of them as written in stone. Not so. The nine categories are arbitrary and shifting. Nouns get verbed, adjectives get nouned, prepositions can moonlight as almost anything.

Yagoda, who teaches English at the University of Delaware, agrees that the categories are artificial, but he’s smitten with them anyway. Each member of the “baseball-team-sized list” (adj., adv., art., conj., int., n., prep., pron. and v.) gets its own chapter. Don’t overlook the surprisingly entertaining one on conjunctions — yes, conjunctions — with its riffs on the ampersand (“the more ampersands in the credits, the crummier the movie”) and the art of “ ‘but’ management.” No word is too humble for Yagoda, who can get lexically aroused by the likes of “a” and “the.”

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Suspended animation

Q: How do you bite your tongue when the fellow says “hung” instead of “hanged”?

A: Tell him he’s suspended!

Seriously, misusing “hung” isn’t a capital offense, but “hanged” is the preferred past tense for executions. For more about these two troublemakers, see the “Getting the hang of hung” entry on The Grammarphobia blog.

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Is it OK to “dialogue”?

Q: I’m an associate at a law firm and one of the partners is always asking me to dialogue. Is it OK to use “dialogue” as a verb?

A: No, it’s not OK, though I wouldn’t tell the partner about it. Let him dialogue all he wants, but you should talk, chat, gossip, speak, shoot the breeze, and so on.

The verb “dialogue,” meaning to have a conversation, is considered bureaucratese in modern English. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says 98 percent of its Usage Panel is opposed to using “dialogue” this way.

That said, I should note that the usage was once perfectly acceptable. We can find examples in Shakespeare (“Dost Dialogue with thy shadow?”), Richardson (“Thus foolishly dialogued I with my Heart”), Coleridge (“…the showman contrives to dialogue without any skill in ventriloquism”), and other writers.

It appears that “to dialogue” is making a comeback these days, but you shouldn’t encourage it. Not unless you want to sound like a stuffed shirt!

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Make no bones about it

Q: What does “make no bones about it” actually mean? And where does the expression come from?

A: I’ll answer the easy part first. “Make no bones about it” means be forthright or unhesitating about something: “The Queen made no bones about her objection to the Prince’s divorce.”

As for the origin of the expression, it’s lost in the mists of time. One theory is that the bones refer to the slang term for dice, but word sleuths have generally rejected that explanation.

The best guess is that “make no bones about it” comes from the 15th-century expression “find no bones,” meaning find no difficulties or problems with something. That older expression referred to soup that was easy to swallow because it had no bones in it, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Make no bones” began appearing in print in the 16th century, according to the OED, but “make no bones about it” didn’t show up until 1885: “I shall make no bones about it with this fellow.”

Bone appétit!

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The “penultimate” peril

Q: I note that the adjective “penultimate” is now being used to mean most or greatest instead of next-to-last. As a lawyer, I use this word a lot. For example, I might write that something “shall be added to the end of the penultimate sentence of paragraph 3.” I’d be sorry to lose this useful word. Is it a lost cause?

A: I am shocked, shocked! “Penultimate” is such a nifty word. Although “next-to-last” (or “next-to-the-last”) is a perfectly fine expression, I’d sure hate to lose “penultimate.” I don’t believe this is a lost cause, though.

All the dictionaries I’ve checked, both online and off, still list next-to-last and a related linguistic usage as the only acceptable meanings. Also, the word was used correctly in nearly all the “penultimate” references I checked on the Web.

It’s good news too that the next-to-last book in the Lemony Snicket series is called The Penultimate Peril. I’m heartened that children are being introduced to the correct meaning of this helpful word.

“Penultimate” has been with us since the 17th century. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1677. It comes from the Latin word paenultimuspaene (almost) plus ultimus (last).

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Is “winningest” a loser?

Q: The word “winningest” comes to my attention every basketball season and grates on my nerves. I doubt that it’s valid even though it seems to be more and more common. Is a phrase like “the winningest coach” now acceptable?

A: There’s something faintly juvenile sounding about the word “winningest.” What’s wrong with saying “the coach with the most wins” or “the most successful coach” or “the coach with the best record”?

But in fact it’s a legitimate word. it’s been around for hundreds of years, first in the sense of most attractive and later in the sporting sense.

You can find “winningest” in many standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, though some describe the usage as informal.

If you prefer to avoid the word, that “informal” label gives you a good excuse. But don’t expect others to share your view.

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Reference material

Q: I am a longtime English teacher. Recently, I have seen more and more sentences like this: “Shakespeare again references Macbeth’s having ‘borne all things well.’” Not only students but also young English teachers use “reference” like that. It is driving me crazy. Has this usage become acceptable?

A: I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary recognize “reference” as a verb meaning either to supply references to or to refer to. And therein lies the problem, I think.

Interestingly, the usage isn’t all that new, either. The word “reference” was used as a verb in the late 19th century, then apparently fell out of favor, only to be resurrected in the 1970s. The earliest published reference to “reference” as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1891.

Never mind! I don’t like the usage either. My problem with it is the ambiguity.

If you “reference” a work, are you making a reference to it, or are you including in it references to other works? If a book is “referenced,” is it referred to or is it referring to others? When Shakespeare “references” Macbeth (the character, I assume), what exactly is he doing? Is he putting a reference into Macbeth’s mouth? Or making another character refer to Macbeth? Pretty fuzzy, no?

On the grounds of ambiguity alone, you can justify avoiding “reference” as a verb and choosing instead “refer to,” “make reference to,” “supply references for,” “include a reference,” or whatever.

Not everything recognized in a dictionary is “acceptable” by all educated people. You still have a choice!

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Are you a Raymond Carver fan?

If you’re a fan of Ray Carver’s stories, read Stewart’s interview with him in the New York Times just a few months before Ray died.


For Raymond Carver, a Lifetime of Storytelling


As a boy growing up in Yakima, Wash., Raymond Carver used to slip into his parents’ room in the evening, sit at the foot of the bed and ask his father to tell him a story. ”He was a good talker,” Mr. Carver said. ”All I had to do to get him going was ask about my great-grandfather.”

Before long, the boy was telling his own stories. ”I’d thought about writing since I was a squirt,” Mr. Carver said. ”But I didn’t know beans about anything. I began by writing science fiction. It was awful. Really awful.”

He was reminiscing recently during an interview at the St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan and in a telephone conversation from his home in Port Angeles, Wash.

Mr. Carver, who was in New York for his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, described his struggles with poverty, alcoholism, a broken marriage and, now, cancer.

Through it all, he has kept writing, from the first poem he sold, for $1 more than a quarter of a century ago, to his recently published book, ”Where I’m Calling From” (Atlantic Monthly Press), a selection of what he considers his best short stories.

Read the rest of the interview. And buy Ray’s books at a local store or

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A nosy question

Q: I’ve noticed that many English words beginning with the letters “sn” have something to do with the NOSE, either physically or metaphorically. Is this merely a coincidence, or is there some hidden ancient root in there? I’m thinking of such words as sneeze, snore, snort, snout, snot, snotty, snarl, snoot, snooty, sneer, snuff, snuffy, snuffle, snide, sniff, snivel, snob, snobby, snobbery, snoop, snooze, snuff, and (almost) schnoz.

A: I hadn’t noticed this before, but now that you mention it ….

“Snore” and “snort” (as well as the 20th-century word “snorkel”) are from the same prehistoric Germanic root, “snor.”

The words “snot,” “snotty,” “snout,” “snoot,” “snooty” (in the sense of looking down one’s nose) and “schnoz” are all related to a similar prehistoric Germanic root associated with the nose, “snut.”

The words “snuff” (the powdered tobacco), “snuffle,” “sniff,” and “sniffle” are believed to come from the earlier “snivel,” which originally meant to run at the nose. They’re all thought to derive ultimately from yet another prehistoric Germanic root, “snuf,” imitative of the sound of air drawn in through the nose.

So all these words can be traced to old Germanic roots that sounded like “snor,” “snut,” and “snuf.” Gesundheit!

In Old English, the word for “sneeze” began with “fn,” and the eventual change to “sn” in the 15th century may have been influenced by the similar sounding “snort” and “snore.” Another influence was probably the similarity of the “f” and the “s” in medieval manuscripts.

“Snob” is unrelated, and “snooze” is of uncertain origin. But “snitch,” meaning an informer, may be related to a 17th-century word for a fillip on the nose. So there may be a connection there.

All this comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, and The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

Excuse me while I go blow my nose.

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You guys and dolls

Q: How did the words “you guys” come to be used so ubiquitously for both sexes in the USA? Teachers address their students as “you guys.” Waiters address their customers as “you guys.” Girls address other girls as “you guys.” Is this something we just accept in today’s culture?

A: You’re right that many people now treat “guys” as sex-neutral. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the plural “guys” (which it calls “informal”) as “persons of either sex.”

But this usage has been around for quite a while, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. The dictionary’s first published reference for the singular “guy” used for a woman is from a 1927 letter by Eugene O’Neill: “She is a ‘real guy.’ You’d like her immensely.” The first reference for the plural, cited in the journal American Speech, dates from 1932: “One girl to others: ‘Come on, guys.’”

As it turns out, the word “guy” has had many different guises since its earliest appearance in print in 1806, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. At first, it referred to an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who tried to kill King James I and blow up the British Parliament in 1605. It later came to mean a grotesque-looking person, a smart aleck, a carnival patron, and a man, among other things.

I’m reminded of a discussion about “you guys” a few years ago on the Linguist List forum. One contributor offered this comment by a male student to the women in a class on gender differences in language: “I’m glad I’m not a woman—you guys have too many issues to deal with!”

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Gimme closure

Q: My question is about the word “closure.” It is now being used where the simple word “closing” would be perfect. The other day I heard a news item about parishes in NYC that are scheduled for closure. Why not just plain closing?

A: The noun “closure” in the annoyingly overworked emotional sense comes from Gestalt psychology and dates from 1924, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But as a noun for a bringing to a close, or a closing of something, it’s been around since Shakespeare’s day.

There’s nothing wrong with it, grammatically or etymologically. But it’s extremely tired these days and I wish people would give it a rest.

I can see no reason for referring to the closing of a road as a “road closure.” It brings to mind conflicting images of grieving and asphalt.

And “closing” would be much, much better than “closure” (and less ambiguous) in a news report about the parishes. Someone might be intensely traumatized by a parish closing, and hence in need “closure” in the psychological sense.

Case closed!

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How possessive can you get?

Q: What’s the correct way to make a possessive of a word that’s already possessive? Do you say “McDonald’s’s fries”? Or “St. John’s’s team”? It seems wrong to use one ’s right after another ’s, but I can’t think of a better way to do it.

A: No, we don’t use possessive forms like “McDonald’s’s” or “St. John’s’s.” Here’s the story.

Proper names are sometimes nouns that look possessive; they have ’s as a fixed part of the name. Corporate examples include McDonald’s and Standard & Poor’s in the US and Sainsbury’s in the UK. Academic and religious names sometimes include ’s as well (St. John’s University, St. Anne’s Church).

A name like this is treated as an ordinary noun: “McDonald’s uses a secret formula” … “Standard & Poor’s hasn’t issued a rating” … “Sainsbury’s is closed today” … “St. John’s has a new coach.”

But when such a name is used in the possessive case, it is not given an additional ’s as an ordinary noun would be. Instead, the existing ’s is allowed to do double duty: “McDonald’s recipe” … “Standard & Poor’s ratings” … “Sainsbury’s employees” … “St. John’s new coach.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (4th ed.) calls this practice “quite defensible,” and you can see how it came into use. To make such a name possessive by adding a second ’s would result in a monstrosity: “McDonald’s’s recipe is a secret” … “St. John’s’s new coach is promising.”

If you don’t like using a single ’s for both functions, it’s easy enough to rephrase the sentence: “The recipe used by McDonald’s is a secret” … “The new coach at St. John’s is promising.”

A little possessiveness can go a long way.

Similarly, when such a noun is pluralized, it remains the way it is; no plural ending is added: “Our town has four McDonald’s and two Lowe’s.”

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 3, 2022.]

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