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Pax Syriana

Q: Could you please tell me the root of the word “Syriana”? I believe it was used to refer to the area between present-day Iraq and Lebanon, perhaps in the 18th or 19th century.

A: Originally, “Pax Syriana” was the name given to a brief truce between warring Christian and Muslim factions in Lebanon in early 1976 – “pax” because it’s Latin for “peace” and “Syriana” because the truce was enforced by Syria. The expression appeared in Time magazine on May 31, 1976.

The phrase echoes such Latin or Latinized expressions as “Pax Britannica” and “Pax Romana” and “Pax Sovietica.”

In fact, the English adjective for “Syria” is “Syrian,” not “Syriana.” None of the English dictionaries that I usually consult, including the Oxford English Dictionary, include entries for, or references to, the Latinized adjective “Syriana.”

Since it first appeared, “Pax Syriana” has been used more broadly to refer to the post-civil war period in Lebanon (1990-2005).

The 2005 movie “Syriana,” starring George Clooney, took its name from “Pax Syriana,” according to the film’s director and screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan.

Gaghan explained in a Washington Post online discussion in 2005 that “Syriana” was a term he’d heard in think tanks. “I believe it referenced the Pax Syriana, but in the fall of ’02 it seemed to stand for a hypothetical redrawing of the boundaries in the Middle East,” he said.

“For my purposes,” he added, “I thought it was just a great word that could stand for man’s perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs, a dream that in the case of the Middle East has been going on at least since the time of Caesar in 80 BC.”

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“How to” management

Q: Is there any reason to use the subordinate conjunction “how” after a verb of being? Here’s my example: “The challenge with freelancing is how to manage all of these issues.” The “how” doesn’t seem necessary, but is it grammatically incorrect? I’m perplexed.

A: The construction you use (“how” following “is”) isn’t necessary – there are other ways to phrase the sentence – but it’s not grammatically incorrect either. The “how” in this kind of construction isn’t a conjunction but an adverb.

First, a grammar refresher. The verb “be” is seldom used by itself. It usually connects the subject with some kind of description. Because it’s often a mere connection, it’s called a “copula” or linking verb.

A linking verb lets us connect the subject with what we state or affirm about it. What we state (or predicate) is called the predicate. And several different kinds of predicates can follow “is”: a predicate noun, adjective, adverb, or prepositional phrase.

For example, your sentence, which I’ve simplified for purposes of illustration, could be phrased at least three ways and still be grammatically correct. All of the italic phrases in the three examples below act as predicate nouns:

(1) “The challenge is how to manage these issues” (though “how” is an adverb here, the entire phrase functions as a predicate noun).

(2) “The challenge is to manage these issues” (infinitive phrase functioning as a predicate noun).

(3) “The challenge is managing these issues” (gerund phrase functioning as a predicate noun).

In those three sentences, you could easily swap subject and predicate (“Managing these issues is the challenge”).

Now here are examples of “is” followed by a predicate adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrase:

(4) “The challenge is difficult” (adjective).

(5) “The challenge is here” (adverb).

(6) “The challenge is on the table” (prepositional phrase).

Now, back to your question. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry on the adverb “how,” explains that the word can be used in front of an infinitive to mean “in what way” or “by what means.”

A search of the OED‘s citations turns up dozens of such usages. Here are some of them:

1621: “His Colophon is how to resist and repress Atheism.”

1689: “All their consult is how to cheat him.”

1754: “The Difficulty is, how to apply this Rule.”

1885: “One thing he can never learn, and that is how to vacate.”

1902: “The problem is how to give normal emotional channelization.”

1958: “One of the main problems the Russians are wrestling with to-day is how to achieve ‘gracious living.’”

1961: “The subject of this paper is … how to analyse linguistic signs.”

1963: “What we’re going on with now, muchachos … is how to catch squid.”

I hope this clarifies things, and that I haven’t just muddied the waters. I apologize for all the grammatical terminology – something I usually keep to a minimum on the blog. But you asked for it!

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A multiplication bee with a sting

Q: I think it’s incorrect to insert “and” into numbers in the hundreds, but a fellow school mom thinks it’s either correct or it doesn’t matter. Her daughter lost in a multiplication bee at school when she answered that 12 X 11 was “one hundred and thirty-two.” The correct answer was “one hundred thirty-two.” (Further info: The kids had practiced their times tables all summer for the contest, but were only told the day before that they couldn’t use “and,” so many of them fell into old habits.) Just wondered what your take on it would be.

A: Gee, that’s a shame about those kids at the multiplication bee. The other mom is right: there’s no grammatical (or mathematical) rule that either requires or condemns the inclusion of “and” in a spoken or spelled-out number in the hundreds. So saying or writing the number 132 as “one hundred and thirty-two” is neither inappropriate nor less than proper English.

No grammar or usage guide I know of has any such rule against this use of “and” in speaking or writing out numbers. In a number of three digits or more, the use of “and” is optional.

In fact, the “and” is generally more idiomatic. I can’t imagine that anyone would say, “Whew, I’ve driven five hundred three miles since breakfast!” (Not very euphonious.) The more natural construction would be, “Whew, I’ve driven five hundred and three miles since breakfast!”

Of course, if the final element were larger – say, “ninety-six” – one would be more likely to skip the “and”: “I’ve driven five hundred ninety-six miles since breakfast!”

But enough about assumptions. When in doubt, always go to the mother lode, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Lo and behold, the OEDs entry for “and” lists this as one of its definitions: “to connect (units or) tens to hundreds (or thousands), as two hundred and one, three thousand and twenty-one, six thousand two hundred and fifty-six.”

The earliest published references we have for this use of “and” are in Old English, from the Lindisfarne Gospels of the late 7th or early 8th century. And it’s been common ever since.

The OED further explains that the “and” in these numbers “is frequently omitted colloquially in North American usage.” Aha! This would seem to imply that including the “and” is the more standard usage, while omitting it is nonstandard (or “colloquial”).

I think that teacher should go stand in a corner, after apologizing to the kids who fell into old habits – very old habits that have been acceptable English since Anglo-Saxon times.

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A curt courtesy title

Q: Should “Mr.” be spelled out when it is quoted? For example: “Mr. Jones went to town,” she said. Or: “Mister Jones went to town,” she said.

A: I’d use the abbreviated version before a name, whether it’s quoted or not, but I’d spell out the word when it stands alone in a sentence: “Hey, mister, what are you doing?” he yelled.

I’m not at all bothered, though, when I see the courtesy title spelled out, especially for comic effect in literary writing.

In fact, the title was spelled out for hundreds of years after it first showed up in English in the early 16th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation is a 1523 entry from a ledger in Canterbury: “Paied to a carpenter by grete for mending of Myster Collettis house.”

The abbreviated version didn’t appear until the mid-19th century. The earliest citation in the OED is from Robert S. Surtees’s comic novel Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour (1853).

Although both versions have been around for quite some time, the OED says the courtesy title “is now usually written in its abbreviated form, and tends only to be given in full in cases where some humorous or ironic emphasis is intended.”

Here’s a humorous example from the Dickens novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839): “Yes; and indeed and indeed again, Mister Jackanapes,” said the excited lady.

Back to your question. I’d recommend the abbreviated version (“Mr. Jones went to town,” she said), and The Chicago Manual of Style seems to agree with me, though it doesn’t deal specifically with the question of quotations.

The Chicago Manual says “Mr.” should be abbreviated in front of a name, whether a full name or just a last name. It adds, however, that when the title “is used without a name, in direct address, it is spelled out.”

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Job listings

Q: I work for a state agency in the Midwest responsible for employment assistance. The question of the day at my office: ‘”Jobseeker” or “job seeker,” which is correct? There’s nothing in the old style book from my days as a reporter. And my dictionary is no help. While it lists “jobholder,” it’s silent on “jobseeker” or “job seeker.” Please help.

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), one of the references I use the most, has an entry for “job seeker” that includes “jobseeker” as an acceptable though a less frequently used variant.

The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, has an entry for “jobseeker,” but has many published references for the two-word version.

H-m-m! From the OED citations, it seems that the two-word version is more popular in the US and the one-worder in the UK. I’d recommend using “job seeker” in the US

In fact, the one-word “jobseeker” has taken on a somewhat different sense in Britain than “job seeker” has in the United States.

In the US, the term means simply one who seeks work. But in Britain, the OED says, it has the additional meaning of “an unemployed person required to demonstrate efforts to find work in order to qualify for government benefits.”

The term was two words when it first appeared in print a century and a half ago. It seems to have gained its somewhat pejorative sense in Britain about 30 years ago.

By the way, the term “job hunter,” which has appeared as one word, two words, and hyphenated, has been around even longer. The earliest citation in the OED is from an 1834 comment in The Royal Lady’s Magazine about “harangues of the parliamentary job-hunters.”

Should it be one word? Two words? Or hyphenated? Well, American Heritage lists the two-word “job hunter,” while the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary prefers the hyphenated “job-hunter.” In other words, it’s your call.

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Joint ownership

Q: I ran into a problem when I was writing a friend about a trip my son (Connor) and I (Kevin) took to Rome last spring. If someone else were writing, he’d refer to “Connor and Kevin’s trip.” But what if I want to write about our trip. Is it “Connor’s and my trip” or “Connor and my trip” or something else? I could write “the trip that Connor and I took,” of course, but I’m stubborn and curious.

A: The first thing you have to decide when writing about two people who possess something (or some things) – like a trip to Rome or a bunch of books – is whether they possess the stuff together or individually.

If two people possess the things individually, each name gets an apostrophe plus “s,” as in this example: “The carry-on bag was crammed with Connor’s and Kevin’s books – Connor’s Harry Potters and Kevin’s Lincoln biographies.”

If two people possess something jointly, they’re considered a unit and need only a single apostrophe plus “s” at the end of the twosome: “Connor and Kevin’s trip was a big hit.”

Now, back to your question. Can a pronoun be substituted for the second name when two people possess something jointly? (“Connor and my trip to Rome was a big hit.”)

The short answer is no. Both members of the pair – Connor and Kevin – shared the trip to Rome, but the possessive pronoun “my” is a stand-in for only one member.

You may be stubborn, but if you want to use a pronoun, you’ll have to rewrite the sentence. Here’s one possibility: “My trip with Connor to Rome was a big hit.” Better yet: “Our trip to Rome was a big hit.”

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Chinese chestnuts

Q: I’m a WNYC listener out here on the prairie plains of Missouri. As an American-born Chinese who speaks Mandarin, I’d like to comment on the “Peking”-vs.-“Beijing” question that came up during your last appearance on the the Leonard Lopate Show. “Peking” is derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the city. In Mandarin, it’s “Bei (north) Jing (capital).” If you recall, Britain’s 19th-century foray into China was through Canton, which is why many old English versions of Chinese place names are of Cantonese origin.

A: Thanks for your comments. Interestingly, the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese capital’s name used to be similar to the Cantonese pronunciation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, from what I’ve read, Cantonese has preserved many sounds from older versions of Chinese that modern Mandarin has lost or modified. That may help help explain the “Peking”-vs.-“Beijing” question.

In Middle Chinese (the language spoken in the 6th to 9th centuries) and Old Mandarin (spoken in the 14th century), the consonant sound beginning the second part of the city’s name had a “k” sound, according to the OED.

This “k” pronunciation was still prevalent in the 16th century when Jesuit missionaries began arriving in China and communicating the name of the city to the West, according to the dictionary.

The name first appeared in English in the early 17th century as “Paquin” and “Pequin.” The spellings “Pekin” and “Peking” showed up later in the 17th century.

The first published reference in the OED for “Beijing” as the Chinese capital is from a 1979 Time magazine article about the Chinese government’s decision to change the way it transliterated Chinese names into English:

“The changeover was started by Peking (um, er, Beijing) on Jan. 1, when the government of Zhongguo (otherwise known as China) decreed that in all of its foreign-language publications Pinyin would replace the traditional Wade-Giles system of romanization.”

Nowadays, “Beijing” is the usual English name for the Chinese capital, while “Peking” primarily survives in phrases like “Peking duck” and “Peking man.” The breed of dog once referred to as “Peking spaniel,” though, is now a “Pekinese.”

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A lot of idiomatic English

Q: For an English assignment, my sixth-grade daughter wrote, “That’s a lot of books you’re carrying.” My wife, puzzled, ask for my opinion. I thought the sentence was fine, then wondered if it should be “Those are a lot of books you’re carrying.” Any rationale for either?

A: Some dictionaries will tell you that “lot” is singular, and that the plural form is “lots.” But in fact, the singular form, “lot,” can take either a singular verb or a plural one. You can have “a lot” of one thing, like milk (singular), or “a lot” of a collection of things, like cookies (plural).

So when “lot” is the subject of a sentence, the verb (singular or plural) depends on what follows. You would say “A lot of milk is spoiled” (singular), but “A lot of cookies are stale” (plural).

To use a more bookish example: “A lot of the book is boring,” but “A lot of books are boring.” In both cases, the subject is “a lot.”

The choice isn’t so clear when “a lot” is the object of the verb instead of the subject, as in the case with your daughter’s sentence: “That’s [or “Those are”] a lot of books you’re carrying.”

When “a lot” follows the verb, some speakers choose the plural (“Those are a lot of books…”), but many more treat “a lot” as a singular collective noun (“That’s a lot of books…”).

To my ear, the second choice sounds more natural and idiomatic. Why? Probably because of what linguists call “notional agreement” – a sense that “a lot” is singular even when it’s technically plural.

In my opinion, either “That’s a lot” or “Those are a lot” would be correct. But “That’s a lot” sounds more like good old idiomatic English

I hope this helps.

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On jingoism and jingoes

Q: Barack Obama said last year that he had stopped wearing his flag-lapel pin because he disapproved of “jingoism.” After listening to his recent speech at the convention, it occurred to me to look up the origin of the word “jingoism” in several online dictionaries. It apparently began life as “jingo,” a magician’s expression, like “presto” and “abracadabra.”

A: I may be missing something, but I can’t find a single reliable source that says Obama ever used the word “jingoism” in his flag-pin comments. A lot of other people, though, have used the term in referring to his remarks.

Is this another urban legend?

But back to the origin of “jingoism.” Although you’ve looked up the word in several online dictionaries, let’s go to the mother of all etymological resources, the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the word originated in the 17th century as “jingo,” which the dictionary defines as “a piece of conjuror’s gibberish.” However, the earliest citation for “jingo” in the OED refers not to a magician’s incantation but to a clergyman’s trimming – or, rather, mangling – of a biblical text.

In a 1670 satirical book about clerical life, a clergyman gets hold of a biblical passage, “then tanutus, high jingo, come again … minces the Text so small, that his Parishoners … can scarce tell what’s become of it.” (I’ve expanded on the OED citation by going to the original source.)

In 1694, the expression “by jingo” was used for par Dieu in a translation of Rabelais, suggesting that “jingo” may have also been considered a euphemism for God, similar to “golly” or “gosh.”

A more recent theory cited by the OED is that “jingo” may be related to a similar Basque word. “Such an origin is not impossible, but is as yet unsupported by evidence,” the dictionary says. It discounts as a 19th-century joke the idea that “jingo” might be short for St. Gengulphus. (The jokester must have had an odd sense of humor!)

The word “jingo” took on its political meaning in the 19th century when it was used as a nickname for a supporter of the British policy to use the Royal Navy to resist the advance of Russia during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 and 1878.

This new sense apparently arose from the use of the word “jingo” in “We Don’t Want to Fight,” an 1878 song by the English composer G.W. Hunt: “We don’t want to fight, but, by jingo if we do, / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.”

An 1878 newspaper citation refers to “The Jingoes – the new tribe of music hall patriots who sing the jingo song.” And an 1879 citation says, “The Jingoes ought to rejoice and be glad that their ‘tall talk’ did not drive us into a war with Russia last year.”

By the end of the 19th century, the term was being used more generally, according to the OED, for “one who brags of his country’s preparedness for fight, and generally advocates or favours a bellicose policy in dealing with foreign powers; a blustering or blatant ‘patriot’; a Chauvinist.”

The earliest citation for the actual word “jingoism,” which the OED defines as “the policies or practices of the jingoes,” is from an 1878 letter by the English essayist Abraham Hayward: “Another year must pass away before ‘Jingoism’ receives its death-blow.”

Finally, here’s an amusing 1881 citation from a British magazine: “We call it Jingoism in England; in France it is called Chauvinism; and in the United States, Bunkum.”

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My dog Fang

Q: I’ve been reading Woe Is I Jr. and loving it. (I’m an English teacher turned librarian.) I do have a question, however. On page 43, “Fang” is identified as the subject of the sentence “My dog Fang is all muddy.” If “Fang” is the subject, what is “dog”? I picked “dog” as the subject and identified “Fang” as an appositive.

A: The full subject of that sentence is, of course, the phrase “My dog Fang.” The noun phrase “my dog” and the noun ”Fang” are appositives. (An appositive is a noun or pronoun or noun phrase put beside or near another to explain it.)

So which of the appositives – “My dog” or “Fang” – is the simple subject of that sentence? The simple answer is both of them. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk and others, offers a fuller explanation.

The authors say appositives can be in full or partial apposition. In full apposition (as in “my dog Fang”) either appositive can be omitted and what remains will be a proper sentence.

Each appositive, according to Quirk, serves the same grammatical function – that is, either “My dog” or “Fang” could be regarded as the simple subject.

Appositives can be tricky. Some usage experts would identify only the second element (“Fang”) as an appositive; others would insist that just the explanatory part (“my dog”) is the appositive. I’m with Quirk: I consider them both appositives.

I’m glad you’re enjoying Woe Is I Jr., which I tried to write in plain English without using technical terms like “appositives.”

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A wordie’s travelogue

Q: In a recent interview on WNYC, the head conservator at the Guggenheim Museum used the verb “travel” in a strange way when discussing Ad Reinhardt’s paintings: “We rarely travel them because they’re so fragile.” I find this transitive use of an intransitive verb very annoying. You don’t travel something; something travels.

A: That art conservator’s use of “travel” as a transitive verb sounds like new bureaucratic jargon, doesn’t it? But it isn’t so new after all. In fact, the verb “travel” has had a very interesting journey indeed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It began life as “travail,” from an Old French word meaning to torment or harass. In fact, our modern nouns “travel” and “travail” were once the same. I’ve discussed the painful evolution of “travel” before in a posting to the blog.

The verb “travel” entered English in the 1200s (though the modern spelling took several hundred years to develop). Over the centuries it has meant, among other things, to torment, to work, and to make a journey
(as we all know, a journey can be arduous at times!).

From its earliest years, “travel” was used both transitively (that is, one traveled something, as in “He traveled the road” or “She traveled her horse”) as well as intransitively (one traveled somewhere or just traveled, as in “They traveled to Singapore” or “We loved to travel”).

In the early 1300s, to make a trip was to travel a journey, as in this quotation by a medieval monk, Robert Manning of Brunne, from his long devotional poem Handlyng Synne (1303): “Tharfore, y am come to thys cyte, / And haue trauayled many a iurne.” (Roughly, “Therefore, I am come to this city, and have traveled many a journey.”)

The verb was also used transitively to mean to cause to travel, as in this 1598 quotation from Richard Hakluyt, an Elizabethan writer who produced several books on exploration in the New World: “Their horses are but smal, but very swift and hard, they trauell them vnshod both winter and Sommer.”

This usage has survived into modern times, as in these examples from the OED:

1930: “She had sapphire rings and clips … of an incredible value, and she ‘travelled’ them, as they say in theatrical circles.”

1966: “The taller of these two guests travelled a broken concertina with him.”

The OED also notes that in publishing to “travel” a book is to take it around for promotional purposes:

1937: From a letter by Virginia Woolf: “We’re taking Tuesday off at Rodmell to travel our books in Sussex.”

1977: George Routledge, the publisher, “liked to travel his own books in the north country so that he could keep in touch with book-sellers.”

There are no examples in the OED of anyone traveling a painting, and I must admit that the usage sounds funny to my ear. But it has precedent on its side.

Some less familiar uses of verbs will never sound right to me, though they have come to be accepted, at least in dictionaries: “impact” as a verb (“How will this impact me?”); “grow” in some transitive uses (“He hopes to grow the economy”); and “eat” used backward (“This soup eats like a meal”).

But that’s English for you.

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Daised by podiumbrage

Q: God, I’m turning into a grump, but when it comes to politics and language, abuses get me downright dyspeptic. One common mistake has surfaced during the recent heady convention days. It’s the misuse of “podium” for “lectern.” I suppose I’m a lone voice crying in the wilderness on this one, but the podiumbrage has left me daised.

A: You’re not a lone wolf on this “podium”-vs.-“lectern” business, but I suspect you’ll be a lonelier one before long.

Traditionally, a podium has been a raised platform and a lectern has been a stand for a speaker’s notes. But dictionaries now accept the use of “podium” for “lectern,” though not the other way around.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, includes this meaning in its “podium” entry: “a stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also lists “lectern” as one definition of “podium.” Thus does language change.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes this sense of the word “podium” as an “extended use” in North America. The OED’s first published reference for it is from a 1954 issue of The New Republic:

“Pounding the podium and talking loudly, Rover accused the judge – Judge Luther W. Youngdahl.” (I’ve used an expanded version of the quotation from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.)

By the way, the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide describes the use of “podium” in place of “lectern” as “a favorite bugbear” of journalistic sticklers, but M-W says it’s standard English nevertheless.

I’m sorry to hear that you’re daised by this podiumbrage. God only knows where it comes from. Perhaps it’s a dais ex machina.

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Don’t bank on it

Q: Why do newspaper headlines refer to “investment banks” as “banks”? By using the same word for free-wheeling financial institutions on the one hand and government-regulated banks on the other, the papers have muddied the waters and perhaps contributed to the present financial crisis.

A: I don’t think newspaper copy editors (the modestly paid folks who write those headlines) should be blamed for the blunders of the fat cats at investment banks – or the politicians who ignored the shenanigans.

And as a former copy editor, I sympathize with the need to trim words to get a headline to fit the assigned space.

Nevertheless, I too have been taken aback by the frequent use of “bank” for “investment bank” in headlines as well as first references in newspaper articles.

I began noticing this about two years ago, and a quick search of the New York Times archive suggests that I wasn’t imagining it.

There has indeed been a drop in the use of “investment bank” in Times headlines over the last two years.

The full term was used four times in the first half of 2006, but not at all during the rest of the year. Since then, the full term hasn’t been seen much in headlines—only once in 2007 and once so far in 2008.

As you might imagine, there’s been no shortage of articles about investment banks in the Times over the last two years. At least seven headlines in 2007 and five in 2008 referred to them merely as “banks.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of all this, since the use of the term “investment bank” in headlines has gone up and down over the years.

For instance, it was used quite often in the late ‘90s (at least eight times in ’98 and another eight in ’99), but much less in the early years of the new millennium.

It would take a lot more research to determine how much of this had to do with editorial decisions at the Times or the ups and downs in investment banking.

By the way, I couldn’t find any citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bank” used on its own to refer to an investment bank. The earliest published reference in the OED for “investment banking” dates from 1922. The earliest for “investment banker” is from 1938 and for “investment bank” from 1963.

In Anglo-Saxon days, according to the OED, the word “bank” (banca in Old English) referred to a bench or platform or stage. By the 15th century, it had come to mean a money changer’s place of business (from his table or counter).

The word was first used in its modern sense (an establishment to keep money, lend it, or invest it) in the 16th century.

The entries for “bank” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) make no mention of investment banks. (American Heritage has a separate entry for “investment bank,” but it doesn’t include the short form.)

The New York Times’s online financial glossary defines investment banks as financial institutions that provide such services as “aiding in the sale of securities, facilitating mergers and other corporate reorganizations, acting as brokers to both individual and institutional clients, and trading for their own accounts.”

The glossary doesn’t define plain old banks.

Should the Times (as well as every other paper) be clearer in its news pages about the difference between banks and investment banks? I think so. After all, investment banks aren’t subject to the same stringent regulations that banks are. And it never hurts to remind us of that.

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Pat on WNYC

If you missed hearing Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show today, you can listen to her by clicking here.

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Q: In an essay on the “reality” of visual images, the filmmaker Errol Morris uses the word “fauxtograph” to describe a picture that has been doctored. He says the web designer Charles Johnson, who runs the blog Little Green Footballs, originated the term. It’s a keeper, don’t you think?

A: I love It. I predict that “fauxtography” will stay in the language (or it should, if the English-speaking public has any sense).

This neologism – or new word (from the Greek roots for “new” and “word”) – has already made a good start, with 150,000 hits on Google. Seems like the real thing!

Neither “fauxtograph” nor “fauxtography” has made it into any of the dictionaries I usually consult, but “fauxtography” and “fauxtographer” are in Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary, an online list of proposed entries submitted by readers.

The word “fauxtography” is defined as photography “that has been digitally manipulated to achieve a specific editorial impact.”

And a “fauxtographer” is described as someone “who takes digital images and manipulates them in a way as to appear real.”

In other words, a fauxny.

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Hear Pat today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 P.M. Eastern time to discuss the English language and to take questions from callers.

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The whole empanada

Q: I have always thought the word “empathetic” should be banned from the language since “empathic” covers it. Perhaps people who prefer “empathetic” are thinking of “empanada.” Am I correct in my thinking?

A: “Empathic” dates back to 1909 and “empathetic” to 1932, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so both adjectives are relatively new.

The two words are considered standard English in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

The two dictionaries define “empathetic” and “empathic” the same way: relating to or characterized by empathy – that is by identifying with another person’s feelings, motives, situation, etc.

Both words are widely used, but “empathetic” is more popular, with 2 million Google hits to 1.35 million for “empathic.” Why is “empathetic” hot?

I don’t think empanadas enter the picture. My guess is that “empathetic” has become more popular than “empathic” over the years because of its similarity to “sympathetic.” The OED makes the same case, suggesting that “empathetic” is modeled “after such derivatives as sympathetic from sympathy.”

If you associate empathy with sympathy, it’s natural to think of the corresponding words “empathetic” and “sympathetic.” (There is no modern word “sympathic.” There once was, but it’s now considered rare or obscure.)

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The missing link?

Q: I was taught – lo, these many years ago – that it is never correct to begin a sentence with “and.” In recent years, I have noticed more and more sentences, spoken and written by those who I thought would know better, begin with “and.” Has this become acceptable usage or is it still incorrect to use “and” in this manner?

A: Contrary to popular opinion, it has never been incorrect to begin a sentence with a conjunction (a linking word like “and,” “but,” “or,” etc.). It’s perfectly acceptable to use conjunctions to join words, phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs.

I discussed this in a posting to the blog two years ago, but I think it’s time for an update. No one’s quite sure where the old prohibition came from, but it’s mythological.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says few language authorities “have actually put the prohibition in print.”
In fact, it could find only one such reference – an 1868 comment by George Washington Moon, a literary gadfly who criticized the grammarians of his day: “It is not scholarly to begin a sentence with the conjunction and.”

Merriam-Webster’s cites speculation that the belief may have come from the efforts of teachers to correct children for using “and” excessively to string together clauses and sentences.

“As children grow older and master the more sophisticated technique of subordinating clauses, the prohibition of and becomes unnecessary,” M-W adds. “But apparently our teachers fail to tell us when we may forget about the prohibition. Consequently, many of us go through life thinking it wrong to begin a sentence with and.”

And that’s the story.

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A free for all

Q: I appreciate this forum and the opportunity it offers to comment and question freely. Speaking of which, when did “for free” begin to replace just “free” in a financial sense?

A: The word “free” (the adjective as well as the adverb) is quite old, dating from Anglo-Saxon days, when it referred to not being enslaved or restricted in other ways. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that it took on the meaning of without charge or payment.

One of the earliest published references, from around 1631, is in a poem by John Donne: “Love is not love, but given free; / And so is mine; so should yours be.”

Most of the early uses of “free” in a financial sense are in the phrase “free gratis,” as in this 1682 citation, via the Oxford English Dictionary, from the Liverpool municipal records: “Hee was admitted free gratis.”

The first OED citation for “free” used by itself in this sense is from an 1872 ad in the Dubuque (Iowa) Herald for Kress Fever Tonic: “Box of pills free with every bottle.”

The earliest published references in the dictionary for the phrase “for free” used instead of plain old “free” date from the late 1930s and early ’40s.

A 1943 article in the journal American Speech speculates about the origin of this new and expanded expression: “It might be reasonable to assume that for free results from the confusion of free and for nothing.”

From the OED citations, it appears that the phrase “for free” has been well-established among English speakers since the 1950s.

Here’s a colorful example from a 1957 article in the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio: “He … aroused the anger of Miss Hayworth’s movie boss who felt that chopping the skull off a $6,000-a-week star for free was pushing things a little.”

And here’s one from Kingsley Amis’s novel I Like It Here (1958): “Bowen tried to buy some drinks, conscious of having been fed and made drunk for free.”

The old expression “free gratis” is still popular too. I got more than 1.5 million hits when I googled it, though a surprisingly large number were for software downloads and sexual-enhancement drugs.

I see nothing wrong with using either “for free” or “free gratis” for emphasis when “free” alone doesn’t seem to have enough oomph. If emphatic redundancy is a sin, I’m a sinner.

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It doesn’t strike a chord

Q: Actors, politicians, churchgoers, and chefs are claiming that scripts, policies, psalms, and ingredients resonate with them. It’s everywhere just now. Enough already. All this resonating doesn’t strike a chord with me.

A: I agree. The strings of my heart don’t exactly zing over all the resonating in the air. The usage is stale, tired, and boring. Aside from that, however, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Although “resonate” originally meant to produce resonance in a musical sense, the word has been used figuratively for more than 30 years.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say it can mean to evoke a shared feeling or to relate harmoniously.

The word, which comes from the Latin resonare (to resound), is relatively new. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1873 treatise on musical sound: “The wires of the corresponding note will of course resonate with it.”

The OED’s first reference for “resonate” used figuratively is in a 1976 issue of Publishers Weekly in which prose is described as “resonating with the illustrations.” (The editors at PW started something: the word went on to become numbingly familiar in literary criticism.)

The much older words “resonance” and “resonant” have been used in both an acoustic and a figurative sense for far longer.

The noun “resonance” referred to prolonging sound by vibration when it entered English in the late 15th century, according to the OED, but it was used figuratively as early as 1607: “So ought our hearts … to haue no other resonance but of good thoughts.”

The adjective “resonant” could refer to either resounding words or music in the 16th and 17th centuries. A 1592 citation mentions “earnest and resonant, but vndigested words,” while Milton writes in Paradise Lost (1667) of a “resonant fugue.”

In a clearly figurative use, an 1842 essay by Elizabeth Barrett Browning refers to the “resonant majesty” of the English dramatist Philip Massinger.

So, “resonate,” “resonance,” and “resonant” have a history. But that’s no reason to work these poor words to death. Let’s give them a rest. And one day, they may resonate again. Or, as Judy Garland, sang: “All nature seemed to be in perfect harmony / Zing! Went the strings of my heart.”

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In the gingerbread doghouse

Q: You recently suggested on WNYC that the adjective and adverb “gingerly” may be related to the noun “ginger.” In fact, “gingerly” comes from an Old French word for “gentle” while “ginger” is derived from a Sanskrit word for the root that gives us the spice.

A: You got me. And so did quite a few other listeners to the Leonard Lopate Show. The two words have two entirely different roots, so to speak.

“Ginger,” which is by far the older of the words, has been studied exhaustively by etymologists – “deservedly so, for its ancestry is extraordinarily complex,” says the lexicographer John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

One of the more exhaustive studies cited by Ayto is a 74-page monograph by the British linguist Alan S.C. Ross. (Professor Ross is perhaps better known for coining the terms “U” and “non-U” in reference to upper-class and not-so-upper English.)

Ayto traces the English noun “ginger” back to the Sanskrit srngaveram, a word that describes the horn-shaped root of the plant. But the Oxford English Dictionary speculates that the origin of “ginger” might go back even further – to a pre-historic Dravidian name.

Either way, a vernacular version of the Sanskrit word passed into Greek and Latin before showing up in Old English as gingiber and gingifer around the year 1000.

The adverb and adjective “gingerly,” on the other hand, comes from the Old French word gensor, meaning pretty or delicate.

The earliest citation in the OED for the adverb is from a 1519 play: “Daunce we, daunce we … I can daunce it gyngerly.”

The adjective first appeared in a 1533 English translation of the works of the Latin playwright Terence: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace.”

At first, “gingerly” referred to walking or dancing with elegant steps. But by the early 17th century, the word was being used to describe moving with extreme caution, reluctance, or distaste.

Here’s an example from The Parliament of Love, a 1624 comedy by Philip Massinger: “Prithee, gentle officer, / Handle me gingerly, or I fall to pieces.”

What about the name “Ginger”? Does it come from “ginger,” “gingerly,” or something else? I discussed this in an Aug. 4, 2008, blog item about nicknames.

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I’m OK, you’re okay

Q: I was writing dialogue for a short-story class when it occurred to me that I had seen five different spellings of a word I was about to use: “O.K.,” “OK,” “okay,” “o.k.,” and “ok.” Which is correct? Is the two-letter version an acronym? If so, what does is stand for? Where does this odd word come from? Sadly, my dictionary isn’t much help.

A: The first three spellings are OK. Forget about the last two. As for which of the three legitimate ones should go in the mouth of your character, this is a matter of style, not grammar or usage.

The New York Times stylebook, for instance, prefers the dotted “O.K.” while the Associated Press stylebook favors the dotless “OK.” Garner’s Modern American Usage says all three are legit.

“Although OK predominates in highly informal contexts,” Garner says, “okay has an advantage in edited English: it more easily lends itself to cognate forms such as okays, okayer, okaying, and okayed.”

Yes, the two-letter version is an acronym. It stands for “oll korrect” or “orl korrect,” jocular 19th-century spellings of “all correct.” You may be surprised at how much has been written about this little two-letter word.

The etymologist and lexicographer Allen Walker Read, perhaps the world’s leading authority on OK-ness, wrote six articles about the subject in 1963 and 1964 in the journal American Speech.

Read, in his research, discovered that “o.k.” (it originally had lower-case letters and dots) was just one of many whimsical acronyms coined in the 19th century: “O.W.” for “oll wright,” “K.G.” for “know good,” “K.Y.” for “know yuse,” and so on.

The earliest known published reference for “OK” is from an 1839 editor’s note in the Boston Morning Post: “He … would have the ‘contribution box,’ o.k. – all correct – and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”

But soon after “OK” made its initial appearance (no pun intended), wordies began imagining that the initials stood for all sorts of other phrases.

An 1840 article in the Lexington Intelligencer, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary, includes several of these mythical phrases and suggests that the real one is a phony:

“Perhaps no two letters have ever been made the initials of as many words as O.K. … When first used they were said to mean Out of Kash, (cash;) more recently they have been made to stand for Oll Korrect, Oll Koming, Oll Konfirmed, &c. &c.”

Hugh Rawson, in his book Devious Derivations, lists 13 of the more interesting apocryphal sources of “OK,” including these: “Old Kinderhook” (President Martin Van Buren’s nickname), a Choctaw term hoke or okey, Oberst Kommandant (German for “colonel in command”), and a word for “good” in a West African language spoken by slaves in the American South.

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The power of negative thinking

Q: What is the difference between the prefixes “a” and “un,” as in “apolitical” and “unpolitical”?

A: English has a vast supply of small negative prefixes: “a,” “de,” “dis,” “il,” “im,” “in,” “ir,” “mal,” “mis,” “non,” and “un.” (There are larger ones, too: “ante,” “anti,” “counter,” “contra,” and others.) Conventions for using them have developed over the years through common usage, rather than through a set of rules.

These little bits of negativity can be bewildering, especially to people learning English as a second language. We all know the difference between “misinformation” and “disinformation,” but often the distinction between negative pairs is more subtle.

“Irreligious” suggests a hostility to religion, while “nonreligious” means a lack of religion. “Amoral” means denying that there are moral distinctions, or not caring about right or wrong; “unmoral” and “nonmoral” mean unrelated to morality. And “illiterate” means unable to read and write, while “nonliterate” means without a written language.

Sometimes, however, there’s no difference (“defrocked” and “unfrocked” pop to mind), and that’s the case with “apolitical” and “unpolitical.”

The prefix “a” means not or without, and “un” means not or the opposite of. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) defines “apolitical” as having no interest or involvement in political affairs, having an aversion to politics or political affairs, or having no political significance. M-W defines “unpolitical” as meaning “apolitical.”

In short, only the dictionary can tell you whether two negatives with the same stem but different prefixes mean the same thing or not.

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Does your heart belong to daddy?

Q: The first grown-up I heard refer to his father as “my daddy” was Lyndon Johnson (I was new to America) and I took it to be a Texan thing until I noticed that it was common in the Southern states and in books by Southern writers – who could forget Big Daddy? For some years now, I’ve noticed that women who would not dream of calling their mothers “mommies” speak of their fathers as “daddies.” Comment, please?

A: The term “daddy” isn’t a Texan thing or a Southern thing or even an American thing. It’s an English thing that was around well before the days of Shakespeare.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Chester Mystery Plays, a cycle of biblical plays from the 15th and 16th centuries, and perhaps even earlier.

In The Death of Abel (circa 1500), the Cain character says, “As my daddye hath taughte yt me, / I will fulfill his lore.” And here’s a 1529 citation from the poet John Skelton: “Now God save these dadyes / And all ther yong babyes.”

The Chester plays, named for the town in Cheshire where they were performed, were banned as “Popery” by the Church of England during the Elizabethan era but they were revived in modern times.

I haven’t heard many grown-up women refer to their fathers as “daddies,” but perhaps those who do feel more free to act girlish with dads than with moms.

When I think of women and daddies, though, I think of Mary Martin singing that her heart belongs to her da-da-da, da-da-da, da-daddyah.

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House and home, part 3

Q: Your Aug. 14 and Sept. 4 posts about “house” and “home” brought on lively discussions of the subject chez nous. This in turn brought to mind an idiom my father used when I was young to complain about my appetite: “You’ll eat us out of house and home!” Now that I have a son of my own, I’m tempted to resurrect the saying, but I would love to know why the idiom-makers used “house” as well as “home”?

A: Why both words instead of just one or the other? I’d call it an example of poetic emphasis, but the Oxford English Dictionary uses a more scholarly term: alliterative strengthening.

Whatever you call it, you have to admit that a simple complaint like “You’re eating me out of house” or “You’re eating me out of home” just doesn’t carry the cumulative weight of “You’re eating me out of house and home.”

The message is that the teenage son or the visiting relatives or the guests that stay forever are eating so much that they threaten to ruin the host and use up all his worldly resources.

The OED calls the phrase “house and home” an alliterative strengthening of “home.” But I guess one might also describe it as a strengthening of “house.”

Shakespeare uses the phrase in Henry IV, Part II (1597), when Mistress Quickly complains about Falstaff: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.”

But the phrase (or ones very like it) had been in use long before it found its way into Shakespeare. Here are some earlier examples cited in the OED.

Circa 1200: “Wif and children, hus and ham.”

1297: “He caste out of house & hom of men a gret route.”

1387: “Men of ye lond were i-dryve out of hir hous and hir home.”

1527: “The prayers of them that … eat the poor out of house and harbour.”

1576: “Hunted out of house and home.”

I hope I haven’t bored you out of house and home.

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Welcome advice

Q: If one says “Your thoughts are welcomed,” why does one respond to “Thank you” with “You’re welcome,” not “You’re welcomed”?

A: In the sentences “Your thoughts are welcomed” and “You’re welcome,” the word “welcome” is being used in two different ways, as a verb in the first one and as an adjective in the second.

As a verb, “welcome” means to greet cordially or accept with pleasure. You might ask your doctor, for instance, “Do you welcome new patients,” and she might reply, “Yes, I welcome them” or “Yes, new patients are welcomed.”

Similarly, when you say, “Your thoughts are welcomed,” you’re using “welcome” as a verb (a past participle in this case).

On the other hand, in sentences like “I felt welcome” or “He’s welcome to visit” or “The rain was welcome” or “She gave welcome advice,” the word is an adjective meaning received gladly or giving pleasure.

It’s this adjectival sense that we use when we say “You’re welcome” in reply to “Thank you.”

Dictionaries don’t usually define the adjective “welcome” in this idiomatic usage. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, describes “You’re welcome” simply as “a polite formula used in response to an expression of thanks.”

In case you missed it, a recent item on The Grammarphobia Blog discussed the history of “You’re welcome.”

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Questionable marks

Q: How do you punctuate a sentence that ends with a question asked about a question? Example: Was it Tina who cried, “What next?” Is a second question mark required for the sentence itself? Does it go outside the final quotation marks?

A: If a sentence ends with a question within a question, you don’t need two question marks.

As for where the question mark goes – right after the final quotation marks or just inside – that depends on which question the writer wishes to emphasize.

In your example, I’d punctuate it, as you do, like this: Was it Tina who cried, “What next?” This is a close call, and some might prefer to do it the other way: Was it Tina who cried, “What next”?

The book Words Into Type (3d ed.), by Skillin, Gay, and others, gives these two examples, which I’ve simplified somewhat.

(1) Has it ever occurred to you that she might retort, “Dangerous for whom”?

(2) How many of you have heard the question, “Which is the more important, heredity or environment?”

You can see that the writer has chosen to emphasize the overall question in #1, and the interior question in #2.

You can apply the same principle to sentences that mix exclamations and questions. Which do you go with, the exclamation point or the question mark? I’ll invent examples of both:

(1) Did I just hear “Abandon ship!” (The exclamation is emphasized.)

(2) Why in heaven’s name did you shout, “Wake up”? (The question is emphasized.)

This is a matter of judgment, and forces the writer to stop and think a bit. But don’t use both marks.

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English English language Etymology fiction Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A few facts about nonfiction

Q: I’m teaching a pair of courses next term on nonfiction and have been thinking about the idea of naming something by what it isn’t. That seems odd and got me to wondering just when and where the term “nonfiction” was first used. Any idea?

A: Our first thought was that only bureaucrats could conceive of naming something by what it isn’t.

Sure enough, the earliest published reference to “nonfiction” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the 1867 annual report of the trustees of the Boston Public Library: “This, as we have seen, is above the proportion of our circulation between fiction and non-fiction.”

The term appears to have lost its hyphen (at least in the OED citations) in the early 1950s. The earliest hyphen-less example cited is in The Celebrity, a 1951 novel by Laura Z. Hobson: “In this bad slump, nonfiction’s the only thing selling – apart from one or two novels a year.”

Librarians also appear to be responsible for the adjectives “non-fictional” and “non-fiction,” according to the OED. The earliest citations for the two terms come from 1894 and 1895 issues of The Library, a magazine of the Library Association of the United Kingdom.

All the OED citations for the two adjectival forms are hyphenated, but both words are spelled without hyphens in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

The word “fiction,” by the way, has a more creative background. It’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb fingere, which means to shape, form, or feign. That sounds a lot like what a fiction writer does.

“Fiction” was first used in the literary sense (or, in the words of the OED, as a “species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events”) in the late 16th century.

The earliest citation for this usage is in the title of a 1599 book translated from Italian into English by the poet Richard Linche: The Fountaine of Ancient Fiction.

The Latin verb that gave us “fiction” has also given us such English words as “effigy,” “faint,” “feign,” “figure,” and “figment,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

[Note: A later post on “nonfiction” appeared in 2017.]

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Home truths

Q: Re your house/home post, I searched Google on the same subject, and had almost 19 million responses for “single family home” vs. only 2.5 million or so for “single family house.” One reason may be the influence of realtors (I don’t use the capital R and trademark symbol they demand) who prefer anything but “house” – “home,” “property,” “product,” “unit,” etc. But there’s also something else going on. I searched for the two words as the number of bedrooms increased, and found a clear preference for “house” over “home” when the size (and, thus, price) rose. Fascinating! I guess when you’ve got money, you don’t need to avoid a down-to-earth word and use one with airs. My attempt at scientific analysis!

A: This is fascinating stuff.

I think your conclusion is right. People with money aren’t hesitant to refer to their dwellings as houses – there may even be some reverse snobbery here.

Think of those humongous castles and mansions in Newport, RI, that their owners insist on calling cottages!

Understatement or reverse hyperbole becomes a form of snobbery: “We have a little place in the country,” said Commodore Vanderbilt.

On the other hand, someone who’s less secure financially (and perhaps less secure in other ways) avoids the no-nonsense word “house” and prefers the more affected term beloved of people who sell houses – excuse me, realtors.

It’s like the English-speaking social-climber who calls his table napkin a serviette.

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Q: From the “Makes Me Wanna Holler” file . . . the rampant misuse of the word “acronym” for “abbreviation.” The latest example? The official report about the collapse of 7 World Trade Center on 9/11 has a list of “acronyms and abbreviations” in which most of the former belong with the latter. Should we launch a campaign, have bumper stickers printed?

A: I like the subject line of your email. In fact, I like it so much that I’m borrowing it for the title of this blog item about the misuse of the word “acronym.”

Now, on to the subject at hand. Bumper stickers wouldn’t hurt, but I’m not sure they would do much good either. More and more people are using the word “acronym” loosely to refer to abbreviations.

Is this legit? Not exactly. An acronym is a kind of abbreviation, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an acronym as a word formed from the initial letters of other words.

Examples: “radar” (“radio detection and ranging”), “laser” (“light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation”), “NATO” (“North Atlantic Treaty Organization”).

The key word in that definition is “word.” An acronym is an actual spoken word, while an abbreviation like “FBI,” “LA,” or “Fla.” is a shortened form of a word or phrase.

The American-Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) have definitions similar to the one in the OED.

But here’s breaking news (at least for me): The latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s (the 11th) has added this meaning: “an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters.”

Although M-W notes that this new sense of “acronym” is less important than the more established one, I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows in importance in future editions of the dictionary.

The term “acronym,” formed from Greek words for tip and name, is relatively new. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1943 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries: “Words made up of initial letters or syllables of other words … called by the name acronym.”

I’d hate to lose this original meaning of the word. It’s clear, precise, and says something that no other word does. English is a democracy, however, and the majority rules. I have only one vote, but I cast it for calling an acronym an acronym.

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Is it three words or “to”?

Q: Is it just me, or is the phrase “in order to” always worthless, with a simple “to” sufficing?

A: Not so fast. Although the phrase “in order to” is often a wordy way of saying “to,” it sometimes helps clarify a sentence where “to” alone can be ambiguous.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives this example from a 1958 letter by James Thurber: “I had to borrow $2,500 from Elliot Nugent, and damn near left The New Yorker for Paramount Pictures in order to live.”

The full phrase makes it clear that Thurber meant he nearly went to work for Paramount to make enough money to live, not simply to live, say, in Beverly Hills.

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says “in order to” is most often needed with an infinitive “when another infinitive is nearby in the sentence.”

Like you, many usage authorities have condemned ”in order to” as verbose, but the phrase has a long, respectable history.

In fact, the first published reference for it used before a verb is in the 1609 Douay-Rheims translation of the Old Testament, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

“These are they that speak to Pharao, king of Egypt, in order to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt.”

A more recent reference, of course, can be found in the Preamble to the United States Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The OED also has citations, dating back to 1526, for “in order to” used with nouns and noun phrases to mean “with regard to,” “to bring about,” or “for the purpose of.”

This usage is now obsolete, but here’s a 16th-century example of the phrase used to mean “for the purpose of”: “The ryches of the worlde hath no goodness: but in order to man.”

Back to your question: “in order to” is definitely legitimate to clarify an ambiguous sentence. But even when clarity is not an issue, you should let your ear decide whether to use a simple verb or the whole enchilada. If you have a tin ear, however, keep it short.

I’ve had several blog items in the past about redundant (and not so redundant) expressions. Here’s the latest entry, which includes links to the others.

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Whom-sick and clause-to-phobic

Q: Which is correct: “Give it to whomever needs it” or “Give it to whoever needs it”? In other words, is “whomever” the object of the preposition “to,” or is it the subject of the verb “needs”? Or does it matter?

A: To answer your last question first, yes it does matter, especially in formal writing when your English should be at its best. (I’ll get to speech and informal writing later.)

The most important point to remember in this “who” vs. ”whom” business is that “who” (or “whoever”) does something to “whom” (or “whomever”). In other words, “who” is a subject like “he,” and “whom” is an object like “him.”

Although a preposition (a positioning word like “to”) is often followed by “whom” or “whomever,” that’s not always the case.

Sometimes a preposition is followed by a clause that begins with “who” or “whoever.” (A clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb.)

Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “After the crap game, Nathan was confused about who owed him money.”

As for your first two questions, “whoever” is the subject of a clause, so the correct sentence is “Give it to whoever needs it.”

Again, this is for when you want your English to be at its best. In conversation and informal writing, “who” (or “whoever”) is gaining acceptance at the beginning of a sentence or a clause.

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