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An opera in progress

Q: You said on the radio that the word “opera” was once plural, but are you sure about that? Doesn’t it come from una opera in Italian, meaning the same thing as une oeuvre in French? Just wondering.

A: In English, “opera” has always been used in the singular. But it has its origin in a Latin plural.

The Latin word opus (meaning a work) was “used from the late 15th and early 16th cent., especially in Italy, to denote a musical composition,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“It came to be used systematically from the early 17th cent., particularly in Venice, for numbered sets of pieces by a composer in the chronological order of publication,” the OED adds. “At first restricted to instrumental music, this practice was later (from c1800) used also for vocal works.”

The word opera, a Latin plural of opus, has been used in Italian since 1639 as a singular meaning a “composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined,” according to the OED.

“Opera” entered English later in the 17th century as a borrowing from Italian and was also used in the singular. (In French, by the way, an opera is an opéra, while an oeuvre is an artistic or literary work.)

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War games

Q: How long have football players and commentators been saying things like “This game is war to the end” or “The linemen are fighting it out in the trenches”? I find it inappropriate to talk of a game as a war when soldiers are in combat today.

A: This reminds me of the statement attributed to the Duke of Wellington in the mid-19th century: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

As for your question, the link between football and the military goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, according to an article earlier this month in the Washington Post.

At the time, the writer Les Carpenter says, coaches like Yale’s Walter Camp and Harvard’s Percy Haughton used military textbooks as guides to motivate their teams on the field.

Not long after World War I, Carpenter adds, Gen. Douglas MacArthur wrote these lines while he was the superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days will bear the fruits of victory.” (Sounds like Wellington, doesn’t it?)

And Vince Lombardi, an assistant coach at West Point before his championship years with the Green Bay Packers in the ‘60s, didn’t mince words: “You’ve got to win the war with the man in front of you. You’ve got to get your man.”

Interestingly, according to the article, the NFL is now moving away from the use of “warrior athlete” imagery. It seems that league officials do indeed consider such language inappropriate at a time of real war. “It’s a matter of common sense,” the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, is quoted as saying.

If you’d like to read more, here’s a link to the Washington Post article.

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Jenny was a friend of mine

Q: Do you agree with the punctuation (or, rather, lack of it) in the following sentences? 1) I brought my friend Jenny to the party. 2) I brought my friend Jenny Ann Smith to the party. I seem to recall being taught in high school that commas are not used if the clarifying phrase is one or two words. Anything longer would require commas.

A: Both sentences are correct. You would surround the name with commas in those sentences only if Jenny were your only friend. Since you seem to be speaking of her restrictively (that is, as one of your friends, not as your only friend), no commas are needed.

On the other hand, if Jenny were your mother (and most people have only one of those), then you would use commas:

1. I brought my mother, Jenny, to the party.

2. I brought my mother, Jenny Ann Smith, to the party.

Your high-school teacher may have described these as examples of appositives. An appositive identifies the same thing or person by a different name. And the number of words used in the appositive is irrelevant.

You use commas with an appositive that’s nonrestrictive (as in, “My mother, Jenny Smith”). It’s called nonrestrictive because she’s the only mother you have and has no need to be distinguished from others.

But you don’t use commas with an appositive that’s restrictive (as in “My friend Jenny”). It’s called restrictive, as I’ve mentioned above, because she’s one of many friends.

I hope this helps. Sorry for the technical talk, but you asked for it!

And you can always say (as The Killers, a post-punk revival band, sings), “Jenny was a friend of mine.”

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Noodling around

Q: In one of your postings, you mention “noodling in old newspaper archives.” It got me wondering about how “noodle” came to be used, both as a noun and a verb, to represent the mind and its activities.

A: There’s a lot of noodling in English, and much of it has to do with the head or the mind.

The verb “noodle,” meaning to fool around or waste time, has been in use since 1854, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the word comes from the noun “noodle,” meaning “a stupid or silly person; a fool, an idiot,” a word that was first used in print in 1720.

That noun’s origin is uncertain, but the OED says it may be a variant of an earlier one, “noddle,” which meant the head (or the back of the head) and was frequently used “in contexts suggesting emptiness or stupidity.”

“Noddle” was first recorded in the 1400s and may be related to the verb “nod” (circa 1390), meaning to briefly incline the head. The origin of “nod” is also unknown, but it could be related to a Middle High German verb, notten, meaning to move to and fro, or shake.

There was even a noun “noodleism” in the 19th century, meaning a silly action or idea. The OED‘s first citation is from a British newspaper in 1829: “Lord Eldon … rose to disavow participation in such extreme noodleisms.”

But a “noodle” that’s more relevant to your question is the verb that means to sing or play music in an inventive, improvisatory way.

This usage was first recorded in 1937. It was often used to describe jazz performances, but it was also used figuratively in other contexts.

Ever since the 1940s, to “noodle” (or “noodle around”) has meant to reflect on or ponder something, or to experiment, perhaps unproductively or without any particular direction.

And in case you’re wondering, the edible “noodle” comes from the German nudel, which is probably a variant of knödel (a dumpling; literally a “small knot”).

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a 1779 entry in the journal of Lady Mary Coke: “A noodle soup – this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”

As a pasta lover, I take exception to that comment about “lumps of bread.”

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An object lesson from the Oval Office

Read Pat and Stewart’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times:

The I’s Have It



WHEN President Obama speaks before Congress and the nation tonight, he will be facing some of his toughest critics.

Grammar junkies.

Since his election, the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers for using “I” instead of “me” in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “the main disagreement with John and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.”

The rule here, according to conventional wisdom, is that we use “I” as a subject and “me” as an object, whether the pronoun appears by itself or in a twosome. Thus every “I” in those quotes ought to be a “me.”

So should the president go stand in a corner of the Oval Office (if he can find one) and contemplate the error of his ways? Not so fast.

For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either “I” or “me” as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after “and.” Literature is full of examples. Here’s Shakespeare, in “The Merchant of Venice”: “All debts are cleared between you and I.” And here’s Lord Byron, complaining to his half-sister about the English town of Southwell, “which, between you and I, I wish was swallowed up by an earthquake, provided my eloquent mother was not in it.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about “I” and “me.” The first kvetch cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage came from a commencement address in 1846. In 1869, Richard Meade Bache included it in his book “Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech.”

Why did these 19th-century wordies insist “I” is “I” and “me” is “me”? They were probably influenced by Latin, with its rigid treatment of subject and object pronouns. For whatever reason, their approach stuck — at least in the rule books.

Then, why do so many scofflaws keep using “I” instead of “me”? Perhaps it’s because they were scolded as children for saying things like “Me want candy” instead of “I want candy,” so they began to think “I” was somehow more socially acceptable. Or maybe it’s because they were admonished against “it’s me.” Anybody who’s had “it is I” drummed into his head is likely to avoid “me” on principle, even when it’s right. The term for this linguistic phenomenon is “hypercorrection.”

A related crime that Mr. Obama stands accused of is using “myself” to dodge the “I”-versus-“me” issue, as when he spoke last November of “a substantive conversation between myself and the president.” The standard practice here is to use “myself” for emphasis or to refer to the speaker (“I’ll do it myself”), not merely as a substitute for “me.” But some language authorities accept a looser usage, and point out that “myself” has been regularly used in place of “me” since Anglo-Saxon days.

Our 44th president isn’t the first occupant of the White House to suffer from pronounitis. Nos. 43 and 42 were similarly afflicted. The symptoms: “for Laura and I,” “invited Hillary and I,” and so on. (For the record, Nos. 41 and 40 had no problem with the objective case, regularly using “Barbara and me” or “Nancy and me” when appropriate.)

But an educated speaker is expected to keep his pronouns in line. Here, then, is a tip, Mr. President. Nobody chooses the wrong pronoun when it’s standing on its own. If you’re tempted to say “for Michelle and I” in tonight’s speech, just mentally omit Michelle (sorry, Mrs. Obama), and you’ll get it right. And no one will get on your case.

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman are the authors of the forthcoming “Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.”

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Tense about the present

Q: I know languages tend to get simpler as they grow older, but there’s a recent subtraction from English that puzzles and irks me – the disappearance of the past, contrary-to-fact condition, at least in sports announcing. For example, “If he catches that pass, he scores easily.” Any thoughts?

A: This isn’t really contrary to fact, since it’s possible he could catch the pass. Here are three other ways you might write this sentence:

(1) “If he catches that pass, he’ll score easily.”

(2) “If he caught that pass, he’d score easily.”

(3) “If he were to catch that pass, he’d score easily.”

Perhaps sportscasters would feel #2 sounds a bit off when referring to a future catch. And maybe they’d find #3 a little too “literary.” If I were a sportscaster, I’d go with #1, but there’s really nothing wrong with the example you cite.

Broadcasters in general seem to like using the present tense for just about everything. You’ll notice this a lot in teasers for the TV news. The announcer will say (using what I think of as “headline-ese”) something like “Mom dies in leap from bridge – news at eleven!”

A similar kind of construction is sometimes used to replace not only the past tense but the future tense as well. It’s often called the “historical present,” a device used frequently in nonfiction writing and journalism.

I’ll invent a typical example: “Napoleon’s armies are starving. Snow blankets Moscow. The generals are wondering: Is retreat worse than annihilation?”

Here’s another: “Since losing his job on Wall Street, he finds himself in an untenable financial situation. What does he do? Does he sell his sinking stocks and take a loss, or does he stay the course and hope for a rally?”

Once you start to notice this, you’ll see it everywhere. Even in weather reports where it’s entirely inappropriate (“Tomorrow, rain is intermittent and temperatures are rising”). It can get disorienting, to say the least.

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All together now

Q: There’s a very, very, very disturbing trend to use the verb “coalesce” in connection with “coalition.” People should be using “coalign,” ness pah? DO something – before political discourse goes down the plumbing!

A: I agree that “coalesce” brings up images of people stuck together with library paste. Nevertheless, “coalesce” and “coalition” are partners.

The noun “coalition,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Latin coalescere (to grow together). The original English noun, first recorded in 1514, was “coalescence” (the growing together of separate parts).

But the old “coalescence” was eventually replaced by a new form, “coalition,” which was first used in 1612. “Coalition” in the sense of a political alliance was first used in 1715.

The OED has no entry for “coalign,” and neither do The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

“Align,” meaning to place in line, comes to us by way of the French verb aligner, and is probably influenced by the French phrase a ligne (in line), according to the OED. It was originally spelled “aline” when it entered English in 1693. The ultimate source is the Latin noun linea (a line) and verb lineare (to line.)

In summary, there’s nothing wrong with using “coalesce” to describe joining in a coalition, or getting (as the Beatles put it) all together now!

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Time piece

Q: What’s the relation between “second,” the adjective, and “second,” the unit of time? And how about the verb “to second”? And what’s the relation between the adjective “minute” and the unit of time? And while you’re at it, how about all those other units of time: “hour,” “day,” “year,” “week,” “month”?

A: Whew! That’s a tall order. But I have a break in editing proofs for a new book, Origins of the Specious, which is coming out in May. So, here goes.

Let’s take these words one at a time. (I’ll put in parentheses the year of each one’s first appearance in English, according to either the Oxford English Dictionary or the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.)

(1) “Second.” The adjective (1297) came before the noun meaning a snippet of time. It’s the ordinal version of the cardinal number “two,” and comes from the Latin secundus, which means “following” or “next” (the root is sequi, “to follow”).

To understand the nouns “second” and “minute,” it’s helpful to know the system of sexagesimal fractions (that is, fractions based on 60). Babylonian astronomers and mathematicians invented the system for measuring angles, and it was later adopted by Greek- and Latin-speaking scholars. In angular measurement, a circle has 360 degrees; each degree has 60 minutes, and each minute has 60 seconds.

Originally, the noun “second” was short for the Latin secunda minuta, meaning “second [or next] small part,” since it is the second operation in sexagesimal division (first come minutes, then seconds). So you can see the relationship between the adjective and the noun.

The noun was originally (1360) an angular measurement, and it was used in geometry, astronomy, geography, and so on. It designated 1/3600th of a degree and 1/60th of an angular minute. The noun for the unit of time came later (1588), meaning 1/3600th of an hour and 1/60th of a temporal minute.

Meanwhile, the verb “second,” meaning to support or back up or assist another person (1586), is from the same Latin source. The sense of supporting a proposition or a speaker in a debate or meeting was first used by Francis Bacon in one of his essays (1597): “It is a good precept generally in seconding another: yet to adde somewhat of ones owne.”

(2) “Minute.” Here the noun came first, and the ultimate source is the classical Latin minutus, meaning small. In medieval Latin, minuta (short for the phrase pars minuta prima, or “first small part”) meant the 60th part of a degree or an hour. In English, the noun for a 60th part of a degree (1392) is about as old as the noun for a 60th part of an hour (1393).

So etymologically, the “minute” is the first small part of a sexagesimal division, and the “second” is the next small part.

If this all looks pretty tidy so far, here’s a fly in the ointment. As the OED points out, “in Old English contexts, minutum usually meant one-tenth of an hour. … When Honorius Augustodunensis divided the hour into sixtieths in De Imagine mundi (early 12th cent.), he called the sixtieths ostenta. These sixtieths were sometimes called minuta by the end of the 12th cent. (e.g., in the chronicle of Robertus de Monte), although the word continued to be used of tenths of an hour at least into the 13th cent.”

Meanwhile, the adjective “minute” (pronounced my-NOOT), meaning lesser or small (1472), has the same source as the noun, the Latin minutus.

(3) “Hour.” This word (1250), meaning 60 temporal minutes, ultimately comes from hora, which means season, time of day, or hour in both Latin and Greek. Its ultimate ancestor may be ancient Indo-European (see “year,” below). The “h” has always been silent in English as well as the Romance languages that inherited the word.

(4) “Day.” No, this isn’t related to the Latin dies, which also means “day.” It’s Germanic. The original daeg in Old English was first recorded in Beowulf (725). Its ultimate source is probably the Proto-Germanic dagaz and the earlier Indo-European base agh or ogh.

(5) “Week.” This word, first recorded (878) in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and meaning a cycle of seven days, is also Germanic. It probably has its origins in the Indo-European root wig-, meaning bend or turn. Similar words in other old Germanic languages conveyed the meanings of change, order, movement, turning, and succession. The word went through a variety of spellings before arriving at “week” in the mid-1500s.

(6) “Month.” This developed from the Old English monath (750), which has been traced to the Proto-Germanic maenoth and the Indo-European menot, for moon. In English, monath became “moneth” then “monthe” then “month” (though there were many, many variations along the way, including “moonth”). The period was originally named because it represented the time needed for the moon to complete a cycle of its phases.

(7) “Year.” This word developed from the Old English gear (first recorded in the early 10th century). It has echoes in the Proto-Germanic jaeran, but it has cousins that are non-Germanic as well: the Greek horos (year), the Greek and Latin hora (season, time of day, hour), and the Latin horno (this year). All may come from the ancient Indo-European root yer, which is thought to have meant “that which makes [a complete cycle],” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The Old English word originally represented “the time occupied by the sun in its apparent passage through the signs of the zodiac,” according to the OED.

That’s it for now. I’ve run out of time.

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The million-word myth

Q: I’ve heard that English is about to hit a million words. Where does this number come from?

A: Nowhere. Or, rather, from no legitimate source. It’s a myth that the linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer debunks in a posting to the Language Log.

So, exactly how many words does English have? It’s impossible to say, since nobody knows exactly how to count them.

Do we count “run” as one word or two (a verb as well as a noun)? Is a “run” for dogs one word and a five-mile “run” for people another? Is “runs” another word (or two or three or whatever)? What about “runny”?

And should we count every obscure scientific and medical and mathematical and technical term? For instance, do we include “4,4′,5′-trimethyl-8-azapsoralen” (which I see described on a biomedical website as a “photoreactive and non-skin-phototoxic bifunctional bioisoster of psoralen”)?

For that matter, do we count all the spelled-out words for the zillion or so numbers we have?

The lexicographers on the Ask Oxford website estimate that we probably have a quarter to three-quarters of a million English words, not counting different forms of the same word, the most obscure techie terms, and so on.

That’s more than enough for me, a lot more than French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and so on.

[Update: No, the English language did NOT reach a million words “on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 am GMT,” as the Global Language Monitor website alleges. It’s all nonsense!]

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Differences, differences

Q: I started learning English when I was 14, and that was 30 years ago. I have always used “different from” rather than “different than” because I thought that was the correct usage. But I hear “different than” spoken by many people and see it used in newspapers and magazines. Which is correct? Does it matter?

A: It’s true that generally “different from” is correct. But when what IMMEDIATELY follows is a clause (complete with a subject and its verb), you want “different than.” Examples:

“Paris is DIFFERENT FROM London.”

“Paris is DIFFERENT THAN it used to be.”

However… “Paris is DIFFERENT FROM WHAT it used to be.” (The clause doesn’t immediately follow; there’s an intervening “what.”)

A good rule is to choose “from” instead of “than” if you can. Reason: ordinarily, “than” should follow a comparative adjective (like “larger” or “richer”), but “different” isn’t a true comparative. It contrasts; it doesn’t compare.

The British often use “different to” instead of “different from,” but the Oxford English Dictionary says the “usual construction is now with from.”

[Note: We later published a more complete post on this subject, which was updated on May 27, 2020. And on Dec. 20, 2021, we ran a post on “different” versus “disparate.”]

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Q: This one has puzzled me for some time. In various publications, some acronyms are printed in all caps (NATO), while others are upper and lowercase (Nasdaq). I presume this is a stylistic choice rather than adherence to a hard-and-fast rule. Personally, I prefer CAPS as a clear signal that the word is an acronym.

A: Thanks for your question. I liked the subject line, and used it as the title of this item.

An acronym, as you know, is a kind of abbreviation. It’s made of the first letter (or letters) of the words in a phrase. Examples: “WAC,” for Women’s Army Corps, or “radar,” for radio detection and ranging.

An acronym, according to most definitions, is spoken as a word, unlike an initialism, such as “FBI” or “PTA.” I wrote about acronyms once before on the blog.

Capitalization is complicated when an acronym is a proper name. There are no hard-and-fast rules, and different publications have widely different styles.

The New York Times’s practice is to print acronyms of proper names entirely in capitals if they have four letters or fewer: NATO, NASA, PIN, SALT. With longer acronyms, only the first letter is capitalized: Unesco, Nascar, Unicef, Nasdaq, and so on.

The spell-checker in my email software, however, wants to cap all the letters of all the acronyms above (except for a couple that it doesn’t recognize).

When an acronym is a common noun, like “radar,” “laser,” or “scuba,” it’s generally treated like any other common noun, with all lowercase letters unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence or part of a title.

But there are exceptions even here. AWOL, for instance, is usually capped, though it’s sometimes seen with all lowercase letters.

Now, it’s time for me to go AWOL and take my two Labs for a walk.

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Pat on WNYC

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

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When good grammar sounds bad

Q: Your Dec. 31, 2008, blog entry says, “There’s no grammatical rule that when you mention yourself along with another person, you mention yourself last.” I must say that your statement bothers me on an almost instinctual level. Wouldn’t this mean that it would be correct to say “I and Joan went to the store”? That sounds so awkward! It makes me think that mentioning oneself last is a stylistic issue, not one of grammar or etiquette.

A: There’s nothing grammatically wrong with saying “I and Joan went to the store” (just as there’s nothing wrong with putting the subject pronoun first in “He and Joan went to the store”).

In fact, you can find published references for this practice in the Oxford English Dictionary going back to the Middle Ages. For example, a poem from around 1300 has these lines about a husband and wife passing a bunch of old barns: “I and mi wijf on ald tas / Of barns er we passed pe pass.”

But idiom is often against this usage. (Call it stylistic if you want.) The “I and Joan went” wording seems awkward on the tongue. Common practice is to put “I” closer to the verb.

There are times, however, when “I” seems natural in first position: “I and a few of my friends decided to throw an Inaugural Day party” … “I and my brothers think Dad should have a home helper.”

Interestingly, I find that people who use the incorrect objective case in a construction like the one you mentioned have no hesitation in putting themselves first: “Me and Joan went to the store.”

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Hear Pat live 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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Q: I have a pet peeve that belongs in You Send Me, your book about online writing. I find it irksome when someone misspells a word in an email, but puts “(sp?)” after it to indicate the word may be misspelled. Couldn’t the writer take a moment to check the proper spelling – for his own benefit as well as mine?

A: I agree one hundred percent. It’s an annoying practice to use a coy “(sp?)” instead of bothering to look something up!

One of the entries in Urban Dictionary, an online reference whose definitions are written by readers, cuts through the bull by defining the “(sp?)” abbreviation as meaning “the spelling of the word is probably wrong.” No kidding!

The key to good writing, both online and off, is to think of your reader. Anything that makes it harder for the reader makes it harder to get your message across.

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An ideal pronunciation

Q: I’m sure this is covered somewhere, but I can’t find anything definitive. My boss always uses the word “ideal” for “idea,” as in “I have an ideal that will improve the program.” Is this correct usage? Could it be a regional thing? My boss was raised in the South.

A: No, it’s not correct. Your boss means he has an “idea” that will improve the program.

In modern usage, an “idea” is a mental image of a plan or scheme or notion – some conception that arises in your mind, often as a means of solving a problem.

But an “ideal” is a standard of perfection or an ultimate goal. Your ideals (humanitarianism, integrity, etc.) are part of your character, or whatever it is that makes you who you are.

You might say, for instance, that bringing irrigation to a parched wasteland is a good idea. But ending hunger is the ideal.

We’re not aware that mistaking “ideal” for “idea” is a regional thing, but it’s possible that pronouncing “idea” as ideal may be a regionalism.

We’ve seen a few comments online about people who pronounce “idea” that way in the South and the West, but this pronunciation doesn’t seem very common. And I haven’t noticed anything authoritative written on the subject.

You’re probably aware, though, that “idea” is often pronounced idear in certain parts of England and the Eastern US. We wrote a blog item about this last fall.

By the way, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists four possible pronunciations for “idea,” but none of them sound at all like “ideal.”

Sorry we can’t be more helpful. We realize that this isn’t the ideal answer.

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To sir, with love

Q: A capitalization question has come up in connection with a novel I’m working on, but I can’t find the answer in The Chicago Manual of Style or anywhere else. Which is correct? “I don’t know, Sir.” Or: “I don’t know, sir.”

A: The word “sir” is lowercase when used in polite address (“May I help you, sir?”).

It’s capitalized in the salutation of a letter (“Dear Sir”) and when part of the given name of a knight or baronet (“Sir Henry had been bludgeoned with the dinner gong”).

This information comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

The word “sir” is a shortened form of “sire,” which we borrowed from Old French in the early 1200s.

Interestingly, “sire” was used for a knight before it came to denote a king or other ruler, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

And “sir,” of course, hasn’t always been used respectfully. Here’s a contemptuous 14th century example from Chaucer: “Sir olde lecchour, let thi japes be.”

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Funny you asked

Q: Here’s a question that might be fun for the blog: “Smelly” is something characterized by a smell. “Witty” is something characterized by wit. So what’s up with “funny”? Why does it mean amusing or comical rather than something that’s fun?

A: The adjectives “smelly” and “witty” are formed from the nouns “smell” and “wit” plus the suffix “y.” Similarly, the adjective “funny” is formed from the noun “fun” plus the suffix “y.”

A great many of our English adjectives are formed after this noun-plus-suffix pattern.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that “the general sense of this suffix is ‘having the qualities of’ or ‘full of’ that which is denoted by the n. [noun] to which it is added.”

These are the principal definitions of “fun” in the OED: “A cheat or trick; a hoax, a practical joke” (circa 1700); “diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery … a source or cause of amusement or pleasure” (1727); and “exciting goings-on” (1879).

For “funny,” the definitions are “affording fun, mirth-producing, comical, facetious” (1756); “curious, queer, odd, strange” (1806); and, in the expression “funny business,” it means “deceitful or underhand” (1888). We still use “funny” in all of these ways.

In summary, something that’s full of or characterized by “fun” in any of its senses can reasonably be described as “funny.” Of course, words tend to take on a life of their own, and not everything that’s “fun” can be described as “funny” in the ha-ha sense

As Woody Allen’s character said after a sex scene in Annie Hall, “That was the most fun I ever had without laughing.”

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Mo’ better blues

Q: My friend says he likes bebop “better than” the blues, but I say I like bebop “more than” the blues. What’s the difference? Is one adverb more intense than the other? Are both usages correct?

A: I don’t think there’s much if any difference in the degree of intensity between “more” and “better” when they’re used as adverbs to modify the verb “like” (e.g., “I like Monk more” vs. “I like Monk better”).

The adverb “more” has been used to modify verbs since Old English, and means “in a greater degree” or “to a greater extent.” The adverbial use was first recorded around the year 1000.

The adverb “better” has been used to modify verbs since the 1200s and means “in a more excellent way” or “in a superior manner.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has this quotation from a book by Pierre Erondelle, The French Garden (1605): “God grant me alwaies the key of the fieldes, I would like it better, then to be in bondage in the fayrest wainscotted or tapistred Chamber.”

In short, I think “more/most” and “better/best” are about equally expressive when you want to convey a preference with “like” and similar verbs.

Of course there’s a slight difference. “More” conveys quantity, and “better” conveys quality. But with the verb “like,” I think the difference is nil for all practical purposes. The choice is up to you.

If you want to read more, I wrote a blog item about “more” and “most” not long ago.

An interesting aside: An earlier form of “better,” the now archaic word “bet,” was used to modify verbs and was first recorded in the year 888. For example, the poem Piers Plowman (1377) has this passage: “do-wel, do-bet, and do-best.”

Today, of course, we’d write that as “do well, do better, and do best.” The old “bet” was displaced by “better” and finally disappeared in the 1600s.

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Nabokov’s favorite dictionary

Q: Sometime in the ’60s, Edmund Wilson reviewed a translation of Pushkin by Vladimir Nabokov. In the review, he accused Nabokov of using nonexistent words that were not in the Oxford English Dictionary. Nabokov replied that he never used the OED, but preferred another dictionary. Do you know what it was?

A: You’re referring to Edmund Wilson’s article in The New York Review of Books on July 15, 1965, in which he reviewed Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Wilson criticized Nabokov’s use of odd and obscure English words in translating the Russian of Pushkin:

“He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. All these can be found in the OED, but they are all entirely dictionary words, usually labeled ‘dialect,’ ‘archaic,’ or ‘obsolete.’ “

Wilson also complained about another word, “stuss,” which was not then in the OED. “To inflict on the reader such words is not really to translate at all,” he said, “for it is not to write idiomatic and recognizable English.”

Nabokov replied in a letter to the New York Review on Aug. 26, 1965, saying he wanted to “undeceive credulous readers who might assume that Mr. Wilson is an expert in Russian linguistics.”

He complained of “ghastly blunders” in the review, and said, “I greatly regret that Mr. Wilson did not consult me about his perplexities (as he used to do in the past) instead of lurching into print in such a state of glossological disarray.”

As for “stuss,” Nabokov said, it “is the English name of a card game which I discuss at length in my notes on Pushkin’s addiction to gambling.”

He said Wilson “should have consulted my notes (and Webster’s dictionary) more carefully.” Wilson, in a reply to Nabokov’s reply, sniffed, “I never use Webster.”

(They were apparently referring to Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, which defines “stuss” as a gambling game like faro. The OED now defines it as an American word for a form of faro.)

Wow! Some insults! And these guys were friends! The literary scene now seems tame by comparison.

I can’t find any mention during this particular dispute of Nabokov’s preference in dictionaries. But the literary critic Brian Boyd has said Nabokov’s favorite was Webster’s New International (2d ed.), often referred to as Web II. Boyd mentions this in a note to a book of his about Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire.

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A Faustian flight

Q: I was reading a biography of Thomas Carlyle in which he describes his first train ride as the “likest thing to a Faust’s flight on the Devil’s mantle.” The word “likest” seems so handy. When and why do you think we stopped using it?

A: You’re right: “likest” would be a handy word to have today. And, as you’ve discovered, it once was a handy word. In fact, it was used for hundreds of years (spelled “lickest,” “likkest,” “lykest,” and “likest”) before falling out of favor in the mid-19th century.

As a superlative that means most like someone or something, it first showed up in print in the 14th century. Here’s an early example from Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland’s allegorical poem: “He … made man likkest to hym-self one.”

The most recent published reference for “likest” that I can find in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1859 book about British novelists: “Swift … the likest author we have to Rabelais.”

I can’t find “likest” in the two modern US dictionaries that I use the most, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

But I do see the word in my Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) from the 1950s. Web 2 describes both the comparative “liker” and the superlative “likest” as “Now Chiefly Poetical,” though I don’t recall seeing either one in any recent poetry.

By the way, Carlyle used “liker” as well as “likest.” In his book Past and Present (1843), the essayist and historian wrote: “Nothing liker the Temple of the Highest, bright with some real effulgence of the Highest, is seen in this world.”

As for that devilish comment in the Carlyle biography, it was an allusion to the scene in Goethe’s tragic play in which Mephistopheles spreads out his mantle, or cloak, to take Faust on a satanic flight through the air.

Why did we stop using “likest”? I don’t know, but I’ll update this if I come across a likely story!

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On gifting and regifting

Q: I’m an American in Paris, where the main Xmas meal is very late on the 24th. I think it was originally supposed to keep you awake until Midnight Mass. In any case, that gives us all day on the 25th to digest. One thing I had trouble digesting during the last holiday was the use of the verb “gift,” as in “I plan to gift him an iPod.” What’s wrong with “give”? I hope you will indulge me by denouncing this usage, but I fear there are any number of acceptable examples going back millions of years. By the way, I have no problem with “regift.”

A: As you suspect, the verb “gift” is very old. It doesn’t go back millions of years, though, just to the 1500s!

Not surprisingly, the verb is adapted from the noun, which entered English around 1250, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. As for “gift” vs. “give,” the two words come from same Germanic source.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “gift” as “to endow or furnish with gifts … [or] to endow, invest, or present with as a gift … [or] to bestow as a gift; to make a present of.”

The OED’s first citation for the verb is from an anonymous 16th-century English poem: “The friendes that were together met / He gyfted them richely with right good speede.”

The poem, which was probably published around 1550 to 1560, is entitled A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for her Good Behaviour. (“Morel” is the name of a horse the husband kills for its skin. The horsehide is then rubbed in salt and wrapped around his wife to teach her good behavior. Yikes!)

Some scholars believe this long and very brutal poem about wifely submission, which was popular in its day, inspired Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

The OED’s citations for “gift” as a verb seem to peter out in the latter part of the 19th century. The most recent citations are from the 1870s and ’80s, as in this quote from The Abbey of Paisley, a history by J. Cameron Lees (1878): “The Regent Murray gifted all the Church Property to Lord Sempill.”

Today, this sense survives primarily in our participial adjective “gifted” (meaning something like talented). Example: “The Glasses are gifted children.”

But why is the old verb “gift” being revived? Your guess is as good as ours. We don’t care much for it but, like you, we’re rather fond of “regift.” This attitude may be inconsistent, but such is language.

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Negative feedback

Q: I heard you on NPR and I have a question: Why do people say “Let’s see if we can’t do this” instead of “Let’s see if we can do this”?

A: Let’s see if we can’t shed a little light.

In English, sentences that begin with “Let’s see if we can’t” or “I’ll see if I can’t” are routine, and most of us never stop to think about the negative construction. In fact, this kind of construction implies a positive outcome, not a negative one.

I haven’t found any sources that deal specifically with “see if we can’t,” but the linguist Otto Jespersen, in Essentials of English Grammar, writes about a similar phenomenon:

“A negative expression is often used idiomatically in such a way that the negative idea is weakened or even disappears totally.” He gives the example: “How often have I not watched him.”

Jespersen also notes that a question cast in the negative (“Isn’t that nice?”) actually implies a positive (“That is very nice”). I might add another example. “Won’t you join us?” really means “Will you join us?”

Elsewhere, Jespersen cites the expression “See if I don’t!” (Translation: “I will!”)

By extension, I think a sentence like “Let’s see if we can’t win” suggests that in fact we WILL win. On the other hand, the simple statement “Let’s see if we can win” is noncommittal. It doesn’t anticipate the outcome one way or the other.

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Now, that’s a grind!

Q: I came across the phrase “grinded to a halt” the other day in an article on the Star Tribune’s website about the Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. Were I writing the piece, I would’ve said “ground to a halt,” but it occurs to me that I don’t really know which one is more correct (if either).

A: The past tense and past participle of “grind” is “ground.” There is no “grinded,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary also gives both the past tense and the past participle as “ground.” However, it does have a few citations for the use of “grinded” in the 16th through 19th centuries.

It seems as if the dispute over the Senate election results has been going on since the 16th century. I’ll bet the people of Minnesota find that a grind!

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English English language Grammar Usage

Should Snow Patrol lie or lay?

Q: I hope you can settle a household dispute. There’s a song by Snow Patrol with the lines “If I just lay here / Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” My mother, a former English teacher, says the first line is yet another grating misuse of “lay,” and it should be “If I just lie here.” I don’t know what this construction is (the subjunctive, maybe?), but it seems right to me.

A: This isn’t a subjunctive issue. It involves an “if” clause followed by a conditional clause.

In a normal sequence of tenses, when the second verb is in the simple conditional tense (“would lie”), the first verb can be either in the simple present (“I lie”) or the simple past (“I lay”).

So that Snow Patrol lyric, from the song “Chasing Cars,” would have been grammatically correct either way.

The fact that the verb is “lie” does complicate things. It’s a minefield! But let’s imagine the same construction using different verbs.

Here are parallel examples using the simple present for the first verb: “If I run, would you run?” … “If I eat, would you eat?” … “If I go, would you go?”

And here are parallel examples using the simple past for the first verb: “If I ran, would you run?” … “If I ate, would you eat?” … “If I went, would you go?”

Of course, there is a subtle difference in meaning. The present tense (“If I lie/run/eat/go,  would you …”) implies “If I do it right now.” But the use of the past tense (“If I lay/ran/ate/went,  would you …”) in this context implies a theoretical time in the future, perhaps only minutes away. 

Assuming that the past tense is what the lyricist intended, the meaning is quite clear. But who says lyricists should use perfect English anyway?

In the words of Ira Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.” (And one of my favorite songs is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.”)

The Snow Patrol lyric is complicated by a lot of red herrings. The biggest and reddest, of course, is the verb “lie,” since the separate verb “lay” is identical to the past tense of “lie” and often confused with it. I’ve written about “lie” vs. “lay” before on the blog.

The word “here” is a mini-herring, since it seems to imply the present tense. And the use of “just” is another little red fishie, since it has two meanings: “recently” (which muddles the tense issue) and “simply.”

That’s why I eliminated the herrings in the simplified examples above.

One more note, however, about the use of the conditional “would.” This time we’ll use the verb “sing” to illustrate the correct sequence of tenses:

Present: “If I sing, would you sing?”

Past: “If I sang, would you sing?”

Past perfect: “If I had sung,  would you have sung [conditional perfect]?”

Note that in both past and present tenses, the simple conditional is appropriate for the accompanying clause. (There is no “past conditional.”)

The conditional can only be simple (“would sing”) or perfect (“would have sung”).

With that, I’ll go. Or, as the Snow Patrol song “Run” puts it, “I’ll sing it one last time for you / Then we really have to go.”

[Note: This post was revised on Dec. 12, 2014.]

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On to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow

Q: My supervisor sends out emails with sentences like “Debby will not be at work on tomorrow” or “We will meet on this afternoon.” Is it appropriate to say or write “on tomorrow” or “on this afternoon”? What is the rule for this?

A: The only “rule” here is common usage. If enough of us begin using “on” with “tomorrow” and such words, it will become an accepted idiom.

For now, though, it’s still unusual enough to grate on most people’s ears. In the best English, we don’t hear expressions like “on tomorrow” or “on this afternoon.” Here’s why.

The words “today,” “tonight,” and “tomorrow” already include the implied preposition “to.” In fact, they were once written as “to day,” “to night,” and “to morrow.”

Later, hyphens were added (as in Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy), then the hyphens fell away and the words were joined. To use the additional preposition “on” with these is redundant.

By extension, it’s redundant in sentences like the other one you cite to use the preposition “on” as well as the demonstrative adjective “this” with “evening,” “afternoon,” “morning,” etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the expressions “this morning, this afternoon, this evening now always mean ‘the morning (etc.) of to-day.’ ”

(We’re leaving aside emphatic usages like “The night was memorable because it was on this evening that he proposed,” or “On this particular morning we discussed the company’s future.”)

Within its entry for the preposition “on,” the OED has this definition: “Indicating the day or part of the day when an event takes place.” (This is the sense in which your supervisor uses it.)

The OED’s citations, dating from Old English to the present, generally pair the preposition with holidays (“on Wintanceastre,” “on Cristesmessa,” “on All Soules Day”), days of the week (“on fridæi,” “on saterdei,” “on Sundays,” “on Tuestay,” and so on), or dates (“on the 29th”).

The OED does note, however, that in US and in Irish English, the preposition “on” is sometimes “used with tomorrow, yesterday, etc.” – but it adds that this usage is apparently redundant.

We hope this sheds some light.

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Stupid, stupider, and stupidest

Q: Being an avid IRC user in Australia, I chat with a lot of US folk. Your site was able to explain to me why I hadn’t seen many of them use “whilst,” “amongst,” and “amidst” as much as I do. I was wondering if you could answer this question. Back in high school, my senior English teachers used to complain about the superlative “stupidest.” They proclaimed that “stupid” could not be used in such a manner, and that only “most stupid” was appropriate. Any idea where their belief may have originated?

A: I don’t see any problem with “stupidest.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, gives the forms as “stupid” … “stupider” … “stupidest.”

And this isn’t a peculiar Americanism. H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage also gives the correct forms as “stupid” … “stupider” … “stupidest.”

Fowler hints, though, at what might account for your teachers’ avoiding “est” in favor of “most” to form the superlative:

“Neglect or violation of established usage with comparatives & superlatives sometimes betrays ignorance, but more often reveals the repellent assumption that the writer is superior to conventions binding on the common herd.”

And “stupidest” does seem to be quite common in English usage. While the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry specifically for “stupidest,” I did find the word in several quotations cited within other entries, including these:

1828: Thomas Carlyle, in a letter, refers to “the simplest and stupidest man of his day.”

1842: Samuel Lover, in Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life (1842), writes, “She felt the pique which every pretty woman experiences who fancies her favours disregarded, and thought Andy the stupidest lout she ever came across.”

1871: Charles Gibbon, in the novel For Lack of Gold, writes, “This cursed frenzy makes me say and think the stupidest things.”

Just for the heck of it, I searched online in “The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913,” and found the word used in testimony in a theft case tried in May 1785. A prosecutor is quoted as saying, “I should be the stupidest man living, having property, to leave my house so unsafe.”

The Old Bailey site is great fun, by the way. Check it out, when you’re not channeling with Internet Relay Chat!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Spelling Usage Word origin

Phoo, pfui, and phooey

Q: I recently saw “phewey” used on Twitter to imply “oh, darn!” I don’t think it’s a word. When my daughter says “phew,” she’s relieved that something has ended or never happened. Am I right that the Twitter posting person (who is NOT a twit) should have used “fooey” or “phooey”?

A: The word the twitterer should have used is “phooey.” The spelling “phewey” definitely doesn’t fill the bill. “Phew” would rhyme with “few” instead of “foo.”

Believe it or not, “phooey” has a respectable lineage as an English interjection, and its beginnings may go back to the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “phoo” was first recorded in 1672, and defines it as “expressing contemptuous rejection, cursory dismissal (of a proposition, idea, etc.), disagreement, or reproach.”

The first person to use it in writing, as far as we know, was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who along with several collaborators wrote a satirical play called The Rehearsal, staged in 1671 and published in 1672. The quote: “Phoo! that is to raise the character of Drawcansir.”

The word has continued to appear in fictional dialogue ever since. Here’s Oliver Goldsmith, in his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “‘Phoo, Charles,’ interrupted she, ‘all that is very true.’ ” And here’s Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park (1814): “Phoo! Phoo! Do not be so shamefaced.”

The expression was also used to mean something like “darn!” as in this quotation from Maria Edgeworth’s novel Castle Rackrent (1800): “Phoo, I’ve cut myself with this razor.”

In the mid-19th century, some writers began using a similar word, “pfui,” adopted from a German word (pfui) that means the same thing: “an emphatic expression of contempt, disgust, or cursory dismissal,” according to the OED.

Here’s William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1864: “Pfui! For a month before my lord’s arrival I had been knocking at all doors to see if I could find my poor wandering lady behind them.”

Both “phoo” and “pfui” continued to be used through 20th century. The most recent citations for both in the OED are from the 1990s.

The spelling “phooey” first showed up in 1919 in a caption appearing in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star-Journal: “Phooey! That’s old stuff – she told me pers’n’ly that all of them ‘sweet patootie’ letters was forged.” Was this just a new spelling of the old “pfui”? We can’t tell for sure.

The lyricist Lorenz Hart was apparently fond of the word. He used it in the song “A Melican Man” in 1926: “Give Chinee man this chop suey / He’ll refuse it and say ‘Phooey’!” The following year, in the song “Whoopsie,” he used it to mean “mad” or “crazy”: “When ev’ry thing’s gaflooey / And life is simply phooey…”

All of these words (the English “phoo,” “phooey,” and “pfui,” as well as the German pfui) are “imitative,” the OED says. They imitate the action of dismissively puffing or blowing through the lips.

We can’t vouch for their ultimate derivations or even say for sure that the English versions are essentially the same word. The OED has separate entries for each, merely directing the reader to “compare” them.

There may not be a paper trail here, but our hunch is that they’re the same animal with different spots.

By the way, spellings vary widely with many such imitative words. If you’re interested, we ran a blog entry last year about a few other words that mimic interjections.

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It is high. It is far. It is gone.

Q: Why is it that baseball announcers (like John Sterling and Michael Kay for the Yankees) refer to the Dominican Republic as the Dominican? Example: “Manny Ramirez came from the Dominican to play baseball.” It drives me nuts.

A: There are all kinds of Englishes: American, British, Australian, Indian, Irish, and so on. One of the more quaint varieties is baseball English.

As a friend who lives, eats, and sleeps baseball told me, “Remember that Major League Baseball announcers to a man (and, yes, they are all men) say ‘amongst’ rather than ‘among.’ So, they dwell in a milieu given to mannered speech.”

I can’t tell you where this particular usage comes from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s simply an attempt by the announcers to add variety to their patter.

I suspect that if you listen carefully you’ll find that many announcers use both “the Dominican Republic” and “the Dominican” while doing play-by-play.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame, for instance, used both versions on its website last year in an item on the opening of an exhibition in Santo Domingo about Dominican players.

As I’m sure you’re aware, baseball announcers are famous for their broadcast mannerisms. Sterling, for example, can’t announce a home run without saying “It is high. It is far. It is gone.”

And if it’s really gone, I guess, it ends up in the Dominican!

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“Ma’am” is the word

Q: I serve with the US military and am constantly being corrected for using “Sirs/Madams” as a general greeting in emails to a group of men and women of higher rank. To pay proper respect to a higher-ranking individual, I would use the words “Sir” or “Ma’am.” But I was told by numerous English teachers that there is no plural of “Ma’am,” hence my use of “Madams.”

A: The word “ma’am,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), is an abbreviated form of “madam.” Although “ma’ams” is occasionally seen or heard, none of the dictionaries I consult the most consider the plural standard English.

I could find only a few published examples of “ma’ams” in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them, a 1781 reference to “misses and ma’ams,” uses the word for a group of married women, not as a term of respect for high-ranking women.

The other citations refer to “thank-you-ma’ams,” hollows or ridges that makes for bumpy rides when vehicles pass over them. This colloquial expression refers to the involuntary nods of people in the vehicles.

The entry for “madam” in Merriam-Webster’s gives the ordinary plural as “madams.” But it notes that when the title “madam” is “used without a name as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman,” then the plural is “mesdames.”

So “Sirs/Mesdames” would be correct in salutations, though I would think “Dear Sir or Madam” would look better. (Another possibility might be “Ladies/Gentlemen.”)

As for “madams,” the Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says this plural usually refers to women in charge of houses of prostitution. I guess that’s as good a reason as any for not using it to address superiors in the military.

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Uggies of the Year?

Q: Three words are driving me nuts: “incentivize,” “effort” (used as a verb), and “orientate.” You covered “orientate” recently on the Leonard Lopate Show. Any comments about the other two? They appear to come from the worlds of business and politics.

A: I’m happy to say that to “effort” is a new one on me, though another listener recently wrote me about it. I can’t find any dictionary that allows “effort” as anything but a noun.

“Incentivize” is truly ugly but, unlike “effort,” it appears as a verb in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed). M-W dates it from 1970.

What’s wrong with “motivate”? I have a blog entry about “incentivize” and one on an even weirder (in my opinion) verb, “incent.” I also have a posting on “orientate.”

“Incent” is a word formed a generation or so ago, and it’s what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” (As the verb “effort” is a back-formation from the noun “effort,” and “orientate” is one from “orientation.”)

The blog entry on “incent” has more information on other back-formations, some of them pretty outrageous. How about “administrate” as a candidate for Uggie of the Year!

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