Why is a top 10 song a hit?

Q: What is the origin of “hit” as a positive term, as in “hit song”?

A: When we say a movie or an album is a “hit,” we aren’t implying that it got there by physical violence, even when the movie or album has a lot of rough stuff in it.

So why do we use such a pugilistic word to refer to a popular success? There’s a good reason, as it turns out.

The noun “hit” began life pretty violently—as a blow, a stroke, a collision, or an impact. But that kind of “hit” eventually gave us a successful stroke in any kind of endeavor, especially in the entertainment field.

Here’s how the word evolved.

The noun “hit” is derived from the earlier verb “hit,” which was nonviolent when it showed in English nearly a thousand years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb is believed to have come into English from Old Norse, where hitta meant “to come upon, light upon, meet with, get at, attain to, reach one’s aim, succeed, and the like.”

This sense of getting at or attaining something is what the verb “hit” originally meant when it was first recorded in English sometime before 1075.

It wasn’t until two centuries later, around 1275, that “hit” got its more violent meaning—“to get at or reach with a blow, to strike,” the OED says.

Both senses of the verb are still with us today.

The original Old Norse meaning survives in phrases like “hit the road,” “hit the trail,” “hit my meaning,” “hit a happy medium,” “hit upon an idea (or fact),” “hit it off,” “hit the mark,” “hit the truth,” “hit the sack” (to get to bed), and so on.

All these senses of the verb are nonviolent. They don’t mean crashing or colliding into something, but rather reaching or attaining or getting at it.

The newer and more violent sense of the verb “hit” is the one that’s more familiar today, and it’s the one that gave us all senses of the noun “hit”—including the one you ask about.

The noun “hit” came along in the mid-15th century, and boy was it violent in the beginning!

The OED’s earliest citation is from Ludus Coventriae (circa 1450), an anonymous English miracle play:

“To hym wyl I go, and geve hym suche an hete / That alle the lechis of the londe his lyf xul nevyr restore.” (“To him will I go, and give him such a hit that all the leeches of the land his life shall never restore.”)

Yikes! It’s hard to tell what would be worse—the hit or the leeches.

Many uses of the noun are violent, of course—some more than others. For instance, a “hit” came to mean a killing, perhaps for hire, in the mid-20th century.

And this sense of the noun has been used attributively—that is, as an adjective—in phrases like “hit man” and “hit squad.”

But “hit” has more peaceful meanings as well. For instance, a “hit” can be a stroke of good luck or a stroke of a ball on the playing field.

We’re not sure, though, how to list a “hit” of drugs: violent or nonviolent?

More pertinent to your question is a usage that the OED dates to the early 19th century: “a successful stroke made in action or performance of any kind; esp. any popular success (a person, a play, a song, etc.) in public entertainment.”

This sense of the noun has also been used attributively in phrases such as “hit parade” and “hit song,” the OED adds.

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “hit” is from a letter written in 1811 by the comedian Charles Mathews:

“Maw-worm was a most unusual hit, I am told.” (Mathews played the role of Mr. Mawworm in The Hypocrite, by the Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaff, on the London stage in 1809.)

And since we like quoting from mysteries, here’s a citation from Fredric Brown’s Murder Can Be Fun (1951): “She had big blue eyes that would have been a hit on television.”

We’ll end with the use of the noun “hit” in computing to mean a match in a processing task or a connection with a website.

The OED’s first citation for this usage, from Charles J. Sippl’s Computer Dictionary and Handbook (1967), defines the term “hit” in digital file maintenance as “the finding of a match between a detail record and a master record.”

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Birth of the cool

Q: My impression is that “cool” in modern usage (“cool it” or “she’s cool”) derives from black culture. Now, of course, it’s been appropriated by the general culture and everyone uses it. Am I right?

A: Black slang has enriched English in ways that most people (including many African Americans) don’t realize. And it goes way beyond “cool.”

Mention African-American slang to the man in the street and he might come up with a scant handful of recent coinages: “dis,” “chill,” “cred,” “phat,” “bling,” and “gangsta.”

But the story is much bigger than that. BE (linguist-speak for Black English) has been contributing to the general American vocabulary, both standard and slang, since the 19th century.

“Cool” is a good example.

The use of it as a noun meaning composure (as in “keeping one’s cool”) was first recorded in 1953 and originated in Black English, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

But the dictionary, edited by Jonathan Lighter, says “cool” had been used among African Americans as early as 1933 in another sense, as an adjective meaning exciting, enjoyable, or superlative (as in “the coolest drummer alive”).

Here’s a sampling of popular terms, both old and new, that were either invented or adapted to colorful new uses by speakers of Black English.

Words:  “hip,” “dig,” “soul,” “funky,” “gig,” “jam,” “jive,” “boogie,” “boogie-woogie,” “corny,” “heavy” (amazing or admirable), “bad” (that is, good), “jones” (an addiction or habit), “do” (hairdo), and “lame” (foolish).

Also, “righteous” (honorable), “attitude” (also ’tude), “girlfriend” (as a form of address between women), “homeboy,” “ ’hood,” “yo,” “ride” (a skateboard), “uptight,” “props” (respect), “man” (used in direct address), and “the man” (the police or white society).

Phrases: “get with it,” “bad-mouth,” “chill out,” “talk trash” (to lie), “strut your stuff,” “chump change” (small change), “kick back” (relax), “live large” (that is, extravagantly), “do your (own) thing,” “get-go” (the beginning), “go down” (to take place), “get down” (to work), “nitty gritty,” and “rip off” (to exploit).

Other expressions: “Right on!” … “Don’t go there” … “What’s up with that?” … “You go, girl!” … “You’re the man” (expressing admiration) … “Say what?” … “Tell it like it is” … “What goes around comes around.”

Gone are the days when commentators on English dissed the language of the streets. It has crossed over into mainstream use.

Margaret G. Lee made that point in a 1999 article in the journal American Speech called “Out of the Hood and into the News: Borrowed Black Verbal Expressions in a Mainstream Newspaper” (1999).

She notes that slang in general, not just African-American slang, “is no longer perceived as a low, vulgar, nonmeaning language of the vagrant or illiterate classes as it was in the 1800s and early 1900s.”

The use of slang by mainstream journalists and other educated professionals, she adds, “indicates its respect and status among some outgroup speakers.”

As two former journalists and “outgroup speakers” who appreciate slang, we couldn’t agree more.

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Etymology Grammar Punctuation Uncategorized

Why is the apostrophe possessive?

Q: A question that has been on my mind for a long time deals with the use of the apostrophe in a possessive like “John’s house.” How and when did this usage come into use?

A: When the apostrophe mark was introduced into English in the 1500s, it was originally used to show where a letter or syllable had been omitted. 

We still use it this way in contractions, but in fact it’s also how the apostrophe came to be a mark of possession.   

In Old English, long before the apostrophe came into use, the possessive ending for most nouns was es.

A house belonging to John, for example, would have been called something like “Johnes house.” (Another way to show possession was by using the word “of,” as in “the house of John.”) 

After the apostrophe came along, a possessive word like “Johnes” was written as “John’s” to show that a letter had been dropped—the e in es.

But the story is not as simple as that.

In Middle English (around 1100-1500) and later, the possessive ending es was often misheard as the possessive pronoun “his.”

This accounts for such erroneous old constructions as “John his house” (meaning “Johnes house”).

Historians have suggested that printers used the apostrophe (“John’s”) as a shortened form of either possessive, the legitimate “Johnes” or the illegitimate “John his.”

In “Axing the Apostrophe,” a 1989 article in English Today, the language writer Adrian Room has called the word for this punctuation mark “a cumbersome name for an awkward object.”

Where does this clunky name come from?

The short answer, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us, is that we got it via Latin and French from the classical Greek phrase prosoidia apostrophos, literally “accent of turning away.”

But there’s usually a long answer when tracking down the origin of an English word.

In this case, “apostrophe” entered English in the 1500s with two meanings, one in punctuation and the other in rhetoric.

In rhetoric, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “apostrophe” is a “figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent.”

The earliest published use of this sense in the OED comes from Sir Thomas More’s Apology (1533): “With a fygure of apostrophe and turning his tale to God criyng out: O good Lorde.”

The first citation for the word used to mean the punctuation mark is from the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1588): “You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.”

(The word is spelled “apostraphas” or “apostrophus” in various editions of the play. The latter spelling persisted into the 18th century,  echoing the late Latin apostrophus.)

And that’s the story of how John’s house got its apostrophe.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. If you miss a program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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A phobia you won’t find in the PDR

Q: I was reading Bob Cesca on the Huffington Post the other day when he referred to “the increasingly regional, homogenized, sophophobic GOP.” I checked the Oxford English Dictionary and didn’t find the word “sophophobic,” though I’m sure the meaning is obvious to you. Can you enlighten me?

A: “Sophophobia” is a fear of learning or knowledge, so someone with this phobia is “sophophobic” or a “sophophobe.”

You won’t find any of these words in the OED. Or in the Physicians Desk Reference, either. They’re inventions, based on the Greek roots sophos (wise or clever) and phobos (fear).

We can’t tell you when or where they first cropped up, but one of them is at least a couple of decades old.

“Sophophobia” (defined as “intense fear of knowledge or of learning”) appears in a glossary in Robertson’s Words for a Modern Age: A Cross Reference of Latin and Greek Combining Elements (1991).

John G. Robertson, who compiled and edited the work, also includes the word in a later book of lists, An Excess of Phobias and Manias (2003).

Of all these phobias (not to mention manias), we especially like “sophophobia” because of the quirky letter combination “phopho” in the middle! 

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My bad!

Q: A Washington Post sports blogger has discussed speculation that Manute Bol, the NBA player who died last month, may have coined the phrase “My bad.” Is there any chance this isn’t a tall story?

A: No, the 7-foot-6 Manute Bol, the tallest person to play in the NBA, did not coin the phrase “My bad.”

Language sleuths say  the phrase (roughly translated as “My fault” or “I blew it” or even “Whoops!”) was tossed around on playgrounds and basketball courts before the Sudanese player was quoted as using it. 

Ben Zimmer, the New York Times Magazine’s new “On Language” columnist, has written about this elsewhere – in his Word Routes column on Visual Thesaurus.

So far, word detectives have found examples of “My bad” in print going back to 1985. (Bol was not quoted using it until 1989.) Anecdotal reports, which are not  authoritative, have the phrase showing up as early as the 1970s.

“All of this makes it unlikely,” Zimmer concludes, “that Bol was the first to come up with ‘my bad’ when he began playing in the NBA in the late ’80s, or even in his earlier collegiate days.”

Nonetheless, Zimmer adds, Bol’s “natural ebullience must have done much to popularize the expression among his fellow ballplayers, despite the language gap. The big man’s outsized personality made ‘my bad’ his own.”

We should add that Dan Sternberg, the Washington Post blogger, expressed doubts in his original posting that Bol actually coined the phrase.

And Sternberg later posted an update on his D.C. Sports Bog (yes, “Bog” is correct), citing Zimmer’s  good work on “My bad.”

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Lie detection

Q: I was just wondering: Is a lie “bold-faced” or “bald-faced”?

A: They’re both correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), but they may have slightly different meanings.

The expression “bold-faced lie” (given as an example in the dictionary’s entry for “bold-faced”) suggests a brazen lie while “bald-faced lie” (an example in the “bald-faced” entry) suggests an undisguised one.

However, the definitions for “bold-faced” and “bald-faced” in American Heritage indicate that the two phrases overlap somewhat. The “bald-faced” entry, for example, is defined as brash as well as undisguised.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) makes a bit more of a distinction between the two phrases.

M-W defines “bold-faced” as impudent, and “bald-faced” as barefaced. (The term “barefaced” is this context is defined as unscrupulous.) And Merriam-Webster’s only example involving lying is in its “bald-faced” entry.

In spite of these dictionary distinctions, a bit of googling suggests that lots of people use “bold-faced lie” and “bald-faced lie” interchangeably to refer to either a brazen or an undisguised lie.

Of the two, “bold-faced lie” is by far the more popular, with nearly 1.6 million hits on Google compared with only 39,000 for “bald-faced lie.”

A version of the expression especially popular in Britain, “barefaced lie,” gets 452,000 hits, with another 413,000 for two-word or hyphenated versions.

The terms “bold-faced” and “barefaced” (minus the word “lie”) date back to Shakespeare, according to citations in the OED.

“Bold-faced,” in the sense of impudent, first appeared in Henry VI, Part 1 (1591): “It warm’d thy father’s heart with prowd desire / Of bold-fac’t Victorie.”  

“Barefaced,” meaning undisguised, first showed up in Macbeth (1605): “And though I could / With bare-fac’d power sweepe him from my sight.”

Although many people seem to believe that “barefaced lie” is the source of both the “bald” and “bold” versions, it appears that “bold-faced lie” is by far the oldest, dating back to at least the early 1600s.

In a search of the Early English Books Online database, we found this example from a 1607 anti-Papist poem by Robert Picket: “Who so beleeues this Popish bold facest lie, / That’s grounded on, suppos’d admired Grasse, / May fatly feed, his follies foolerie: / Yet liue indeed, a very leane fed Asse.”

We couldn’t find any examples of “barefaced lie” until the late 18th century. One of the earliest (found in the Early American Imprints database) is from a 1798 religious tract by John Fowler.

In the work, Fowler questions whether “watchmen would report a barefaced lie that would have criminated themselves” about the disappearance of Jesus’ body.

The real newbie here, “bald-faced lie,” apparently didn’t show up until the mid-19th century.

The earliest citation we found comes from a headline in an Iowa newspaper, the Sept. 12, 1860, issue of the Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle: “Another ‘Bald-Faced’ Lie Nailed to the Counter.”  

To recap, it’s OK to use either “bold-faced lie,” “bald-faced lie,” or “barefaced lie.” But “bold-faced lie” is the most popular, and a lot of people would scratch their heads over “bald-faced lie.”

If you want to be understood – and that’s the primary goal of good English – then it would be safer to go with “bold-faced lie” or “barefaced lie.”

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Suffice it to say

Q: Which is the correct usage, “suffice to say” or “suffice it to say”?

A: You’re the second person in a week to ask us about this usage. In modern English, the common expression is “suffice it to say,” though “it suffices to say” and “suffice to say” have their adherents.

Why the “it”? Let’s begin with the etymology of the verb “suffice.”

It’s defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “to be enough, sufficient, or adequate for a purpose or the end in view.”

The word comes from the Latin verb sufficere (to be sufficient or adequate) and was first recorded in English in about 1325.

Here’s how Sir Thomas More used it in 1528 in one of his dialogues: “Yet yf he lacked charite, all hys fayth suffised not.”

And here it is in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1596): “ ’twixt such friends as wee, / Few words suffice.”

Almost from the beginning, however, people also used this kind of construction: subject + “suffice” + “to” + infinitive. Here are a pair of 19th-century examples:

1839, from Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation: “A very short time would suffice to teach him to read.”

1883, from the Manchester Guardian: “A little thing has sufficed to destroy the balance of a structure that was already tottering.”

A similar construction would be “it suffices to say,” but as the OED points out, the subjunctive version of the expression (“suffice it to say”) is the one now commonly used.

The dictionary quotes the poet John Dryden as writing “It suffices to say” in 1692,  but the later examples, from the 18th and 19th centuries, are in the subjunctive mood: “suffice it to say.”

The OED indicates that “formerly,” the expression sometimes appeared without the “anticipatory subject it.” In other words, “suffice to say” was once used, but no more.

The dictionary seems to be a bit behind the times here. Although “suffice it to say” and “it suffices to say” are far more common today, the “it”-less version is very much with us.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “suffice it to say,” 24 million hits; “it suffices to say,” 1.2 million hits; “suffice to say,” 349,000 hits.

In modern times, according to the OED, the “it” version of the expression is “chiefly in the subjunctive.”

Why the subjunctive?

Well, it’s not unusual for a rather archaic-sounding subjunctive (like “suffice it …”) to survive in a common expression rather than the straightforward indicative version (“it suffices …”).

For example, we use the subjunctive in such common sayings as “God be with you,” “far be it from me,” “heaven help us,” “God forbid,” “Long live the Queen,” “so be it,” and “come what may.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written a blog item about the survival of older vestiges of the subjunctive in constructions like those.

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What’s “de” story?

Q: I recently read a book review in the New York Times that refers to Simone de Beauvoir as “Beauvoir.” However, the Times invariably refers to Charles de Gaulle as “de Gaulle.” Similarly, Ludwig van Beethoven is called “Beethoven,” but the von Trapp singers keep the “von.” Is there any consistency in this? And how are these names alphabetized? The author of the book review is Francine du Plessix Gray. Is she alphabetized under D, P, or G?

A: The “de” in Simone de Beauvoir’s name, like the “van” in Ludwig van Beethoven’s and the “von” in Werner von Braun’s, is called a particle or, more specifically, a nobiliary particle (it originated as a mark of noble rank).

In English, particles are sometimes used with a last name standing alone (as in “de Beauvoir”) and sometimes not (“Beauvoir”); in her case, you’ll find it both ways, but the usual American practice is to refer to her as “Beauvoir.”

Some famous last names never appear with their particles, but others regularly do.

For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is simply referred to as “Goethe,” Honoré de Balzac as “Balzac,” Miguel de Cervantes as “Cervantes.” And of course Beethoven as “Beethoven.” On the other hand, there are “Von Braun,” “Van Gogh,” “De Quincey,” “de Klerk,” and “de Gaulle.”

We won’t get into the complexities of particles in their countries of origin, where usage is governed by a host of byzantine rules and traditions. 

Even in English-speaking countries, the use or non-use of the particle as well as its capitalization and alphabetization aren’t always easy to figure out. 

The painter Willem de Kooning, for instance, is generally known as “de Kooning” when his last name appears alone, but he’s indexed with the K’s.

Charles de Gaulle, always known as “de Gaulle,” and Daphne du Maurier, whose last name is written as “Du Maurier” when it appears alone, are indexed with the D’s.

See what we mean?

Here’s the advice given in The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.): “In alphabetizing family names containing particles, the indexer must consider the individual’s personal preference (if known) as well as traditional and national usages.”

If that’s not much help to you, the manual adds that you can look up the name in Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary or in the biographical section of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Unfortunately, the Biographical Dictionary is no longer in print, but Mark Stevens, the director of general reference at Merriam-Webster’s, was kind enough to send along the following helpful advice:

“In the names of Frenchmen and -women, de and d’ are almost always lowercased; treatment of du varies. La and Le are almost always capitalized. In alphabetized lists, names are alphabetized under their first capitalized element. When someone is referred to by his or her surname alone, the particle is usually included only if it’s capitalized; thus, we would normally say ‘Sartre and Beauvoir’ but ‘Molière and La Rochefoucauld.’

“Elsewhere in Europe, particles such as von, vandadi, and the Spanish/Portuguese de are just about always lowercased when they show up in surnames, and usually omitted when the surname is used by itself. Dutch particles such as van and ter are usually lowercased, but when the surname is used by itself, the particle is capitalized and included (‘in Van Gogh’s paintings’).

“Surnames of people born in Britain or the U.S., regardless of the names’ original sources, just about always begin with a capital letter even if they look foreign (Mark Van Doren, Bernard De Voto). When you come across the surname of a native-born American or Briton that starts with a lowercase letter, such as Agnes de Mille, Walter de la Mare, or John le Carré, you’ll often be right in thinking that these aren’t quite the names they were born with. But American writers and editors naturally try to observe the style preferred by the individuals themselves.”

Thank you, Mark. We might add that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage follows roughly these same guidelines, which is why the newspaper uses “Beauvoir” for the French intellectual.

“But follow individual preferences,” the Times style guide adds.

As for Francine du Plessix Gray, the daughter of a French vicomte, she emigrated as a child to the US and later married the painter Cleve Gray. Her surname is given as “Gray” and she’s alphabetized under G.

What difference does a tiny particle make? At one time, it meant a great deal.

We came across this quotation in Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s book French and English: A Comparison (1889):

“After careful observation I have arrived at the conclusion that the French de  before a name, whether rightly or fraudulently borne (for that makes little perceptible difference), is equivalent to about ten thousand pounds in the [London] marriage market and will often count for more. It is wonderful that it should be so, considering that all French people know how frequently the de is assumed; but it seems to be valued as a mark that the bearer belongs to the gentry, which, in fact, he generally does. The genuine nobility who have become too poor to keep a place in genteel society, and have to work for their living, seldom retain the particule, or retain it only for a short time. If they did not drop it themselves the world would drop it for them.”

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How hilarious is very hilarious?

Q: Pat used the expression “very hilarious” recently on Iowa Public Radio. I am wondering if words like “excellent,” “hilarious,” “superb,” etc., shouldn’t stand alone. Isn’t “very” superfluous?

A: Some usage authorities object to qualifying words they consider “absolutes” (like “complete,” “perfect,” “unique,” “infinite,” and so on). However, the words you mention aren’t considered absolute terms.

You’re right, though, that words like “excellent,” “superb,” and “hilarious” are intense enough by themselves, and generally shouldn’t need to be qualified.

As soon as Pat used the phrase “very hilarious” during her June 14 appearance on Talk of Iowa, she regretted it. She wouldn’t have used this expression in writing, but such are the perils of live radio!

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog entry a while back about the use of absolute terms.

In a broad sense, we agree with the usage writers who object to qualifying these terms. But we think it’s legitimate to use qualifiers with absolute terms in some cases — for instance, to show that something is approaching an absolute condition.

We think that’s what the Founders had in mind when they wrote in the Preamble of the Constitution about forming “a more perfect Union.”

If you’d like another opinion, here’s what The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has to say in a usage note about absolutes:

“By strict logic, absolute terms cannot be compared, as by more and most, or used with an intensive modifier, such as very or so. Something either is complete or it isn’t – it cannot be more complete than something else.”

But criticizing such a usage as illogical, American Heritage adds, “confuses pure logic or a mathematical ideal with the rough approximations that are frequently needed in ordinary language.”

“Certainly in some contexts we should use words strictly logically; otherwise teaching mathematics would be impossible,” the dictionary says.

But it notes that people “often think in terms of a scale or continuum rather than in clearly marked either/or categories.”

“Thus,” American Heritage concludes, “we may think of a statement as either logically true or false, but we also know that there are degrees of truthfulness and falsehood.”

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A choice usage

Q: The mayor of Seattle recently chose between two candidates for police chief. Would it be  correct to say he had two choices? Or did he have a single choice between two alternatives? I think the former would be wrong, but I cannot get anyone to support me.

A: The  noun “choice” doesn’t always mean “that which is chosen.” It has other definitions as well.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists “option” and “alternative” among the accepted definitions.

So it would not be incorrect to say the mayor had two choices to pick from. And this is not a particularly new usage either.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this use of the word back to 1794. Here’s a typical citation, from Edward A. Freeman’s The History of the Norman Conquest (1871):

“In dealing with William the Conqueror there were only two choices, unconditional submission and resistance to the last.”

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Can one ship make a flotilla?

Q: The word “flotilla” has been in the news a lot lately since the Israeli raid last May on ships carrying aid to Gaza. I find this use of the term odd, since the story is primarily about an Israeli raid on one ship. Is “flotilla” being used correctly?

A: You’re  right that one ship does not a flotilla make. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “flotilla” as “a small fleet; a fleet of boats or small vessels.”

But most of the news stories we’ve read use the term correctly, saying Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of six ships, and killed nine people on one of the ships.

As for the word in question, it was adopted from the Spanish word flotilla, a diminutive of flota, or “fleet.” In fact, “flota” was adopted into English too, though we don’t see it much these days.

In English, the OED says, “flota” was used not only generically for a fleet of ships but also as a term for “the Spanish fleet which used to cross the Atlantic and bring back to Spain the products of America and the West Indies.”

The OED’s first English citation for “flotilla” is dated 1711, and the first for “flota” is from 1690.

If you suspect the English verb “float” is lurking in here somewhere, you’re right. But we didn’t get it from Spanish; like “fleet,” it came from old Germanic sources.

Interestingly, the English word “fleet,” meaning a group of ships, was fleot in Old English and originally meant a single ship or floating vessel.

It came from the Old English verb fleotan (to float), which is ultimately traceable to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as pleud (to flow).

By the 1200s, according to the OED, “fleet” had come to mean a group of ships or a naval force.

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The salt of life

Q: In reading one of the stories in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, I was stumped by this sentence: “And I am not fooling when I say that for several days the salt had gone out of life.” Can you help me?

A: In the World War II story you were reading, the narrator is describing the reaction of servicemen at the base laundry after their pet dog was run over by a truck.

Michener, who based the story collection on his experiences as a naval officer in the South Pacific, was using a poetical way of saying the flavor (or spice) had gone out of life.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several figurative uses of the word “salt,” including “that which gives liveliness, freshness, or piquancy to a person’s character, life, etc.”

The OED cites published usages of the word in this sense dating back to 1579, when Laurence Tomson used it in translating some French sermons of Calvin: “They are such that have neither salt nor sause in them.” 

Shakespeare came up with one of the best-known phrases using “salt” in this sense. He wrote in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598): “We have some salt of our youth in us.”

This passage was echoed by Trollope in his novel The Belton Estate (1865): “He was a man not yet forty years of age, with still much of the salt of youth about him.”

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The holistic truth

Q: I’m having an argument with spell-check over “holistic.” I’d like to spell it with a “w,” as in “whole,” but my computer is unhappy and wants to spell it like “holy.” Seriously, why do we spell “whole” with a “w,” but “holistic” without one?

A: The adjective “holistic,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is relatively new, a creation of the 1920s, but its “w”-less spelling has older origins.

The adjective was formed from the noun “holism,” a combination of the Greek holos (“whole”) plus the English suffix “ism.”

The Greek root holos probably accounts for the absence of the “w” in “holism” and “holistic.” Although the word “whole” (spelled various ways) dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, the “wh” spelling didn’t appear in English until the 15th century.

The noun “holism,” the OED says, was coined by Jan Christiaan Smuts, a South African general, politician, and philosopher, “to designate the tendency in nature to produce wholes (i.e. bodies or organisms) from the ordered grouping of unit structures.”

Here’s a quotation, using both the noun and the adjective, from Smuts’s book Holism and Evolution (1926): “The whole-making, holistic tendency, or Holism, operating in and through particular wholes, is seen at all stages of existence.”

And here’s a slightly later quotation, from The British Weekly (1927): “The real entities of the material world must, like organisms, be creative, self-transcending, functional. They must be Holistic unities.”

But perhaps this 1959 use of the noun from the Times of London better reflects modern usage:

“Holism has at last penetrated departments of nutrition, and a new school of nutrition has arisen which realizes that the integration of nutrition, health and disease is a problem that must be attacked on a wide front.”

Is there a connection between “whole” and “holy”? Well, yes, if we go back far enough.

Both came into English from Old Teutonic sources, but they’re distantly related to one another (as well as to  “hale,” “health,” “heal,” and the Greek holos) through an ancient Indo-European ancestor reconstructed as kailo or qoilos, meaning whole, uninjured, or of good omen.

In discussing the origin of “holy,” the OED says “the primitive pre-Christian meaning is uncertain,” but “it is with some probability assumed to have been ‘inviolate, inviolable, that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be injured with impunity.’ ”

This sense was preserved in Old Norse, the OED adds, “hence the adj. would naturally be applied to the gods, and all things specially pertaining to them.”

Thus a word for wholeness made its way into English as meaning “held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement.”

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Is “funnily enough” cringeworthy?

Q: I cringe when I hear “funnily enough,” as in “Funnily enough, I saw him yesterday” or some such blather. Yuck! Do I have a right to be (prepare for understatement) peeved? No matter what you say, I will continue to hate it.

A: We’re not fond of  this expression ourselves, and we certainly don’t recall ever using it. But we can’t say it’s grammatically incorrect.

The adverb “funnily” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “in a funny manner.”

The first recorded use is from a letter written by Harriet, Countess Granville, in 1814: “[He] says she … talks so funnily and sweetly.”

The British aristocracy must have liked the word. Here’s another example, from  Memorials of His Time, by Henry Thomas, Lord Cockburn (1856): “It was funnily done; which was not always the case, for it was often with bitter gravity.” 

Awkward as it sounds, ”funnily enough” is grammatically parallel to such adverbial phrases as “oddly enough,” “curiously enough,” “aptly enough,” “strangely enough,” and so on.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! But the fact that a usage is acceptable doesn’t mean you have to use it.

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Is he moaning or complaining?

Q: I’ve read that the British make a useful distinction between complaining and moaning. A Brit complains to a shopkeeper about the prices, but he later moans to his wife about them. My wife says I’m constantly complaining. If she were British, she’d say I’m constantly moaning. I rarely complain. My question is this: Should I complain to my wife about her English?

A: We’re going to take this as a serious question, though we aren’t convinced that people in the US and UK treat complaining and moaning very differently.

Here, for example, is an example from the BBC News: “British consumers have kept up their reputation as a nation of moaners, making more complaints than before in the past year.”

So should you complain to your wife about her use of “complain” instead of “moan”? No, you have no complaint.

Your wife isn’t out of line in saying you’re constantly complaining. Of course, she could also say you’re constantly moaning, because the words “moan” and “complain” often have similar meanings. 

The verb “complain” has been in English since the 1300s, borrowed from the French complaindre, which in turn came from the late Latin complangere.

The Latin word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is made up of the prefix com (an intensifier) plus the verb plangere (“to lament, bewail, orig. to strike, beat, beat the breast or head in sign of grief”).

One meaning of “complain” in English, the OED says, is “to give expression to sorrow; to make moan, lament.” Another is “to give expression to feelings of ill-usage, dissatisfaction, or discontent; to murmur, grumble.” And yet another is “to emit a mournful sound.”

If that doesn’t include moaning, we don’t know what does!

As for the verb “moan,” it has roots that go back to an obsolete word in early Old English, mean.

It showed up in its current form in the 1300s, when the word meant “to complain, lament.” The modern meaning, “make a mournful sound,” wasn’t recorded until the 1700s, long after “moan” first came into use. 

However, the original sense of “moan” lives on. A current meaning, which for some reason the OED labels as “colloquial” (better fit for speech than for written English), is “to grumble or complain, typically about something trivial.”

American dictionaries, however, regard this use of “moan” as standard English, whether or not the complaint is trivial.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) include “to complain, lament” among their definitions.

American Heritage gives these examples: “an old man who still moans about his misspent youth”; and “She moaned her misfortunes to anyone who would listen.” 

One more point. As far as we can tell, to complain is to complain is to complain – no matter who is the recipient of the complaint.

Most people would probably say that they “complain,” not “moan,” to a manufacturer or retailer about a product.

But the follow-up kvetching and griping to one’s spouse can reasonably be described as either “complaining” or “moaning.”

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Do you own this usage?

Q: In the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing business people say they “own” a project, by which they mean they accept responsibility for its tasks, as well as its success and failure. How do you feel about this new use of the word “own”?

A: We’re used to hearing people say things like “This is my project.” But “I own this project” sounds a bit in your face to us, as if possession has been taken a step too far.

Nevertheless, this seems to be a common usage in the corporate world, if Google hits are any  indication. And we have to admit that it isn’t out of line etymologically.

The verb “own,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has had many meanings over the centuries.

Of course there’s its original sense: “to have or hold as one’s own; to have belonging to one, be the proprietor of, possess.”

But there are also many figurative and extended meanings: to confess or admit to something (as in “own up to”); to lay claim to; to recognize as familiar; to acknowledge as belonging to oneself; to grant the truth of, and others.    

One such meaning – “to have control over or direction of (a person or thing)” – was actually first recorded in Old English but didn’t pop up again until the late 19th century.

In the OED’s first citation in print for this modern sense of the word, from an 1890 issue of The Spectator, the writer says American millionaires have a “practice of ‘owning,’ that is, controlling, both the professional politicians and the press.”

And here’s a more recent example, from Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution (1989): “The USA ‘owns’ the history of the Vietnamese war despite losing the conflict itself.”

We found another example in the same book: “The audiences can ‘own’ the commodity in a more intimate sense than ever before.”

Judging by the OED’s citations, though, this isn’t precisely the same “own” as in “I own this project.”

Another sense of the verb, “to be or feel responsible for considering or solving (a problem, issue, task, etc.),” came into use in the late 20th century, according to the OED.

The first citation in print is from Thomas Gordon’s book P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training (1970): “When a child’s behavior … interferes with the parent’s enjoyment of life or his right to satisfy his own needs, the parent clearly ‘owns’ the problem.”

Here’s another example, from a telecommunications industry news organization: “Heilmeier set the tone of the workshop by calling on us to own the problem and not toss it over the fence to another organization” (1991).

Again, that kind of ownership – as in, “It’s your problem, take care of it” – seems more of a liability than the kind you refer to, which involves being in command or having power.

We often run into another meaning of “own,” the one people use when they say that a candidate “owns the debate” or an entertainer “owns the room.”

For example, a movie star who “owns” the screen dominates it by his or her excellence. But once again, this isn’t the same “own” as in “I own this project.”

So it may be that here we have yet another variation on the theme, one the OED hasn’t yet documented.

This “own” makes sense etymologically, as we’ve said, but its aggressive tone sounds a little dissonant to our ears. Maybe the corporate world will tire of it and it’ll quietly go away.

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Do we “stanch” or “staunch” this usage?

Q: I hear the words “stanch” and “staunch” used interchangeably. Is this correct? Do you prefer one over the other?

A: “Stanch” and “staunch” are both legitimate words, but they’re not quite interchangeable. In modern usage, one is generally used as a verb and the other as an adjective.

Usage guides by and large prefer “stanch” as the verb meaning to stop or restrain a flow (as in “We managed to stanch the blood”).

“Staunch” is considered preferable as the adjective meaning loyal or steadfast (as in “He’s been a staunch supporter”).

As you mention, however, the two words are often used interchangeably, though “staunch” is more popular, with four times as many hits as “stanch” on Google.   

Both words appeared in English in the 14th century as verbs and in the 15th century as adjectives.

They were adapted from the Old French estanchier (to quench) and estanche (watertight), which in turn came from a word in the Common Roman dialect, stancare (to dam up).

Centuries ago, “stanch” and “staunch” were used interchangeably, though over the course of history they’ve taken on different functions, along with their different spellings and pronunciations.

But even today, there’s a lot of crossover in their usage. In fact, modern dictionaries list each spelling as an acceptable variant of the other.

But, as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says in a Usage Note, “Staunch is more common than stanch as the spelling of the adjective. Stanch is more common than staunch as the spelling of the verb.”

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Reading made easy

Q: I’ve been wondering about titles with the phrase “made easy” in them. I used the construction for a tourist CD I developed in 2001. Now I see it everywhere. Was this usage around before 2001?

A: Sorry, but the use of “made easy” in titles was around well before you thought of the construction.

In fact, this participial phrase, which combines the past participle of the verb “make” plus an adjective, has been in use for hundreds of years.

It’s been especially popular in book titles, and not just contemporary ones. Take for example Joseph Moxon’s Mathematicks Made Easie: or a Mathematical Dictionary (1679).

A search of the Oxford English Dictionary turns up 17 of these titles in the 18th century alone. Here are some of them (we’ll omit the authors’ names and parts of the longer subtitles):

1702, Introduction to Astronomy, Geography, Navigation and Other Mathematical Sciences Made Easy;

1739, Geometrical Rules Made Easy for the Use of Mechanicks Concern’d in Buildings;

1747, Polygraphy; or Short-Hand Made Easy;

1751, The French Tongue Made Easy to Learners;

1790, Navigation Made Easy and Familiar to the Most Common Capacity;

1790, Mythology Made Easy: or, a New History of the Heathen Gods and Goddesses;

And that’s just a half-dozen from the 1700s! As you can see, the self-help category was alive and well in the 18th century.

By now, of course, there’s almost nothing, from tap dancing to operational calculus, that hasn’t been “made easy” in the title of some book or other. 

But reading has perhaps been “made easy” in more book titles than any other endeavor.

Starting in the early 18th century, the title Reading Made Easy was given to so many books that it became a generic noun phrase for a reading book or elementary primer, according to the OED.  

Citations from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries for the term used this way often employed dialectical spellings, such as “ready-may-deazy,” “reedy-made-eazy,” “readamadazy,” “readamadeasy,” “reada-mud-easy,” and many more.

Here are a couple of typical examples:

“A poor ignorant shoe-maker … slipped through me Readin’-med-aisy and me Spellin’-book,” from Seumas MacManus’s The Bend of the Road (1898).

“It reminds me of the king in the readamadasy who thought he could stop the sea from rising by lifting his hand,” from Gerald O’Donovan’s Vocations (1921).

And by the way, we weren’t kidding about calculus, as in Heaviside’s Operational Calculus Made Easy (1944).

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Was El Greco a gringo?

Q: I’ve heard that gringo, the derogatory Mexican term for someone from north of the border, originated during the Mexican-American War. The story is that the Americans often marched while singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho.” Is there any truth to this?

A: Sorry, but there’s no truth to the popular legend that Mexicans (or anybody else) coined the word gringo after hearing US soldiers (or any other soldiers) singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho” or “Green Grow the Lilacs” (another mythological source of the word). 

Thanks to the Internet, the story lives on and on, though etymologists discredited it long ago.

Gringo was recorded in a Castilian Spanish dictionary in the 1700s (way before the Mexican-American War, 1846-48), and had undoubtedly been in use before lexicographers caught up to it.

In Spanish, gringo means a foreigner, an Englishman, a North American, or unintelligible language.

In English, “gringo” is a “contemptuous name for an Englishman or an Anglo-American,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was first recorded in English, the OED says, by John W. Audubon in his Western Journal (1849): “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes.’ ”  

Etymologists generally believe that the Spanish term gringo comes from griego, Spanish for “Greek,”  which in turn is derived from the Latin Graecus.

The Spanish lexicographer Esteban de Terreros explained in El Diccionario Castellano (1787) that  the word  gringo was a phonetic alteration of griego.

Why “Greek”? A word-history note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) explains the connection this way:

“The saying ‘It’s Greek to me’ exists in Spanish, as it does in English, and helps us understand why griego came to mean ‘unintelligible language’ and perhaps, by further extension of this idea, ‘stranger, that is, one who speaks a foreign language.’ ”

American Heritage adds that the “altered form gringo lost touch with Greek but has the senses ‘unintelligible language,’ ‘foreigner, especially an English person,’ and in Latin America, ‘North American or Britisher.’ ”

All this makes you wonder whether a Toledan would have considered El Greco a gringo.

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Object oriented

Q: I have a question about these sentences: 1) “I fed the dog.” 2) “I fed leftovers to the dog.” 3) “I fed the dog leftovers.” In the first, “dog” is a direct object. In the second, “leftovers” is the direct object. Which is the direct object in the third? The word “leftovers” seems left over. Is something wrong with the sentence?

A: All of your sentences are correct.

It’s not uncommon for a verb to have both a direct and an indirect object, which is what’s happening in the third example.

If a verb has only one object – that is, a noun or pronoun that’s acted on – then it’s a direct object.

If there are two objects, the indirect object is the person or thing on the receiving end and the direct object is who or what ends up there.

Now, let’s look at all three of your sentences.

In the first sentence, there is only one object: “I fed the dog [direct object].”

In the second, there’s a direct object as well as a prepositional phrase that stands in for an indirect object: “I fed leftovers [direct object] to the dog [prepositional phrase].”

In the third sentence, there are two objects: “I fed the dog [indirect object] leftovers [direct object].”

As you can see, a verb can have both direct and indirect objects, though it can’t have an indirect object unless there’s a direct object too.

Why isn’t “dog” part of a prepositional phrase in the third sentence?

Verbs like “feed” as well as “hand,” “pass,” “give, “offer,” “send,” “write,” “throw,” and many others are commonly used without prepositions when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object.

Here are a couple of other examples: “Smith threw Jones [indirect object] the ball [direct object]” and “I cooked my guests [indirect object] chicken Kiev [direct object].”  

Of course you could also use prepositional phrases: “Smith threw the ball [direct object] to Jones [prepositional phrase]” and “I cooked chicken Kiev [direct object] for my guests [prepositional phrase].”

We touched on this subject in a blog entry last year. You might find it interesting.

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Anger management

Q: During a recent bout of insomnia, I got to thinking of “anger,” not its irateness sense but its sound. We pronounce “anger,” “banger,” and other similar words with a hard “g.” But “danger,” “stranger,” and others have a soft “g.” I don’t know how “onager” sounds. Should this be keeping me awake? Or should I take a sleeping pill?

A: We’ll try to answer your questions (and perhaps help you with your insomnia) without putting the other readers of the blog to sleep.

The letter “g” has several distinct sounds in English. And so do the letter combinations “ng” and “ger,” which are found in many words with different pronunciations.

Contrary to what you suggest, “anger” and “banger” don’t have identical final syllables.

The “ger” in “anger” is like that in “longer” and “finger.” The “g” is plainly a hard consonant, and sounds as it does at the beginning of words like “go” and “girl.”

But the “ger” in “banger” is silent, like that in “hanger” and “singer” and “ringer.” In these words, the “ang” and “ing” combinations sound like the first two letters in “ankle” and “ink.”

Finally, the “ger” in “stranger” and similar words (including “onager,” the wild donkey of central Asia) sounds like a “j.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that in modern English the letter “g” has a “hard” sound in these cases (I’ll add examples):

(1) at the end of a word (“log,” “rag”);

(2) before a consonant (“grin,” “gleam”); 

(3) before the letters “a,” “o,” and “u” (“gather,” “go,” “gut”); exceptions are the British “gaol” and “gaoler,” which in American English are spelled “jail” and “jailer”;

(4) before the letters “e” and “i” in words that have Germanic origins (“girl,” “get”);

(5) in Hebrew proper names (“Gideon”).

But “g” has a “soft” or “j”-like sound  sound before the letters “e,” “i,” and “y” in words that come from Latin (“gender,” “giant,” “gym”).

In an interesting note about the “ng” combination, the OED says modern pronunciation is “somewhat inconsistent” when the pair occurs in the middle of a two-syllable word.

In words that are inflections or derivatives of verbs, the dictionary says, generally “the g is silent, as in singer, singeth, singing.”

But the letter “is sounded in the comparatives and superlatives of adjs., as in younger, longer,” and in “other words generally, as finger.”

We hope this helps you sleep – without a trip to your medicine cabinet!

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Tacks time

Q: A recent advertising column in the New York Times said an ad campaign for a menswear retailer “aims for a lighter, even humorous tack.” Isn’t “tack” what you do on a sailboat? Maybe the columnist meant “tact.” Am I wrong or is the NY Times?

A: In that May 27, 2010, advertising column, the Times writer was using sailing terminology figuratively – that is, in an imaginative or metaphorical way.

However, the columnist used awkward phrasing. You don’t usually “aim” for a “tack” when the term is used figuratively – you “take” one.

So the Times writer should have said “the campaign takes a lighter, even humorous tack.”

One definition of the noun “tack” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the direction given to a ship’s course by tacking.”

And when you “tack,” according to the OED, you “turn the ship’s head to the wind, so that she shall sail at the same angle to the wind on the other side.”

To “tack,” we’re informed, can also mean to “proceed by a series of such courses.”

And since the 17th century, the OED says, the noun “tack” has been used figuratively to mean “a course or line of conduct or action; implying change or difference from some preceding or other course.”

In other words, landlubbers can use “tacking” to mean something like zigzagging or changing course.

In the Times column that caught your attention, the writer was describing how the men’s clothing company had changed course in its advertising – from an earnest, straightforward ad campaign to a humorous one.

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Urban affairs

Q: Although my spell-checker rejects the adjective “urbanistic,” it’s a standard term in the field of urbanism. My question concerns the adverb: Is it “urbanisticly” or “urbanistically”? (Uh-oh, spell-check is having palpitations!)

A: Your spell-checker is so yesterday. It’s time to update its dictionary.

The adjective “urbanistic” and the adverb “urbanistically” appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) – in entries for the noun “urbanist.”

As you might imagine, all three words also appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “urbanist” first showed up in print 80 years ago, according to the OED, which defines it as “a specialist in or advocate of town-planning.”

It was first recorded in the Times Literary Supplement in 1930: “To do so would be to entrust the fate of a city to the technical urbanist.”

Below its entry for “urbanist,” the OED adds this note: “Hence urbanistic a., urbanistically adv.” It provides three citations, all from the British press:

1959, from The Listener, the former magazine of the BBC: “Though he has derived so much from the study of the city, his own urbanistic achievements are scarcely to be considered to rank alongside his architectural ones.” (The reference is to Le Corbusier.)

1975, from the Times Literary Supplement: “Urbanistically, there is no Middle America.”

1983, from The Listener: “An international competition was held for an urbanistic plan for the Sassi.”

Why isn’t the adverbial ending a simple “ly”? Because, as the OED explains, it’s unusual in English to add “ly” to an adjective ending in “ic” (like urbanistic”) in order to form an adverb.

In cases like these, the ending is “nearly always
-ically.” (A couple of exceptions that immediately come to mind are “publicly” and “franticly,” which is an acceptable variant of “frantically.”)

The “ically” adverbial ending is a compound suffix consisting of an adjectival suffix, “ical,” and an adverbial suffix, “ly.” And “ically” is used to form adverbs from adjectives ending in both “ical,” and “ic.”

The OED uses “historic/historical/historically” and “poetic/poetical/poetically” as examples.

The adverb almost always ends in “ically,” the OED says, “even when only the adj. [ending] in -ic is in current use, as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

Hence we would write “urbanistically” even if there’s no word “urbanistical” in common use.

This would also seem to indicate that any new adverb formed from an adjective ending in “ic” should end in “ically.”

As we’ve already suggested, if you expect to be using “urbanistic” and “urbanistically,” it’s time to add them to your word processor’s dictionary. 

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Once upon a time

Q: Any advice about “on” and “upon”? People seem to prefer the ubiquitous “upon” in a sentence like “Success depends on/upon education.” Are these two alternatives equally acceptable? Or is one ever preferred over the other?

A: The preposition “upon” began life around the year 1200 as a compound of “up” and “on,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, the “up” part of the meaning is all but nonexistent. Here’s how the OED explains it:

“Originally denoting elevation as well as contact, the compound has from the earliest period of its occurrence so far lost the former implication, that is, it has been regularly employed as a simple equivalent of on, in all the varieties of meaning which that preposition has developed.”

The use of “on” or “upon,” according to the OED, “has been for the most part a matter of individual choice (on grounds of rhythm, emphasis, etc.) or of simple accident, although in certain contexts and phrases there may be a general tendency to prefer the one to the other.”

Thus as far as correctness goes, the choice is yours.

But not so fast. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) argues that “upon is a formal word appropriate for formal occasions.”

“Although some will argue that the two are interchangeable and the choice is just a question of euphony, rarely will upon prove more euphonious or natural,” Garner’s adds. “On is the shorter, simpler, and more direct preposition.”

We generally agree with that. But we wouldn’t go so far as to begin a child’s bedtime story by saying “once on a time.”

In fact, the conventional opening, “once upon a time,” has been a storied part of the English language since Chaucer’s day.

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Is “legit” legitimate?

Q: You use “legit” a lot as an adjective, most recently in your posting on “these ones.” I acknowledge the informal use of “legit” as an adjective (“Is this doctor legit?”), but what about its use as an adverb (“Yes, he got his MD legit”)?

A: We can’t find any legitimate reference that lists “legit” as an adverb, whether as a standard, informal, or colloquial usage.

We do, however, find the usage popping up on the Web. We googled “do it legit,” for example, and got more than 53,000 hits.

Interestingly, another wannabe adverb, “legitly,” is also showing up online, with 214,000 hits, but the usage hasn’t made it into any standard references either.

Do these newbies have legs? Only time will tell, but we find them clunky, and wouldn’t recommend either one.

As for the use of “legit” as an informal adjective, we agree with you. Yup, it’s legit! But our opinion isn’t unanimous.

The word is labeled “slang” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

But the Oxford English Dictionary is kinder to “legit,” labeling it as a colloquial abbreviation of “legitimate.”

By “colloquial,” the OED means “belonging to common speech; characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

In other words, you might use it in speech or informal writing, but not in a scholarly paper or a Supreme Court brief.

The word, which in its early days was a noun as well as an adjective, seems to have had its beginnings in stagecraft.

It was first recorded as a noun, in an 1897 issue of an American magazine, the National Police Gazette:

“Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit.’ It pained him to see Jim strutting through four acts of a real play.”

(We assume this OED citation is a reference to the heavywieght boxing champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who began an acting career after he retired from the ring in 1893.)

And here’s an early use of the adjective, from Donald Shaw’s memoir London in the Sixties (1908):

“Scene shifters, stage carpenters, actors, everything and everybody strictly ‘legit’ should have the preference of guzzling and swilling to the memory of the immortal poet.”

In its earliest incarnations, “legit” meant “legitimate” in the sense of “normal, regular; conformable to a recognized standard type.”

For example, the phrase “legitimate drama,” the OED says, means “the body of plays, Shakespearian or other, that have a recognized theatrical and literary merit.”

The OED notes that “legitimate drama” was sometimes elliptically called “the legitimate,” and that a “legitimate” was an actor in legitimate drama.

We think that after over a century of more or less steady usage, “legit” deserves a better label than “slang.”

If it’s a “colloquial abbreviation” in the OED, it ought to get a promotion in the standard dictionaries.

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Is “folks” too folksy?

Q: I listen by podcast from Ireland to Pat on WNYC. One Americanism that grates on this side of the pond is the use of “folks” for “people.” I originally thought it was a Bushism, but Obama uses it too. How widespread is this in the US and do any Americans find it grating too?

A: “Folks” is a very old usage in the United States, and it can’t be described as a regionalism since it’s extremely widespread. But we do know that some here find it a bit … folksy (for lack of a better word).

For example, our editor at Random House (who’s a New Yorker) blue-penciled quite a few of the appearances of “folks” in the manuscript of our book Origins of the Specious. He was probably right.

The word’s predecessor, “folk” (originally meaning a people, nation, race, tribe), is extremely old. The Oxford English Dictionary cites written examples dating back to Beowulf, and the word has roots in ancient Germanic tongues.

Since a 10th-century example in the Old English Chronicles, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing, “folk” has also been used to mean “people” indefinitely.

English speakers began using the plural “folks” that way in the 14th century, and in the 17th century the plural replaced the old form, with the singular “folk” being labeled archaic or dialect.

Though “folks” is considered to have an American flavor today, it was once used on both sides of the Atlantic and carried no taint of the backwoods. Here are some citations from the OED and their dates:

1710, from a letter by Jonathan Swift: “I have heard wise folks say, An ill tongue may do much.”

1727, from A New Account of the East Indies: “There were Folks killed in 1723.” The author, Alexander Hamilton, was a Scottish sea captain, not the American statesman. He used “folks” repeatedly in his writings.

1756, from the journal of Margaret Calderwood, a British diarist and traveler: “I could not speak to the folks and ask questions.”

1774, from a letter by Abigail Adams: “Some folks say I grow very fat.”

1774, from Benjamin Franklin’s Works: “It was the ton with the ministerial folks to abuse them.”

1775, from a letter by Samuel Johnson: “Folks want me to go to Italy.”

1879, from Robert Browning’s dramatic poem Martin Relph: “It was hard to get at the folks in power.”

Today, the OED says, “folks” in the sense of people in general is chiefly colloquial (that is, more common in speech than in writing), and has been superseded in more formal usage by the word “people.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) calls the usage “informal.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has no reservations about it.

On the other hand, the OED has no objections to the use of the word to mean “one’s family, parents, children, relatives,” and neither does Merriam-Webster’s.

But American Heritage says “folks” in the sense of one’s family, particularly one’s parents, is informal.

None of the three dictionaries object to the use of “folks” to mean people of a specified kind, as in “city folks,” “old folks,” “plain folks,” and so on.

When Pat was growing up in Iowa, it was usual and even expected that one referred to one’s parents as “my folks”; if Pat’s parents or aunts and uncles made reference to “the folks” in their conversations, they always meant her grandparents.

For instance, Pat’s mother might announce, “I’m worried about the folks,” meaning her parents.

Or Pat’s sister might say, “I’m skipping school, but don’t tell the folks,” referring to her parents.

Or a friend might say, “My folks are driving me nuts,” meaning her mom and dad.

This was an everyday usage for Pat and her family. But then, as Pat puts it, “we were just plain folks.”

Sorry if you find this answer grating!

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Is next Monday tomorrow or a week later?

Q: I hope you can help me settle a dispute with my spouse! If today is Sunday, when is next Monday? Is it tomorrow, or is it Monday of next week? And what about last May? Is it the preceding month or May of the previous year?

A: There’s no good answer here. “Next” and “last” are often ambiguous words. You and your spouse aren’t the only ones at odds over these words. In fact, the two of us have very similar arguments!

For example, Stewart will say, “It happened last May,” even if he means the preceding month. But if Pat is speaking in June, she’ll say, “It happened in May.” To her, “last May” sounds like May of last year.

And Stewart will say “next Monday” when that’s only a day from now.  Pat, on the other hand, will use “next Monday” to mean Monday of the following week, and “this Monday” to mean tomorrow.

Because there’s room for disagreement, it’s better to avoid using “next” and “last” when you’re talking about dates that are not far away.

“Last May” or “next Monday” are safe enough when they’re at a distance. But the closer the date, the greater the chance of a misunderstanding.

Just as “next door” is often broadly construed as meaning “nearby,” so “next Thursday,” when there’s a Thursday very close, is sometimes construed as meaning “the Thursday after this one.”

The word “next” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “designating the time, season, etc., following directly after one described, spoken of, etc.”

But what if there’s been no hint of “one described, spoken of, etc.”? Say, for example, that Stewart says, “Let’s go out for dinner next Monday.” Does he mean tomorrow, or Monday of next week?

After 22 years of marriage, Pat knows that he means “this Monday” (he wouldn’t think about dinner a week ahead).

Your question reminds us of one we answered last year, about whether moving an event “forward” means it will happen earlier or later.

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What is a derivative derived from?

Q: I need a one-word option if it exists for the thing from which a derivative is derived. Any ideas?

A: Is there a word for the underlying asset that a “derivative” derives from? The answer seems to be no. But we might suggest one. 

Let’s start with a little history. The verb “derive” was first recorded in English in the late 1300s, adopted from a Middle French word (deriver) that came from Latin (derivare).

The Latin roots of “derive” are de, a prefix that means “from,” and rivus, a word that means “stream” or “brook.” The Latin rivus is also the source of our word “rivulet” (but not “river,” which comes from riparia). 

The ultimate meaning of “derive” is to divert or draw off water or another liquid from its source.

But from the beginning, “derive” and its cousins – the noun “derivation” and the adjective and noun “derivative,” all of which followed in the 1400s – have been used more or less figuratively in English.

The figurative uses generally have nothing to do with water, and everything to do with drawing something from or tracing it to a source.

The financial sense of the noun “derivative” was first recorded in 1985, according to published references in the OED.

The OED defines it as “an arrangement or instrument (such as a future, option, or warrant) whose value derives from and is dependent upon the value of an underlying variable asset, such as a commodity, currency, or security.”

If we were feeling inventive, what might we call this underlying asset? Since the “de” in “derivative” means “from,” why not just delete the prefix? That would give us as the source “rivative.”

Or we could go back to the classical root of “rivative,” the Latin word for “stream” or “brook.” That would give us “rivus,” a fitting image for the source of something. 

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Curbing your dog

Q: Can you explain why signs all over New York City say “Curb Your Dog,” meaning clean up after it? I hope I’m not missing an obvious explanation for this.

A: The short message conveyed by the words “Curb Your Dog” is “Take your dog to the curb.”  That’s the literal meaning. But the longer message, at least since the 1970s, has been “Take your dog to the curb, where it will presumably do its business in the street, after which you will pick up any solid matter and dispose of it.”

The signs began appearing in the late 1930s (minus the implied pickup and disposal message) in an effort to get New Yorkers to comply with a section of the municipal Health Code that requires dog owners to keep their pets from soiling sidewalks, stairways, and other public places.

The language sleuth Barry Popick, in a posting to his Big Apple website, cites two early published references to the signs from 1937, including this one from the New York Times:

“In an effort to train dog owners to observe the sanitation laws, the Department of Sanitation has posted some twenty-five signs bearing the legend ‘Please Curb Your Dog’ at points about the city.”

In 1978, the New York State Legislature adopted the Canine Waste Law, commonly known as the “pooper-scooper law,” which requires dog owners in the state’s larger cities to clean up after their pets, not just take them to the curb.

Since then, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Palm Springs, Stamford, and other cities have adopted similar legislation.

In case you’re interested, the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “pooper-scooper,” which it defines as “an implement for picking up and removing litter or mess, esp. for cleaning up dog excrement.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the term is from the Aug. 28, 1956, issue of the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office: “Super Dooper Pooper Scooper.”

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The Bible in chapter and verse

Q: Regarding the books of the Bible, which is correct: “1 Kings” or “I Kings” or “First Kings” or “first Kings”? Also, is it, “the Book of Genesis” or “the book of Genesis”? PS: I just found my report card from 1956, in which my teacher began  a note to my mother, “Words Fail Me!” Would you like a copy?

A: Thanks for the offer of a copy of your report card, but that won’t be necessary – we believe you! It does, however, give us a chance to plug Pat’s book on writing: Words Fail Me.

As for your questions about the Bible, we’ll cite what many people consider the (lowercase) bible of style, The Chicago Manual of Style.

Let’s first discuss how to refer to the books themselves. We’ll get to chapter and verse later.

Here are the guidelines in sections 8.111-113 of The Chicago Manual (15th ed.):

“The names of books of the Bible are not italicized. The word book is usually lowercased, and the words gospel and epistle are usually capitalized.”

Examples given include “Genesis; the book of Genesis” and “Job; the book of Job.”

However, the style manual adds that in a work in which all three terms are used with some frequency, they may all be treated alike, either lowercased or capitalized.”

Examples of correct usage, according to the manual, include these:

“2 Chronicles; Second Chronicles; the second book of the Chronicles”;

“John; the Gospel according to John”;

“Acts; the Acts of the Apostles”;

“1 Corinthians; the First Epistle to the Corinthians.”

As you can see, the number may be spelled out or not. So you may write either “1 Kings” or “First Kings” or “the first book of Kings.”

Again, those are the guidelines for referring to books of the Bible. Now, let’s consider how to refer to the chapters and verses in the books.

When you cite specific passages of the Bible, according to section 9.30 of the Chicago Manual, numbers are given in figures only, and “chapter and verse are separated by a colon with no space following it.”

Examples include “Acts 27:1” and “2 Corinthians 11:29-30.”

We hope this helps.

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An adjective in sheep’s clothing

Q: A client objected when I referred to a “Ukrainian clinical hospital.” He said it was incorrect to use “Ukrainian” to refer to anything but the people or nation of Ukraine. He mentioned something about demonyms. Please clarify.

A: We can’t find any evidence to support what your client suggests. We’ve consulted all our usage guides as well as the Oxford English Dictionary and standard dictionaries.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the adjective “Ukrainian” broadly as “of or pertaining to Ukraine.” And it says the noun “Ukrainian” means both “a native or inhabitant of Ukraine” and “the Slavonic language spoken in Ukraine.”

So you used the adjective correctly. It could apply to anything from a Ukrainian song to a Ukrainian official to a Ukrainian hospital to a Ukrainian sheep.

In fact, the OED’s first published use of the adjective –  from a travel journal written in 1804 by Martha Wilmot, an Anglo-Irish gentlewoman – refers to Ukrainian sheep.

We’ve found the original and expanded the dictionary’s citation, which describes a Hungarian merchant: “He was a tall slight young Man, very tall, his dress a jacket lin’d with Ukrainian sheeps’ skin.”

And by the way, standard dictionaries (like American Heritage and Merriam-Webster) give the same definitions for “Ukrainian,” the adjective and the noun.

As for “demonym,” it generally means the name for an inhabitant of a place that’s the source of the name. For example, “Afghan” is the name for an inhabitant of Afghanistan, which in turn is the source of the name.

The OED has several definitions of the term, including the one we’re discussing: “a proper name by which a native or resident of a specific place is known.” (It can also be a certain type of pen name or personal name.)

The dictionary’s earliest citation, from the February 1990 issue of National Geographic, credits a source: “Writer Paul Dickson … has coined another term: ‘demonym.’ ”

Next is an example from a Canadian newspaper: “The ‘demonym’ for Cyprus is ‘Cypriot’ and the one for Halifax is ‘Haligonian’ ” (The Montreal Gazette, Sept. 5, 2002).

In short, “Ukrainian” is indeed a demonym, a noun for an inhabitant of a place that’s the origin of the noun. But like many other demonyms (“American,” for example), it’s also an adjective that can refer to just about anything that concerns that place.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 26, 2022.]

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Is the temp hot or high?

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 4, 2021.]

Q: I was born in the Netherlands and moved to the United States in 1960. I have a pet peeve about the English spoken here. Why do weathermen speak of temperatures as “hot” or “cold,” instead of “high” or “low”?

A: You’re technically correct about “hot” or “cold”—that is, if one is measuring temperature numerically in degrees.

In that case, good usage would call for an adjective like “high” or “low” or something in between. Numbers in themselves aren’t hot or cold.

But temperature has an independent existence apart from its measurement in numbers. In addition to being measured objectively, it can be felt or perceived. Before the thermometer was invented, and long before it became a common instrument, people referred to “temperature(s)” subjectively as “hot,” not “high.”

Our searches of historical databases show that medical uses of “hot temperature(s)” related to sickness date back to the 1580s, long before thermometers existed. (The device as we know it was not invented until the 18th century.)

And in the early 1600s, the words “hot” and “temperature(s)” were associated in writings about atmospheric conditions. Here’s an early weather-related sighting:

“whether the fashion of these late discovered Nations to go naked, be a custome forced by the hote temperature of the ayre, as we say of the Indians and Moores.” From a 1613 translation of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.

We’ve found several other 17th-century uses of “hot temperature(s)” in the database Early English Books Online.

The “hot” versions predated “high” ones, which did not appear until the late 18th century. In fact, we’ve found no written uses of “high temperature(s)” before the 1780s, when the usage began showing up in scientific writing.

This is the oldest “high” example we’ve found: “the necessity of giving a high temperature to the mixture for that purpose.” From a chapter on phosphoric acid in Elements of Natural History, and of Chemistry (1788), William Nicholson’s translation from the French of Antoine-François de Fourcroy.

The phrase “high temperature(s),” used about equally in singular and plural, appeared more frequently in the 1790s and early 1800s, almost exclusively in scientific writing. In ordinary English, “high temperature(s)” was virtually nonexistent.

However, as the 19th century progressed, “high” uses gradually supplanted “hot” in popularity, even in everyday language. And the “high” versions remain more popular today. Why?

Our guess is that “high” usages grew predominant as the thermometer became a more familiar and widely used instrument, and as “temperature” came to be regarded less as a subjective, sensory perception and more of a numerical measurement.

The early uses we cite, by the way, aren’t intended to show that in modern English “hot” is more historically “correct” than “high” in describing temperature. They simply show that before there were thermometers, the word was used subjectively, not associated with numerical measurement. A person who uses “hot” today may have that same conception—of temperature as something felt. There’s nothing unreasonable about that.

But while “hot” is reasonable in these uses, it’s far from ubiquitous. Searches using Google’s Ngram Viewer show how phrasal combinations of “high,” “hot,” and “temperature(s)” have been recorded in British and American books published between 1800 and 2019:

“high temperature” vs. “hot temperature” … “high temperatures” vs. “hot temperatures” … “temperature is high ” vs. “temperature is hot” … “temperatures are high” vs. “temperatures are hot”

You can see that the “hot” versions lag far behind the “high” ones. If this is your chief complaint about American usage, console yourself with the fact that it’s not as widespread as you might think.

The noun “temperature” entered English in the early 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it, in the sense we’re talking about, as “the state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness, referred to some standard of comparison.”

The OED goes on to say that temperature is “usually measured by means of a thermometer or similar instrument.” But the instrument or standard of comparison could also be the human body and its comfort range.

The dictionary has examples with “temperature” modified by adjectives like “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “cool,” “moderate,” and “comfortable”—all subjective rather than numerical assessments.

In short, it may not be scientifically accurate to speak of a “hot temperature,” but such a phrase is not only idiomatically common but supported by common sense.

If you’re unconvinced and would like another opinion, here’s a word from the columnist Barbara Wallraff, writing in The Atlantic in 1998: “Hot and the rest of them as modifiers for temperature fall well within the acceptable bounds.”

“The conceptual relationships of English adjectives to their nouns are multifarious,” she writes, “and it will be a sad day, a sorry state of affairs, an unhappy turn of events, and so forth if our language ever loses this characteristic.”

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Is “mayhap” a mishap?

Q: A colleague of mine often uses the word “mayhap” when we discuss ideas at a meeting, as in “Mayhap we could first consider point three.” What is the origin of this? Is it a valid word?

A: The word “mayhap” (sometimes “mayhaps”) is an old adverb meaning “perhaps” or “possibly.”

It was first recorded in writing in the 16th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s first citation is from John Heywood’s early Tudor drama The Play of the Wether (1533): “May happe I wyll thynke on you when you be gone.”

The OED describes “mayhap” as a shortened form of the phrase “it may hap”; that old phrase incorporates the archaic verb “hap,” which once meant “to come about by ‘hap’ or chance.”  

Another old adverb, “mayhappen” (circa 1577), sometimes abbreviated to “mappen,” is a shortened form of “it may happen.”

The OED says that both “mayhap” and “mayhappen” are still alive in some dialects in Britain but are otherwise archaic.

However, the lexicographers at the OED may have underestimated the use of the term today.

Your colleague has lots of company, according to the hundreds of thousands of hits we had on  Google searches for “mayhap,” “mayhaps,” and “mayhappen.”

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Does it “affect” or “effect” your funksmanship?

Q: I used to know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” but I’m not sure anymore. I often find them used interchangeably or in ways that I once thought were incorrect. Can you help?

A: Pat has discussed the distinction between “affect” and “effect” during her appearances on WNYC, but we find to our surprise that we’ve never written about it on the blog.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from the new third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

AFFECT/EFFECT: If you mean a thing (a noun), ninety-nine times out of a hundred you mean effect. The termites had a startling effect on the piano. If you want an action word (a verb), the odds are just as good that you want affect. The problem affected Lucia’s recital.

NOTE: Then there’s that one time out of a hundred. Here are the less common meanings for each of these words:

Affect, when used as a noun (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), is a psychological term for ‘feeling.’ Termites display a lack of affect.

Effect, when used as a verb, means ‘achieve’ or ‘bring about.’ An exterminator effected their removal.

In addition, the verb “affect” can be used in the sense of to put on a false show (“He affected a British accent”) or to show a liking for (“She affects flashy clothing”).

With all these meanings, it’s no surprise that people have been confused by “affect” and “effect” since the various usages of these words showed up in English in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

“All this history of befuddlement has left us with a fat collection of warning notices,” says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which adds that nearly every usage handbook published in the 20th century had such warnings.

Most published writers know how to use these words, according to Merriam-Webster’s, but errors get into print because of “inattention to spelling,” “poor proofreading,” or “no proofreading.”

As an example of such a typo, M-W cites a comment by the former NBA player Darryl Dawkins about the impact on his flashy playing style of having therapeutic electrodes attached to his shoulder during a game.

Although Dawkins used the verb “affect” correctly (to have an impact on something), it appeared this way in a carelessly edited wire-service report: “It effected my interplanetary funksmanship.”

Our advice: When you use these words, especially when you’re in a hurry to finish an email, take another look before hitting Send.

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