English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Impacted wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Usage

The downside of “crescendo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do you champ or chomp at the bit?

Q: It seems as if “champ at the bit” has suddenly morphed into “chomp at the bit.” Why this shift? Has the new form become standard?

A: The traditional expression is “champ at the bit,” which means to show impatience. But a growing number of people are choosing “chomp at the bit.” I just did a Google search for both phrases. The results: 942 hits for “champ” and 14,900 for “chomp.” Like it or not, the “chomps” are making a chump of me. (I will resist making puns about Noam Chomsky!)

I still recommend using “champ at the bit,” especially when one’s language should be at its best, but I suspect that “chomp at the bit” will eventually become standard American English. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists only “champ at the bit.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now includes both expressions without qualification.

The word “champ” has meant bite, as in a horse’s biting impatiently at a bit, since at least 1577, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “chomp” has been a variant of “champ” since at least 1645, though the early references deal with chomping on food rather than at metal bits.

I can’t tell you why people began substituting “chomp” for “champ” in the first place. A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is noon 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.?

Q: The parking signs in my town refer to noon as 12 p.m. Since “p.m.” stands for “post meridiem” (“after noon” in Latin), can 12 p.m. be used for noon itself?

A: The simple answer is yes, but we’d advise against it. By convention, the term “12 p.m.” is used for noon in countries like the US with a 12-hour clock.

For those who argue that noon and midnight are neither a.m. nor p.m., we can only cite the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (online 5th ed.), which has the following usage note with its entry for “PM”:

“By convention, 12 AM denotes midnight and 12 PM denotes noon. Because of the potential for confusion, it is advisable to use 12 noon and 12 midnight where clarity is required.”

(The print version of the dictionary’s 5th edition, which isn’t as up-to-date as the online version, has “by definition” instead of “by convention.”)

We agree that “12 a.m.” and “12 p.m.” are confusing and should be avoided, but one could also argue that “12 noon” and “12 midnight” are redundant. Why not simply say “noon” and “midnight”?

You may be interested in knowing that “meridiem” actually means midday in Latin, and that the terms “noon” and “midday” have not always been synonymous in English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “noon,” dating back to the year 900, originally meant “The ninth hour of the day, reckoned from sunrise according to the Roman method, or about three o’clock in the afternoon.” By the 14th century, according to the OED, the word “noon” had come to mean 12 o’clock.

Although dictionaries usually define “midday” as the middle of the day or noon, it’s often used more loosely than the word “noon.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, we prefer to lowercase and punctuate the terms “a.m.” and “p.m.,” as recommended in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

Well, that’s enough noon-sense for now.

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 16, 2015.]

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

The first recorded use of the letter “X” for “Christ” was back in 1021, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But don’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for Christ while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

It turns out that the Greek word for Christ begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” It’s spelled in Greek letters this way: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. In early times the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” together (“XP”) and in more recent centuries just “chi” (“X”) were used in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Sometimes a cross was placed before the “X” and sometimes it wasn’t.

Thus for nearly ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “XP” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.” The OED’s first recorded use of “X” in Christmas dates back to 1551.

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

English language Etymology Usage

“Historic” vs. “historical”

Q: I often hear talking heads on TV refer to a current event as “historic” or “historical.” Shouldn’t these adjectives be used only when one is talking about an event in the past? Also, I’ve been told that “historical” should be reserved for momentous events. Isn’t that very subjective?

A: Traditionally, the two words have different meanings. If something has an important place in history, it’s historic. If something has to do with the subject of history or existed in the past, it’s historical. Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “There’s not much historical evidence that the Hartletops’ house is historic.”

Can either “historic” or “historical” be used to describe something that’s happening now? I would say no for “historical” and yes for “historic.” If you witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers or the Challenger disaster or the first moon walk, you could justifiably have said they were historic even as you were observing them in progress.

Despite the traditional distinction between “historic” and “historical,” the two words are often used interchangeably these days. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language now accepts “historical” as a secondary meaning of “historic.”

English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

The evolution of “peruse”

Q: I have always used the word “peruse” to indicate a skimming through. But I was recently told that the word actually refers to a thorough reading, which, according to the dictionary and to my surprise, is correct. Was I ever right? (I have heard others use “peruse” to indicate a skimming through.) What is the word’s history?

A:  You’re quite correct in your use of “peruse.” It’s true that the most commonly accepted meaning today is to read thoroughly. But in the last decade or so [see our note at the end], the sense in which you use the wordto skim through, glance at, or briefly consulthas seen a revival and has made great gains. It’s considered acceptable in many standard dictionaries and hovers on the edge of respectability in others.

First, some history. “Peruse” comes from an old word in Middle English, “perusen,” which meant to use up.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference dates to the late 15th century, when the word meant to go through or examine a number of things one by one, or to use up or wear out something. It has meant to read thoroughly or examine in detail since the early 16th century.

But that’s not all it has meant. As the OED adds, the verb has also been used to mean “to look over briefly or superficially; to browse,” as well as simply “to read.”

Oxford notes that despite the claims of some modern dictionaries and usage guides, “peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading.”

“The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development,” the dictionary adds.

The OED’s citations include this quotation by Samuel Johnson, from The Idler (1759): “Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused.”

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), the word “has a long literary history with many fine shades of meaning.”

These are among the current definitions given in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged:

(1) “to examine or consider or survey (something) with some attention and typically for the purpose of discovering or noting one or more specific points :  to look at or look through fairly attentively”;

(2) “to look over or through (something) often in a casual or cursory manner”;

(3) to “read.”

Merriam-Webster’s has a worthwhile usage note on “peruse,” which we’ll quote:

“It was a more ordinary word in the past than it is now, although it still has considerable use. About 1906 a writer on usage decided that peruse could mean only ‘to read with care and attention,’ for what reason we do not know. In time this opinion was echoed by a number of commentators, right down to the present. Peruse has indeed been used in the ‘careful and attentive’ sense, but writers almost always signal that meaning with a modifier.”

The dictionary cites such usages as “with heed peruse,” “attentively peruse,” and “peruse thoroughly.”

At least one dictionary hasn’t yet caught up with the explanation in the OED.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the word as meaning “to read or examine, typically with great care.” The use of the word to mean “to glance over” or “skim” is labeled a “usage problem.”

American Heritage elaborates in a usage note:

Peruse has long meant ‘to read thoroughly,’ as in He perused the contract until he was satisfied that it met all of his requirements, which was acceptable to 75 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2011 survey. But the word is often used more loosely, to mean simply ‘to read,’ as in The librarians checked to see which titles had been perused in the last month and which ones had been left untouched. Seventy percent of the Panel rejected this example in 1999, but only 39 percent rejected it in 2011. Further extension of the word to mean ‘to glance over, skim’ has traditionally been considered an error, but our ballot results suggest that it is becoming somewhat more acceptable. When asked about the sentence I only had a moment to peruse the manual quickly, 66 percent of the Panel found it unacceptable in 1988, 58 percent in 1999, and 48 percent in 2011. Use of the word outside of reading contexts, as in We perused the shops in the downtown area, is often considered a mistake.”

But even that last usage is now accepted by Merriam-Webster, as noted above. The dictionary’s examples include “peruse the museum” and “shoppers perusing saris.”

In recent years, more dictionaries have endorsed your use of “peruse.”

For example, the definition in the Cambridge Dictionaries online has “to read or look at something in a relaxed way” as well as “to read carefully in a detailed way.” And the Collins English Dictionary online (both British and American editions) has “to browse or read through in a leisurely way” alongside to read or examine with care; study.” 

At least one dictionary lists yours as the only definition. The Macmillan Dictionary, in its American and British online editions, defines “peruse” as meaning “to read something.”

[Note: This posting was updated on Dec. 25, 2014.]

English English language Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage

“Woe is I” vs. “Woe is me”

Q: I love your book, but I have a question about the title. How come it’s Woe Is I and not Woe Is Me or Woe Am I? Is there a reason?

A: I chose the title Woe Is I to poke fun at hypercorrectness—that is, incorrectness used in the mistaken belief that one is being  ultra-correct. (A good example is a sentence like “Give your seat to whomever needs one.”)

In the case of the book’s title, the butt of the joke is the old rule of English grammar (now considered excessively formal) that required the nominative case after the verb “to be.” (Example: using “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It’s me.”) I wanted to show how ridiculous we sound when we go overboard in the name of correctness.

As I wrote in the preface to the second edition, “the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”

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English language Grammar Usage

Is it “fewer” or “less”?

Q: Which is correct: “Less than five percent of the people came” or “fewer than five percent of the people came”?

A: Strictly speaking, “fewer” should refer to plural nouns (“fewer kittens”) and “less” to singular nouns (“less milk”).

But with percentages (say, “five percent of the people”), the answer isn’t so black and white. I think (and Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage agrees) that in this case “less” is better. To me, “the people” is closer to a collective mass noun than to a collection of individuals counted up. So I’d suggest “less than five percent of the people.”

There are intelligent arguments for “fewer,” but “less” would be my choice, since percentages suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

English English language Expression Language Usage Writing

Assure, ensure, and insure

Q: I am a puzzled editor. I cringe every time I see the word “insure” used in a non-financial sense in respected publications. I am under the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that “insure” should be used in regard to finances, and “ensure” in a more abstract and wider sense. I would appreciate any light that you can shed on this.

A: In the US, both “ensure” and “insure” can mean to make certain of something, but “insure” is preferred in the commercial sense (to issue or take out insurance). All five American standard dictionaries that we regularly consult agree on this, while the five British dictionaries we consult describe it as standard in the US.

Nevertheless, some usage and style manuals insist that “insure” should be used only in the financial sense.

A third verb, “assure,” is often confused with “ensure” and “insure.” In both the US and the UK, “assure” means to set someone’s mind at rest, though it’s sometimes used in the UK to mean underwrite financial loss.

All three verbs—“assure,” “ensure,” and “insure”—have their roots in a Latin word for “safe” or “secure.” 

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[Note: This post was updated on April 21, 2020.]
English language Usage

Is she an “actor” or an “actress”?

Q: You said on the air that the word “actor” should be used for both men and women. I disagree. The word “actress” is in widespread use—including, of course, annually at the Oscars (audience: one billion?). “Poetess” and “Jewess” are not widely used; my hypothesis is that they both add a syllable, whereas “actress” has the same number of syllables as “actor.” Americans always want to say it faster—and saving even one syllable counts! What’s wrong with using “actress” for a woman?

A: All the “actresses” I know refer to themselves as “actors,” despite the Oscars. Of course, I can understand why the Academy Awards people use the term “actress”—it gives them a chance to differentiate the women’s Oscars from the men’s. Besides, this doubles the number of actors that are honored! Imagine the howl from the acting community if the Academy decided to be nonsexist and simply designate a “best actor in a leading role” and “best actor in a supporting role,” without reference to sex!

We seem to be getting away from “ess” and “ix” endings to differentiate women from men. We no longer use “aviatrix,” “executrix,” “stewardess,” and so on. This tendency may have something to do with linguistic simplification. Languages have a tendency to simplify and drop syllables or letters. In this case, though, the advent of the women’s movement has certainly speeded up the process.

English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is he an “atheist” or an “agnostic”?

Q: I am having an ongoing argument with my girlfriend about whether I am an atheist or an agnostic. If asked if I believe in god, I would say “NO.” So, I think this classifies me as an atheist. On the other hand if I was then asked if I was positive that there is no god, I would say that I am not positive; I just don’t think that one exists. She say that for this reason I am an agnostic. I think that our problem lies in the word “belief.” Do you have to be positive of something you believe in? Is it possible to say you believe in something but still admit some doubt?

A: This is a complicated question because it involves fine shades of difference in religious skepticism. Here’s what I think (and I allow that some would disagree). An atheist denies altogether that there is a God or gods. He believes that God is impossible. An agnostic doesn’t deny the existence of God; he thinks the existence or nonexistence can’t be proved or disproved—in other words, certainty is impossible.

So an agnostic, while allowing that we can never know for sure, may or may not choose to believe in the probability of God’s existence. This means there are two kinds of agnostics. Both deny that we can be certain; one believes God probably exists and the other believes that he probably doesn’t.

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, differentiates between “disbelief” and “unbelief.” He says one who disbelieves has considered the plausibility of God’s existence and rejected it. This person he defines as an atheist. The unbeliever has doubts about whether or not there is a God. This person he defines as an agnostic.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes that an agnostic does not deny; he merely holds that the answer isn’t knowable. (The word “agnostic” was apparently coined by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century. He believed that only material phenomena could be known with certainty.)

In short, the answer to your question is yes—it’s possible to say you believe in something but still admit doubt. That’s one kind of agnostic. Belief is not the same as certainty. So I guess I agree with your girlfriend that you’re an agnostic.

English language Usage

A “graduate” degree

Q: I have a beef about the verb “graduate.” For the first 30 years of my life, I always heard “graduate” used with the preposition “from,” never without it. For the last 40 years, I’ve heard the word used more and more without the preposition. This seems like a barbarism to me. What’s your take on it?

A: Traditionally, it’s the school that graduates the student, not the other way around.

In its original meaning, to “graduate” was to confer a degree on someone, so it was an action by the school. The student himself, on the other hand, “was graduated” by the school.

But for the last 200 years (since the early 1800s), it’s also been standard practice to say the student “graduated,” or that he “graduated from” the school. The usage you object to (“she graduated college” instead of “she graduated from college”) dates from the mid-20th century. Here are examples:

STANDARD: “Princeton graduated him in 1986.”

STANDARD: “He was graduated from college in 1986.”

STANDARD: “He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1986.”

NONSTANDARD: “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin

On ’til and till and until

Q: My pet peeve is the use of the word till to mean until. Isn’t ’til the correct contraction of until? I see it all the time (and I mean all the time) spelled till, which makes me think of working the soil. Am I wrong? I can’t rest ’til I know.

A: I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Both till and until are legitimate words.

Historically, in fact, till came first. Later, the prefix un (meaning “up to”) was added and the final l dropped, giving us until.

In modern usage, they’re interchangeable, though until is more common at the beginning of a sentence.

So it’s not correct that till is a shortening of until. Rather, until is a lengthening of till.

Where did ’til come from? It all began in the 18th century when writers muddied the waters by creating ’till and ’til under the mistaken assumption they were contractions of until. Not so.

The word ’til (with or without an apostrophe in front to indicate an omission) is etymologically incorrect, and frowned on by many usage writers.

However, some standard dictionaries now accept ’til  as a variant spelling of till. As The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), explains:

“Although ’till is now nonstandard, ’til is sometimes used in this way and is considered acceptable, though it is etymologically incorrect.”

[This post was updated on Oct. 17, 2015.]

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English language Usage

What’s the right dictionary for me?

Q: What is the best dictionary to purchase? I’d like to buy a nice hard-bound dictionary for my family. Could you suggest a quality edition with good etymological references?

A: I like both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the big fourth edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the eleventh edition.

[2012 update: American Heritage is now available in an updated fifth edition.]

The dictionary you choose depends to some degree on what you’re using it for. I find myself using American Heritage a lot because the entries are so interesting and the usage notes are very helpful. It’s an entertaining dictionary if you’re into looking things up!

On the other hand, Merriam-Webster’s is the “house” dictionary of many publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, and so on. If you’re writing for them, that would be a good dictionary to have from a style point of view (consistency of capitalizations, abbreviations, and so on). It is also less conservative from a usage point of view.

I realize this isn’t a definitive answer. So here’s one: If you’re buying a dictionary to use for work or writing and you need fast, authoritative answers that don’t go into a lot of detail, get Merriam-Webster’s. If you want to be entertained and edified as well, get American Heritage.

English English language Expression Usage

“I literally exploded”

[An updated and expanded post about “literally” appeared on June 28, 2017.]

Q: This is an observation, not a question. I am going mad from the proliferation of misuses of “literal” and “literally.” Quite often the offenders are otherwise well-spoken, articulate journalists, writers, intellectuals, even some of WNYC’s own. Here are the types of misuse I have noticed:

1. The exact opposite of the correct meaning: “I was so angry I literally exploded.”
2. Unnecessary. “Robert Murdoch is literally the man responsible for this transformation of modern media into a corporate enterprise.” (He is the man. “Literally” adds nothing.)
3. Weird: “The novel is literally fiery. It’s title is On Fire.”
4. Questionable: “This journalist/comic book artist literally illustrates the human condition.”
5. Used for emphasis, as some people use very, really, etc. “The movie was literally the best I ever saw.”

A: Great analysis! You’ve done a terrific job of categorizing and deconstructing the various misuses of “literally.” I’ve often harped on this but complaining doesn’t seem to do much good. “Literally” is increasingly being used to mean its opposite: “figuratively.” Go figure!

When I was an editor, I encountered things like “He literally had kittens,” and “She was literally climbing the walls,” and even one about spectators at an Old Settlers celebration who “were literally turned inside out and shot backwards in time.” I wrote about that one in my book Woe Is I.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

Why is a police officer called a “cop”?

Q: I’ve heard that the word “cop” (for policeman) comes from “constable on patrol.” Am I right?

A: The noun “cop,” meaning a police officer, isn’t an acronym for “constable on patrol” or “custodian of the peace,” as some have suggested over the years. It comes from a verb, “to cop,” meaning to seize or nab, which subsequently gave rise to the noun “copper,” meaning a person who seizes or nabs. The noun “copper” was later shortened to “cop.”

According to the Dictionary of Word Origins (by John Ayto, Arcade Publishing), the noun “copper” is what’s called an agent noun, formed from the verb “to cop.” It is thought to come from Old French (“caper”) by way of Latin (“capere”), meaning to seize or take. It’s also the root of our word “capture.”

The noun “copper” was first used to refer to a police officer in 1846, according to other sources I’ve checked. The noun “cop” is a shortened form that dates to 1859.

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

Is it “gantlet” or “gauntlet”?

Q: Sometimes I see “gantlet” and sometimes I see “gauntlet.” Which one is correct?

A: The old “gantlet/gauntlet” distinction is rapidly being lost, since dictionaries these days are increasingly regarding them as interchangeable.

“Gantlet” originally came from a Swedish word similar to “lane,” and referred to the parallel lines involved in an old form of military punishment. Someone forced to “run the gantlet” was made to run between parallel lines of his colleagues, who would hit him with clubs or switches as he passed.

A “gauntlet” (French word) was a heavy, armored glove worn by a knight. As a challenge to fight, the knight would toss his glove to the ground (“throw down the gauntlet”). The opponent accepting the challenge was said to “pick up the gauntlet.”

Most dictionaries now accept the spelling “gauntlet” for both of those meanings. There’s still a technical term “gantlet” used in railroading, though.

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Using ‘myself’ for ‘I’ or ‘me’

[Note: An updated post about “myself” and other “-self” words appeared on Aug. 27, 2018.]

Q: I wonder about “myself.” It seems to me to be a pretentious way of not saying “me,” as in “thank you for having my wife and myself on your program.” Is it proper, preferred, or pretentious?

A: It’s definitely not preferred. Some people probably think “myself” is more elegant than “me” in a sentence like that. If so, they’re misinformed. The use of “myself” here is not incorrect, but there’s no reason to avoid “me.”

Language authorities today accept the wider use of “myself” in place of “I” or “me,” but some traditionalists still insist that “myself” should only be used for emphasis (“I made it myself”) or to refer to a subject already named (“He beats up on himself”).

In addition, good writers often use “myself” or “himself” or “herself” deep into a sentence when the ordinary pronoun would almost seem to get lost. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Here at Grammarphobia, we prefer to use “myself” (and the other reflexive pronouns, “herself,” “themselves,” etc.) primarily in those traditional ways, not to replace ordinary pronouns (“I/me,” “she/her,” “they/them,” “he/him,” and so on) for no good reason.

In short, you can’t go wrong if you follow this simple rule: if you can just as well substitute an ordinary pronoun, then don’t use a “-self” word.

We suspect that some people rely on “myself” because they’ve forgotten—or never learned—how to use “I” and “me.” Faced with the decision (“I” or “me”?), they resort to “myself” as a fallback position.

But as we said, this isn’t a grammatical mistake, just perhaps a stylistic choice, and one that may not be preferable.

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“A while” and “awhile”

Q: I know there’s a difference in the way one uses “awhile” and “a while,” but I can’t remember what it is. Is it correct to say “for a while” or “for awhile” – and, just for fun, where does “while” come from?

A: “Awhile” is an adverb meaning “for a time.” (The “for” is inherent in the word, so “for awhile” would be redundant.) “A while” is a noun phrase meaning “a period of time.” You could correctly say “We sat awhile and spent a while talking.” Or, “When he called a while ago, we talked awhile and laughed for a while.”

More than a little confusing, aren’t they?

“While” comes from a prehistoric Indo-European root meaning “rest” or “repose,” and it entered Old English from Germanic sources. It is a noun (for “period of time”), a conjunction (meaning “during the time that”), and a verb (to “while” means to spend time idly). I’ll take a crack at a sentence with all three: “For a while, he whiled away his time by eating while watching TV.”

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

A female version of “avuncular”

Q: A caller asked you on the air if there’s a feminine equivalent to “avuncular.” The Oxford English Dictionary lists “materteral” as meaning “characteristic of an aunt.” It comes from the Latin “matertera,” which refers to a mother’s sister. That’s consistent with “avuncular,” which means “characteristic of an uncle.” It comes from “avunculus,” which refers to a mother’s brother.

A: You’re right. But the OED lists only a single published reference to the word, from 1823, and calls it “humorously pedantic.” Until it shows up in more dictionaries, not many people are likely to use it. It’s not completely useless, however, as long as we can use it to answer the question, “What’s a word meaning ‘aunt-like’?”

By the way, one listener suggested creating the word “aunticular” and another listener suggested “tantatious” as feminine versions of “avuncular.”

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“In like Flynn”

Q: I couldn’t get through to WNYC in time to comment on your discussion about the expression “in like Flynn.” It’s a reference to the extraordinary political staying power of Edward Flynn, chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party from 1922 until his death in 1953.

A: Thanks for writing, and for listening. There’s much conflicting evidence about the expression “in like Flynn,” and as of this writing, we don’t have a definitive answer.

The most common explanation, which may be erroneous, is that the expression originated in February 1943 in reference to Errol Flynn’s acquittal on charges of statutory rape. He had been indicted in late 1942, the trial took place in early 1943, and he was acquitted by a jury that February. Supposedly the phrase “in like Flynn” was an allusion to his legendary ability to misbehave free of consequences. In other words, he got away with it.

The problem with this theory is that the expression predates Flynn’s rape trial. During the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, an official was quoted as telling a party of people who were to receive passes for a show, “Your name is Flynn … you’re in.” And a columnist in the San Francisco Examiner in early 1942 wrote: “Answer these questions correctly and your name is Flynn, meaning you’re in. …” (Of course, the actor had been a household name since “Captain Blood” in 1935, so these could have been roundabout references to him.)

A competing theory, advanced in a New York Times article a couple of years ago, is that “in like Flynn” originated as a reference to the Bronx Democratic machine politician Edward J. “Boss” Flynn (1892-1953), whose candidates always won. Flynn’s heyday was the 1930s. However, there’s no solid evidence that he’s the source.

The etymologist and researcher Barry Popik, whom I consulted about this problem, is dubious about both theories. He notes that there could even be a connection with Flynn’s Detective Weekly, a popular magazine in the 1920s and 1930s. But until there’s better evidence, we just can’t say.

Leonard Lopate’s explanation may be closer to the truth. Perhaps “in like Flynn” is yet another example of serendipitous rhyming slang that was already in existence and happened to attach itself to popular figures of the day.

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Yous” or “youse”

[Note: This post has been updated several times to report comments from readers.]

Q: As a native New Yorker of Italian-American descent, I have always been plagued by the term “yous.” I stopped using it many years ago during my freshman year at college when a dorm mate from Beacon Hill grabbed me by both shoulders and shook me vigorously while proclaiming, “ ‘Yous’ is not a word, God-dammit!”

I’ve accepted this but, in the interest of regaining some dignity, I do have a theory about its origins. New York is a city of immigrants who, like my grandparents, may have learned the English language but may have also retained some of the grammar of the home country. In English we express the plural of “you” with “you two” or “you three” or, in Katie Couric’s case, “you all.” But in Latin languages it is expressed with one word that, literally translated would be “yous” (for example: vous in French or vosotros in Spanish).

I therefore think that “yous” is almost a kind of creole for Italian-Americans rather than a sign that we have a strong aptitude for being a loan shark. Does this theory make sense or is my wife correct when she tells me I have much too much time on my hands?

A: You may have too much time on your hands, but there are worse things to do with it than think about the language! At least (presumably) this preoccupation keeps you off the streets.

As you say, modern English, unlike some other languages, has only one form of “you” for both singular and plural. (This wasn’t always the case, as we’ve written before.) It’s been suggested by some linguists that “you-all,” “you-uns” (a Pittsburgh expression) and “yous” or “youse” actually originated as attempts to differentiate plural “you” from singular “you.”

We can see that this might be a natural response on the part of immigrants (and not just Italians) whose first languages had both singular and plural forms.

Another reader has e-mailed us about the same thing, suggesting that there’s a connection between Irish immigration patters and the use of “youse” in this country:

“The use of the word ‘youse’ as a plural of ‘you’ is almost universal amongst the people of Derry,” she writes. “They also use the word ‘youse-uns,’ as an emphatic form, with remarkable frequency.”

[Notes: Another reader wrote on April 19, 2018, to comment that Irish has a plural form of “you”: sibh (plural of ). This reinforces the notion that the use of “youse” and such forms has a connection with Irish immigration.

And a reader in Britain wrote on April 18, 2021, with this comment:

“ ‘Youse’ might definitely be linked to Irish immigration. People say that in Coventry (UK) a lot. It was about a third Irish the middle of the last century. Also, people don’t use it much in the surrounding area.” We replied that Pat was currently reading a mid-19th-century novel by the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, set in a rural village just outside Dublin. In dialogue, most of the forms of “you” that are addressed to plural auditors by working-class speakers are written as “yez.”]

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“Career” vs. “careen”

Q: One of my bugbears is the word pair “careen” and “career,” particularly in the meaning of “lurch.” I learned in school that “careen” had the meaning “lurch,” among others. If a vehicle or person veered wildly out of the prescribed route, the word “careen” described what had happened. I now hear and read, however, the word “career” being used in that sense, as in, “The car careered off the highway.” While I have not taken the time to find examples, I believe that The New York Times now uses “career” in the sense of “lurch.” Do you have any background on this issue? Thanks for any information.

A: Traditionally, usage guides have said that to “careen” means to tilt or tip over and to “career” means to rush, perhaps recklessly. This is a distinction that every copy editor in the United States knows by rote, but also one that nobody BUT a copy editor ever observes.

In practice, most people use “careen” to describe a vehicle lurching or running out of control. Copy editors always change this to “career,” which understandably looks very odd to the ordinary reader. Dictionaries of course reflect common usage, which is why they almost unanimously accept interchangeable meanings for these words.

Many stylebooks for the lay reader, including Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, still make the old distinction and recommend “careering out of control,” not “careening.” The newest edition of the New York Times Stylebook also continues to maintain the distinction.

When I wrote my book “Woe Is I,” I deliberately omitted “careen-vs.-career” from my chapter on commonly confused words, because I felt that it had become almost pedantic to insist on a distinction that most people and dictionaries no longer recognize.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

Why isn’t there a “fire” in “fiery”?

Q: A friend in my writing group asked this question and i wonder if you
have an answer: If “fire” is spelled f-i-r-e, why is “fiery” spelled the way it is?

A: The Old English word “fyr” (fire) was transcribed into Middle English as “fier.” (The Old English letter y, representing a long “i” sound, was written as “ie” in the Middle English version of the word.)

The Modern English spelling “fire” didn’t become firmly established until about 1600, but a trace of the old spelling survived in the adjective “fiery.”

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“I’m all in.”

Q: Hi, my grandma has a quick question for you: Why do people say “I’m all in” when they are tired? Thank you so much.

A: According to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the term “all in” is a colloquial expression that originated on the floors of stock exchanges in the mid-19th century. If the market was “all in,” it was down or depressed; if it was “all out,” it was rising or inflated. By extension, the term “all in” was borrowed in the early 20th century to mean “exhausted” or “used up” in reference to people or animals who were verging on collapse.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a somewhat different explanation: “all in” originated at the card table. If you were “all in,” you were broke (that is, out of money), because you had already put all of your money in the pot. So you couldn’t play anymore.

There may be some truth in both explanations. The poker-playing term could easily be applied to the stock market, if investors were played out and no longer putting money into the kitty. Hope this sheds some light!

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“Just us chickens”

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “just us chickens”?

A: The closest I can come is a reference in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Supposedly “Nobody here but us chickens” was the punchline of a joke about a chicken thief who is surprised in the act by the farmer. (The reference book doesn’t go into detail, but I would guess the farmer says something like “Who’s there?”) Later the punchline alone became a jocular catch-phrase.

English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Munchausen syndrome by proxy”

Q: Is there a word for someone who is hypochondriacal about others? In case that isn’t clear, I’ll give you an example. An unexplained bruise can be a symptom of leukemia. But if someone interprets every bruise on her child as a symptom of leukemia, is there a word for that?

A: Someone who’s unreasonably or obsessively worried about the health of another may have a disorder that’s sometimes called “hypochondriasis by proxy.”  For example, maternal anxiety could lead a mother to exaggerate her perception of her child as sick.   

This shouldn’t be confused with another disorder, “Munchausen syndrome by proxy.” In this case, a caregiver (usually a parent) calls attention to himself or herself by imagining (or actually causing) illness in a child.

[Update, July 24, 2014: A reader writes, “Munchausen syndrome by definition involves deliberate acts of deception, whereas hypochondria (the PC term is ‘health anxiety’) is characterized by sincere but unreasonable health concerns. In other words, MSBP sufferers pretend that their healthy children are sick or deliberately make their children sick. Parents who suffer from health anxiety by proxy honestly believe that their healthy children are sick. MSBP is almost always associated with child abuse, so it is a term that must be used carefully.”] 


English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Coming up spades”

Q: Watching TV over the last couple of weeks has gotten me into several discussions with friends about offensive phrases that have become common in the media. In our discussion, I was told by one of my white friends that she was told not to use the phrase “coming up spades” as a kid because it was a reference to slave ownership. Is this true? What is the origin of the spade in “coming up spades?” I had only known it in reference to gambling and the spade suit.

A: There’s nothing racially motivated or politically incorrect about the expression “in spades” or “coming up spades.” The spade is the highest rated suit of cards in contract bridge and other card games in which the suits are ranked. (The values of the suits, in ascending order, are: first, clubs; second, diamonds; third, hearts; fourth, spades.)

So to have a quality or characteristic or anything else “in spades” is to have a lot of it, or more than other people. For instance, “Jack lacks charisma, but his brother Jim has it in spades.” Or “There was a big cereal sale at the grocery store and now I have Cheerios in spades.” Or, “When she smiles, she has dimples in spades.”

I also get asked sometimes about another expression, “to call a spade a spade.” That, too, has nothing to do with race. The expression originated with the ancient Greeks, who would say of someone who spoke plainly that he liked “to call a fig a fig; to call a kneading trough a kneading trough.” But when the phrase was first translated during the Renaissance, the Greek word for “trough” (skaphe, meaning a trough, basin, bowl, or boat) was confused with the Greek for “spade” (the digging implement). So the modern English version of the expression is actually a centuries-old mistranslation. It’s purely accidental that today we don’t say, “He likes to call a trough a trough.”

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

On “troop” and “troops”

Q: I’m constantly bugged by hearing people on CNN or Fox talk about two troops or three troops wounded in Iraq. I always thought the word “troops” referred to a body of soldiers or a large number of soldiers, not two or three. Am I wrong?

A: You and umpteen (roughly) other WNYC listeners have e-mailed me about “trooper/trouper/troop/troops” and all the permutations.

I agree with you that the use of “troops” to refer to a small number of soldiers, sailors, marines, and so on sounds clunky, but we seem to be in the minority on this.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “troops” can refer to soldiers. Neither reference suggests that the number of soldiers has to be large.

Even a relatively fussy language reference like Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) accepts the use of the plural “troops” to mean a small number of soldiers.

“In this sense, troops refers to individual soldiers (three troops were injured in the raid), but only when the reference is plural,” the usage guide says. “That is, a single soldier, sailor, or pilot would never be termed a troop.”

Although “some may object” to using “troops” to refer to individuals, the book adds, “the usage is hardly new.” It cites an 1853 item in the New York Times reporting that “three of the Government troops were killed and five wounded.”

“Today,” Garner’s says of the usage, “it’s standard.”

Since this issue has generated such interest, here’s a summary of current usage:

(1) “Troop” (singular) means a group. It can refer to a group of soldiers, Boy or Girl Scouts, or (loosely) any collection of people or animals or things.

(2) “Troops” (plural), in the military sense, properly refers to members of the armed forces collectively or a number of individuals (as in, “Five thousand troops were deployed.”) Although many authorities now accept the use of “troops” for a small number of service members, I’d recommend being more specific. Instead of saying “Three troops were wounded,” say “Three soldiers [or marines or sailors] were wounded.”

(3) “Trooper” is commonly used to refer to a state police officer or to a soldier in a horse, armored, air cavalry or other troop.

(4) A “trouper” is a member of a performing company (theatrical, singing, or dancing); the company itself is a “troupe.” But “trouper” also means someone who is a hard worker, a good sport, a reliable person, a mensch. Nine times out of ten, when someone uses a word that sounds like “trooper,” what he means is “trouper,” as in “What a trouper,” “She’s a real trouper,” and so on.

Again, I’m talking here about current usage. Feel free to read no further.

But in case you’re interested, the English military term “troop” (16th century) comes from Middle French troupe, which comes from Old French trope, probably derived from tropeau (flock, herd).

Tropeau, in turn, comes from the Latin troppus, which may derive from the ancient Germanic sources that gave us thorp and throp, the Middle English terms for hamlet or village. Hundreds of years later, we reborrowed it from the French!

The Oxford English Dictionary says the original English meaning of the singular “troop,” from the mid-1500s, was “a body of soldiers,” and soon after that it meant “a number of persons (or things) collected together; a party, company, band.”

In 1590 it acquired a technical meaning in the military: “A subdivision of a cavalry regiment commanded by a captain, corresponding to a company of foot and a battery of artillery.”

By 1598, the plural “troops” had come to mean “armed forces collectively,” the OED says. Here’s a 1732 citation: “Certain sums of money to raise troops.” And here’s another, from 1854: “The courage displayed by our troops.”

If you’ve read this far, congratulations. You’re a real trouper!

(This item was updated on Nov. 4, 2009)

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“A whole nother”

Q: Is it appropriate for someone to say, “That’s a whole nother issue.” Is “nother” a word?

A: No, “nother” is not a word. I discussed this in my first book (Woe Is I) because I found it so commonplace. You hear it a lot in speech but almost never see it in writing, which is true of so many bad usages.

“A whole nother” is probably a merging of “whole other” and “another.” It’s also been suggested that this error reflects a misunderstanding of the word “another” as two words: “a … nother.”

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Begging the question”

Q: My biggest pet peeve with language is the use of the phrase “beg the question.” When I hear it used on talk shows of a political nature it goes like this: “That statement he just made begs the question….” My understanding is that “begs the question” means “to answer a direct question with another question.”

A: The much-abused expression “begging the question” comes up now and then on WNYC, and we’ve talked about it two or three times that I can recall. Almost no one uses the phrase in its traditionally accepted meaning.

What it DOESN’T mean is raising, avoiding, prompting, mooting, or inspiring the question. And it also doesn’t mean countering with another, different question in an ironic way.

What it DOES mean is engaging in a logical fallacy, namely, basing your argument on an assumption that itself is in need of proof. The example Bryan A. Garner gives in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage” is a good illustration: “Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life.”

Hope this helps. Personally, I think the expression has been ruined by misuse and now doesn’t mean much of anything. Too bad.

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Tongue in Cheek”

Q: Where does the expression “tongue and cheek” come from?

A: The theory, though there’s not much evidence to support it, is that the phrase “tongue in cheek” comes from the practice of sticking your tongue in your cheek (thus making a bulge in your cheek) to keep from laughing. It originated in the 18th century and now is used to refer to something said facetiously or ironically. Example: “Ralph offhandedly stuck his arm in the garbage disposal,” said Tom, tongue in cheek.

Note that it’s not “tongue AND cheek.”

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Gone missing” or “went missing”

Q: I keep hearing “went missing.” Does that phrase make sense?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “go missing” (and its forms “went missing” and “gone missing”) as part of a large group of expressions used with the verb “go” to mean “to pass into a certain condition.” Similar forms would be expressions like “go native,” “go public,” “go ape,” “go [fill in adjective] on someone” (as in “will he go serious on us?”), and the like.

The term “went missing” was originally used to describe lost aircraft, and was first recorded in a book published in Australia in 1944, according to the OED. It’s been a common idiomatic expression in British Commonwealth countries for the last 60 years or so (“The dog has gone missing,” “Three days ago she went missing”).

Perhaps because of its British flavor, “gone missing” may have gained some cachet here. It may be an Anglophile affectation, but it’s not incorrect.

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Lighted” vs. “lit” and “dived” vs. “dove”

Q: When I went to school (I am 61 and actually learned how to diagram sentences), I learned the past tense of the verb “to light” was “lighted,” not “lit” and the past tense of “dive” was “dived,” not “dove.” Am I not correct and have not these two wrong conjugations become an integral part of the English language in America?

A: Both “lighted” and “lit” are considered standard past-tense and past-participle forms of the verb “to light.” There’s nothing grammatically wrong with a sentence like “I lit the fire.” This has been the case for a couple of hundred years.

But you’re right about “dived.” It is the predominant (and preferred) form, while “dove,” a more recent development, is still frowned upon by some usage experts. However, “dove” is no longer considered an outright error. It’s become acceptable in the irregular conjugation, along the lines of “drive/drove,” “speak/spoke,” “fling/flung,” and similar verbs (sometimes called “strong” verbs) from Old English.

In this respect, “dove” is an unusual development in English. Usually verb tenses tend to simplify and take on “-ed” endings over time (as in “dance/danced”), instead of going the other way and taking on old Anglo-Saxon endings.