English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“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.”

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“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!

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“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”

[Note: An updated and expanded post on “beg the question” appeared on Nov. 29, 2021.]

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 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 was not originally intended to mean is raising, avoiding, prompting, mooting, or inspiring the question. And it also wasn’t intended to mean countering with another, different question in an ironic way.

What it does mean in the traditional sense 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. In my opinion, the expression is now so commonly used in so many different ways that today it doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s best avoided.

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.