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The scoop on “bi” and “semi”

Q: I was taught in school that “bimonthly” meant “every other month” and “semimonthly” meant “twice a month.” But nobody seems to remember the difference anymore. In fact, many companies don’t even use those terms now. They say “every other month” or “twice a month” instead. Do you think that’s right?

A: I can understand the problem the companies have. As I wrote in Woe Is I, the prefix “bi” means two and “semi” means half, but in practice “bi” sometimes means “semi” and “semi” sometimes means “bi.” For example, “bimonthly” can mean every two months OR twice a month, depending on the dictionary you consult. “Biweekly” can mean every two weeks OR twice a week. “Biennial” means every two years, but “biannual” can mean every two years OR twice a year.

So it’s probably better to avoid misunderstandings and say “every other month” or “twice a month” if that’s what you mean.

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“In behalf of” vs. “on behalf of”

Q: Which is proper, “on behalf of” or “in behalf of”?

A: Both expressions are correct, but they mean slightly different things. I discuss this in my book Woe Is I.

“In behalf of” means “for the benefit of” or “in the interest of.”

“On behalf of” means “in place of” or “as the agent of.”

So I might give a donation, “on behalf of” my gardening club, to be used “in behalf of” tree restoration in the park.

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English language

The ‘lie’ or ‘lay’ of the land?

[Note: A more detailed post on this subject appeared on April 2, 2021.]

Q: I frequently hear the phrase “lay of the land,” typically referring to a situation or condition that might affect some plan of action. I was taught the phrase should be “lie of the land,” as in how the land lies (a metaphorical reference to the landscape itself and its suitability for what one wanted to accomplish). Has wide common (mis)usage made “lay” acceptable or have I been wrong all along?

A: It depends on where you live. In American English, the idiomatic noun phrase used to describe topography or the state of affairs is “lay of the land.” In British English, it’s “lie of the land.”

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“Got” and “gotten”

Q: I have a question about British usage. The Brits say “have got” when we say “have gotten.” Which is more correct?

A: In Britain, the preferred past participle of the verb “get” is “got”; in the United States the preference is for “gotten” in some cases and “got” in others, depending on one’s meaning. (The past participle is the form of a verb that’s used with “have,” “had,” or “has.”)

As far as which is “more correct,” a Brit will tell you that “gotten” is wrong. Not so! The truth is that at one time, English routinely had two past participles for the verb “get.” Over the centuries, the two branches of English developed in different directions. While American English retained both forms, British English dropped “gotten” entirely. The result is that we have a nuance of meaning the poor Britons don’t.

When we say, “Jack and Sue have got a dog,” we mean they own a dog. When we say, “Jack and Sue have gotten a dog,” we mean they have acquired one. There’s a distinct difference between the two statements.

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“I Wish I Were Blind”

Q: Could you tell me if Bruce Springsteen’s song “I Wish I Were Blind” should actually be “I Wish I Was Blind”?

A: No, the Boss is right. “I Wish I Were Blind” is correct.

The reason is that when you express a wish, or when you use an “if” statement (“If I were blind…”) to talk about a condition contrary to fact, you use the subjunctive mood instead of the indicative. So you’d say, “Last year I WAS in Maine” (indicative), but “Now I wish I WERE in Maine” (subjunctive) and “If I WERE in Maine I wouldn’t be here.” That’s why we say things like “If I were king…” or “If only she were here…” or “I wish he were nicer to his parents,” and so on. In the subjunctive mood, “was” becomes “were.”

You should have more faith in Bruce.

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English language Uncategorized

“Off of” is off-putting.

Q: I am British, live here in NYC, and hear a lot of people hereabouts use the phrase “off of,” e.g., “I took it off of the table,” etc. This seems not only redundant, but, when I was growing up, it was considered really, really bad English. Is this just a British thing? It really grates on my nerves! Be thrilled if you could answer this for me since nobody knows what the hell my problem is!

A: You’re right. “Off of” is no way to talk. It IS really, really bad English. I added a bit about this to the second edition of my book Woe Is I because it seemed so ubiquitous an infraction. So, all you miscreants out there, don’t use “of” if you don’t need it: “I took it off the table.”

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“Bob’s your uncle”

Q: I heard you discussing “Bob’s your uncle” on the air. In England, where I lived for many years, the expression was often used at the end of the description of a process, such as giving directions: “Take the second left, then the first right, go halfway down the block, and Bob’s your uncle!”

A: I love that usage. It’s almost like “and there you have it” or “and you’re all set.” How much more interesting than our saying “and there you are” or some such!

As for the origin of the expression, the best explanation I can find is Michael Quinion’s (the following quotation comes from his website, World Wide Words):

“This is another of those catchphrases which seem to arise out of nowhere and have a period of fashion, in this case quite a long one. We know that it began to be used in the 1880s in Britain. One theory has it that it derives from the slang phrase all is bob, meaning ‘all is safe.’ But there have been several slang expressions containing the word bob, some associated with thievery or gambling, and around this time it was also a common generic name for somebody you didn’t know. The most attractive theory is that it derives from a prolonged act of political nepotism. The prime minister Lord Salisbury (family name Robert Cecil ) appointed his rather less than popular nephew Arthur Balfour (later himself to be PM from 1902-11) to a succession of posts. The first in 1887 was chief secretary of Ireland, a post for which Balfour was considered unsuitable. The consensus among the irreverent in Britain seems to have been that to have Bob as your uncle guaranteed success, hence the expression and the common meaning it preserves of something that is easy to achieve.”

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There’s no “there’s” there.

Q: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to complain about something that has bothered me for ages, yet I have never heard anyone mention it, i.e., the incorrect use of the contraction “there’s.” I am a senior citizen, who took too many Latin courses in high school, but it bugs me no end to hear and read “there’s” when it should be “there’re.” Has common usage made it OK or what? I hope not. If you discuss this error in your book, I will buy it.

A: You’re right that the word “there” is often misused as the subject of a sentence (even if it is something of a phantom subject). It can take either a singular or a plural verb, but many people don’t seem to realize this and resort to “there’s” for all occasions. Why? I can think of a couple of reasons.

One may be that people find the contraction “there’re” hard to pronounce, so they take the easy way out and use “there’s” in all cases.

Another reason might be this. When a sentence starts with “there,” the “real” subject follows the verb and that’s what determines whether the verb is singular or plural. Many people (perhaps most!) speak before they’ve thought through their sentences. It’s easier to start out with “there’s” and hope that the rest of the sentence will take care of itself, though it often doesn’t.

I do deal with “there” in my book Woe Is I. (See pages 14 and 55 of the second edition.) By the way, I don’t like the use of the contraction “there’re” in WRITING. It’s fine in conversation, but in written English it’s clumsy and the full form is better.

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“I mean,” “you know,” and other tics

Q: I have lately become obsessed with eliminating the phrase “I mean” from my daily speech. I find myself using it to begin sentences that would otherwise stand alone just fine. And funny as it seems, I’ve been hearing it all over the place, including on WNYC (from both guests and hosts!). Could you tell me what phrases like this are called as a class and the history of this one in particular?

A: “I mean” seems to have become the new “you know,” joining “like,” “um,” and company.

I’m one of those people who still struggle not to say “you know” with every other sentence. I’ve wrestled with this for more than 10 years, since my first book, Woe Is I, came out in 1996. That’s when I started making radio appearances and hence trying all the harder to stifle all those “you knows.”

I have no explanation for this, or for “I mean,” or any of the other superfluous words, phrases, and grunts that litter our speech. They’re sometimes called “fillers,” and sometimes “verbal tics,” and they can become terrible habits once they get hold of you. I do my best, but once in a while I let loose a “you know” on the air and get angry e-mail in response!

Eric Partridge has traced “you know” to the 18th century. He notes that there are parallel constructions in German (wissen Sie) and French (vous savez) that have the same function: virtually meaningless filler.

Partridge also has an entry for “I mean to say,” and the shorter version, “I mean,” which he says dates from the 1890s. In explaining what it means (which is essentially nothing), he notes that it “connotes apologetic modification or mental woolliness.”

I managed to get rid of most fillers by just concentrating really hard on NOT saying them. I’m not a speech specialist, but there are probably better ways to approach the problem, mental tricks to use that would make the process easier. You might look around on the Web for some tips. (Or else pretend that millions of people are listening to you on the radio and scare yourself out of the habit!) Good luck.

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English language Uncategorized

Do you feel “bad” or badly”?

Q: Please settle something for me (and others) once and for all. Which is grammatically accurate? “I feel (‘bad’ or ‘badly’) about revealing your imprecise use of the English language.”

My tendency is to say “badly” is the answer. However, this question appeared in an MSN.com “grammar quiz,” and the “correct” answer provided was “bad.” Could you please explain?

A: When you’re describing an activity, like running or swimming or playing, use “badly,” as in “Roger runs badly.” When you’re describing a condition or a passive state, like how someone feels or seems or looks or smells, use “bad,” as in “Roger smelled bad after the race.” If Roger smelled badly, he’d have something wrong with his nose.

So, in answer to your question, the correct sentence is “I feel bad about revealing your imprecise use of the English language.”

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“Don’t give me that jive.”

Q: I have a pet peeve about “jive” and “jibe.” People use them interchangeably all the time, but don’t they mean different things?

A: You’re right. “Jibe” and “jive” have different meanings and aren’t interchangeable.

“Jibe” is a verb meaning something like “agree” or “be consistent with,” as in, “Those figures don’t jibe.”

“Jive” can be either a noun or a verb, as in “Don’t give me that jive” or “Don’t jive me.” It can refer to jazz or jazz jargon, but it usually refers to deceptive or nonsensical talk.

There’s another word, “gibe,” that is both noun and verb and is used to refer to teasing, taunting, or caustic remarks, as in “I ignored his rude gibes” or “He tends to gibe when he’s annoyed.”

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The “which” (or “that”) trials

Q: I was wondering if you could clear up something that’s bothering me. What’s the difference between “which” and “that”?

A: I think there’s a pretty good explanation in my book Woe Is I (she said modestly). When you’ve got a clause that you could start with “that” or “which” and you can’t decide between them, here’s a hint: If you can drop the information and not lose the point of the sentence, use “which.” If you can’t drop it, use “that.”

The examples I use in the book are: “Buster’s bulldog, which had one white ear, won best in show. The dog that won best in show was Buster’s bulldog.”

In the first example, the information in the “which” clause is not essential. In the second example, the clause starting with “that” is essential; it’s the whole point of the sentence.

You’ll also notice that “which” clauses are set off with commas, and “that” clauses aren’t. So if you find yourself wanting to insert little pauses before and after the information, it’s probably a “which” clause.

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Does “presently” mean “now” or “soon”?

Q: When I was in school, I was taught that “presently” meant “soon,” but the word is being used all the time these days to mean “now.” Was I taught wrong or has the meaning of the word changed?

A: One of the original meanings of “presently” was “now” or “at present,” but by sometime in the 17th century that meaning had fallen by the wayside and become obsolete. For the last few hundred years, the preferred meaning of “presently” has been “soon” or “before long,” as in “I’ll be along presently.”

However, the old meaning (“now”) never completely disappeared and has become more common lately, particularly in American English. “Presently” is often used interchangeably with “currently.” Still, most style guides recommend against that usage, particulary if there’s a danger of ambiguity.

In my opinion, using “presently” to mean “now” is unnecessary (“now” is a perfectly good word). And using “presently” in the accepted sense of “soon” sounds stiff and pretentious. (“Soon” is another perfectly good word.) Since there’s an ambiguity to the word anyway, I tend not to use it at all.

Clearly, the once-obsolete meaning (“now”) has been revived. Since real, honest-to-goodness usage is what determines “correctness,” there’s no point in arguing against the trend. But in many cases, the word “presently” can simply be deleted (example: “I am presently living in Altoona” vs. “I am living in Altoona”). If an ambiguous or a disputed word can be deleted without bloodshed, why not drop it?

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Can you cut the mustard?

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2021.]

Q: Where did the phrase “can’t cut the mustard” come from? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

A: The phrase “cut the mustard” originated in late 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “slang (originally U.S.),” and says the noun “mustard” here means “something which adds piquancy or zest; that which sets the standard or is the best of anything.”

The OED says the the phrase and its variants mean “to come up to expectations, to meet requirements, to succeed.” The variant phrases “to be the mustard” or “to be to the mustard” are also defined as “to be exactly what is required; to be very good or special.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “cut the mustard” is from a Texas newspaper, in an article about legislative debate:

“They applied several coats of carmine hue and cut the mustard over all their predecessors” (Galveston Daily News, April 9, 1891).

The same newspaper used the phrase again the following year: “Time will reveal that he cannot ‘cut the mustard’ ” (Sept. 12, 1892).

The OED cites these early uses of other “mustard” phrases, also from North America.

“For fear they were not the proper mustard, he had that dog man sue him in court for the balance, so as to make him prove the pedigree” (The Log of a Cowboy, 1903, by Andy Adams).

“Petroskinski is a discovery of mine, and he’s all to the mustard” (You Can Search Me, 1905, written by George Vere Hobart under the pseudonym Hugh McHugh).

The OED suggests that “to be mustard,” when used to describe a person, might be compared to the expression “hot stuff.” An example: “That fellow is mustard” (from Edgar Wallace’s 1925 novel A King by Night).

However, somewhat similar “mustard” expressions were used much earlier in British English. According to the OED, “strong as mustard” (1659) and “hot as mustard” (1679) meant “very powerful or passionate,” while “keen as mustard” (1672) meant “very enthusiastic.”

Why the “cut” in “cut the mustard”? Nobody seems to know for sure. But we can offer a suggestion.

In the late 19th century, just before “cut the mustard” was first recorded, the verb “cut” was used to mean “excel” or “outdo,” according to OED citations.

The earliest OED example is from the April 13, 1884, issue of The Referee, a British sporting newspaper: “George’s performance … is hardly likely to be disturbed for a long time to come, unless he cuts it himself.”

So perhaps to “cut the mustard” is to surpass mustard—that is,  to be even more mustardy than mustard itself.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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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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!

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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.

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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.”] 

 

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.