This is an experimental hypertext version of the FAQ for the
The original version belongs to Mark Israel. This copy was prepared by
Peter Moylan. Its location
will probably change in future.
Remark: this copy is by now a few versions out of date. See
pointers below if you want a more current version.
Last-modified: 12 Mar 1995
THE ALT.USAGE.ENGLISH FAQ FILE
by Mark Israel
Last updated: 12 Mar 1995
New entry this month: How did "Truly" become a personal name?
- Yes, I know that this file is too big for some newsreaders. If
you are cursed with such a newsreader, you can ftp this file from
rftm.mit.edu. (It's also on the
World Wide Web. No, I haven't rewritten it to take advantage of
Hypertext.) Or you can send me e-mail and I'll send it to you in
pieces. Sorry for the inconvenience, but there are more of us who
appreciate the convenience of a single file.
- Please send suggestions/flames/praise to me by e-mail rather
than post them to the newsgroup. The purpose of an FAQ file is to
reduce traffic, not increase it.
- This is in no sense an "official" FAQ file. Feel free to start
your own. I certainly can't stop you.
- Please don't expect me to add a topic unless (a) you're willing
to contribute the entry for that topic; (b) *either* the topic has come
up at least twice in the newsgroup, *or* the entry gives information
that cannot readily be found elsewhere; and (c) if the topic has been
controversial in the newsgroup, your entry attempts to represent
conflicting points of view. Thanks to all who *have* contributed!
Table of Contents
- Welcome to alt.usage.english!
- guidelines for posting
- related newsgroups
- recommended books
- online dictionaries
- general reference
- books on linguistics
- books on usage
- books that discriminate synonyms
- style manuals
- books on mathematical exposition
- books on phrasal verbs
- books on phrase origins
- books on Britishisms, Canadianisms, etc.
- books on "bias-free"/"politically correct" language
- books on group names
- artificial dialects
- how to represent pronunciation in ASCII
- rhotic vs non-rhotic, intrusive "r"
- How do Americans pronounce "dog"?
- words pronounced differently according to context
- words whose spelling has influenced their pronunciation
- usage disputes
- "between you and I"
- "could care less"
- "different to", "different than"
- double "is"
- "due to"
- gender-neutral pronouns
- "hopefully", "thankfully"
- "It's me" vs "it is I"
- "less" vs "fewer"
- "like" vs "as"
- "more/most/very unique"
- "none is" vs "none are"
- plurals of Latin and Greek words
- plurals => English singulars
- preposition at end
- repeated words after abbreviations
- "shall" vs "will", "would" vs "should"
- split infinitive
- "that" vs "which"
- the the hoi polloi debate
- "true fact"
- "you saying" vs "your saying"
- "." after abbreviations
- ," vs ",
- "A, B and C" vs "A, B, and C"
- foreigners' FAQs
- "a"/"an" before abbreviations
- "A number of..."
- when to use "the"
- word origins
- "Caesarean section"
- "portmanteau word"
- "sirloin"/"baron of beef"
- "ye" = "the"
- phrase origins
- "the bee's knees"
- "blue moon"
- "Bob's your uncle"
- "to call a spade a spade"
- "The die is cast"
- "dressed to the nines"
- "Elementary, my dear Watson!"
- "The exception proves the rule"
- "face the music"
- "Go figure"
- "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste" (Desiderata)
- "hell for leather"
- "by hook or by crook"
- "Illegitimis non carborundum"
- "Let them eat cake"
- "mind your p's and q's"
- "more honoured in the breach than in the observance"
- "put in one's two cents' worth"
- "rule of thumb"
- "son of a gun"
- "spitting image"/"spit and image"
- "Wherefore art thou Romeo?"
- "whole cloth"
- "the whole nine yards"
- deliberate mistakes in dictionaries
- How did "Truly" become a personal name?
- list of language terms
- commonest words
- What words are their own antonym?
- sentences grammatical in both Old English and Modern English
- phonetic alphabets
- Biblical sense of "to know"
- postfix "not"
- origin of the dollar sign
- "-er" vs "-re"
- "-ize" vs "-ise"
- possessive apostrophes
alt.usage.english is a newsgroup where we discuss the English
language (and also occasionally other languages). We discuss
how particular words, phrases, and syntactic forms are used; how
they originated; and where in the English-speaking world they're
prevalent. (All this is called "description".) We also discuss
how we think they *should* be used ("prescription").
alt.usage.english is for everyone, *not* only for linguists,
native speakers, or descriptivists.
Guidelines for posting
Things you may want to consider avoiding when posting here:
You really *are* welcome to post here! Don't let the impatient
tone of this FAQ frighten you off.
- re-opening topics (such as singular "they" and "hopefully") that
experience has shown lead to circular debate. (One function of the FAQ
file is to point out topics that have already been discussed ad
- questions that can be answered by simple reference to a
- generalities. If you make a statement like: "Here in the U.S.
we NEVER say 'different to'", "Retroflex 'r' is ONLY used in North
America", or "'Eh' ALWAYS rhymes with 'pay'", chances are that
someone will pounce on you with a counterexample.
- assertions that one variety of English is "true English".
- sloppy writing (as distinct from simple slips like typing
errors, or errors from someone whose native language is not
English). Keep in mind that the regulars on alt.usage.english are
probably less willing than the general population to suffer sloppy
writers gladly; and that each article is written by one person, but
read perhaps by thousands, so the convenience of the readers really
ought to have priority over the convenience of the writer. Again,
this is *not* to discourage non-native speakers from posting;
readers will be able to detect that you're writing in a foreign
language, and will make allowances for this.
- expressions of exasperation. In the course of debate, you
may encounter positions based on premises radically different
from yours and perhaps surprisingly novel to you. Saying things
like "Oh, please", "That's absurd", "Give me a break", or "Go
teach your grandmother to suck eggs, my man" is unlikely to win
your opponent over.
There are other newsgroups that also discuss the English
(which is a redistribution of a
BITNET mailing list -- not all machines on Usenet carry these) is
also billed to be for "English language discussion", but its
participants engage in a lot more socializing and general chitchat
than we do.
sci.lang is where most of the
professional linguists hang out.
Discussions tend to be about linguistic methodology (rather than
*particular* words and phrases), and prescription is severely
frowned upon there. Newbies post many things there that would
better be posted here.
fewer sites carry than carry
alt.usage.english) is the place to criticize other people's
spelling. We try to avoid doing that here (although some of us do
get provoked if you spell language terms wrong. It's "consensus",
not "concensus"; "diphthong", not "dipthong"; "grammar", not
"grammer"; "guttural", not "gutteral"; and "pronunciation", not
is described as being for
"meaningless words coined by psychotics". Fewer sites carry it,
and it has little traffic.
rec.puzzles is a better place than
here to ask questions like
"What English words end in '-gry' or '-endous'?", "What words
contain 'vv'?", "What words have 'e' pronounced as /I/?", "What Pig
Latin words are also words?", or "How do you punctuate 'John where
Bill had had had had had had had had had had the approval of the
teacher' or 'That that is is that that is not is not that that is
not is not that that is is that it it is' to get comprehensible
text?" But, before you post such a question there, make sure it's
not answered in the
Language features peculiar to the U.K. get discussed in
soc.culture.british as well as
here. Before posting to either
newsgroup on this subject, you should check out Jeremy Smith's
British-American dictionary, available by anonymous ftp from
If you have a (language-related or other) peeve that you want
to mention but don't particularly want to justify, you can try
alt.peeves. ("What is your pet peeve?" is
*not* a frequently asked
question in alt.usage.english, although we frequently get
unsolicited answers to it. If you're new to this group, chances are
excellent that your particular pet peeve is something that has
already been discussed to death by the regulars.)
If you're interested in the peculiarities of language as used by
computer users, get the Jargon File by anonymous ftp from
(184.108.40.206) (also available in
paperback form as _The New Hacker's Dictionary_, ed. Eric S.
Raymond, 2nd edition, MIT Press, 1993, ISBN 0-262-68079-3). This is
also the place to find answers to questions like "How do you
pronounce '#'?" You can discuss hacker language further in the
newsgroup alt.folklore.computers, or in the moderated newsgroup
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd ed. (OED2) (Oxford
University Press, 1989, 20 vols.; compact edition, 1991 ISBN
0-19-861258-3; additions series, 2 vols., 1993, ISBN 0-19-861292-3
and 0-19-861299-0), has no rivals as a historical dictionary of the
English language. It is too large for the editors to keep all of
it up-to-date, and hence should not be relied on for precise
definitions of technical terms, or for consistent usage labels.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster,
1961, ISBN 0-87779-206-1) (W3) is the unabridged dictionary to check
for 20th-century U.S. citations of word use, and for precise
definitions of technical terms too rare to appear in collegiate
dictionaries. People sometimes cite W3 with a later date. These
later dates refer to the addenda section at the front, *not* to the
body of the dictionary, which is unchanged since 1961. W3 was
widely criticized by schoolteachers and others for its lack of usage
labels; e.g., it gives "imply" as one of the meanings of "infer" and
"flout" as one of the meanings of "flaunt", without indicating that
these are disputed usage. Others have defended the lack of usage
labels. An anthology devoted to the controversy is _Dictionaries
and THAT Dictionary: A Case Book of the Aims of Lexicographers and
the Targets of Reviewers_, ed. James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt
(Scott Foresman, 1962).
Please don't refer to any dictionary simply as "Webster's".
_Books in Print_ has 5 columns of book titles beginning with
Among collegiate dictionaries, the ones most frequently mentioned
here are Collins English Dictionary (3rd edition, HarperCollins, 1991,
ISBN 0-00-433287-3) and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth
Edition (Merriam-Webster, 1993, ISBN 0-919028-25-X) (MWCD10).
Merriam-Webster publishes sub-editions of its collegiate dictionaries,
so look at the copyright date to see exactly what you have. _The
Chambers Dictionary_ (Larousse, 1993, ISBN 0-550-10255-8) is a
respected British dictionary now also available on CD-ROM.
If you're interested in etymology, get The American Heritage
Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin,
1992, ISBN 0-395-44895-6) (AHD3) or Henry Cecil Wyld's _Universal
English Dictionary_ (Wordsworth, reprinted from 1932, ISBN
1-85326-940-9). These are two of the few dictionaries that trace
words back to their reconstructed Indo-European (Aryan) roots.
Although AHD3 looks larger than a collegiate dictionary, its
word count puts it in the collegiate range. If you want an
up-to-date dictionary that is larger than a collegiate, get the
Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, Random House,
revised 1993, ISBN 0-679-42917-4) (RHUD2).
The OED is available on CD ROM for PCs, and server-style for Unix
systems. For info on obtaining the Unix version in North America,
phone the Open Text Corporation in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. If
you want to submit citations for the
next edition of the OED, you can contact the OED staff directly at
email@example.com. Info from Alex
Lange: The online OED is encoded
with the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which is ISO
8879:1986 and is discussed in obscure detail on the comp.text.sgml
newsgroup. The funny-looking escape codes beginning with "&" are
known as "text entity references". The ISO has defined a slew of
such for use with SGML: publishing symbols, math and scientific
symbols, and so on. A good place to start for information about
SGML and its uses is an article "SGML Frees Information", Byte, June
Info from Graham Toal: The Webster Server is best accessed via
the "webster" program (use the archie service to find it). An old
Webster's dictionary (not the one used by the NeXT or the Webster
Server, though it looks as if it might have been that version's
grandfather) is available by anonymous ftp from src.doc.ic.ac.uk
in the directory media/literary/dictionaries . Roget's Thesaurus
(1911 version, out of copyright) is available from
black.ox.ac.uk has Collins
converted to a Prolog fact base; the Oxford Advanced Learner's
Dictionary; and the MRC Psycholinguistic Database (150,837 word
forms, expanded from the headwords in the Shorter Oxford, with info
about 26 different linguistic properties). Read the conditions of
use for the Oxford Text Archive materials before using; most texts
are available for scholarly use and research only.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) runs a public-access wordserver
that provides dictionary (using Merriam-Webster's Collegiate),
thesaurus, acronym and anagram services by e-mail. He also has a
mailing list, "A.Word.A.Day", that mails out a vocabulary word and
its definition to its subscribers every day. For information on
these services, send a blank message with subject "Help" to
_The Oxford Companion to the English Language_ (ed. Tom McArthur,
Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-214183-X) is an
encyclopaedia with a wealth of information on various dialects, on
lexicography, and almost everything else except individual words
and expressions. _Success With Words_ (Reader's Digest, 1983, ISBN
0-88850-117-X) is especially suitable for beginners.
Books on linguistics
- David Crystal _The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language_ Cambridge
University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-521-26438-3
- David Crystal _A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics_
Blackwell, 1985, ISBN 0-631-14081-6
- William Bright, ed. _International Encyclopedia of Linguistics_
4 vols., Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-505196-3
- R. E. Asher, ed. _The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics_
10 vols., Pergamon, 1994, ISBN 0-08-035943-4
- Randolph Quirk et al. _A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
Language_ Longman, 1985, ISBN 0-582-51734-6
- Otto Jespersen _A Modern English Grammar on Historical
7 volumes, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1909-1949.
Books on usage
The best survey of the history of usage disputes and how
they correlate with actual usage is Webster's Dictionary of English
Usage, Merriam-Webster, 1989, ISBN 0-87779-032-9 (WDEU).
Among conservative prescriptivists, the most highly respected
usage book is the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W.
Fowler -- 1st edition, 1926 (MEU); 2nd edition, revised by Sir
Ernest Gowers, Oxford University Press, 1965, ISBN 0-19-281389-7
(MEU2). Robert Burchfield (who edited the OED supplement) was
supposedly working on a 3rd edition, although nothing seems to
have come of this.
_The Elements of Style_ by William Strunk and E. B. White
(Macmillan, 3rd ed. 1979, ISBN 0-02-418190-0) and Wilson Follett's
_Modern American Usage_ (Hill and Wang, 1966, ISBN 0-8090-0139-X)
have their partisans here, although they aren't as *widely*
respected as Fowler.
Liberals most often refer to the Dictionary of Contemporary
American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans (Random House,
1957, ISBN 0-8022-0973-4 -- out of print).
Books that discriminate synonyms
- _Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms_, Merriam-Webster, 1984,
_The Chicago Manual of Style_ (University of Chicago Press,
1993, ISBN 0-226-10389-7) covers manuscript preparation; copy-
editing; proofs; rights and permissions; typography; and format
of tables, captions, bibliographies, and indexes.
Book on mathematical exposition
- Norman E. Steenrod, Paul R. Halmos, Menahem M. Schiffer, Jean A.
Dieudonne _How to Write Mathematics_ American Mathematical
Society, 1973, ISBN 0-8218-0055-8
- Donald E. Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, & Paul M. Roberts
Writing_ Mathematical Association of America, 1989, ISBN
Books on phrasal verbs
- A. P. Cowie and Ronald Mackin _Oxford Dictionary of Current
Idiomatic English: Verbs with Prepositions and Particles, Vol. I_
OUP, 1975, ISBN 0-19-431145-7
- Rosemary Courtney _Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs_ Longman,
1983, ISBN 0-582-55530-2
- F. T. Wood _English Verbal Idioms_ London: Macmillan, 1966,
- F. T. Wood _English Prepositional Idioms_ London: Macmillan,
Books on Britishisms, Canadianisms, etc.
There are many *hundreds* of differences between British and
American English. From time to time, we get threads in which
each post mentions *one* of these differences. Because such a
thread can go on for ever, it's helpful to delimit the topic
The books to get are _The Hutchinson British/American Dictionary_
by Norman Moss (Arrow, 1990, ISBN 0-09-978230-8); _British English,
A to Zed_ by Norman W. Schur (Facts on File, 1987, ISBN
0-8160-1635-6); and _Modern American Usage_ by H. W. Horwill
(OUP, 2nd ed., 1935).
) has compiled his own
British-American dictionary, available by anonymous ftp from
ftp.csos.orst.edu as pub/networking/bigfun/usuk_dictionary.txt .
He plans to publish it as a paperback.
For Australian English, see _The Macquarie Dictionary of
Australian Colloquial Language_ (Macquarie, 1988,
ISBN 0-949757-41-1); _The Macquarie Dictionary_ (Macquarie, 1991,
ISBN 0-949757-63-2); _The Australian National Dictionary_ (Oxford
University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-55736-5); or _The Dinkum
Dictionary_ (Viking O'Nell, 1988, ISBN 0-670-90419-8).
For New Zealand English, there's the _Heinemann New Zealand
Dictionary_, ed. H. W. Orseman (Heinemann, 1979, ISBN
0-86863-373-9); and _A Personal Kiwi-Yankee Slanguage Dictionary_,
by Louis S. Leland Jr. (McIndoe, 1987, ISBN 0-86868-001-X).
For South African English, see _A Dictionary of South African
English_, ed. Jean Branford (OUP, 3rd ed., 1987, ISBN
For Canadian English, see _A Dictionary of Canadianisms on
Historical Principles_ (Gage, 1967, ISBN 0-7715-1976-1); the
_Penguin Canadian Dictionary_ (Copp, 1990, ISBN 0-670-81970-0); or
the _Gage Canadian Dictionary_ (Gage, 1982, ISBN 0-7715-9660-X).
Books on phrase origins
- Robert Hendrickson _The Henry Holt Encyclopedia of Word and
Phrase Origins_ Henry Holt, 1987, ISBN 0-8050-1251-6
- Nigel Rees _Bloomsbury Dictionary of Phrase and Allusion_
Bloomsbury, 1991, ISBN 0-7475-1217-5
- Christine Ammer _Have a Nice Day -- No Problem! : A
Dictionary of Cliches_ Plume Penguin, 1992, ISBN
- Ivor H. Evans, ed. _Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable_
Harper & Row, 1981, ISBN 0-02-418230-3
Books on "bias-free"/"politically correct" language
- Rosalie Maggio _The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of
Nondiscriminatory Language_ Beacon, 1992, ISBN 0-8070-6003-8
- Nigel Rees _The Politically Correct Phrasebook: What They
Say You Can and Cannot Say in the 1990s_ Bloomsbury, 1993,
- Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf _The Official Politically
Correct Dictionary and Handbook_, Villard, 1993, ISBN
Books on group names
James Lipton _An Exaltation of Larks_ Viking Penguin, 1991,
Basic English (where "Basic" stands for "British American
Scientific International Commercial") is a subset of English with
a base vocabulary of 850 words, propounded by C. K. Ogden in 1929.
Look under "Ogden" in your library's author index if you're
interested. (We're not.)
E-prime is a subset of standard idiomatic English that eschews
all forms of the verb "to be" (e.g., you can't say "You are an ass"
or "You an ass", but you can say "You act like an ass"). The
original reference is D. David Bourland, Jr., "A linguistic note:
write in E-prime" _General Semantics Bulletin_, 1965/1966, 32 and
33, 60-61. Albert Ellis wrote a book in E-prime (_Sex and the
Liberated Man_). You can also look at the April 1992 issue of the
_Atlantic_ if you're interested. (We're not.) The following book
contains articles both pro and con on E-Prime: _To Be or Not: An
E-Prime Anthology_, ed. D. David Bourland and Paul D. Johnston,
International Society for General Semantics, 1991, ISBN
How to represent pronunciation in ASCII
Beware of using ad hoc methods to indicate pronunciation. The
problem with ad hoc methods is that they often wrongly assume your
dialect to have certain features in common with the readers'
dialect. You may pronounce "bother" to rhyme with "father"; some of
the readers here don't. You may pronounce "cot" and "caught" alike;
some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "caught" and
"court" alike; some of the readers here don't.
The standard way to represent pronunciation (used in the latest
British Dictionaries and by linguists worldwide) is the
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For a complete guide to
the IPA, see _Phonetic Symbol Guide_ by Geoffrey K. Pullum and
William A. Ladusaw (University of Chicago Press, 1986, ISBN
0-226-68532-2). IPA uses many special symbols; on the Net, where
we're restricted to ASCII symbols, we must find a way to make do.
The following scheme is due to Evan Kirshenbaum. I show here
only examples for the sounds most often referred to in this
newsgroup. The examples transcribe British Received Pronunciation
(RP) except as noted. For Evan's complete scheme, illustrated
with examples from U.S. English, see Evan's own regular posts here
and to sci.lang, or send e-mail to Evan (email@example.com).
The consonant symbols [b], [d], [f], [h], [k], [l], [m], [n], [p],
[r], [s], [t], [v], [w], [z] have their usual English values.
[A] = [<script a>] as in "calm" /kA:m/, French "bas" /bA/
[A.] = [<turned script a>] as in "odd" /A.d/ (Not much used to
transcribe U.S. pronunciation; the tendency is to use [A] or [O]
[a] as in French "ami" /a'mi/, German "Mann" /man/, Italian "pasta"
/'pasta/, Chicago "pop" /pap/, Boston "park" /pa:k/. Also in
diphthongs: "dive" /daIv/, "out" /aUt/
[C] = [<c cedilla>] as in German "ich" /IC/
[D] = [<edh>] as in "this" /DIs/
[E] = [<epsilon>] as in "end" /End/
[e] as in "eight" /eIt/, "chaos" /'keA.s/
[g] as in "get" /gEt/
[I] = [<iota>] as in "it" /It/
[I.] = [<small capital y>] as in German "Glück" /glI.k/
[i] as in "eat" /i:t/
[j] as in "yes" /jEs/
[N] = [<eng>] as in "hang" /h&N/
[O] = [<open o>] as in "all" /O:l/, "oil" /OIl/
[o] as in U.S. "old" /oUld/, French "beau" /bo/
[R] = [<right-hook schwa>], equivalent to /@r/, /r-/, or even
[S] = [<esh>] as in "ship" /SIp/
[T] = [<theta>] as in "thin" /TIn/
[t!] = [<>] as in "tsk-tsk" or "tut-tut" /t! t!/
[U] = [<upsilon>] as in "pull" /pUl/
[u] as in "ooze" /u:z/
[V] = [<turned v>] as in "up" /Vp/
[V"] = [<reversed epsilon>] as in "fern" /fV":n/ (rhotic /fV"rn/)
[W] = [<o-e ligature>] as in French "heure" /Wr/, German
[x] as in Scots "loch" /lA.x/, German "Bach" /bax/
[Y] = [<slashed o>] as in French "peu" /pY/, German "schön"
/SYn/, Scots "guidwillie" /gYd'wIli/
[y] as in French "lune" /lyn/, German "müde" /'myd@/
[Z] = [<yogh>] as in "beige" /beIZ/
[&] = [<ash>] as in "ash" /&S/
[@] = [<schwa>] as in "lemon" /'lEm@n/
[?] = [<glottal>] as in "uh-oh" /V?ou/
[*] = [<fish-hook r>], a short tap of the tongue use by some U.S.
speakers in "pedal", "petal", and by Scots speakers in "pearl": all
- previous consonant syllabic as in "bundle" /'bVnd@l/ or /'bVndl-/,
"button" /bVt@n/ or /bVtn-/
~ previous sound nasalized
: previous sound lengthened
; previous sound palatalized
' following syllable has primary stress
, following syllable has secondary stress
Here is the scheme compared with the transcriptions in 4 U.S.
dictionaries. (Most British dictionaries now use IPA for their
Merriam-Webster American Heritage Random House Webster's New World
Auditory files demonstrating speech sounds can be obtained by anonymous
ftp from ftp.cs.cmu.edu (or on the
World Wide Web at
Look in "/user/ai/areas/nlp/corpora/pron" and
[A] a umlaut a umlaut a umlaut a umlaut
[A.] (merged with [A]) o breve o (merged with [A])
[a] a overdot (merged with [A]) A a overdot
/AI/ i macron i macron i macron i macron
/AU/ a u overdot ou ou ou
[C] (merged with [x]) (merged with [x]) (merged with [x]) H
[D] th underlined th in italics th slashed th in italics
/dZ/ j j j j
[E] e e breve e e
/E@/ a schwa a circumflex a circumflex (merged with [e])
/eI/ a macron a macron a macron a macron
[g] g g g g
[I] i i breve i i
[I.] ue ligature (merged with [y]) (merged with [y]) (merged with [y])
[i] e macron e macron e macron e macron
[j] y y y y
[N] ng ng
[O] o overdot o circumflex o circumflex o circumflex
/OI/ o overdot i oi oi oi ligature
/oU/ o macron o macron o macron o macron
[S] sh sh sh sh ligature
[T] th th th th ligature
/tS/ ch ch ch ch ligature
[U] u overdot oo breve oo breve oo
[u] u umlaut oo macron oo macron oo macron
[V] (merged with [@]) u breve u u
[V"] (merged with [@]) u circumflex u circumflex u circumflex
[W] oe ligature oe ligature OE ligature o umlaut
[x] k underlined KH KH kh ligature
[Y] oe ligature macron (merged with [W]) (merged with [W]) (merged with [W])
[y] ue ligature macron u umlaut Y u umlaut
[Z] zh zh zh zh ligature
[&] a a breve a a
[@] schwa schwa schwa schwa
- superscript schwa syllabicity mark unmarked '
rhotic vs non-rhotic, intrusive "r"
A rhotic speaker is one who pronounces as a consonant postvocalic
"r", i.e. the "r" after a vowel in words like "world" /wV"rld/. A
nonrhotic speaker either does not pronounce the "r" at all /wV"ld/
or pronounces it as a schwa /wV"@ld/. British Received
Pronunciation (RP) and many other dialects of English are nonrhotic.
Many nonrhotic speakers (including RP speakers, but excluding
most nonrhotic speakers in the southern U.S.) use a "linking r" --
they don't pronounce "r" in "for" by itself /fO/, but they do
pronounce the first "r" in "for ever" /fO 'rEv@/. Linking "r"
differs from French liaison in that the former happens in any
phonetically appropriate context, whereas the latter also needs
the right syntactic context.
A further development of "linking r" is "intrusive r".
Intrusive-r speakers, because the vowels in "law" (which they
pronounce the same as "lore") and "idea" (which they pronounce
to rhyme with "fear") are identical for them to vowels spelled
with "r", intrude an r in such phrases as "law [r]and order" and
"The idea [r]of it!" They do NOT intrude an [r] after vowels that
are never spelled with an "r". Some people blanch at intrusive r,
but most RP speakers now use it.
How do Americans pronounce "dog"?
Those who round their lips when they say it would probably
transcribe it /dOg/; those who don't round their lips, /dAg/.
Very few people in North America distinguish all three vowels
/A/, /A./, and /O/. Speakers in Eastern and Southern U.S. merge
/A./ and /A/, so that "bother" and "father" rhyme. Speakers in
Western U.S. and in Canada merge /A./ and /O/, so that "cot" and
"caught", "Don" and "Dawn" are pronounced alike. Some speakers
merge all three vowels. The Oxford Companion to the English
Language says: "The merger of vowels in _tot_ and _taught_ begins
in a narrow band in central Pennsylvania and spreads north and
south to influence the West, where the merger is universal. [...]
In New England, where the merger is beginning to occur, speakers
select the first vowel; in the Midland and West, the second vowel
is used for both." Although /A./ is seldom used to transcribe
American pronunciation, the vowel transcribed /O/ may sound like
/A./ to non-American speakers, or it may sound like /O/.
There is a further complication with "dog": U.S. dictionaries
give the pronunciations /dOg/, /dAg/ in that order (and similarly
with some other words ending in "-og", although which ones varies
from dictionary to dictionary). "Dawg", the name of the family dog
in the comic strip "Hi and Lois", may be intended to convey the
pronunciation /dOg/ to (or from) people who usually pronounce the
word /dAg/; or it may be intended as how a child in a community
where /A./ and /O/ are merged might misspell "dog".
Words pronounced differently according to context
There is a general tendency in English whereby when a word with a
stressed final syllable is followed by another word without a pause,
the stress moves forward: "kangaROO", but "KANGaroo court";
"afterNOON", but "AFTernoon nap"; "above BOARD", but "an aBOVEboard
deal". This happens chiefly in noun phrases, but not exclusively so
("acquiESCE" versus "ACquiesce readily"). Consider also "Chinese"
and all numbers ending in "-teen".
"Offence" and "defence", usually stressed on the last syllable,
are often in North America stressed on the first syllable when the
context is team sports. (In the U.S., of course, they are spelled
with -se .)
When "have to" means "must", the [v] in "have" becomes an [f].
Similarly, in "has to", [z] becomes [s]. When "used to" and
"supposed to" are used in their senses of "formerly" and "ought",
the "-sed" is pronounced /st/; when they're used in other senses,
In many dialects, "the" is pronounced /D@/ before a consonant,
and /DI/ before a vowel. Many foreigners learning English are
taught this rule explicitly. Native English speakers are also
taught this rule when we sing in choirs. (We do it instinctively in
rapid speech; but in the slower pace of singing, it has to be
brought to our conscious attention.)
Words whose spelling has influenced their pronunciation
"Cocaine" used to be pronounced /'cocain/ (3 syllables).
"Waistcoat" used to be pronounced /'wEskIt/. "Humble" and "human"
were borrowed from French with no [h] in their pronunciation.
"Forte" in the sense of "strong point" comes from French, where
the "e" is not pronounced.
"Zoo" is an abbreviation of "zoological garden". The (popular
but stigmatized) pronunciation of "zoological" as /zu@'lA.dZik@l/
(as opposed to /zo@'lA.dZik@l/) is due to the influence of "zoo".
"Elephant" was "olifaunt" in Middle English, but its spelling was
restored to reflect the Latin "elephantus". Similarly, "crocodile"
"Golf" is Scots. The traditional Scots pronunciation is /gof/.
"Ralph" was traditionally pronounced /ref/ in Britain -- Gilbert and
Sullivan rhymed it with "waif" in _H.M.S. Pinafore_; that's how the
composer Ralph Vaughan Williams pronounced his name; and even today
actor Ralph Fiennes (of _Schindler's List_ fame) is said to
pronounce his name /ref faInz/.
"Medicine" and "regiment" were two-syllable words in the 19th
century: /'mEdsIn/ and /'rEdZm@nt/. /'mEdsIn/ can still be heard
King Arthur would have pronounced his name /'artur/.
The new pronunciations in such cases are called "spelling
pronunciations". The "speak-as-you-spell movement" is described in
the MEU2 article on "pronunciation".
Strictly, an acronym is a string of initial letters pronounceable
as a word, such as "NATO". Abbreviations like "NBC" have been
variously designated "alphabetisms" and "initialisms", although some
people do call them acronyms. WDEU says, "Dictionaries, however,
do not make this distinction [between acronyms and initialisms]
because writers in general do not"; but two or the best known books
on acronyms are titled _Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations
Dictionary_ (19th ed., Gale 1993) and _Concise Dictionary of
Acronyms and Initialisms_ (Facts on File, 1988).
The Network Dictionary of Acronyms is available through World Wide
http://www.ucc.ie/info/net/acronyms/acro.html) or by e-mail
(send the word "help" to
This spelling of "a lot" is frequently mentioned as a pet peeve.
It rarely appears in print, but is often found in the U.S. in
informal writing and on Usenet. There does not seem to be a
The spelling "alright" is recorded from 1887. It was defended
by Fowler (in one of the Society for Pure English tracts, not in
MEU), on the analogy of "almighty" and "altogether", and on the
grounds that "The answers are alright" (= "The answers are O.K.") is
less ambiguous than "The answers are all right" (which could mean
"All the answers are right".) But it is still widely condemned.
"between you and I"
The prescriptive rule is to use "you and I" in the same contexts
as "I", and "you and me" in the same contexts as "me". But English
speakers have a tendency to regard such compounds as units, so that
some speakers use "you and me" exclusively, and others use "you and
I" exclusively, although such practices "have no place in modern
edited prose" (WDEU). "Between you and I" was used by Shakespeare
in _The Merchant of Venice_. Since this antedates the teaching of
English grammar, it is probably NOT "hypercorrection". (This is
mentioned merely to caution against the hypercorrection theory, not
to defend the phrase.) Shakespeare also used "between you and me".
"could care less"
The idiom "couldn't care less", meaning "doesn't care at all"
(the meaning in full is "cares so little that he couldn't possibly
care less"), originated in Britain around 1940. "Could care less",
which is used with the same meaning, developed in the U.S. around
1960. We get disputes about whether the latter was originally a
mis-hearing of the former; whether it was originally ironic; or
whether it arose from uses where the negative element was separated
from "could" ("None of these writers could care less...") Meaning-
saving elaborations have also been suggested; e.g., "As if I could
care less!"; "I could care less, but I'd have to try"; "If I cared
even one iota -- which I don't --, then I could care less."
An earlier transition in which "not" was dropped was the one that
gave us "but" in the sense of "only". "I will not say but one
word", where "but" meant "(anything) except", became "I will say but
Other idioms that say the opposite of what they mean include:
"head over heels" (which could mean turning cartwheels, i.e. "head
over heels over head over heels", but is also used to mean "upside-
down", i.e. "heels over head"); "Don't sneeze more than you can
help", (meaning "more than you cannot help"; "help" here means
"prevent"); "It's hard to open, much less acknowledge, the letters"
(where "less" means "harder", i.e. "more"); "I shouldn't wonder if
it didn't rain"; "I miss not seeing you"; and "I turned my life
around 360 degrees" -- not to mention undisputedly ironic phrases
like "fat chance", "Thanks a *lot*", and "I should worry".
"different to", "different than"
"Different from" is the construction that no one will object to.
"Different to" is fairly common informally in Britain, but rare in
the U.S. "Different than" is sometimes used to avoid the cumbersome
"different from that which", etc. (e.g. "a very different Pamela
than I used to leave all company and pleasure for" -- Samuel
Richardson). Some U.S. speakers use "different than" exclusively.
Some people have insisted on "different from" on the grounds that
"from" is required after "to differ". But Fowler points out that
there are many other adjectives that do not conform to the
construction of their parent verbs (e.g., "accords with", but
"according to"; "derogates from", but "derogatory to").
Double "is", as in "The reason is, is that..." is a recent U.S.
development, much decried. Of course, "What this is is..." is
"Due to" meaning "caused by" is undisputedly correct in contexts
where "due" can be construed as an adjective (e.g., "failure due to
carelessness"). Its use in contexts where "due" is an adverb
("He failed due to carelessness") has been disputed. Fowler says
that "_due to_ is often used by the illiterate as though it had
passed, like _owing to_, into a mere compound preposition". But
Fowler was writing in 1926; what hadn't happened then may well
have happened by now.
"Functionality" is often attacked as a needless long variant of
"function". But they are differentiated in meaning. "The function
of a screwdriver is to turn screws. Its functionality includes
prying open paint cans, stirring paint, scraping paint, and acting
as a chisel. The function is what it is designed to do. The
functionality is what you can do with it." -- Evan Kirshenbaum
This specialized meaning of "functionality" is not yet in most
Singular "they" (as in "Everyone was blowing their nose"), which
has been used in English since the time of Chaucer, has gained
popularity recently as a result of the move towards gender-neutral
language. Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1795,
although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed
"Everyone was blowing his nose."
Proposals for other gender-neutral pronouns get made from time to
time, and some can be found in actual use ("sie" and "hir" are
the ones most frequently found on Usenet -- "hir" is said to have
been used in a gender-neutral fashion by Chaucer). Cecil Adams, in
_Return of the Straight Dope_ (Ballantine, 1994, ISBN 0-345-38111-4),
says that some eighty such terms have been proposed,
the first of them in the 1850s.
Discussions about gender-neutral pronouns tend to go round and
round and never reach a conclusion. Please refrain.
(We also get disputes about the use of the word "gender" in the
sense of "sex", i.e. whether a human being is male or female.
This also dates from the 14th century. By 1900 it was restricted
to jocular use, but has now been revived because of the "sexual
relations" sense of "sex".)
The OED's first citation for "hopefully" in the passive sense
(= "It is to be hoped that") is from 1932, but no unmistakable
citation has been found between then and 1954. (WDEU has three
ambiguous citations dated 1941, 1951, and 1954.) WDEU's first
citation for the passive sense of "thankfully" (= "We can be
thankful that") is from 1963. These uses became popular in the
early '60s, and have been widely criticized on the grounds that
they should have been "hopably" and "thankably" (on the analogy of
"predictably", "regrettably", "inexplicably", etc.). You'll find
"hopefully" defended in "Mathematical Writing", a set of lecture
notes from one of Knuth's courses.
The disputed, passive use of "hopefully" is often referred to as
"sentence-modifying"; but it can also modify a single word, as is
hopefully clear from this example. :-)
Discussions about these words go round and round for ever without
reaching a conclusion. We advise you to refrain.
"It's me" vs "It is I"
(freely adapted from an article by Roger Lustig)
Fowler says: "_me_ is technically wrong in _It wasn't me_ etc.;
but the phrase being of its very nature colloquial, such a lapse is
of no importance".
The rule for what he and others consider technically right is
*not* (as is commonly misstated) that the nominative should *always*
be used after "to be". Rather, it is that "to be" should link two
noun phrases of the same case, whether this be nominative or
I believe that he is I. Who do you believe that he is?
According to the traditional grammar being used here, "to be" is not
a transitive verb, but a *copulative* verb. When you say that A is
B, you don't imply that A, by being B, is doing something to B.
(After all, B is also doing it to A.) Other verbs considered
copulative are "to become", "to remain", "to seem", and "to look".
I believe him to be me. Whom do you believe him to be?
Sometimes in English, though, "to be" does seem to have the
force of a transitive verb; e.g., in Gelett Burgess's:
I never saw a Purple Cow,
The occurrence of "It's me", etc., is no doubt partly due to this
perceived transitive force. In the French _C'est moi_, often cited
as analogous, _moi_ is not in the accusative, but a special form
known as the "disjunctive", used for emphasis. If _etre_ were a
transitive verb in French, _C'est moi_ would be _Ce m'est_.
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.
In languages like German and Latin that inflect between the
nominative and the accusative, B in "A is B" is nominative just like
A. In English, no nouns and only a few personal pronouns ("I",
"we", "thou", "he", "she", "they" and "who") inflect between the
nominative and the accusative. In other words, we've gotten out of
the habit, for the most part.
Also, in English we derive meaning from word position, far more
than one would in Latin, somewhat more than in German, even. In
those languages, one can rearrange sentences drastically for
rhetorical or other purposes without confusion (heh) because
inflections (endings, etc.) tell you how the words relate to one
another. In English, "The dog ate the cat" and "The cat ate the
dog" are utterly different in meaning, and if we wish to have the
former meaning with "cat" prior to "dog" in the sentence, we have to
say "The cat was eaten by the dog" (change of voice) or "It is the
cat that the dog ate." In German, one can reverse the meaning by
inflecting the word (or its article): _Der Hund ass die Katze_ and
_Den Hund ass die Katze_ reverse the meaning of who ate whom.
In Latin, things are even more flexible: almost any word order will
Feles edit canem
all mean the same, the choice of word order being made perhaps for
rhetorical or poetic purpose.
Feles canem edit
Canem edit feles
Canem feles edit
Edit canem feles
Edit feles canem
English is pretty much the opposite of that: hardly any
inflection, great emphasis on order. As a result, things have
gotten a little irregular with the personal pronouns. And there's
uncertainty as to how to use them; the usual rules aren't there,
because the usual word needs no rules, being the same for nominative
The final factor is the traditional use of Latin grammatical
concepts to teach English grammar. This historical quirk dates to
the 17th century, and has never quite left us. From this we get the
Latin-derived rule, which Fowler still acknowledges. And we *do*
follow that rule to some extent: "Who are they?" (not "Who are
them?" or "Whom are they?") "We are they!" (in response to the
preceding) "It is I who am at fault." "That's the man who
But not always. "It is me" is attested since the 16th Century.
(Speakers who would substitute "me" for "I" in the "It is I who am
at fault" example would also sacrifice the agreement of person, and
substitute "is" for "am".)
"less" vs "fewer"
The rule usually encountered is: use "fewer" for things you
count (individually), and "less" for things you measure: "fewer
apples", "less water". Since "less" is also used as an adverb
("less successful"), "fewer" helps to distinguish "fewer successful
professionals" (fewer professionals who are successful) from "less
successful professionals" (professionals who are less successful).
(No such distinction is possible with "more", which serves as the
antonym of both "less" and "fewer".) "Less" has been used in the
sense of "fewer" since the time of King Alfred the Great (ninth
century), and is still common in that sense, especially informally
in the U.S., but in Fowler's day it was so rare in British English
that he didn't even mention it.
"like" vs "as"
For making comparisons (i.e., asserting that one thing is similar
to another), the prescribed choices are:
In 1 and 2, "like" governs a noun (or a pronoun or a noun phrase).
In 3, "as" governs a clause with a noun and a verb. In 4, "as"
governs a prepositional phrase. Look at what the word governs, and
you will know which to use.
- A is like B.
- A behaves like B.
- A behaves as B does.
- A behaves as in an earlier situation.
In informal English, "like" is often used in place of "as" in
sentences of type 3 and 4. "Like" has been been used in the sense
of "as if" since the 14th century, and in the sense of "as" since
the 15th century, but such use was fairly rare until the 19th
century, and "a writer who uses the construction in formal style
risks being accused of illiteracy or worse" (AHD3). Fowler put
"_Like_ as conjunction" first in his list of "ILLITERACIES" (he
defined "illiteracy" as "offence against the literary idiom"). The
most famous use of "like" as a conjunction was in the 1950s slogan
for Winston Cigarettes: "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette
should." The New Yorker wrote that "it would pain [Sir Winston
Churchill] dreadfully", but in fact conjunctive "like" was used by
Churchill himself in informal speech: "We are overrun by them, like
the Australians are by rabbits." "Like" in the sense of "as if" was
until recently more often heard in the Southern U.S. than elsewhere,
and was perceived by Britons as an Americanism. When used in this
sense, it is never now followed by the inflected past subjunctive:
people say "like it is" or "like it was", not "like it were".
Sometimes, "as" governs a simple noun. When it does, it does not
introduce a comparison, but rather may:
- indicate a role being played. "They fell on the supplies as men
starving" means that they were actually starving men; in "They fell
on the supplies like men starving", one is *comparing* them to
starving men. "You're acting as a fool" might be appropriate if you
obtained the job of court jester; "You're acting like a fool"
expresses the more usual meaning.
- introduce examples. ("Some animals, as the fox and the squirrel,
have bushy tails.") "Such as" and "like" are more common in this use.
- be short for "as ... as": "He's deaf as a post" means "He's as
deaf as a post."
Fowler and other conservatives urge restricting the meaning
of "unique" to "having no like or equal". (OED says "in this sense,
readopted from French at the end of the 18th Century and regarded as
a foreign word down to the middle of the 19th.") Used in this
sense, it is an incomparable: either something is "unique" or it
isn't, and there can be no degrees of uniqueness. Those who use
phrases like "more unique", "most unique", and "very unique"
are using "unique" in the weaker sense of "unusual, distinctive".
"none is" vs "none are"
With mass nouns, you have to use the singular. ("None of the
wheat is...") With count nouns, you can use either the singular or
the plural. ("None of the books is..." or "None of the books
are...") Usually, the plural sounds more natural, unless you're
trying to emphasize the idea of "not one", or if the words that
follow work better in the singular.
The fullest (prescriptive) treatment is in Eric Partridge's book
_Usage and Abusage_ (Penguin, 1970, 0-14-051024-9). In the original
edition Partridge had prescribed the singular in certain cases, but
a rather long-winded letter from a correspondent persuaded him to
Plurals of Latin/Greek words
Not all Latin words ending in "-us" had plurals in "-i".
"Apparatus", "hiatus", "impetus", "nexus", "plexus", "prospectus",
and "status" were 4th declension in Latin, and had plurals in "-us"
with a long "u". "Corpus", "genus", and "opus" were 3rd declension,
with plurals "corpora", "genera", and "opera". "Omnibus" and
"rebus" were not nominative nouns in Latin. "Ignoramus" was not a
noun in Latin. "Caucus" and "syllabus" were not Latin words.
Not all classical words ending in "-a" had plurals in "-ae".
"Anathema", "aroma", "bema", "carcinoma", "charisma", "diploma",
"dogma", "drama", "edema", "enema", "enigma", "lemma", "lymphoma",
"magma", "melisma", "miasma", "sarcoma", "schema", "soma", "stigma",
"stoma", and "trauma" are from Greek, where they had plurals in
"-ata". "Quota" was not a noun in Latin. (It comes from the
Latin expression _quota pars_, where _quota_ is the feminine
form of an interrogative pronoun meaning "what number". In *that*
use, it did have plural _quotae_, but in English the only plural
Not all classical-sounding words ending in "-um" have plurals in
"-a". "Factotum", "nostrum", and "quorum" were not nouns in Latin.
(_Totus_ = "everything" and _nostrus_ = "our" were conjugated like
nouns in Latin; but "factotum" comes from _fac totum_ = "do
everything", and "nostrum" comes from _nostrum remedium_ = "our
remedy".) "Conundrum", "panjandrum", "tantrum", and "vellum" are
not Latin words.
If in doubt, consult a dictionary (or use the English plural in
"-s" or "-es"). One plural that you *will* find in U.S.
dictionaries, "octopi", raises the ire of purists (the Greek plural
The classical-style plurals of "penis" and "clitoris" are "penes"
/'piniz/ and "clitorides" /klI'tOrIdiz/.
Foreign plurals => English singulars
Some uses of classical plurals as singulars in English are
undisputed: "opera", "stamina". ("Opera", still used as the
plural of "opus", became singular in Vulgar Latin, and then in
Italian acquired the sense "musical drama", giving rise to the
English word.) "Agenda" once excited controversy but is now
accepted. Others are the subject of current controversy: "data"
(used by Winston Churchill!), "erotica", "insignia", "media",
"regalia", "trivia". Yet others are still widely stigmatized:
"bacteria", "candelabra", "criteria", "curricula", "phenomena",
"Bona fides", "kudos", and "minutia" are singulars in Latin or
"Graffiti" (plural in Italian) is disputed in English. But
"zucchini" (also plural in Italian) is the invariable singular form
in English (the English plural is "zucchini" or "zucchinis"). The
names of types of pasta (cannelloni, cappelletti, ditali, fusilli,
gnocchi, macaroni, manicotti, ravioli, rigatoni, spaghetti,
spaghettini, tagliarini, tortellini, vermicelli, ziti, which are
masculine plural in Italian; and conchiglie, farfalle, fettucine,
linguine, rotelle, which are feminine plural; some of the -e words
are often spelled with -i in English) are treated as mass nouns in
English: they take singular verbs, but plurals are not made from
them. (Many of the words listed as disputed above are also treated
as mass nouns when they are used as singulars.)
Preposition at end
Yes, yes, we've all heard the following anecdotes:
Fowler and nearly every other respected prescriptivist see
NOTHING wrong with ending a clause with a preposition; Fowler
calls it a "superstition". ("Never end a sentence with a
preposition" is how the superstition is usually stated, although it
would "naturally" extend to any placement of a preposition later
than the noun or pronoun it governs.) Indeed, Fowler considers "a
good land to live in" grammatically superior to "a good land in
which to live", since one cannot say *"a good land which to
- Winston Churchill was editing a proof of one of his books, when
he noticed that an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill's
sentences so that it wouldn't end with a preposition. Churchill
scribbled in the margin, "This is the sort of English up with which
I will not put." (This is often quoted with "arrant nonsense"
substituted for "English", or with other variations. The Oxford
English Dictionary cites Sir Ernest Gowers' _Plain Words_ (1948),
where the anecdote begins, "It is said that Churchill..."; so we
don't know exactly what Churchill wrote.)
- The Guinness Book of (World) Records used to have a category
for "most prepositions at end". The incumbent record was a sentence
put into the mouth of a boy who didn't want to be read excerpts from
a book about Australia as a bedtime story: "What did you bring that
book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under'
up for?" Mark Brader (firstname.lastname@example.org -- all this is to the best of his
recollection; he didn't save the letter, and doesn't have access to
the British editions) wrote to Guinness, asking: "What did you say
that the sentence with the most prepositions at the end was 'What
did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of
about "Down Under" up for?' for? The preceding sentence has one
more." Norris McWhirter replied, promising to include this
improvement in the next British edition, but actually it seems that
Guinness, no doubt eventually realising that this could be done
recursively, dropped the category.
- "Excuse me, where is the library at?" "Here at Hahvahd, we never
end a sentence with a preposition." "O.K. Excuse me, where is the
library at, *asshole*?"
Repeated words after abbreviations
Disputes occur about the legitimacy of placing after an acronym/
initialism the last word that is abbreviated in it, e.g., "AC
current", "the HIV virus". "AC" and "HIV" by themselves will
certainly suffice in most contexts. But such collocations tend to
become regarded as irreducible and uninterpretable words. "The
SNOBOL language" and "BASIC code" are as good as "the BASIC
language" and "SNOBOL code"; and why should "an LED display" (Light
Emitting Diode display) be reasonable, but not "an LCD display"
(Liquid Crystal Display display)? The extra word may guard against
ambiguity; e.g., "I've forgotten my PIN" might be mistaken in speech as
being about sewing, whereas "I've forgotten my PIN
number" identifies the context as ATMs.
"shall" vs "will", "should" vs "would"
The traditional rules for using these (based on the usage of
educated Southern Englishmen in the 18th and 19th centuries) are
quite intricate, and require some choices ("Should you like to see
London?"; "The doctor thought I should die") that are no longer
idiomatically reasonable. But if you're dead set on learning them,
they're set out in _The King's English_, by Fowler and Fowler
(OUP, 1931, ISBN 0-19-881330-9). Usage outside England has always
been different: the old joke, where the Irishman cries for help:
"I will drown and no one shall save me" and the Englishman mistakes
this for a suicide resolution, is contrived, in that an Irishman
would far more likely say "no one will save me."
Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in _The Complete Plain Words_ (HMSO,
1954): "The well-known [...] rule against splitting an infinitive
means that nothing must come between 'to' and the infinitive. It is
a bad name, as was pointed out by Jespersen [...] 'because we have
many infinitives without _to_, as "I made him go". _To_ therefore
is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite
article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think
of calling _the good man_ a split nominative.' It is a bad rule
too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly [...]." The
split infinitive construction goes back to the 14th century, but was
relatively rare until the 19th.
Fowler wrote (in the article POSITION OF ADVERBS, in MEU) that
"to" + infinitive is "a definitely enough recognized verb-form to
make the clinging together of its parts the natural and normal
thing"; "there is, however, no sacrosanctity about that
arrangement". There are many considerations that should govern
placement of adverbs: there are other sentence elements, he said,
such as the verb and its object, that have a *stronger* affinity for
each other; but only avoidance of the split infinitive "has become
Thus, although in "I quickly hid it", the most natural place for
"quickly" is before "hid", "I am going to hide it quickly" is
slightly more natural than "I am going to quickly hide it". But "I
am going to quickly hide it" is itself preferable to "I am going
quickly to hide it" (splitting "going to" changes the meaning from
indicating futurity to meaning physically moving somewhere), or to
"I am going to hide quickly it" (separation of the verb from its
object). And even separating the verb from its object may become
the preferred place for the adverb if "it" is replaced by a long
noun phrase ("I am going to hide quickly any evidence of our ever
having been here").
Phrases consisting of "to be" or "to have" followed by an adverb
and a participle are *not* split infinitives, and constitute the
natural word order. "To generally be accepted" and "to always have
thought" are split infinitives; "to be generally accepted", "to have
always thought" are not.
Negative and restrictive adverbs ("not", "never", "hardly",
"scarcely") are characteristically placed before "to" ("To be, or
not to be"); but placing adverbs of manner in this position is
considered good style only in legal English ("It is his duty
faithfully to execute the provisions...").
Clumsy avoidance of split infinitives often leads to ambiguity:
does "You fail completely to recognise" mean "You completely fail
to recognise", or "You fail to completely recognise"? Ambiguous
split infinitives are much rarer, but do exist: does "to further
cement trade relations" mean "to cement trade relations further",
or "to promote relations with the cement trade"?
The most frequently cited split infinitive is from the opening
voice-over of _Star Trek_: "to boldly go where no man has gone
before". (_Star Trek: The Next Generation_ had "one" in place of
"man".) Here, "boldly" modifies the entire verb phrase: the
meaning is "to have the boldness that the unprecedentedness of the
destinations requires". If "boldly" were placed after "go", it
would modify only "go", changing the meaning to "to go where no
man has gone before, and by the way, to go there boldly".
Hardly any serious commentator believes that infinitives should
never be split. The dispute is between those who believe that split
infinitives should be avoided when this can be done with no
sacrifice of clarity or naturalness, and those who believe that no
effort whatever should be made to avoid them.
"that" vs "which"
In "The family that prays together stays together", the clause
"that prays together" is called a RESTRICTIVE CLAUSE because it
restricts the main statement to a limited class of family. In
"The family, which is the basic unit of human society, is
weakening", "which ... society" is called a NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSE
because it makes an additional assertion about the family without
restricting the main statement.
It is generally agreed that nonrestrictive clauses should be
set off by commas; restrictive clauses, not. Nonrestrictive
clauses are now nearly always introduced by "which" or "who"
(although "that" was common in earlier centuries). Fowler
encourages us to begin restrictive clauses with "that"; but this
is not a binding rule (although some copy-editors do go on "which
hunts"), and indeed is not possible if a preposition is to precede
the relative pronoun.
Object relative pronouns can be omitted altogether ("the book
that I read" or "the book I read"); in standard English, subject
relative pronouns cannot be omitted, although in some varieties
of informal spoken English, they are ("There's a man came into
the office the other day".)
the the "hoi polloi" debate
Yes, "hoi" means "the" in Greek, but the first 5 citations in the
OED, and the most famous use of this phrase in English (in Gilbert
and Sullivan's operetta _Iolanthe_), put "the" in front of "hoi".
This is not a unique case: words like "alchemy", "alcohol",
"algebra", "alligator", and "lacrosse" incorporate articles from
other languages, but can still be prefixed in English with "the".
"The El Alamein battle" (which occurred in Egypt during World War
II) contains THREE articles.
Many phrases often criticized as "redundant" are redundant in
most contexts, but not in all. "Small in size" is redundant in most
contexts, but not in "Although small in size, the ship was large in
glory." "Consensus of opinion" is redundant in most contexts, but
not in "Some of the committee members were coerced into voting in
favour of the motion, so although the motion represents a consensus
of votes, it does not represent a consensus of opinion."
Context can negate part of the definition of a word. "Artificial
light" is light that is artificial (= "man-made"), but "artificial
flowers" are not flowers (i.e., genuine spermatophyte reproductive
orders) that are artificial. In the latter phrase, "artificial"
negates part of the definition of "flower". The bats known as
"false vampires" do not feed on blood: "false" negates part of the
definition of "vampire".
The ordinary definition of "fact" includes the idea of "true"
(e.g., fact vs fiction); the meaning of "fact" does have other
aspects (e.g., fact vs opinion). Context can negate the idea of
"true". Fowler himself used the phrase "Fowler's facts are wrong;
therefore his advice is probably wrong, too" (a conclusion that he
was eager to avert, moving him to defend his facts) in one of the
It follows that "true fact" need not be a redundancy.
In informal English, one can probably get away with using "who"
all the time, except perhaps after a preposition.
The prescription for formal English is: use "who" as the
subjective form (like "he"/"she"/ "they"), and "whom" as a direct or
indirect object (like "him"/ "her"/"them"):
He gave it to me. Who gave it to me? That's the man who
gave it to me.
Note the difference between:
I gave it to him. Whom did I give it to? That's the man whom I gave it
I gave him a book. Whom did I give a book? That's the man whom I gave a
I believe (that) he is drowned. Who do I believe is
drowned? That is the man who I believe is drowned.
I believe him to be drowned. Whom do I believe to be
drowned? That is the man whom I believe to be drowned.
Note also, that unless you say "It is he", you cannot rely on these
transformations for complements of the verb "to be". You may say
"It's him", but the question is "Who is it?", definitely not "Whom
The case of "whoever" is determined by its function in the clause
that it governs, not by its function in the main sentence: "I like
whoever likes me." "Whomever I like likes me."
Very few English speakers make these distinctions instinctively;
most of those who observe them learned them explicitly. Instincts
would lead them to select case based on word order rather than on
syntactic function. Hence Shakespeare wrote "Young Ferdinand,
whom they suppose is drowned". But Fowler called this a solecism in
modern English; it might be better to abstain from "whom" altogether
if one is not willing to master the prescriptive rules.
"you saying" vs "your saying"
In "You saying you're sorry alters the case", the subject of
"alters" is not "you", since the verb is singular. Fowler called
this construction the "fused participle", and recommended "Your
saying..." instead. The fused participle *can* lead to ambiguity:
does "Citizens participating helped the project" mean "Those
citizens who participated helped the project", or "The fact that
citizens participated helped the project"? (Placing commas
around "participating" would yield a third meaning.) Appending an
apostrophe to "citizens" would make the second meaning clear.
Other commentators have been less critical of the fused
participle than Fowler. Jespersen traces the construction as the
last in a series of developments where gerunds, which originally
functioned strictly as nouns, have taken on more and more verb-like
properties ("the showing of mercy" => "showing of mercy" =>
mercy"). Partridge defends the construction by citing lexical
noun-plus-gerund compounds. In most of these (e.g.,
"time-sharing"), the noun functions as the object of the gerund, but
in some recent compounds (e.g., "machine learning"), it functions as
"." after abbreviations
Fowler recommends putting a "." only after abbreviations that do
not include the last letter of the word they're abbreviating, e.g.,
"Capt." for captain but "Cpl" for corporal. In some English-
speaking countries, many people follow this rule, but not in the
U.S., where "Mr." and "Dr." prevail.
", vs ,"
According to William F. Phillips (email@example.com), in the days
when printing used raised bits of metal, "." and "," were the most
delicate, and were in danger of damage (the face of the piece of
type might break off from the body, or be bent or dented from above)
if they had a '"' on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence
the convention arose of always using '."' and ',"' rather than '".'
and '",', regardless of logic.
Fowler was a strong advocate of logical placement of punctuation
marks, i.e. only placing them inside the quotation marks if they
were part of the quoted matter. This scheme has gained ground,
and is especially popular among computer users, and others who
wish to make clear exactly what is and what is not being quoted.
Some people insist that '."' and ',"' LOOK better, but Fowler
calls them "really mere conservatives, masquerading only as
"A, B and C" vs "A, B, and C"
This is known as the "serial comma" dispute. Both styles are
common. The style with the extra comma was recommended by Fowler, and
is more common in the U.S. than elsewhere. Although either
style may cause ambiguity (in "We considered Miss Roberts for the roles
of Marjorie, David's mother, and Louise", are there two roles
or three?), the style that omits the comma is more likely to do so:
"Tom, Peter, and I went swimming." (Without the comma, one might think
that the sentence was addressed to Tom.) "I ordered sandwiches today. I
ordered turkey, salami, peanut butter and jelly, and roast beef."
Without that last comma, one would have a MIGHTY weird sandwich! --
Gabe Wiener. James Pierce reports that an author whose custom it was to
omit the comma dedicated a novel: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."
Non-native speakers are often unnecessarily cautious in their use
of English. Someone once posted to alt.usage.english from Japan,
asking, "What is the correct thing to say if one is being assaulted:
'Help!' or 'Help me!'?" Not only are they both correct; there was
a whole slew of responses asking, "Why the heck would you worry
about correctness at a time like that?"
It may happen that your post's greatest departure from English
idiom is something unrelated to what you are asking about. If you
like, say "Please correct any errors in this post"; otherwise, those
who answer you may out of politeness refrain from offering a
Although not so stratified as some languages, English does have
different stylistic levels. In a popular song, you may hear: "It
don't make much difference." When speaking to a friend, you will
probably want to say: "It doesn't make much difference." If you
are writing a formal report, you may want to render it as: "It
makes little difference." So it's helpful if when posting, you
specify the stylistic level that you're enquiring about.
If you prefer to make a query by e-mail, rather than posting to
the whole Net, you can send it to the Purdue University Online
Writing Lab. Send e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org. They also
have an ftp/gopher site, "owl.trc.purdue.edu".
"a"/"an" before abbreviations
"A" is used before words beginning with consonants; "an", before
words beginning with vowels. This is determined by sound, not
spelling ("a history", "an hour", "a unit", "a European", "a one").
Formerly, "an" was usual before unaccented syllables beginning with
"h" ("an historian", "an hotel"); these are "now obsolescent" in
British English (Collins English Dictionary), although "an
historian" is retained in more dialects than "an hotel".
Before abbreviations, the choice of "a"/"an" depends on how
the abbreviation is pronounced: "a NATO spokesman" (because "NATO"
is pronounced /'neItoU/); "an NBC spokesman" (because "NBC" is
pronounced /Enbi'si/) "a NY spokesman" (because "NY" is read as
"New York (state)").
A problem: how can a foreigner *tell* whether a particular
abbreviation is pronounced as a word or not? Two non-foolproof
Is it "a FAQ" or "an FAQ"? Either is acceptable. "FAQ" is more
likely to be mentally expanded to "frequently asked question" if
you're talking about a *particular* (frequently asked) question
than if you're talking about "an FAQ file".
- It's more likely to be an acronym if it *looks* as if it could
be an English word. "NATO" and "scuba" do; "UCLA" and "NAACP" don't.
- It's more likely to be an acronym if it's a *long* sequence of
letters. "US" is short; "EBCDIC" is too bloody long to say as
"E-B-C-D-I-C". (But of course, abbreviations that can be broken down
into groups, like "TCP/IP" and "AFL-CIO", are spelled out because the
groups are short enough.)
"A number of..."
"A number of ..." usually requires a plural verb. In "A number
of employees were present", it's the employees who were present, not
the number. "A number of" is just a fuzzy quantifier. ("A number
of..." may need a singular in the much rarer contexts where it does
not function as a quantifier: "A number of this magnitude requires
5 bytes to store.")
On the other hand, "the number of..." always takes the singular:
"The number of employees who were present was small." Here, it's
the number that was small, not the employees.
When to use "the"
This is often quite tricky for those learning English. The book
_Three Little Words; A, An and The: a Foreign Student's Guide to
English_ by Elizabeth Claire (Delta, 1988, ISBN 0-937354-46-5) has
The article "the" before a noun generally indicates one specific
instance of the object named. For example, "I went to the school"
refers to one school. (The context should establish which school
is meant.) Such examples have the same meaning across most (all?)
dialects of English.
The construct , with no intervening article,
often refers to a state of being rather than to an instance
of the object named by the noun. The set of commonly used
preposition-noun combinations varies from one dialect to another.
Some examples are:
- I went to bed = I retired for the night. Even if I had the habit
of sleeping on the floor, I would still say "I went to bed" and not "I
went to floor".
- She is at university (Brit.) = She is in college (U.S.) = She is
a student, enrolled in a particular type of tertiary institution. This
sentence does not imply that she is now physically present on the
- He was taken to hospital (Brit.) = He was hospitalized. (A U.S.
speaker might say "to the hospital" even if there were several
hospitals in the area.)
The present subjunctive is the same in form as the infinitive
without "to". This is also the same form as the present indicative,
except in the third person singular and in forms of the verb "to
The present subjunctive is used:
- in third-person commands: "Help, somebody save me!" Most third-
person commands (although not those addressed to "somebody") are now
expressed with "let" instead. The following (current but set) formulas
would probably use "let" if they were being coined today: "So be it";
"Manners be hanged!"; "... be damned"; "Be it known that..."; "Far be
it from me to..."; "Suffice it to say that..."
- in third person wishes. Most third-person wishes are now
prefixed with "may" instead, as would the following formulas be: "God
save the Queen!"; "God bless you"; "God help you"; "Lord love a duck";
"Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done."; "Heaven
forbid!"; "The Devil take him!"; "Long live the king!"; "Perish the
- in formulas where it means "No matter how..." or "Even if...":
"Come what may, ..."; "Be that as it may, ..."; "Though all care be
exercised..."; "Be he ever so..."
- after "that" clauses to introduce a situation that the actor
wants to bring about. Used to introduce a formal motion ("I move that
Mr. Smith be appointed chairman"); after verbs like "demand", "insist",
"propose", "prefer", "recommend", "resolve", "suggest"; and after
phrases like "it is advisable/desirable/
"Should" can also be used in such clauses. This use of the subjunctive
had become archaic in Britain in the first half of the 20th century,
but has been revived under U.S. influence. Note the difference between
"It is important that America has an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs"
(America has an adequate supply of H-bombs, and this is important) and
"It is important that America have an adequate supply of hydrogen
bombs" (America probably *lacks* an adequate supply, and must acquire
- after "lest". "Should" can also be used after "lest". After the
synonymous "in case", the plain indicative is usual.
- "Come...", meaning "When ... comes"
The past subjunctive is the same in form as the past indicative,
except in the past subjunctive singular of "to be", which is "were"
instead of "was".
The past subjunctive is used:
- for counterfactual conditionals: "If I were..." or (literary)
"Were I..." In informal English, substitution of the past indicative
form ("If I was...") is common. But note that speakers who make this
substitution are *still* distinguishing possible conditions from
counterfactual ones, by a change of tense:
"As if" and "as though" were originally always used to introduce
counterfactuals, but are now often used in "looks as if", "sounds as
though", etc., to introduce things that the speaker actually believes
("It looks as if" = "It appears that"). In such cases the present
indicative is often used.
Possible condition: "If I am" "If I was"
Counterfactual condition: "If I were/was" "If I had been"
Fowler says that there is no "sequence of moods" requirement in
English: it's "if I were to say that I was wrong", not "if I were to
say that I were wrong".
- for counterfactual wishes: "I wish I were..."; "If only I
were..."; (archaic) "Would that I were...". Again, substitution of the
past indicative is common informally. Achievable wishes are usually
expressed with various verbs plus the infinitive: "I wish to...", "I'd
like you to..."
- in literary English, sometimes to introduce the apodosis ("then"
part) of a conditional: "then I were" = "then I would be".
- in "as it were" (a formula indicating that the previous
expression was coined for the occasion or was not quite precise --
literally, "as if it were so").
"A.D." stands for _Anno Domini_ = "in the year of the Lord", not
for "after the death".
The 1947 incident often related by Grace Hopper, in which a
technician solved a glitch in the Harvard Mark II computer by
pulling a moth out from between the contacts of one of its relays,
*did* happen. However, the log entry ("first actual case of bug
being found") indicates that this is *not* the *origin* of this
sense of "bug". It was used in 1899 in a reference to Thomas
Edison. It may come from "bug" in the sense of "frightful object",
which seems to be related to "bugbear" and "bogey", and goes back to
1588. See the Jargon File.
The OED erroneously states that Julius Caesar was born by
Caesarean section. But Caesarean section was always fatal in
antiquity, and Julius' mother is known to have survived. "Caesarean
section" may have been coined by someone who THOUGHT that Caesar was
born this way; it may come from an order (Lex Caesarea) of the
Caesars of Imperial Rome that any pregnant woman dying at or near
term was to be delivered by C-section; or it may simply come from
Latin _caedo_ "I cut".
Also not named directly after Julius Caesar are "Caesar salad"
(allegedly named after a restaurant named Caesar's in Tijuana,
Mexico); and "Julian day" (number of days elapsed since 1 January
4713 B.C., used in astronomy; named by Joseph Scaliger after his
father, Julius Caesar Scaliger). The computer term "Julian date"
(date represented as number of days elapsed from the beginning of a
chosen year) was apparently inspired by "Julian day".
"Canola" is defined as "any of several varieties of the rape
plant having seeds that contain no more than 5% erucic acid and no
more than 3 mg per gram of glucosinolate". If you ever come across
rapeseed oil that is *not* canola, I would avoid it, because erucic
acid causes heart lesions, and glucosinolates cause thyroid
enlargement and poor feed conversion!
Rape plants have been an important source of edible oil for
almost 4000 years. Canola was developed after World War II by two
Canadian scientists, Baldur Stefansson and Richard Downey.
"Canola" is variously explained as standing for "Canada oil, low
acid", and as a blend of "Canada" and "colza". I imagine that
"Mazola" (a brand name for corn [= "maize"] oil) had an influence.
"Canola" was originally a trademark in Canada, but is now a
generic term. It's the only term now in use here; some sources do
say that canola was "formerly called rape".
"Designer eggs", low-cholesterol eggs developed at the University
of Alberta, are produced by adding canola and flax to the hens'
This word, meaning "extremely satisfactory", was first recorded
in 1919, and was originally heard chiefly among U.S. black jazz
musicians. The tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949)
popularized the word, and claimed to have coined it when he was a
shoeshine boy in Richmond; but a number of Southerners testified
that they had heard the word used by parents or grandparents in the
late 19th century. Suggested origins include: a supposed Italian
word _copacetti_; a Creole French word _coupersetique_ meaning "that
can be coped with"; and the Hebrew phrase _kol besedeq_ "all with
justice". RHUD2 says that all these theories "lack supporting
"Crap" does not derive from Thomas Crapper. Thomas Crapper
(1837-1910) did exist and did make toilets. (At least 3 authors
have gone into print asserting he was a hoax, but you can see some
of his toilets at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, Uttoxeter Road,
Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire ST3 1TQ, U.K.; phone
+44 782 3113 78.) The word "crap" was imported into English from
Dutch in the 15th century, with the meaning "chaff". It is
recorded in the sense of "to defecate" from 1846; Thomas Crapper
did not set up his business until 1861. Also, Thomas Crapper did
not "invent" the flush toilet (the ancient Minoans had them); he
merely improved the design.
People often ask why "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the
same thing. The English words come from separate Latin words:
_inflammare_ and the rarer _flammare_, which both meant "to
set on fire". Latin had two prefixes _in-_, one of which
meant "not"; the other, meaning "in", "into", or "upon", was the
one used in _inflammare_. "Inflammable" dates in English from
1605. "Flammable" dates from 1813, but was rare until, because of
concern that the "in-" in "inflammable" might be misconstrued as a
negative prefix, "flammable" was adopted by the U.S. National
Fire Protection Association in the 1920s; underwriters and others
interested in fire safety followed suit.
"Flammable" is still commoner in the U.S. than in Britain;
in figurative uses, "inflammable" prevails (e.g., "inflammable
"Fuck" does NOT stand for "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or
"fornication under consent of the king". It is not an acronym for
anything at all. It is a very old word, recorded in England since
the 15th century (few acronyms pre-date the 20th century), with
cognates in other Germanic languages (MWCD10 and RHUD2 cite Middle
Dutch _fokken_ = "to breed (cattle)", and Swedish dialect _fokka_
= "to copulate"). Eric Partridge, in the 7th edition of _Dictionary
of Slang and Unconventional English_ (Macmillan, 1970), said that it
"almost certainly" comes from the Indo-European root _peuk-_ (which
is the source of the English words "compunction", "expunge", "
impugn", "poignant", "point", "pounce", "pugilist", "punctuate",
"puncture", "pungent", and "pygmy"), but AHD3 does not cite an
Contrary to what you may have read in Xaviera Hollander's book
_The Happy Hooker_, the "prostitute" sense of "hooker" does NOT
derive from Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker (1814-1879), a major
general on the Union side of the U.S. civil war, whose men were
alleged to frequent brothels. "Hooker" in this sense goes back to
1845 (see AHD3); the U.S. Civil War did not begin until 1861. It
may come from the earlier sense of "thief" (which goes back to 1567,
"to hook" meaning to steal), or it may refer to prostitutes' linking
arms with their clients. A geographical Hook (Corlear's Hook in New
York City, or the Hook of Holland) is also possible.
"Kangaroo" does NOT derive from the aboriginal for "I don't
understand". Captain James Cook's expedition learned the word
from an aboriginal tribe that subsequently couldn't be identified.
Since there were a *large* number of Australian aboriginal
languages, and it has taken some time to record and catalogue the
surviving ones, for many years the story that it meant "I don't
understand" was plausible. The search was further complicated
by the fact that many aboriginal languages imported the word
*from* English. But if you consult an up-to-date English
dictionary, such as RHUD2, you will see that "kangaroo" is derived
from the Guugu-Yimidhirr (a language spoken near Cooktown, North
Queensland) word _ga-urru_ "a large black or grey species
Similar stories are told about "llama" (a Quechua word, not
from the Spanish _Como se llama?_ "What's it called?"); "indri"
(this one DOES derive from the Malagasy word for "Look!"); and
several place names, among them Canada (_kanata_ was the Huron-
Iroquois word for "village, settlement"; Jacques Cartier is
supposed to have mistaken this for the names of the country);
Istanbul (said to come from a Turkish mishearing of Greek _eis ten
poli_ "to the city"); Luzon (supposedly Tagalog for "What did you
say?"); Nome (supposedly a printer's misreading of a cartographer's
query, "Name?"); Senegal (supposedly from Wolof _senyu gal_ "our
boats"); and Yucatan (supposedly = "I don't understand you").
This British colloquial word for "toilet" was established by the
1920s. Suggested origins include: French _lieu d'aisance_ = "place of
French _On est prie de laisser ce lieu aussi propre qu'on le trouve_ =
"Please leave this place as clean as you find it"
French _Gardez l'eau!_ = "Mind the water!" (supposedly said in the days
before modern plumbing, when emptying chamber pots from upper-storey
windows) "louvre" (from the use of slatted screens for a makeshift
lavatory) "bordalou" (an 18th-century ladies' travelling convenience)
"looward" or "leeward" (the sheltered side of a boat)
"lee", a shepherd's shelter made of hurdles
"lieu", as in "time off in lieu", i.e., in place of work done
"lavatory", spoken mincingly
"Lady Louisa Anson" (a 19th-century English noblewoman whose sons took
her name-card from her bedroom door and put it on the guest lavatory)
a misreading of room number "100" (supposedly a common European toilet
a "water closet"/"Waterloo" joke. (James Joyce's _Ulysses_ (1922)
contains the following text: "O yes, _mon loup_. How much cost?
Waterloo. water closet.")
This one has generated LOTS of folklore. The following list of
suggested origins and info comes from MEU2, from Eric Partridge's
_Dictionary of Historical Slang_ (1972 edition, Penguin,
0-14-081046-X), and from Cecil Adams' _More of the Straight Dope_
(Ballantine, 1988, ISBN 0-345-34145-2). Thanks to Jeremy Smith for
his help. The abbreviations on cracker boxes, shipping crates,
cargoes of rum, et al., became synonymous with quality.
- "Oll korrect, popularized by Old Kinderhook" is what's given in
most up-to-date dictionaries.
- American "O.K.", abbreviation of Obadiah Kelly, a shipping agent
- American "O.K.", abbreviation of Old Keokuk, a Sac Indian chief
- American "O.K.", contraction of "oll korrect". This was the
choice of a British judiciary committee that investigated the matter
for a 1935 court case (MEU2), and was further documented by Columbia
University professor Allen Walker Read in "The Evidence on 'O.K.',
_Saturday Review of Literature_, 19 July 1941. A vogue for comically
misspelled abbreviations began in Boston in the summer of 1838, and
spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. They used "K.G." for "know
go", "K.Y." for "know yuse", "N.S." for "nuff said", and "O.K." for
- American "O.K.", abbreviation of Orrins-Kendall crackers
- American "O.K.", abbreviation of Otto Kaiser, American
- American "O.K. Club". "O.K." gained national currency in 1840 as
the slogan of the "O.K. club", a club of supporters of then President
Martin Van Buren, in allusion to his nickname, "Old Kinderhook" -- Van
Buren was born in the village of Kinderhook, N.Y.
- Choctaw _(h)oke_ "it is so"
- English opposite of "K.O." ("knock out")
- English "of Katmandu"
- English "optical kleptomaniac"
- Ewe (West African)
- Finnish _oikea_
- French dialect _oc_ = _oui_ "yes"
- French _Aux Cayes_, a place in Haiti noted for excellence of its
- French _aux quais_, stencilled on Puerto Rican rum specially
selected for export
- German letters of rank appended to signature of Oberkommandant
- Latin _omnia correcta_ "all correct"
- Mandingo (West African) _o ke_ "that's it", "all right"
- Scots _och aye!_ "oh yes"
- Tewa _oh-ka(n)_ = "come here", "all right"
- Wolof (West African) "waw kay" = "yes indeed". Supported by Prof.
J. Weisenfeld, professor of African and African-American religion at
Columbia University. It was shown by Dr Davis Dalby ("The Etymology of
O.K.", The Times, 14 January 1971) that similar expressions were used
very early in the 19th century by Negroes of Jamaica, Surinam, and
South Carolina: a Jamaican planter's diary of 1816 records a Negro as
saying "Oh ki, massa, doctor no need be fright, we no want to hurt
him." The use of "kay" alone is recorded in the speech of black
Americans as far back as 1776; significantly, the emergence of O.K.
among white Americans dates from a period when refugees from southern
slavery were arriving in the north.
This term for "blend word" comes from "portmanteau", "a
leather travelling case that opens into two hinged compartments"
(from the French for "carry cloak") by way of Humpty Dumpty in
Lewis Carroll's _Through the Looking-Glass_: "You see it's like a
portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word."
Although most modern blends are simply the first part of one word
plus the last part of another ("brunch" = "breakfast" + "lunch";
"smog" = "smoke" + "fog"; "Chunnel" = "Channel" + "tunnel"), Carroll
himself formed his portmanteau words in a more subtle manner:
"slithy" = "lithe" + "slimy"; "mimsy" = "miserable" + "flimsy";
"frumious" = "fuming" + "furious". Carroll's coinages "chortle"
(which is now in most dictionaries) and "gallumph" (which is in the
OED) are generally understood as "chuckle" + "snort" and "gallop"
+ "triumph" respectively, although Carroll himself never explained
"Posh" (probably) does NOT stand for "port out, starboard home".
MWCD10, p. 27a, says, "our editors frequently have to explain to
correspondents that the dictionary fails to state that the origin of
_posh_ is in the initial letters of the phrase 'port out, starboard
home' -- supposedly a shipping term for the cooler accommodations on
steamships plying between Britain and India from the mid-nineteenth
century on -- not because the story is unknown to us but because no
evidence to support it has yet been produced. Some evidence exists
that casts strong doubt on it; the word is not known earlier than
1918 (in a source unrelated to shipping), and the acronymic
explanation does not appear until 1935."
A tenable theory is that "posh" meant "halfpenny" (from Romany
_posh_ "half") and then "money" before acquiring its present
meaning. Or it may come from the slang "pot" (= "big", "a person
of importance"). Or it may be a contraction of "polished".
I got e-mail from someone whose grandmother claimed to have
steamship tickets with "P.O.S.H." overprinted; but to convince us,
you'll have to *find* one of these tickets and send a copy to
This is first recorded in 1775 in the sense "an odd person". It
is *doubtful* that "quiz" came from an alleged incident in which
James Daly, a late-18th-century Dublin theatre manager, made a wager
that he could introduce a new word into the English language
overnight, and hired urchins to chalk the word "quiz" on every wall
and billboard in Dublin. "Quiz" may come from the Latin "Qui es?"
(= "Who are you?", the first question asked in Latin oral exams in
grammar schools), or it may be a shortening of "inquisitive".
Like "hopscotch", this word for "without incurring any penalty"
has no connection with frugal Scotsmen. In 12th-century England, a
"scot" or "sceot" was a municipal tax paid to the local bailiff or
sheriff (the word came from an Old Norse cognate of "shoot"/"shot",
and meant "money thrown down"). The word "scot-free", which is
recorded from the 13th century, referred to someone who succeeded in
dodging these taxes. Later, the term was given wider currency when
"scot" was used to mean the amount owed by a customer in a tavern:
anyone who had a drink on the house went "scot-free". This "scot"
was reinforced by the fact that the drinks ordered were "scotched",
or marked on a slate, so that the landlord could keep track of how
much the customer owed.
"sirloin"/"baron of beef"
"Sirloin" comes from Old French _surlonge_, from _sur_ "above"
and _loigne_ "loin". Its current spelling may have been influenced
by a story that a King of England (variously said to be Henry VIII,
James I, and Charles II) "knighted" this cut of beef because of
A "baron of beef" is a joint consisting of two sirloins left
uncut at the backbone. This "baron" may have originated as a joke
on "sirloin", or it may be an independent word.
SOS does NOT stand for "Save Our Ship/Souls", for "Stop Other
Signals", for "Send Our Saviour/Succour", or for the Russian
_Spasiti Ot Smerti_ ("save from death"). The letters, recommended
at the international Radio Telegraph Conference of 1906 and
officially adopted in 1908, were chosen because they were easy to
remember, transmit, and understand in Morse code (...---...).
They have no other significance.
This term for exchanging parts of two different words in a phrase
is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930),
Dean and Warden of New College, Oxford. The Oxford Dictionary of
Quotations, 2nd edition (1953), attributed two famous spoonerisms
to Dr. Spooner: "Kinquering congs their titles take", and "You have
deliberately tasted two worms and you can leave Oxford by the town
drain." (The "down train" was the train going away from London, in
this case through Oxford. Other popular attributions to Dr. Spooner
are: "a well boiled icicle", "a blushing crow", "a half-warmed
fish", "our shoving leopard", "our queer old Dean", "My boy, it's
kisstomary to cuss the bride", "When the boys come home from France,
we'll have hags flung out", and "Pardon me, madam, you are
occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?")
But after the publication of _Spooner: A Biography_ by Sir
William Hayter (W. H. Allen, 1976), the Oxford Dictionary of
Quotations, 3rd edition (1979), gives only one spoonerism ("weight
of rages"), and says: "Many other Spoonerisms, such as those given
in the previous editions of O.D.Q., are now known to be apocryphal."
"Tip", in the sense of "gratuity", does NOT stand for "to insure
[i.e., ensure] politeness/promptness". It may derive from "tip" in
the sense of "to tap, to strike lightly" or the sense of
"extremity", both of which have cognates in other Germanic
languages. Or it may be a shortening of "stipend".
"Brassiere" is first recorded in a Canadian advertisement of
1911. Dictionaries derive it from obsolete (17th century) French
_brassiere_ "bodice", from Old French _braciere_ "arm protector",
from _bras_ "arm". (The French word for bra is _soutien-gorge_,
In the southern U.S., a bra is sometimes called a "tit-sling".
This has an obvious derivation.
Wallace Reyburn, to whom Thomas Crapper owes his current fame,
wrote a later book describing a lawsuit over rights to the bra,
fought from 1934 to 1938 in New York, between a German-born
designer, Otto Titzling (1884-1942), and a French-born designer,
Philippe de Brassiere. Martin Gardner, in _Time Travel and Other
Mathematical Bewilderments_ (Freeman, 1988, ISBN 0-7107-1925-8),
p. 137, says: "The book by Wallace Reyburn _Flushed with Pride: The
Story of Thomas Crapper_ does exist. For many years I assumed that
Reyburn's book was the funniest plumbing hoax since H. L. Mencken
wrote his fake history of the bathtub. [...] Reyburn wrote a later
book titled _Bust-up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the
Development of the Bra_. It turns out, though, that both Thomas
Crapper and Otto Titzling were real people, and neither of
Reyburn's books is entirely a hoax."
"Typo" is related to, but does not come from, the verb "to type".
It is short for "typographical error", which, of course, could
refer to any error made by a typographer. (The humorous but useful
hackish coinage "thinko", used for when the person typing was
*thinking* of the wrong thing, pretends that "typo" does come from
"to type".) Arguments of the form "It couldn't have been a typo,
because those two keys are nowhere near each other on the keyboard"
are a bit tiresome, especially when one keeps the true etymology of
"typo" in mind.
Wicca is "a pagan nature religion having is roots in pre-
Christian Europe and undergoing a 20th-century revival" (AHD3).
Only the most recently published dictionaries contain an entry for
it; RHUD2 dates it 1975. "Wicca" is a revival of an Old English
word which you can find in older dictionaries by looking in the
etymology of either "witch" or "wicked." In Old English, _wicca_
was the masculine form of a word meaning "wizard" or "sorcerer."
(The feminine form was _wicce_. "Witch" comes from _wicce_.)
_Wicca_ and _wicce_ came from from a proto-Germanic (not Celtic)
_wikkjak_, "one who wakes the dead", the first element of which
comes from the same Indo-European root as "wake".
Yes, we've heard the joke about the Beatles song "Wiccan, Work
(notes by William C. Waterhouse) "Widget" is a deliberately invented
word meant (probably) to
suggest "gadget". Most dictionaries fail to trace it to its origin.
It comes from the 1924 play "Beggar on Horseback", by George Kaufman
and Marc Connelly. In the play, a young composer gets engaged to
the daughter of a rich businessman, and he next part of the play
acts out his nightmare of what his life will be like, doing
pointless work in a bureaucratic big business. At one point he
encounters his father-in-law at work, and we get the following
(Father-in-law): Yes, sir! Big business!
Part of the point, of course, is that no one ever tells him
what "widgets" are.
---- Yes. Big business. What business are we in?
---- Widgets. We're in the widget business.
---- The widget business?
---- Yes, sir! I suppose I'm the biggest manufacturer in the world of
overhead and underground A-erial widgets.
"Wog", a chiefly British, derogatory word for someone from the
Middle or Far East, does NOT stand for "Wealthy/Western/Wily/
Wonderful/Worthy Oriental Gentleman", or for "Worker On Government
service". It may be a shortening of "golliwog".
"ye" = "the"
The "y" here is a representation of the obsolete letter thorn,
which looked like "b" and "p" superimposed, and was pronounced
[T] or [D] (the same as modern "th"). The pronunciation of "ye" in
"Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe" as /ji/, which you sometimes hear, is a
"the bee's knees"
A bee's "corbiculae", or pollen-baskets, are located on its
tibiae (midsegments of its legs). The phrase "the bee's knees",
meaning "the height of excellence", became popular in the U.S. in
the 1920s, along with "the cat's whiskers" (possibly from the use
of these in radio crystal sets), "the cat's pajamas" (still new
enough to be daring), and similar phrases which made less sense
and didn't last: "the eel's ankle", "the elephant's instep", "the
"blue moon" (notes by Philip Hiscock)
The phrase "blue moon" has been around a long time, well over 400
years, but during that time its meaning has shifted around a lot. I
have counted six different meanings which have been carried by the
term, and at least four of them are still current today.
The earliest uses of the term are in a phrase remarkably like
early references to "green cheese". Both were used as examples
of obvious absurdities about which there could be no argument. Four
hundred years go, if someone said, "He would argue the moon was
blue", the average 16th-centuryman would take it the way we take
"He'd argue that black is white." The earliest citation is a 1528
poem "Rede Me and Be Not Wroth": "Yf they say the mone is blewe/We
must believe that it is true."
This understanding of a blue moon's being absurd (the first
meaning) led eventually to a second meaning, that of "never". To
say that something would happen when the moon turned blue was like
saying that it would happen on Tib's Eve (at least before Tib got a
day near Christmas assigned to her).
But of course, there are examples of the moon's actually
blue; that's the third meaning: the moon's visually appearing blue.
When the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded in 1883, its dust
turned sunsets green and the moon blue all around the world for the
best part of two years. In 1927, a late monsoon in India set up
conditions for a blue moon. And the moon here in Newfoundland was
turned blue in 1951 when huge forest fires in Alberta threw smoke
particles up into the sky. Even by the 19th century, it was clear
that although visually blue moons were rare, they did happen from
time to time. So the phrase "once in a blue moon" came about. It
meant then exactly what it means today: that an event was fairly
infrequent, but not quite regular enough to pinpoint. That's
meaning number four, and today it is still the main one.
I know of six songs which use "blue moon" as a symbol of
and loneliness. In half of them, the poor crooner's moon turns to
gold when he gets his love at the end of the song. That's meaning
number five: check your old Elvis Presley or Bill Monroe records
for more information.
Finally, in the 1980s, a sixth meaning was popularized (chiefly
by the game Trivial Pursuit): the second full moon in a month. The
earliest reference cited for this is The Maine Farmers' Almanac for
1937. Rumour has it that when there were two full moons in a
calendar month, calendars would put the first in red, the second in
"Bob's your uncle"
This British phrase means "all will be well" or "simple as that":
"You go and ask for the job -- and he remembers your name -- and
Bob's your uncle." It dates from circa 1890.
P. Brendon, in _Eminent Edwardians_, 1979, suggests an origin:
"When, in 1887, Balfour was unexpectedly promoted to the vital front
line post of Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle Robert, Lord
Salisbury (a stroke of nepotism that inspired the catch-phrase
'Bob's your uncle'), ..."
Or it may have been prompted by the cant phrase "All is bob" =
"all is safe."
(Info from Eric Partridge's _Dictionary of Catch Phrases_, 2nd
edition, revised by Paul Beale, Routledge, 1985, ISBN
"to call a spade a spade"
is NOT an ethnic slur.
The ancient Greeks said "to call a kneading-trough a kneading-
trough". This is first recorded in Aristophanes' play _The Clouds_,
and also shows up in Plutarch's _Apophthegms_.
In the Renaissance, Erasmus confused Plutarch's
(sigma kappa alpha phi eta) with the Greek word for "digging tool"
(sigma kappa alpha phi epsilon iota omicron nu), and rendered it in
Latin as "ligo". Thence it was translated into English in 1542 by
Nicholas Udall in his translation of Erasmus's version as "to call a
spade [...] a spade".
"To call a spade a bloody shovel" is not recorded until 1919.
"Spade" in the sense of "Negro" is not recorded until 1928.
This, of course, does *not* necessarily render the modern use
"to call a spade a spade" "politically correct". Rosalie Maggio, in
_The Bias-Free Word-Finder_, writes: "The expression is associated
with a racial slur and is to be avoided", and recommends using "to
speak plainly" or other alternatives instead. In another entry, she
writes: "Although by definition and derivation 'niggardly' and
'nigger' are completely unrelated, 'niggardly' is too close for
comfort to a word with profoundly negative associations. Use
instead one of the many available alternatives: stingy, miserly,
parsimonious..." Beard and Cerf, in _The Official Politically
Correct Handbook_, p. 123, report that an administrator at the
University of California at Santa Cruz campaigned for the banning
of such phrases like "a chink in his armor" and "a nip in the air",
because "chink" and "nip" are also derogatory terms for "Chinese
person" and "Japanese person" respectively. In the late 1970s in
the U.S., a boycott of the (now defunct) Sambo's Restaurant Chain
was organized, even though the name "Sambo's" was a combination of
the names of its two founders and did not come from the offensive
word for dark-skinned person.
"The die is cast."
does NOT mean "The metal template has been molded." It's what
Julius Caesar said on crossing the Rubicon. The "die" is a gambling
die, and "cast" means thrown. (In the original Latin "Jacta alea
est", _alea_ denotes the *game* of dice, rather than the physical
die: the dice game is in its thrown state. "The die is cast" and
"the dice are cast" would be equally good translations. Compare
"Les jeux sont faits", heard at Monte Carlo.)
"dressed to the nines"
This expression, meaning "very fashionably and elaborately
dressed", is recorded from the 18th century. "The nine" or "the
nines" were used to signify "superlative" in numerous other
contexts. Theories include: 9, being the highest single-digit
number, symbolized the best; a metanalysis of Old English _to
then eyne_ "to the eyes"; a reference to the 9 muses; and from the
expression "nine nines fine", denoting gold of 99.9999999 percent
"Elementary, my dear Watson!"
does not occur as such in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock
Holmes stories, although Holmes does exclaim "Elementary" in
"The Crooked Man", and writes "My dear Watson" in "The Final
Problem". The first recorded juxtaposition is in the 1929 film
_The Return of Sherlock Holmes_ (the first of the series with
The original stories never mention an Inverness cape, a
deerstalker hat, or a meerschaum pipe, either. Those props
are due to illustrators and to actors.
"The exception proves the rule."
The common misconception about "The exception proves the rule"
(which you will find in several books, including the _Dictionary
of Misinformation_) is that "proves" means "tests". That is *not*
the case, although "proof" *does* mean "test" in such phrases as
"proving ground", "proof spirit", "proofreader", and "The proof of
the pudding is in the eating."
As MEU says, "the original legal sense" of the "the exception
proves the rule" is as follows: "'Special leave is given for men to
be out of barracks tonight till 11.0 p.m.'; 'The exception proves
the rule' means that this special leave implies a rule requiring
men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier. The value
of this in interpreting statutes is plain."
MEU2 adds: "'A rule is not proved by exceptions unless the
exceptions themselves lead one to infer a rule' (Lord Atkin). The
formula in full is _exceptio probat regulam in casibus non
exceptis_." [That's Latin for "The exception proves the rule in
cases not excepted."]
The phrase seems to date from the 17th century. (Anthony Cree,
in _Cree's Dictionary of Latin Quotations_ (Newbury, 1978) says
that the phrase comes from classical Latin, which it defines as
Latin spoken before A.D. 400; but no classical citations have
come to our attention.) Below are the five seventeenth-century
citations we could find. 1, 3, and 4 are in the OED; 2 is in
_Latin for Lawyers_ by E. Hilton Jackson and Herbert Broom; 5 is
in _A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and
Seventeenth Centuries_, by Morris Palmer Tilley.
To convince us that *in this particular phrase* "proves" originally
meant "tests", you will have to cite any quotations as old as or
older than these to support your view.
- 1617 Samuel Collins, _Epphata to F.T.; or, the Defence of
the Bishop of Elie concerning his answer to Cardinall Ballarmine's
Apologie_ 100: "Indefinites are equivalent to universalls especially
where one exception being made, it is plaine that all others are
thereby cut off, according to the rule Exceptio figit regulam in non
exceptis." [Note that "figit" rather than "probat" is here used.
"Probo" can mean any of "give official approval to", "put to the test",
or "demonstrate the verity of"; but "figo" can only mean "fix",
"fasten", or "establish".]
- _Les reports de Sir Edward Coke, jades chiefe justice de
Bank le roy_ (published in 1672, but Sir Edward Coke died in 1634):
"Know reader, that where it is said in this case, that a writ of error
lies not upon an award, till the principal judgment is given; and where
it is also said, that no writ of error lies till the whole matter in
the original is determined; both these rules are regularly true; but
yet each of them has exceptions; for as to the first, in Trin. 18 H. 7.
in the King's Bench, Rot. 3. the case was that one Eaton was indicted
of the death of John M. before Justices of Peace in the county of
Lincoln; upon which a _Capias_ was awarded, and upon that an exigent;
after which, Eaton died before any attainder, upon which award of the
exigent, his administrators brought a writ of error; and it was
adjudged, that the writ of error did lie; and the reason was, because
by the award of the exigent, his goods and chattels were forfeited; and
of such awards which tend _ad tale grave damnum_ of the party, a writ
of error lies, although the principal judgment was never given; and in
this case, _exceptio probat regulam_, & _sic de similibus_." ["A
writ of error lies" = "an appeal is admissible"; "capias" = writ
commanding arrest; "exigent" = writ of suspension of civil rights
pending an attainder; "attainder" = loss of all civil rights as a
result of a judgement; _ad tale grave damnum_ = "to such great loss";
_sic de similibus_ = "thus about similar things".]
- 1640 Gilbert Watts, _Bacon's Advancement and proficience of
learning_ VIII. iii. Aph. 17: "As exception strengthens the force of a
Law in Cases not excepted, so enumeration weakens it in Cases not
enumerated." [So when Lewis Carroll wrote "I am fond of children
(except boys)", he affirmed his fondness for girls more strongly than
he would have had he written merely "I am fond of children."]
- 1664 John Wilson, _The Cheats_, To Reader: "For if I have
shown the odd practices of two vain persons pretending to be what they
are not, I think I have sufficiently justified the brave man even by
this reason, that the exception proves the rule." [The OED (but not the
other books I checked) gives the date as 1662. As far as I can tell
from this scant context, Wilson seems to be saying, "My description of
two cowardly cheats should serve to show you the bad consequences of
not being brave, and hence convince you of the need for a rule: 'Be
- 1666 Giovanni Torriano, _Piazza universale di proverbi
italiani, or A Common Place of Italian Proverbs_ I, p. 80 "The
exception gives Authority to the Rule." note 28, p. 242 "And the Latin
says again, Exceptio probat Regulam."
"face the music"
This expression for "accept the unpleasant consequences" was
first recorded in the U.S. around 1850. It may derive from musical
theatre: a nervous actor would have to summon all his courage to
face the audience across the orchestra pit. Or it may be one of
three military references: an infantryman taking his place in the
line of assembly; a cavalier keeping his restive horse still while
the band starts to play; or a soldier being drummed out of his
This expands to "Go and figure it out", and means: "The reasons
for the fact just stated are unknown and possibly unknowable. You
can waste your time thinking about what they might be, if you
choose, but you're not likely to accomplish anything." (Kivi
"Go figure" comes from Yiddish _Gey vays_ "Go know". Leo
in _The Joys of Yinglish_ (Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-452-26534-6), says:
"In English, one says, 'Go _and_ see [look, ask, tell]...' Using an
imperative without any link to a conjunction is pure Yiddish, no
doubt derived from the biblical phrase, translated literally:
'Go tell...' 'Go praise the Lord...' (In English this becomes
'Come, let us praise the Lord.')"
Other English expressions said to derive from Yiddish include:
"Big deal!" (_A Groyser kunst!_); "Bite your tongue" (_Bays dir di
tsung_"); "bottom line" (_untershte shure_); "Eat your heart out"
(_Es dir oys s'harts_); "Enough already!" (_Genug shoyn_); "for
real" (_far emmes_); "If the shoe fits, wear it" (_Oyb der shukh
past, kenstu im trogn_); "Look who's talking!" (_Kuk nor ver
s'ret!_); "make like a" (_makh vi_); "shm-" as in "Fair, shmair";
"Sez you" (_Azoy zugst du_); "Thanks a *lot*" (ironic) (_A shenem
dank aykh_); and "That's for sure" (_Dos iz oyf zikher_).
"Go placidly amid the noise and the haste" (Desiderata)
"Desiderata" was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945). In
1956, the rector of St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used
the poem in a collection of mimeographed inspirational material for
his congregation. Someone printing it later said it was found in
Old St. Paul's Church, dated 1692. The year 1692 was the founding
date of the church and has nothing to do with the poem. See Fred
D. Cavinder, "Desiderata", _TWA Ambassador_, Aug. 1973, pp. 14-15.
"hell for leather"
Robert L. Chapman's _New Dictionary of American Slang_ (Harper &
Row, 1987, ISBN 0-06-181157-2) says: "hell-for-leather or hell-
bent-for-leather adv _fr late 1800s British_ Rapidly and
energetically; =all out, flat out. _You're heading hell-for-leather
to a crack-up_ [origin unknown; perhaps related to British dialect
phrases _go hell for ladder, hell falladerly, hell faleero_, and
remaining mysterious even if so, although the _leather_ would then
be a very probable case of folk etymology with a vague sense of the
_leather_ involved in horse trappings.]"
"by hook or by crook"
This phrase used to mean "by fair means or foul", although now
it often means simply "by whatever necessary means", especially in
the U.K. The first recorded use is by John Wycliffe in
_Controversial Tracts_ (circa 1380). Theories include: a law or
custom in mediaeval England that allowed peasants to take as
firewood from the King's forests any deadwood that they could reach
with a shepherd's crook and cut off with a reaper's billhook;
rhyming words for "direct" (reachable with a long hook) and
"indirect" (roundabout); beginners' writing exercises, where letters
have hooks and brackets are "crooks"; and from "Hook" and "Crook",
the name of headlands on either side of a bay north of Waterford,
Ireland, referring to a captain's determination to make the haven of
the bay in bad weather using one headland or the other as a guide.
"Illegitimis non carborundum"
Yes, this means "Don't let the bastards grind you down", but it
is not real Latin; it is a pseudo-Latin joke.
"Carborundum" is a trademark for a very hard substance composed
of silicon carbide, used in grinding. (The name "Carborundum" is a
blend of "carbon" and "corundum". "Corundum" denotes aluminium
oxide, and comes to English from Tamil _kuruntam_; it is related to
Sanskrit _kuruvinda_ = "ruby".) "The "-ndum" ending suggests the
Latin gerundive, which is used to express desirability of the
activity denoted by the verb, as in _Nil desperandum_ = "nothing to
be despaired of"; _addendum_ = "(thing) fit to be added";
_corrigendum_ = "(thing) fit to be corrected"; and the name Amanda,
from _amanda_ = "fit to be loved").
_Illegitimis_ is the dative plural of _illegitimus_ =
"illegitimate"; the gerundive in Latin correctly takes the dative to
denote the agent. _Illegitimus_ could conceivably mean "bastard" in
Latin, but was not the usual word for it: _Follett World-Wide Latin
Dictionary_ (Follett, 1967) gives _nothus homo_ for bastard of known
father, and _spurius_ for bastard of unknown father.
The phrase seems to have originated with British army
intelligence early in World War II. It was popularized when U.S.
general Joseph W. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell (1883-1946) adopted it as
his motto. Various variant forms are in circulation.
"Let them eat cake!"
The French is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" (*not* "gateau" as
one might expect). And Queen Marie-Antoinette did *not* say this.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau attributed it to "a great princess" in book 6
of his _Confessions_. _Confessions_ was published posthumously, but
book 6 was written 2 or 3 years before Marie-Antoinette arrived in
France in 1770.
"mind your p's and q's"
This expression, meaning "be very careful to behave correctly",
has been in use from the 17th century on. Theories include: an
admonishment to children learning to write; an admonishment to
typesetters (who had to look at the letters reversed); an
admonishment to seamen not to soil their navy pea-jackets with
their tarred "queues" (pigtails); "mind your pints and quarts";
"mind your prices and quality"; "mind your pieds and queues"
(either feet and pigtails, or two dancing figures that had to be
accurately performed); and the substitution of /p/ for "qu" /kw/
in the speech of uneducated ancient Romans. And yes, we've heard
the joke about the instruction to new sextons: "Mind your keys
The most plausible explanation is the one given in the latest
edition of Collins English Dictionary: an alteration of "Mind
your 'please's and 'thank you's.
"more honoured in the breach than in the observance"
From _Hamlet_, Act 1, Scene 4. Shakespeare meant "BETTER broken than
observed", not "more often broken than observed".
"put in one's two cents' worth"
This expression meaning "to contribute one's opinion" dates from
the late nineteenth century. Bo Brodham suggests that it comes from
"the days of $.02 postage. To 'put one's two cents' worth in'
referred to the cost of a letter to the editor, the president, or
whomever was deserving." Someone should check when postage actually
did cost two cents.
"rule of thumb"
This term for "a simple principle having wide application but not
intended to be strictly accurate" dates from 1692. A frequently
repeated story is that "rule of thumb" comes from an old law
regulating wife-beating: "if a stick were used, it should not be
thicker than a man's thumb." Christina Hoff Sommers (_Who Stole
Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women_, Simon & Schuster, 1994,
ISBN 0-671-79424-8, pp. 203-207) investigated this and found no
evidence of such a law; the earliest reference to it was in two U.S.
court rulings (Bradley v State, Walker 156 Mississppi 1824; State
v Oliver, 70 North Carolina 61, 1874) which called it an "ancient
law". Thumbs were used to measure *lots* of things (the last joint
is roughly one inch). The phrase may also come from ancient
brewmasters' dipping their thumb in the brew to test the temperature
of a batch; or from a guideline for tailors: "Twice around the
thumb is once around the wrist..."
"son of a gun"
dates from 1708; therefore, NOT son of a "shotgun marriage", which
is only recorded from 1922. Possibly "cradled in the gun-carriage
of a ship"; allegedly, the place traditionally given to women on
board who went into labour -- the only space affording her any
privacy and without blocking a gangway -- was between two guns. Or
it may mean more simply "son of a soldier".
"spit and image"/"spitting image"
These phrases mean "exact likeness". "Spitting image" is first
recorded in 1901; "spit and image" is a bit older (from the late
19th century), which seems to refute the explanation "splitting
image" (two split halves of the same tree). An older British
expression is "He's the very spit of his father", which Eric
Partridge, in his _Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English_
(Routledge, 1950) traces back to 1400: "He's ... as like these as
th'hads't spit him." Other languages have similar expressions;
e.g., the French say _C'est son pere tout crache_, "He is his father
completely spat." Alternative explanations are "so alike that
even the spit out of their mouths is the same"; "speaking likeness";
and a corruption of "spirit".
"to all intents and purposes"
This cliche meaning "practically" is a shortening of the legal
phrase "to all intents, constructions, and purposes". The corruption
"for all intensive purposes" is frequently reported.
"Wherefore art thou Romeo?"
"Wherefore" means "why", not "where".
"whole cloth" (notes by Ellen Rosen)
The phrase "made out of whole cloth" (and variants) means
"utterly without foundation in fact, completely fictitious". MWCD10
gives only this sense for "whole cloth", and dates it 1840. This is
a surprise to some people who sew and quilt, who still use "whole
cloth" in its literal sense of "uncut fabric".
The OED has citations of "whole cloth" from 1433 on. Its first
definition is "a piece of cloth of the full size as manufactured, as
distinguished from a piece that may be cut off or out of it for a
The OED also gives the phrase "cut (or made) out of whole
The earliest citation is from 1579. From the citations, it seems
that for the first 300 years or so, the phrase was used with the
connotation of entirety, but not of falsehood. For example, this
citation is from 1634: "The valiant Souldier .. measureth out of
the whole cloath his Honour with his sword."
OED labels the falsehood sense "U.S. colloquial or slang". The
citation from 1843 is the first with this sense: "Isn't this entire
story .. made out of whole cloth?" A citation from 1905 (and
obviously British) indicates that the term "whole cloth" was not yet
being used only in that sense: "That Eton captain is cut out of
whole cloth; no shoddy there."
Before the Industrial Revolution, few people had ready access
whole cloth. Cotton had to be picked (or sheep sheared); the cotton
or wool had to be washed and picked over; the material had to be
spun into thread, and the thread woven into cloth. Cloth was
therefore precious and frequently reused. A worn-out man's shirt
would be cut down to make a child's shirt; the unworn parts of a
woman's skirt would be reused to make quilts; etc. Also, homespun
fabric was not very comfortable to wear. Even after the Industrial
Revolution, ready-made whole cloth was sufficiently expensive that
many people could not afford to use new cloth for everything.
Therefore, to have a piece of clothing made out of whole cloth
must have been very special, indeed: something new, not something
hand-me-down; something that hadn't been patched together from
disparate, often unmatched pieces; maybe even something comfortable.
So describing something as being made from whole cloth would mean
that it had never existed as a garment before, and that it was
something special, something wondrous -- one's Sunday best, or
The modern figurative meaning of "whole cloth" seems to depend
on a lie's having sprung whole _ex nihilo_; having no connection with
existing facts. All-newness distinguishes garments and lies made out
of whole cloth. This is a positive characteristic for clothes, but
not for the average tissue of lies and deception.
"the whole nine yards"
This phrase, meaning "all of it, everything" dates from at least
the 1950s. The origin is a matter for speculation. 9 yards is not
a particularly significant distance either in football or in the
garment business (a man's three-piece suit requires about 7 square
yards of cloth, and cloth is sold in bolts of 20 to 25 yards). The
phrase may refer to the capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks, which
averages about 9 cubic yards. See Cecil Adams, _More of the
Straight Dope_, pp. 252-257.
Do publishers put false info in dictionaries to catch
From: email@example.com (David Justice)
> For what it's worth, I worked a few years at Merriam-Webster (late
> 1980s) and can attest that we never deliberately inserted false
> stuff for purposes of catching plagiarists. For one thing, every
> dictionary I've ever examined has been all too full of
> *un*intentional errors, and they could serve the same purpose.
On the other hand, books such as _Who's Who_ do have fictitious
How did "Truly" become a personal name?
by Truly Donovan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
My name is my mother's nickname. Her name was Etrulia, which
she acquired from an aunt-by-marriage, Etrulia (a.k.a. Truly) Shattuck.
Beyond that, the origins of the name are lost. Truly Shattuck, however,
was a woman of some notoriety, having first come to public attention,
according to family legend, when her mother, Jane, was tried and
acquitted for having murdered her young daughter's seducer. This would
have been in Northern California, perhaps the Bay Area, around the turn
of the century, I would guess. At some point thereafter Truly went on
the stage, and was supposedly a Floradora girl. Somehow (family legend
is very murky about this), she got herself married to a staid Scottish
lawyer from Michigan (during which time my mother was born and named
for her), but that was not a very enduring union. During my mother's
childhood, she was known to be running a chicken farm in California.
Her last brush with notoriety, which we learned about from her obituary
published in the Chicago Tribune, was when she was arrested for
shoplifting a very expensive dress at Marshall Field. Her defense was
that she needed to look for a job and hadn't anything to wear.
Anyway, it sure beats being named for a fatuous character in a
bad Ian Fleming children's book.
- words that were once trademarks, but as a result of legal
decisions or otherwise lost that status
- familiar words
- aspirin, brassiere ? , cellophane, celluloid, corn flakes
corselet (undergrament, from Corselette), Cuisenaire rod,
dry ice ? , escalator, gramophone, granola, heroin, immunogen,
jungle gym (from Junglegym), kerosene, lanolin ? , linoleum,
lite (beer) ? , mah-jongg, milk of magnesia, mimeograph,
pogo (stick), raisin bran ? , saran, shredded wheat, tabloid,
tarmac ? , thermos, trampoline ? , vibraharp, vulcanized fibre,
windbreaker (jacket) ? , yo-yo, zipper
- chemical and medical terms
- agene, amidol, antipyrine, duralumin, formalin, hirudin,
Janus green (from Janus), malathion, mecamylamine, ninhydrin,
parathormone, pulmotor, ronnel, secobarbital, toxaphene,
- miscellaneous more obscure words
- autogiro, barathea, beaverboard, chainomatic, cube steak
corona (cigar), cyclostyle, ditto (to copy printed matter etc. on a
duplicator), georgette, graphophone, ionoscope, kinescope,
kinetoscope, klystron, moviola, moxie, simonize (from Simoniz),
- words derived from trademarks
aqualunger (from Aqualung), cola (from Coca-cola),
(perhaps from Dexamyl), isoproterenol (from Arterenol), kart
(probably from GoKart), organza (probably from Lorganza), payola
(influenced by Victrola),
- words that are still trademarks, although many people use
AstroTurf, Autoharp, BVDs, Baggies, Bakelite, Band-Aid, Beer
Benzedrine, Biro, Boogie Board, Breathalyzer, Brillo Pads,
Carborundum, Chap Stick, Chemical Mace, Chiclets, Cinerama,
Coca-Cola/Coke, Cuisinart, Dacron, Day-Glo, Deepfreeze, Demerol,
Dianetics, Dictaphone, Dictograph, Ditto machine, Dixie cups, Dolby,
Dow Jones Average, Dry Ice ? , Dvorak Keyboard, Erector Set,
Eskimo Pie, Ethernet, Exercycle, Fiberglas, Fig Newtons, Formica,
Freon, Frigidaire, Frisbee, Grand Marnier, Green Stamp, Hacky Sack,
Hammond organ, Hide-a-Bed, Hi-Liter, Hula-Hoop, Identi-Kit, Invar,
Jacuzzi, Jarlsberg, Jeep, Jell-O, Jockey Shorts, Kewpie (doll),
Kitty Litter, Kleenex, Ko-Rec-Type, Kodak, Laundromat, Levi's,
Liederkranz (cheese), Life Savers (candy), Linotype ? ,
Liquid Paper, Lucite, Mace (spray), Mack (truck), Magic Marker,
Mailgram, Malathion, Mary Janes (sprinkles, shoes), Masonite,
Mellotron, Metroliner, Miltown (tranquilizer), Minicam, Monel,
Monotype (typesetting machine), Muzak, Novocain, NutraSweet, Orlon,
Pan-Cake (cosmetic), Parcheesi (the generic word is "pachisi"),
Peg-Board (perfboard), Phonevision, Photostat, Pianola (player
piano), Picturephone, Ping-Pong (table tennis), Playbill (theatre
programme), Play-Doh, Plexiglas, Polaroid, Pop Tarts, Popsicle,
Pyrex, Q-Tip, Realtor, Rollerblade, Roller Derby, Roquefort (salad
dressing), SAT, Sanforized, Sanka, Scientology, Scotch Tape,
Scrabble, Seeing Eye (dog), Sellotape, Sheetrock, Skivvies, Slim
Jim, Styrofoam, Super glue, Tarmac ? , Technicolor, Teflon,
TelePrompTer, Teletype, Thermos, TV Dinners, UNIX, Valium, Vaseline,
Velcro, Victrola, Vitallium, Walkman, Wedgwood (ceramic ware),
Welcome Wagon, Wiffle Ball, Windbreaker (jacket?), X-Acto, Xerox,
Yellow Pages ?
- words erroneously believed to be trademarks
What is the language term for...?
It may be one of: "ablaut", "accidence", "acrolect",
"adianoeta", "adnominal", "adnominatio", "adynaton", "agnosia",
"agrammatism", "alexia", "alliteration", "alphabetism", "amblysia",
"amphibol(og)y", "anacolouthon", "anacrusis", "anadiplosis",
"anaphora", "anaptyxis", "anastrophe", "antiphrasis", "antisthecon",
"antithimeria", "antonomasia", "aphaeresis", "aphasia", "aphesis",
"apocope", "apocrisis", "aporia", "apophasis", "aposiopesis",
"apostrophe", "aptronym", "asyndeton", "Aufhebung", "banausic",
"bisociation", "brachylogy", "cacoetheses scribendi", "cacophemism",
"calque", "catachresis", "cataphora", "catenative", "cheville",
"chiasmus", "chronogram", "cledonism", "commoratio", "consonance",
"constative", "coprolalia", "copulative", "crasis",
"cruciverbalist", "cryptophasia", "deictic", "dilogy",
"disjunctive", "dissimilation", "dittograph", "dontopedalogy",
"dysgraphia", "dyslalia", "dyslexia", "dysphemism", "dysprosody",
"dysrhythmia", "echolalia", "embo(lo)lalia", "enallage", "enclitic",
"endophoric", "epanalepsis", "epanorthosis", "epexegetic",
"epenthesis", "epitrope", "epizeuxis", "eponym", "equivoque",
"etymon", "eusystolism", "exergasia", "exonym", "exophoric",
"extraposition", "eye-word", "factitive", "festination", "fis
phenomenon", "Fog Index", "frequentative", "glossogenetics",
"glossolalia", "glottochronology", "glyph", "graphospasm", "hapax
legomenon", "haplograph", "haplology", "hendiadys", "heteric",
"heterogenium", "heterography", "heteronym", "heterophemy",
"heterotopy", "hobson-jobson", "holophrasis", "honorific",
"hypallage", "hyperbaton", "hyperbole", "hypocoristic", "hypophora",
"hyponymy", "hypostatize", "hypotaxis", "idioglossa", "idiolect",
"illeism", "ingressive", "isocolon", "isogloss", "klang
association", "koine", "langue", "Lautgesetz", "ligature",
"lipogram", "litotes", "logogram", "logogriph", "logomisia",
"lucus a non lucendo", "macaronic", "macrology", "meiosis",
"(a)melioration", "mendaciloquence", "merism", "metalepsis",
"metallage", "metanalysis", "metaplasm", "metathesis", "metonymy",
"Mischsprache", "mogigraphia", "mondegreen", "monepic",
"monologophobia", "Mummerset", "mumpsimus", "mussitation",
"mytheme", "noa word", "nomic", "nosism", "nothosonomia", "objective
correlative", "obviative", "omphalopsychites", "onomasiology",
"onomastic", "onomatopoeia", "oratio obliqua", "oxytone",
"palindrome", "palinode", "paradiastole", "paragoge", "paragram",
"paralinguistic", "paraph", "paraphasia", "paraplasm",
"parasynesis", "parataxis", "parechesis", "parelcon", "pangram",
"parimion", "parole", "paronomasia", "paronym", "paroxytone",
"parrhesia", "pasigraphy", "patavinity", "patronymic", "pejoration",
"periphrasis", "perpilocutionist", "phatic", "philophronesis",
"phonaesthesia", "phonocentrism", "pleonasm", "ploce", "polyptoton",
"polysemy", "polysyndeton", "privative", "proclitic", "prolepsis",
"proparalepsis", "prosonomasia", "prosopopoeia", "prosthesis",
"provection", "psittacism", "purr-word", "quadriliteralism",
"quaesitio", "quote fact", "rebus", "reification", "rheme",
"rhopalic", "sandhi", "scesis onomaton", "Schlimmbesserung",
"semiotics", "sigmatism", "simile", "Sprachgef"uhl",
"Stammbaumtheorie", "stichomythia", "subreption", "sumpsimus",
"superordinate", "suprasegmental", "syllepsis", "symploce",
"synaeresis", "synaesthesia", "synaloepha", "synchisis", "syncope",
"synecdoche", "synesis", "systole", "tachygraphy", "tautology",
"theophoric", "tmesis", "traduttori traditori", "trope",
"univocalic", "Ursprache", "Wanderwort", "Wellentheorie",
"Witzelsucht", "wordfact", "xenoepist", or "zeugma". Look 'em
up. :-) (A good book to look them up in is _The Random House
Dictionary for Writers and Readers_, by David Grambs (Random
House, 1990, ISBN 0-679-72860-0.)
According to the _Guinness Book of World Records_, the commonest
word in written English is "the," followed by: of, and, to, a, in,
that, is, I, it, for, as. The commonest word in spoken English is
"I." The commonest word in the King James Version of the Bible is
_Frequency Analysis of English Vocabulary and Grammar: Based on
the LOB Corpus_ by Stig Johansson and Knut Hofland (OUP, 1989, ISBN
0-19-8242212-2) gives the top eighteen words and their frequencies
1. the 68315
_The American Heritage Word Frequency Book_ by John B. Carroll,
Peter Davies, and Barry Richman (Houghton Mifflin, 1971, ISBN
0-395-13570-2) gives the top 300 words in order of frequency and in
groups of 100 as:
2. of 35716
3. and 27856
4. to 26760
5. a 22744
6. in 21108
7. that 11188
8. is 10978
9. was 10499
10. it 10010
11. for 9299
12. he 8776
13. as 7337
14. with 7197
15. be 7186
16. on 7027
17. I 6696
18. his 6266
the of and a to in is you that it he for was on are as
with his they
at be this from I have or by one had not but what all were when we
there can an your which their said if do will each about how up out
them then she many some so these would other into has more her two
like him see time could no make than first been its who now people
my made over did down only way find use may water long little very
after words called just where most know
get through back much before go good new write out used me man too
any day same right look think also around another came come work
three word must because does part even place well such here take why
things help put years different away again off went old number great
tell men say small every found still between name should Mr home big
give air line set own under read last never us left end along while
might next sound below saw something thought both few those always
looked show large often together asked house don't world going want
school important until 1 form food keep children feet land side
without boy once animals life enough took sometimes four head above
kind began almost live page got earth need far hand high year mother
light parts country father let night following 2 picture being study
second eyes soon times story boys since white days ever paper hard
near sentence better best across during today others however sure
means knew it's try told young miles sun ways thing whole hear
example heard several change answer room sea against top turned 3
learn point city play toward five using himself usually
What words are their own antonym?
Richard Lederer, in _Crazy English_ (Pocket Books, 1989, ISBN
0-671-68907-X), calls these "contronyms". They can be divided into
homographs (same spelling) and homophones (same pronunciation).
The homographs include:
- apparent = seeming, clear ("heir apparent")
- aught = all, nothing
- bill = invoice, money
- bolt = to secure, to run away
- buckle = to fasten, to fall apart ("buildings buckle at an
- cannot praise too highly = no praise is too high, cannot
praise very highly
- certain = definite, unspecified
- cite = single out for praise ("cited for bravery"); single
out for blame ("citation from the Buildings Dept.")
- cleave = to separate, to adhere
- clip = to fasten, to detach
- commencement = beginning, conclusion ("high school
- comprise = to contain, [disputed] to compose
- continue = to keep on doing, [Scots and U.S. law] to adjourn
- copemate = antagonist, partner
- critical = opposed to ("critical of"), essential to
- custom = usual, special
- dress = to put items on, to remove items from ("dress the
- dust = to remove fine particles, to add fine particles
- factoid = unimportant fact, falsity presented as fact
- fast = rapid, unmoving
- fix = to restore, to castrate
- give out = to produce, to stop being produced
- go off = to become active, to become inactive
- handicap = advantage (in golf), disadvantage
- help = to assist, to prevent ("I cannot help it if...")
- hoi polloi = the common people, [disputed] the elite
- hold up = to support, to delay
- impregnable = invulnerable, [disputed] impregnatable
- infer = to take a hint, [disputed] to hint
- keep up = to continue to fall (rain),to remain up
- left = departed from, remaining
- let = to permit, [archaic] to hinder
- literally = actually, [disputed] (used before a metaphor)
- model = archetype, copy
- moot = debatable, [disputed] not worthy of debate
- nauseous = nauseating, [disputed] nauseated
- note = promise to pay, money
- out = visible (stars), invisible (lights)
- oversight = care, error
- peep = to look quietly, to beep
- peer = noble, person of equal rank
- put out = to generate ("candle puts out light"), to
- puzzle = to pose a problem, to solve a problem
- qualified = competent, limited
- quantum = very small ("quantum level vs macroscopic level"),
[disputed] very large ("quantum leap in productivity")
- quite = rather, completely
- ravel = entangle, disentangle
- rent = to buy temporary use of, to sell temporary use of
- resign = to quit, [hyphen recommended] to sign up again
- sanction = to approve of, [disputed] to punish [The use of
"sanction" as a noun meaning "punishment" is undisputed.]
- sanguine = hopeful, [obsolete for "sanguinary"] murderous
- scan = to examine carefully, [disputed] to glance at quickly
- screen = to view, to hide from view
- seeded = with seeds, without seeds
- skin = to cover with, to remove outer covering
- substitute = to put (something) in something else's place,
[disputed] to replace (something) with something else
- strike = to miss (baseball), to hit
- table = [British] to propose, [U.S.] to set aside
- temper = calmness, passion
- think better of = to admire more, to be suspicious of
- trim = to put things on ("trim a Christmas tree"), to take
- trip = to stumble, to move gracefully ("trip the light
- unbending = rigid, relaxing
- undersexed = having a lower-than-normal sex drive, [disputed]
- wear = to endure through use, to decay through use
- weather = to withstand, to wear away
- wind up = to start ("wind up a watch"), to end
- with = alongside, against
A couple of homophones:
- aural, oral = heard, spoken
- raise, raze = erect, tear down
sentences grammatical in both Old English and Modern English
Mitchell and Robinson's _A Guide to Old English_ (OUP, 5th
edition, 1992, ISBN 0-631-16657-2) starts its "Practice Sentences"
section with a few of these. A sampling: Harold is swift. His hand is
strong and his word grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome.
Grind his corn for him and sing me his song. He swam west in storm and
wind and frost.
Brian Kelk (email@example.com) has a collection of phonetic
alphabets (A alpha, B bravo, C charlie, etc.) that he posts
Biblical sense of "to know"
Some people say things like: "It is not correct that it is the
biblical meaning. The biblical meaning of a man knowing a woman is
such total love as to know all about her, which includes
intercourse. It is not an evasive term for one-night stands."
Not so. The Biblical sense of "to know" is simply "to fuck", as
you can see from Genesis 19:4-8 : "[...] the men of Sodom
compassed the house round [...] and they called unto Lot, and said
unto him, 'Where are the men which came in to thee this night?
Bring them out unto us, that we may KNOW them.' And Lot [...] said
[...] 'Behold now, I have two daughters which have not KNOWN man;
let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you [...]'"
The Hebrew word here is "yada" (yod daleth ayin). The Greek
word "ginosko" (gamma iota nu omega sigma kappa omega) is used
similarly in the New Testament.
Is assertion followed by "not" a recent American neologism?
NOT! "I love thee not" was the regular word order in Shakespeare's
day. Examples including the pause are harder to find; the earliest
that we've found is in Irish dialect, in Ellis Parker Butler's _Pigs
is Pigs_ (1905):
"Proceed to collect," he said softly. "How them cloiks
do loike to be talkin'! _Me_ proceed to collect two dollars and
twinty-foive cints off Misther Morehouse! I wonder do thim clerks
_know_ Misther Morehouse? I'll git it! Oh, yes! 'Misther Morehouse, two
an' a quarter, plaze.' 'Cert'nly, me dear frind Flannery. Delighted!'
e. e. cummings wrote a poem beginning:
pity this busy monster manunkind
Credit to David Murray for bringing the cummings example to our
attention. And Wanda Keown found the following in Fritz Leiber's
_Conjure Wife_ (1943): "Norman thought: Country parsonage?
Healthy mental atmosphere, not!"
The construction owes its present popularity to the "Wayne's
World" skits in the U.S. TV show _Saturday Night Live_. The first
use in SNL was in the 1970s in a skit with Jane Curtin and Steve
Martin. (It is said that the writers of these skits encountered
the practice when it was a fad in their high school in the Toronto
suburb of Scarborough.) Another phrase that comes from SNL is
"Isn't that special?" (the Church Lady, played by Dana Carvey).
Origin of the dollar sign (notes by Mark Brader)
It is sometimes said that the dollar sign's origin is a narrow
"U" superimposed over a wide "S", "U.S." being short for "United
States." This is wrong, and the correct explanation also tells why
the $ sign is used both for dollars and for pesos in various
countries. The explanation is not widely known, maybe because not
many people would think to look for it in _A History of Mathematical
Notations, Volume II: Notations Mainly in Higher Mathematics_ by
Florian Cajori (published in 1929 and reprinted in 1952, by Open
Court Press). Cajori acknowledges the "U.S." theory and a number of
others, but, after examining many 18th-century manuscripts, finds
that there is simply no evidence to support those theories.
Spanish pesos were also called piastres, Spanish dollars, and
pieces of eight. And they were circulated in many parts of the
world, much as U.S. dollars are today. The coins were so well known
that, when the U.S. got around to issuing its own silver coinage
(U.S. dollar coins first appeared in 1794), it simply replicated the
Spanish unit's weight and hence value, and even one of its names; so
it was natural to use the same symbol.
Since three of the four names given above for the Spanish
start with p (and pluralize with s), it was natural for
abbreviations like p and ps to be used. Sometimes ps was written
as P with a superscript s. The superscript was a common way
of rendering abbreviated endings of words -- we see vestiges of it
today in the way some people write "10th". Now, what happens if you
write P with a superscript s *fast*, because it's part of a long
document that you have to hand-write because you can't wait for the
typewriter to be invented, let alone the word-processor? Naturally,
you join the letters. Well, now look at the top part of the
resulting symbol. There's the $ sign! Reduce the P to a single
stroke and you have the form of the $ with a double vertical; omit
it altogether and you get the single vertical.
And yes, both these forms are original. Cajori reproduces 14
$ signs from a diary written in 1776; 11 of them have the single
stroke, which was the more common form to the end of the century,
and 3 have the double stroke.
Although the $ sign originally referred to a Spanish coin, it
the revolting British -> American colonists who made the transition
from ps to the new sign. (This is apparently also why we write $1
instead of 1$; it mimics the British use of the pound sign.) So,
while it did not originally refer to the U.S. dollar, the symbol
does legitimately claim its origins in that country.
You can use diaereses in words like "naive" and "cooperate" if
you want. The use of diacritics has been declining because of
Linotypes and computers that didn't allow them.
"-er" vs "-re"
The following words are spelled with "-re" in Britain but with
"-er" in the U.S.: accoutre(ment), calibre, centre, fibre, goitre,
litre, louvre, lustre (brilliance, but "luster" one who lusts) ,
manoeuvre ("maneuver" in the U.S.), metre (for the distance and
for poetic and musical metre, but "meter" for the measuring device),
meagre, mitre, nitre, ochre, philtre, reconnoitre, sabre, sceptre,
sepulchre, sombre, spectre, (amphi)theatre, titre. (The British
"metre"/"meter" distinction is retained when the various prefixes
are prepended: "kilometre", "speedometer", etc. "Micrometer", a
device for measuring minute things, is distinguished from
"micrometre", a micron. "Theatre" has some currency in the U.S.,
especially in names of specific theatres.)
The following words are spelled "-re" in both Britain and the
U.S.: acre, cadre, euchre, lucre, massacre, mediocre, ogre,
wiseacre. (The "-cre" and "-gre" words may have been kept that
way in order to keep the "c" and "g" hard, although there are
counterexamples such as "eager" and "meager".)
In none of these words is "-er" the agent suffix (as in
"revolver") or the comparative suffix (as in "longer"). Most of
these words come from Latin through French, and they took the "-re"
form in French because the "e" was not part of the word root. (The
adjectives tend to be in "-ral", "-ric", and "rical", rather than
"-eral", "-eric", or "-erical".) But many similar words
(cloister, diameter, neuter, number, sinister) were changed from
"-re" to "-er" in English. The process has merely happened faster
in the U.S. than in Britain.
"-ize" vs "-ise"
The following words are always spelled with "-ise": advertise,
advise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise,
despise, devise, disguise, enterprise, excise, exercise,
(dis/en)franchise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise, revise,
supervise, surmise, surprise, televise. (At least, they're *almost*
always spelled that way: "advertize", "merchandize", and "surprize"
ARE listed in some U.S. collegiate dictionaries, but are not the
usual forms anywhere.) A useful mnemonic is that, except
"improvise", none of these make nouns in "-isation" or "-ization".
(Exceptions in the other direction are "aggrandize", "criticize",
"Apprise" means "to inform"; "apprize" means "to appreciate".
British "prise open" = U.S. "pry open".
For other verbs, "-ize" is usual in the U.S. and recommended by
Fowler, although "-ise" is also used in Britain. Fowler recommends
"-yse" in "analyse", "catalyse", and "paralyse", although "-yze" is
usual in the U.S.
Where to put apostrophes in possessive forms
by Peter Moylan
The ONLY personal possessive pronoun with an apostrophe is "one's".
The words "his", "its", "whose", "their" do NOT contain
apostrophes. Nor do words like "hers", "ours", "yours", "theirs".
(Would you say "mi'ne"?)
The forms "it's", "they're", and "who's" are contractions for "it
is", "they are", and "who is" respectively. (Or sometimes "it has",
etc.) They have nothing to do with possessive pronouns.
The apostrophe does occur in the possessive case of indefinite
pronouns (anybody's, someone's, and so on).
- The standard rule: Use 's for the singular possessive, and a
bare apostrophe after the plural suffix for the plural possessive. For
Nominative dog dogs
Possessive dog's dogs'
- Nouns ending with an [s] or [z] sound (this includes words
ending in "x", "ce", and similar examples): The plural suffix is -es
rather than -s (unless there's already an "e" at the end, as in the
"-ce" words), but otherwise the rule is the same as above:
(The possessive plural is what is wanted in "the Joneses'". This is
short for "the Joneses' house", which is not "the Jones's house".)
Nominative class classes
Possessive class's classes'
There are, however, examples where the singular possessive
suffix is a bare apostrophe:
(In most such examples, the plural is rarely used.) For nouns in this
category, many people would consider the 's suffix and the bare
apostrophe to be acceptable alternatives. The rules listed below may be
taken as "most common practice", but they are not absolute.
Nominative patience patiences
Possessive patience' patiences'
- The 's suffix is preferred for one-syllable words
(grass's) or where the final syllable has a primary or secondary stress
- The bare apostrophe is preferred:
- for words ending in -nce (stance');
- for many classical names (Aristophanes', Jesus',
- where the juxtaposition of two or more [s] sounds
would cause an awkwardness in pronunciation (thesis').
- Usage is divided in the situation where the final [s] or
[z] sound falls in an unstressed syllable (octopus'/octopus's,
phoenix's/phoenix', and so on).
The question of which suffix is correct arises less often
than one might imagine. Instead of saying "the crisis' start" or "the
crisis's start", most native speakers of English would say "the start
of the crisis", thus avoiding the problem.
- Plurals not ending in s: Use 's for the possessive plural
(men's, people's, sheep's).
For those who want to know where the apostrophe came from, here
is how it probably happened. Some of this is well documented, some
is guesswork on my part.
Back in the days when English had many more inflections than it
now has, the most common suffix for the genitive singular was -es.
(There were several noun declensions, so that not all nouns fitted
this pattern; but this could be considered to be the "most regular"
case.) For example: mann (=man), mannes (=of the man). Over time
there developed a tendency to stop pronouncing the unstressed "e",
so that "mannes" became "mann's". The apostrophe stands for the
(Modern German still has -es as the genitive suffix for many
nouns. The Germans did not stop pronouncing their unstressed "e"s,
so the case suffix is still written as -es.)
Pronouns were also inflected, but not in the same way. (They
were all fairly irregular, as they still are today.) The genitive
form of "hit" (=it) was "his" (=its). As "his" evolved into "its",
there was no "e" to drop, therefore no logical reason to insert an
The "its" and "it's" forms did coexist in the 17th and early
century, but today the "its" form is considered to be the only
Plural nouns are harder to explain. The most common genitive
plural inflection was -a, which is quite unrelated to our modern
-s'. My best guess is that most of the old plural suffixes were
replaced by -s under the influence of French; and that subsequently
the rules for forming singular possessives were extended to the
plurals. If this is what happened, then a hypothetical -s's plural
possessive suffix would immediately collapse to -s', in the same way
as for many singular nouns ending in "s". There was in any case a
long period where spelling was a lot less standardized than it is
today, so one should not think in terms of any sort of "standard
rule" existing during the transitional period.
NOTE FOR NON-ENGLISH SPEAKERS
The apostrophe in these cases normally has no effect on
pronunciation. Thus dogs, dog's, and dogs' all sound the same. The
exception is where the apostrophe separates two "s"s, and then it is
pronounced as an unstressed schwa. Thus class's, classes, and
classes' are all pronounced as /klas@z/.
For nouns where there is some difference of opinion over
the possessive suffix should be -'s or a bare apostrophe (that is,
those nouns where a final unstressed syllable ends with an [s] or
[z] sound) some native speakers use a lengthened final consonant
intermediate between /z/ and /z@z/. This is, however, a fine and
almost inaudible distinction.
One occasionally hears that "John's dog" is an abbreviation for
"John his dog". It is more likely that the derivation went in the
opposite direction, i.e.:
Johnes hund => John's hound => Johnny's dog
=> John 'is dog
with the "John his dog" form coming into use only briefly before
disappearing from modern English.
Using an apostrophe in a plural which is not a possessive form
almost never recommended by prescriptivists. The only situation
where it is recommended is where visual confusion would otherwise
result, as for example in the sentence "Mind your p's and q's". In
forms like "the 1980s" or "two CPUs", apostrophes are not
It is correct to use an apostrophe to indicate missing letters,
in contractions like "aren't", "isn't", "it's" (= it is or it has).
Be careful in these cases to put the apostrophe in the correct
place. The apostrophe replaces the missing letter(s); it does not
replace the space between words.