Thursday, December 6, 2007


When the English tongue we speak,
Why is "break" not rhymed with "freak"?
Will you tell me why it's true,
We say "sew" but likewise "few",
And the fashioner of verse
Cannot cap his "horse" with "worse"?
"Beard" sounds not the same as "heard",
"Cord" is different from "word";"
Cow" is cow but "low" is low,"
Shoe" is never rhymed with "foe";
Think of "hose" and "dose" and "lose",
And of "goose" and also "choose";
Think of "tomb" and "bomb" and "comb",
"Doll" and "roll" and "some" and "home",
And since "pay" is rhymed with "say",
Why not "paid" and "said" I pray?
We have "blood" and "food" and "good",
"Mould" is not pronounced like "could";
Wherefore "done" but "gone" and "lone"?
Is there any reason known?
No, in short, it seems to me
Sound and letters disagree.

from: Practical Rules for Pronounciation, arranged by C. Heyman, Teacher of English in the Haarlem H.B.S. Third Edition; probably around 1910 (slightly adapted)


I've read Pilgrim's Progress several times and still can't remember how to pronounce slough, as in Slough of Despond. Does it rhyme with cow? Do? Cuff?

No letter combination in English is more frustrating than ough. It can be pronounced at least 9 different ways:

rough (uff)
through (oo)
bough (ow)
cough (off)
dough (oh)
hiccough (up)
fought (aw)
Poughkeepsie (uh)
Coughlin (og)

Slough causes problems because it's pronounced different ways, depending on meaning. Slough pronounced sluff is the term for shedding skin, like snakes do. Slough meaning wet, swampy ground can be pronounced either sloo or slou. prefers slou, while the American Heritage Dictionary prefers sloo. I'm going with sloo too.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Feghoot #1

Not familiar with a feghoot? You probably are, but didn't know that's what they are called.

Ferdinand Feghoot is the fictional creation of sci-fi writer Reginald Bretnor (1911-1992), who published under the name Grendel Briarton. The stories involving Feghoot were always very brief and concluded with an elaborate pun.

A feghoot today doesn't need to be science fiction, but it must be brief and ridiculously punny. They are also known as groaners or shaggy-dog stories.

Mark Rapacioli, Editor of Planet Relish E-zine says, "A feghoot isn't just a short-short story with a joke at the end. A Feghoot is a short-short story that ends in a very groan-worthy pun." (quoted from:

Enough explanation. Let's get to some examples:

Two vultures board an airplane, each carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess looks at them and says, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, only one
carrion allowed per passenger."

A dog on crutches walks into a bar in the Wild West and says, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw."

Mahatma Gandhi walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him .... what? (Oh, man, this is so bad, it's good)
A super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

This one stakes its claim as the "original shaggy dog story":
In the days of yore, a knight on an important mission, rode his horse so hard that it became lame. Spying a village ahead, the knight headed straight for the stables there.
"I must have a horse!" he cried, "The life of the King depends upon it!"
The stablekeeper shook his head. "I have no horses," he said. "They have all been taken in the service of the King."
"You must have something--a pony, a donkey, a mule, anything at all?" the knight asked.
"Nothing. . . unless. . . no, I couldn't"
The knight's eyes lit up. "Tell me!"
The stablekeeper led the knight into the stable where they saw an enormous dog! It was almost as large as the knight's horse. But it was also the filthiest, shaggiest, smelliest, dog the knight had ever seen.
Swallowing, the knight said "I'll take it. Where is the saddle?"
The stablekeeper was adament. "I can't do it." he told the knight.
"Why won't you give me the dog?" cried the desperate knight.
The stablekeeper replied, "I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this."

For more of these, check out:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fear the Olive!

Starbucks may be guilty of intentional size obfuscation, but they are neither the first nor the worst.

Have you ever checked out the terms used for olive sizes? To quote Dave Barry again, I am not making this up. The olive industry uses the following sizes, based on the number of olives that make up a pound:

small: 128-140 per pound
medium: 106-127
large: 91-105
extra large: 65-90
jumbo: 47-64
colossal: 33-46
super colossal: <33

In Europe, the sizes are even more complex (and ridiculous):

Bullets 159-172 per pound
Fine 146-159
Brilliant 132-145
Superior 118-132
Large 105-118
Extra large 91-104
Jumbo 83-91
Extra Jumbo 74-82
Giant 65-73
Colossal 55-64
Super colossal 50-54
Mammoth 46-50
Super Mammoth 41-45

I find it hard to imagine being confronted with a mammoth olive, much less a super colossal olive. Frightening, in fact.

Starbucks Sizes

I stand an unimposing 5 feet, 5 inches. Recently, a wise-acre student of mine told me, "Mr. Wasko, you're tall...Starbucks style!"

I've got no problem with Starbucks calling their largest size cup of coffee a venti. It's pretty clever, really, since venti is Italian for twenty--the number of ounces in the large cup. But it's just downright marketing madness to refer to the smallest size as tall. I understand the desire to avoid terms with any negative connotations, but sometimes people just want a small cup of coffee. If I want small and get offered something tall, it troubles me.
Fortunately, the Starbucks coffee jerks (okay, baristas, dang it) around here don't correct me when I ask for a "little one." In fact, I say "big one" instead of venti too, not because I disapprove, but because it sounds so pretentious.

Dave Barry agrees:

...this trend began several years ago when Starbucks decided to call its cup sizes "Tall" (meaning "not tall," or "small"), "Grande" (meaning "medium") and "Venti" (meaning, for all we know, "weasel snot"). Unfortunately, we consumers, like moron sheep, started actually USING these names. Why? If Starbucks decided to call its toilets "AquaSwooshies," would we go along with THAT? Yes! Baaa!

Area Rug?

An area rug, I guess, is a rug that covers an area. As opposed to...?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

How Many Words in the English Language?

It's a simple question, but pretty much impossible to answer. The problem lies in determining what constitutes a word. Take almost any verb--call for example. Are the various forms of the word separate words (calls, called, calling, etc.)? And is the noun form of call a word distinct from the verb? What about the 33 separate definitions listed for the verb form by, and the 31 definitions of the noun form? Is call one word or 64? And then there are idiomatic expressions using call, like call for, call out, or call in. These have unique definitions as compound expressions. Do they count as words in combination, or only as separate words?

What about technical or scientific terms? Do we count the hundreds of thousands of chemical and medical terms that are unused in common parlance?

What makes a word English? English speakers and writers use lots of words from other languages. Do we count burrito, bourgeois, habeas corpus, wanderlust, karate? Then there's the debate of slang and jargon. How long must a term be in popular use before it is considered a "real" word?

What about proper names? Should Edward, Lincoln, Chicago be considered words? What about foreign places and names? Should or shouldn't Bangladesh, Argentina, and Moscow be considered English words?

With these significant complexities taken into consideration, sources will put the number of English words at anywhere from a quarter million to two million. Take your pick.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Whole Nuther Thing

What's up with that? I often hear people using the expression "a whole nuther." A local football coach was quoted in the paper using it. No dictionary I know includes nuther. I don't believe anyone who uses the expression would even argue that nuther is a word.

I did a little web research and found some interesting discussion of this odd construction. One these two theories seems to explain it:

1) The modifier whole is inserted in the word another. This is a linguistic phenomenon called infixation, which most commonly occurs in expletives. Mild examples would be "abso-bloomin-lutely," or "guaran-darn-tee."

2) The other theory is that people confuse another with a nother, and are simply applying the adjective whole to the second word. This sounds odd, but it's a linguistic occurrence called reanalysis. It's how we now have the word apron. It derived from the french word naperon. People misconstrued "a naperon" as "an aperon."

I find the first explanation easier to buy, but it was interesting to learn that it's a matter of some debate.

The question remains, of course, whether "a whole other thing" or "another whole thing" are adequate replacements for "a whole nuther thing."

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tom Swifties

A Tom Swifty is a quip where an adverb attached to a dialogue tag carries both a literal and a "punny" meaning. They are also easier to demonstrate than explain. Here's an example:

"The pencil needs sharpening," Tom said bluntly.

As you have already experienced, the most common response to a Tom Swifty is a groan, although I admit several have made me chuckle.

As to the origin of the term, Tom Swift was the young adventure hero of a series of early twentieth century novels by Edward L. Stratemeyer (who published under the pseudonym Victor Appleton). Mr. Stratemeyer loved to qualify all of Tom's dialogue with adverbs: "...Tom said knowingly," "...Tom replied eagerly," "...Tom cried desperately," etc.

Thus a Tom Swifty involves a playful pun on the dialogue tag. Here's a short sampling.

"This pencil needs sharpening," Tom said bluntly.
"The salad has too much vinegar," Tom said acidly.
"Give me a haircut," Tom said barbarously.
"The doctor removed my left ventricle," Tom said half-heartedly.
"I'll use a darker font," Tom said boldly.
"I presented my case to the judge," Tom said briefly.
"I've dropped the toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.
"Congratulations on your graduation!" Tom said diplomatically.
"I am a schizophrenic," said Tom, being frank.
"For what we are about to receive, may God make us truly grateful," Tom said gracefully.
"I've gained twenty pounds," Tom said heavily.
"I learned the somersault years ago," Tom said flippantly.
"I work out every seven days," Tom said weakly.
"Nay!" said Tom hoarsely.
"Waiter! My salad needs more cheese!" Tom said gratingly.

A slight variation excludes the adverb, and just makes a pun of the verb. It's still a Tom Swifty if Tom isn't doing the speaking, by the way:

"This must be the weight room," Tom worked out.
"My parents are Billy and Nanny," Tom kidded.
"She probably has her own jet," Tom leered.
"The sun is rising," Tom mourned.
"I told you not to ride that old horse," Tom nagged.
"I didn't take a single look!" Tom peeped.
"The exit is right here," Tom pointed out.
"I teach at the university," Tom professed.
"I couldn't believe I had won by 3,457 votes!" Tom recounted.
"Okay, you can borrow it again," Tom relented.
"I'm taking the ship back to the harbor," Tom reported.

Most of these come from Please share your originals--they are not hard to create.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More On The Terminal Preposition

In researching the last post, I found the following and had to share it. It comes from Mark Israel at

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 (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.

The Preposition Myth

I'm not that old, but I was taught in my youth not to end a sentence with a preposition. I was supposed to replace a perfectly decent sentence like:

What are you driving at?


At what are you driving?

I'm not sure how I would repair Who is Myrtle going out with? since With whom is Myrtle going out? still ends in a preposition (technically it's an adverbial particle, but it sure looks like a preposition to most folks).

So let's just make this clear: "Don't end sentences with prepositions" has always been a dubious rule, and in recent decades has been debunked by everybody who writes about such things. That includes Edward D. Johnson in The Handbook of Good English, Constance Hale in Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, Patricia T. O'Conner in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English and the undisputed world champion Guru of Grammar, H.W. Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd Ed.

It seems the rule was created centuries ago by grammarians who tied English unnecessarily to Latin (where it's impossible to end sentences with prepositions). Since prepositions always have objects, they reasoned, the objects should always follow the preposition. But that just makes for some really ugly English.

My favorite quote on this is from Churchill. The story goes that while going over a proof of one of his books, he found a sentence clumsily reworked by an editor who didn't approve of a terminating preposition. In the margin Churchill wrote, "This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put."

(This quote varies some. It's likely he wrote "bloody nonsense" and any other versions are simply euphemistic.)

What I find most interesting is how just about everybody ignores this rule in practice, yet almost everybody can quote it. How does a dumb rule that nobody follows survive at all for so long?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Baseball Idioms

It's playoff time in baseball, so let's list some of the ways baseball jargon has flavored and enriched American English. Here are a few examples of common idioms that come directly from baseball:

in the ballpark/ballpark figure: "I didn't predict the score exactly, but I was in the ballpark."
batting a thousand: "That's another sale! So far today I'm batting a thousand."
throw a curve ball: "I had the plan down until my boss threw me a curve ball."
cover all the bases: "Before you start the project, be sure to have all your bases covered."
get to first base: "I met with the client, but we didn't even get to first base."
go to bat for someone: "I would have been in big trouble if Ed wasn't willing to go to bat for me."
play hardball: "If we are going to stay competitive, we're going to have to play hardball with our competition."
knock it out of the park: "John's presentation was great; he really knocked it out of the park."
out of left field: "Boy, that comment was out of left field."
way off base: "His ideas for reforming education are way off base."
rain check: "I can't make our lunch. Can I have a rain check?"
right off the bat: "I made a good impression right off the bat."
screwball: "The guy with the clown shoes is a real screwball."
step up to the plate: "We are in big trouble until a real leader steps up to the plate."
three strikes: "He better not mess up again; he's already got two strikes against him."
touch base: "Call me next week so we can touch base."
whole new ball game: "I understand Algebra, but Trigonometry is a whole new ball game."

Thanks to Wikipedia for some of these.

Airline Trickery

You've got to watch those airline folks. I flew to Sacremento for a convention this week, and when I got to my gate I was told I could "get on the plane."

"Oh, no!" I said, "I'm getting IN the plane!"

What are they trying to pull anyway? I mean, how long do they expect me to survive ON an airplane?

Which clearly illustrates the importance of knowing your prepositions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Verbing Weirds Language

Verbification, or verbing is the turning of perfectly good nouns into perfectly awful and unnecessary verbs. Corporate America is the worst culprit. Instead of providing incentives, years ago companies began to incentivize. Now they talk about the dangers of disincentivizing.

When I arrive at airports these days I am deplaned. At restaurants, my food gets plated (I wonder why my drinks aren't cupped or my soup bowled). People used to engage in dialogue. Now they just dialogue. Friends no longer enjoy fellowship, they simply fellowship (this one bugs me in particular because the suffix -ship is meant to denote a noun). A short time ago, access was something you could gain. Now it's commonly something you do. Same with impact. You used to have an impact. Now you can simply impact something.

Okay, it's true that verbification can be a legitimate way for language to evolve and grow. You can argue that access, for example, is a useful addition to the language. I can live with that. And popular verbification has given us verbs like mail, strike, salt, pepper, switch, sleep, ship, train, stop, drink, cup, lure, mutter, dress, divorce, fool, and merge.

But these words are not only convenient and useful, they are pleasing to the ear. Throwing an -ize, -ing, or -ate onto a noun form is almost always ugly and unnecessary. Here are some examples of useless, discordant business verbing:

concretize (We concretized the design.)
rightsize (Stan lost his job when HQ rightsized last May.)
actioning (Don't pester me, I'm actioning the strategy.)
anonymize (Before you submit our proposal, you might want to anonymize it.)
monetize (The plan looks good, but let's monetize it first.)
solutioning (What this department needs is some solutioning.)
leveraging (We need to leverage our core competencies.)

And, yes, I am aware that to verbify and to verb are themselves examples of verbification. It's an intentional irony--get it?

An old Calvin and Hobbes strip dealt with this issue and concluded with the brilliant line: "Verbing weirds language."

(Thanks to David Sims for this post idea.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bare With Me

I was engaged in a text conversation with a customer service representative yesterday when he asked me to "bare with" him while he looked up some information. I did NOT take him up on his offer. Why he wanted me to join him in disrobing is beyond me. I mean, how was I supposed to know if he followed up on his end of the deal?

I almost took the time to correct his spelling, but why rob future customers of the chuckle I got?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Back Formation

Here's an interesting concept I just learned about: back formation. Back formation occurs when a word is mistakenly assumed to have come from a particular root. That "root" is then actually coined as a word.

Burgle, for example, was assumed to be the root of the word burglar, and has recently been recognized by dictionary-makers as a synonym for burglarize. Burglar, however, predates burgle.

Couth is another example--sort of. It has been used for some time as a facetious synonym for manners. I always found it humorous that one could be uncouth, but not merely couth. I read today, however, in David Feldman's book, Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?, that uncouth is rooted in the Old English word couth, which meant "known," or "familiar." Uncouth took on negative connotations as it applied to the manners or behaviors of outsiders. Uncouth in that pejorative sense survived into modern English, but not its root, couth. The reemergence of couth, now recognized in several dictionaries, is from the evolved definition of uncouth (boorish, unmannerly).

So, the couth that spawned uncouth is not the same as the couth we unwittingly invented. Get it?

Anyway, some other examples of back-formations (courtesy Wikipedia) include:

automate (from automation)
aviate (from aviator)
bartend (from bartender)
book-keep (from book-keeping)
brainwash (from brainwashing)
bulldoze (from bulldozer)
bus (from busboy)
choreograph (from choreography)
creep (from creepy)
destruct (from destruction)
donate (from donation)
edit (from editor)
escalate (from escalator)
emote (from emotion)
funk (from funky)
grovel (from groveling)
haze (from hazy)
isolate (from isolated)
legislate (from legislator)
manipulate (from manipulation)
opine (from opinion)
proofread (from proofreader)
spectate (from spectator)
tase (from taser)
upholster (from upholstery)

Hyphen--Will Work for Food

The newest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has dropped hyphens from something like 16,000 words. The decision was influenced by the Web, where hyphens are often omitted. Print media has gradually followed suit. With this new dictionary, the demise of the hyphen has become official.

Included in the list of new, formerly hyphenated spellings are:

pot belly
ice cream
test tube
fig leaf
hobby horse
water bed

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Most folks don't know the term heteronym, but they are baffled by them nevertheless. Heteronyms are words that have identical spellings (homographs), but have different meanings and pronunciations.

For example, a person who sews is a sewer. Underground pipes that carry off waste are called sewers.

Usually the context solves the problem, but it just doesn't seem right that sewer and sewer can be complely different words! I wish I knew someone to complain to about this!

coop: The neighborhood coop met in a renovated chicken coop.
sow: The farmer fed the sow and left to sow his field.
bow: The archer left his bow in the bow of the ship.

Here are some other hetronyms. It might take a few seconds to recognize the varying pronunciations/definitions:

wind appropriate buffet content contest does drawer
entrance intimate number recount refuse resent wound
taxes alternate perfect separate convert permit rebel

Can you think of others?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Body Part Metaphors

Our language is replete with familiar metaphor. All of the following are common metaphorical terms referring to body parts. Can you fill in the blanks? I'll post the answers in a comment.
Hint: There are no repeats.
Note: I got manyof these from Richard Lederer's The Play of Words.

1. ________ of lettuce
2. ________ of a needle
3. ________ of a relay race
4. wet behind the ______
5. long _________ of the law
6. ________ of drawers
7. ________ of the matter
8. ________ of your shoe
9. ________ of contention
10. _______ of a river
11. to go _____ to _____
12. turn the other __________
13. _______ service
14. to split ________
15. save _______
16. a main _________ of traffic
17. fight _______ and _______
18. get off my ______
19. _______ grease
20. _______ under
21. _______ laugh
22. _______ reaction
23. take it on the _______
24. chip on your _______
25. _______ punch
26. shove it down your _______
27. shout at the top of your ______
28. it fell right into my _______
29. that _______ of the woods
30. under one's _______

There are plenty of others. Feel free to post some.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Cool Free Stuff

I just added some free word-related do-dads: Word of the Day, Spelling Bee (where you can hear the word and try to spell it correctly), Match Up (where you have to find word synonyms) and a pretty nifty hangman game with really hard words! They all appear below to the right.

Hope you enjoy them!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Greatest Scrabble Moment

I love Scrabble. I don't play it much, unless my grandmother's around, but a good game of Scrabble is a blast.

My all-time Scrabble highlight was using all seven letters in two consecutive words (I remember spatulas was one of them). Unfortunately, I was playing my wife and my ensuing boasting caused some marital strife. She has forgiven me since (and I only bring up my stunning victory on rare occasions).

Did you know that it is theoretically possible to score 1,830 points in one turn? This page on shows how. I don't expect I'll ever come across the opportunity.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Another great word...

I just called a friend a nincompoop. He's actually a very intelligent guy (sorry, Don), but it occurred to me how much I like the word nincompoop. Too bad it's not a nicer word. I'd like to use it more often.

And, though perhaps not to the same degree that fell always accompanies swoop, the only appropriate modifier for nincompoop seems to be utter. As in, "My boss is an utter nincompoop."

It does kind of roll off the tongue though, huh?

By the way, it seems there is no credible account of the origin of the word. It was first used in a play by William Wycherly in 1676! That information thanks to

Back At Last

What a few weeks it's been. I've experienced two cases of credit card fraud, and my house got hit by lightning, causing much damage and many insurance company-related irritations. I also spent the weekend in The Woodlands, Texas at a homeschool convention. It was great, but I had a terrible time getting an internet connection. But I am back in the saddle.

Hm. Back in the saddle. That's it--today's blog topic. Let's go with horse cliches! How many can you come up with? I've got the following:

back in the saddle
don't look a gift horse in the mouth
that's a horse of a different color
you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink
so hungry I could eat a horse
beating a dead horse
ride off into the sunset
on your high horse
dark horse
horsing around
hold your horses
putting the cart before the horse
straight from the horses mouth

Hey, that's not bad. Can anyone top that?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

One Fell Swoop

How come there's only one kind of swoop? Swoops apparently only come in the fell variety. In fact, as far as I can tell, swoops appear to be the only items that are ever described as fell. And they apparently don't come in groups. You never hear about a pair of fell swoops. Just one at at time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Pleonastic Acronyms

Speaking of redundant pleonasms (get it?), here are a few common ones that I notice on a regular basis. They are all evidence that folks don't understand the acronym they are using:

ATM machine (automated teller machine machine)
PIN number (personal identification number number)
SAT test (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or Student Achievement Test test)

[Technically, SAT test isn't a redundancy anymore. Early in the 90s the College Board decided that SAT no longer stands for anything. Too much grief from various sides of the political correctness debate.]

10% APR (ten percent annual percentage rage)
AC current (alternating current current)
DMZ zone (demilitarized zone zone)
DOS operating system (disk operating system operating system)
HIV virus (Human Immunodeficiency Virus virus)
LCD display (liquid crystal display display)
please RSVP (plese respondez s'il vous plait--please reply please)

Any I missed?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


We've had some fun with oxymora recently, now let's enjoy the opposite of oxymora--the pleonasm.

A pleonasm is a redundant expression--using more words than necessary to communicate the idea (an oxymoron involves contrasting words, while a pleonasm consists of synonymous, and therefore redundant, words). Pleonasms are common in everyday spoken communication--something easy to overlook, but their presence in written work is unacceptable. Look for common pleonasms like those below in your writing:

mix together (you can't mix things apart can you?)
join together
gather together
jump up
fall down
rise up
descend down
absolutely necessary
absolutely essential
repeat again
return back
advance forward
little tiny
A.M. in the morning
anonymous stranger
advance planning
advance warning
boiling hot
close proximity
circulate around
completely blind (deaf, dead, destroyed, empty, full, unanimous)
component parts
constant nagging
definite decision
empty space
blank space
exact replica
free gift
freezing cold
frozen tundra
grand total
handwritten manuscript
individual person
invited guests
knowledgeable expert
major breakthrough
new discovery
original source
pair of twins
past tradition
personal friend
postponed until later
receded back
refer back
resulting effects
safe haven
safe sanctuary
sink down
sudden impulse
surrounded on all sides
sum total
top priority
utimate goal
unmarried bachelor
usual custom
vacillating back and forth

The following pleonasms endure, I suspect, because people are unaware that the word pair is synonymous:

aid and abet
cease and desist
vim and vigor
each and every
null and void
rest and relaxation

Friday, July 27, 2007

Portmanteau Words

A portmanteau is a word created by combining two other words. They are sometimes officially recognized by dictionaries, but more often they are invented and popularized as slang. A common and relevant example is blog (web + log).

Lewis Caroll gets credit for the linguistic term portmanteau. In his Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is explaining to Alice the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky":
Well, slithy means lithe and slimy ... You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.

"Jabberwocky" gave us the now common word chortle, which is the blending of chuckle and snort.

Other common portmanteaux include:

smog (smoke + fog)
motel (motor + hotel)
brunch (breakfast + lunch)
alphabet (alpha + beta)
bioterrorism (biological + terrorism)
camcorder (camera + recorder)
electrocution (electric + execution)
spork (spoon + fork)
sportscast (sport + broadcast)
televangelist (television + evangelist)

But the most fun portmanteaux are those that won't likely ever make the dictionary. Words that are invented to meet a particular need at a particular time:

edutainment (education + entertainment)
slanguage (slang + language)
ginormous (gigantic + enormous)
mathlete (math + athlete)
dramedy (drama + comedy)
Chinglish (Chinese & English)
affluenza (affluent + influenza)

Here are a few I found online, including their definitions:

apocalapse: gap between predictions of the end of the world and when it might actually happen
skop: a movement between hopping and skipping
jerd: someone who is both a jock and a nerd
arrognance: the quality of being simultaneously ignorant and arrogant
mediocracy: a democracy where mediocrity abounds
arachnaclaustrophobia: fear of being in close spaces with spiders
momentaneous: happening momentarily and instantaneously
framily: a friend who is part of your family

And here's my current favorite:

precipilude: When you're driving in the rain and you go under an overpass--the moment where the rain isn't beating down on your windsheild; a precipitation interlude.

Got any more? I'd love some originals.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Additional Favorite Words

I just thought of it. I really like to say the word schism. And bungalow.

Least Favorite Words

My least favorite word is juror. I find it hard to say--like chewing a tough steak. A close second is disagreeable for the same reason: rural. A jury member from the country would be a rural juror. Say it three times--it sounds like a car engine that won't turn over.

Here's a tongue twister made up of words I hate to pronounce:

The royal rurual juror's jewelry drawer.

If I could I'd stick the word plural in there too.

I'd love to hear your least favorite words too.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Favorite Words

My kids love to ask dinner guests about their favorite things: books, movies, meals, colors, etc. People have favorite everythings: numbers, body parts, time of day. Lots of people have favorite words--words that, regardless of meaning, sound beautiful.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (one of my favorite books), Annie Dillard notes that her poet-friend, Rosanne Coggeshall, considers the word sycamore "the most intrinsically beautiful word in English." I find it a bit tough to rank them so objectively, but it is a nice-sounding word.

James Joyce's pick was cuspidor. It's too hard for me to remove the word from its definition to agree with Mr. Joyce. It's interesting that it rhymes with sycamore though. Just a little interesting, I guess.

If denotation could be completely discounted, my selection would be diarrhea. That word wins the prize for greatest aesthetic disparity between sound and sense. If you can block out any visual images and just listen, it's a lovely word.


Not bad. Anyone out there have a favorite you'd like to share?

Friday, July 20, 2007

More on "Moron"

Anonymous asks:

How long has "oxymoron" been a word? What, if anything, does it have to do with the name someone is given when displaying foolish behavior?

A good question with an interesting answer. I assume you are wondering about any relationship to the word moron. There is only a coincidental connection.

Oxymoron, according to Wikipedia, comes from Greek oxy, meaning sharp, and moros, meaning dull. So, literally, it means sharp-dull: Oxymoron is itself an oxymoron.

The word moron is pretty interesting too. We think of it as a crude, insulting term, but it was coined by psychologist Henry H. Goddard as a technical term for people with a mental age between 8 and 12 on the Binet scale, or for people with an IQ between 51-70. It is also derived from the Greek word meaning dull, for obvious reasons.

Interestingly, along with moron, imbecile and idiot were once professionally acceptable terms for the mentally handicapped. All have been demoted to detrimental slang.

And for the record, oxymoron is a really old word. It has existed in its English form since at least 1640, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is almost exactly the same word that was used in Classical Greece, which means it was coined no later than the 4th Century BC. Clearly it came well before Goddard coined moron early in the 20th Century.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More On Oxymorons

Is there anybody who doesn't love the word oxymoron? It's fun to say, and it's got enough syllables to make the user sound intelligent.

Oxymorons are great fun, too. They can be both profound and amusing at the same time (By the way, either oxymora or oxymorons can be used as the plural form). In his book Crazy English, Richard Lederer points out a number of common expressions that are oxymoronic (some of them only when you think twice).

old news, even odds, pretty ugly, small fortune, voice mail, loose tights, student teacher, original copy, freezer burn, divorce court, tight slacks, act naturally, recorded live, plastic silverware, Peacekeeper missile

I recently found a gazillion more of these on the web. These made me chuckle: barely dressed, work party, headbutt, Dodge Ram, personal computer, and Microsoft Works.

Dr. Mardy Grothe has published a book called Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. I highly recommend it for anyone with a penchant for clever aphorisms. Here are a few choice exerpts:

  • "Even his ignorance is encyclopedic." --Stanislaw Lec, of an unknown peer
  • "You'd be surprised to know how much it costs to look this cheap." --Dolly Parton
  • "He has been called a mediocre man; but this is unwarranted flattery. He was a politician of monumental littleness." --Theodore Roosevelt, of John Tyler
  • "A normal adolescent isn't a normal adolescent if he acts normal." --Judith Viorst
  • "A hero is a man who is afraid to run away." Proverb
  • "Humility is something I've always prided myself on." --Bernie Kosar, NFL Quarterback

I'll introduce more of these later--Oxymoronica lists thousands of oxymoronic quotations. Some are intentional and brilliant; others, my favorites, are accidental and hilarious.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Silent Letters?

I don't know if this idea bothers anybody else, but isn't silent letter an oxymoron? It seems to me a letter is a symbol used to represent a sound. I suppose some letters help us pronounce another letter--like the "e" helps us distinguish between hat and hate. Still, English seems to me to have an over-abundance of silent letters, most of which seem completely superfluous.

Every letter in the English alphabet is silent in at least one word. Check it out:


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Common Nonsense

Since Liz brought it up,
  • Why do you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?
  • Why do you slow down to go over a speed bump?
  • Why, when traffic moves so slowly, do they call it rush hour?
  • Why do you play at a recital and recite at a play?
  • Why do you have a hot water heater? (hot water doesn't need heating)
  • If the rooms are so close together, why do they call them apartments?
  • Why do cars carry shipments and ships carry cargo?

How about these...

  • Why do flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?
  • Why are famous and infamous not opposites?
  • Why is a caregiver and a caretaker the same thing?
  • Why do quite a lot and quite a few mean the same thing?
  • To lift up and to uplift mean the same, so why are set up and upset opposites?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Confusing Expressions

If I swerve in the nick of time to avoid an oncoming car, it's likely to be described as a near miss. I've often wondered why. It was an actual miss. I could understand a near collision, or a near disaster, or a near death experience, but a near miss would seem to mean I nearly missed, but didn't! Why do we commonly describe a near hit as a near miss?

And here's another one that strikes me as odd. Why do we describe someone flipping vertically as going head over heels? When I stand firmly upright, my head is normally over my heels. We use the expression head over heels when heels over head is clearly the image we are trying to convey. What's even odder to me is that hardly anyone ever questions this. If someone says, "he fell head over heels," our minds envision a man flipping heels over head.

One that baffled me as a child was "You can't have your cake and eat it too." If I have it, why the heck can't I eat it? It was satisfying to learn that the expression was originally, "You can't eat your cake and have it, too." That works better for me. I see the logic more clearly. Of course, it works either way as long as the and isn't assumed to indicate sequentiality. But it seems to me that sequence is easy to infer--as in a "hit and run" accident. You can't just switch those around without wrecking the point.

The cake expression apparently has been around since the 16th Century ( But the reverse-order version's been common for about 180 years. In researching the phrase, I learned that one clue to the identity of the Unabomber was his use of the original form of the expression ("You can't eat your cake and have it, too") in his manifesto. It narrowed the field of suspects to word nerds.(

The sequentiality thing causes confusion with expressions like back and forth and put on your shoes and socks. I find it easier to put on socks before shoes, and I've never gone back without first going forth.

Got any other common expressions that seem to defy common sense?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sticky Wicket

Okay, I couldn't resist. I looked it up. Found some interesting stuff on the site

A wicket is the playing field in cricket (I think I knew that). When the field is wet ("sticky") from rain, playing is particularly challenging. The earliest figurative uses of the expression appeared around 1930.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Who & Whom

Anonymous writes:

Help! As a grammar maven, you might have a suggestion on when I should use "who" and when should I use "whom"? This is certainly a sticky wicket! Thanks for your advice!

I didn't intend to become the Grammar Answer Man, but since Mr. Nonymous was the first to post a comment of any kind, I can't help but oblige.

The difference between who and whom is a matter of case. There are three cases for personal pronouns: nominative, objective, and possessive.

I'll use the first person singular pronoun as an example:

nominative case: I (I love my Chihuahua.)
objective case: me (My Chihuahua loves me.)
possessive case: my and mine (I am my Chihuahua's and she is mine.)

The nominative case is used when the pronoun is the subject of a verb.
The objective case is used when the pronoun is an object--either of a verb or a preposition.
Possessive case pronouns are used to, possession...duh. That's enough about possessive case anyway--it's never an issue.

Circumnavigating back to the original question, the pronoun who is the nominative case form and whom is the objective case form (whose is the possessive case, fyi). Which means you use who when it's the subject of the verb:

Who decapitated the Barbie?

And whom is used as the object of verbs and prepositions:

The elephant stampede trampled whom?
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls

Which is why it is correct to write "To whom it may concern" (whom is the object of the preposition to).

A note of caution: Watch out for tricky little things called predicate nominatives. Predicate nominatives usually look like the objects of verbs, but they are not. They follow linking verbs like am, is, are, and the other be verbs. Linking verbs, you see, don't have objects, ever. A predicate nominative renames or is an equivalent of the subject. It therefore always takes a nominative case pronoun--including who.

Example: The ventriloquist is who?

It may (or may not) help to insert the more common pronoun I or me in the sentence. If I would be appropriate, go with who. If me is right, you'll want whom:

I ate the guacamole. = Who ate the guacamole?
The guacamole ate me. = The guacamole ate whom?

Thus ends a rather boring, but hopefully educational post. Personally, I'd rather know where the heck an expression like "sticky wicket" comes from. Then again, maybe it would be better if I didn't know.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Weirdness of English

If you've ever taught English--heck, if you speak English--you've probably noticed that it gets pretty bizarre at times. There are plenty of things that we take for granted that are downright inexplicable when really think about them. Here are two examples.

To Be...
There's no more common verb in English than be. As a linking verb or a helping verb, it's the most used verb in the language. We are so familiar with it, in fact, that we usually don't even notice how odd it is.

Think about it like this. Take the verb sleep. Conjugate it and you get:

I sleep We sleep
You sleep You (all) sleep
He sleeps They sleep

Clearly, you call a verb like that, sleep, or the infinitive to sleep, right? Its past tense is abnormal (no -ed form), but it's easy to get the idea:

I slept We slept
You slept You (all) slept
He slept We slept

Now look at be:

I am We are
You are You (all) are
He is They are

I was We were
You were You (all) were
He was They were

So what do you call a verb like that? BE? There's not even the letter B in any of the forms! There's not another verb like it. I am sure some linguist could explain the various derivations and how they have their roots in the word be, but all I know is I'm glad I was born here and didn't have to learn English as a second language. This kind of stuff would drive me bonkers.

And how about this one--the word woman. The plural form is women. Okay, simple enough for most of us, especially if we are already familiar with man/men. It's consistent. Unless you think about pronunciation.

Woman is pronounced WOO-MUHN

Now, we make the word plural by changing the a in the second syllable to an e: women.

How do we pronounce it? WI-MUHN

So, we change the spelling of the second syllable, but pronounce it the same, and we leave the first syllable unchanged, but pronounce it differently! It's simply baffling.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Am Grammarman

I saw Spiderman 3 the other day. Not as much as the first two, but I liked it. Spidey's always been my favorite superhero because of his inner struggle--that conflict between his merely human desires and his responsibility to employ his gifts for the betterment of mankind. Spiderman cannot enjoy the pleasures and joys of average humanity because it is his duty to protect society from supervillians.

I sympathize with that struggle. I also have a gift of superhuman proportions. A gift that comes with commensurate responsibility. I speak, of course, of my knowledge of grammar and syntax. It is both gift and curse, I assure you. How I would love to sit through a TV interview or a Sunday sermon without wincing at every pronoun case error or malapropism. It is a heavy burden, my friends.

There are times, of course, to endure the pain and overlook the linguistic trespass. On other occasions, however, my duty to the language demands action. I am, after all, a chosen protector of the tenuous purity of English. There are violations that I find just too egregious to ignore.

For example, I was running yesterday when my grammar-sense started tingling. I passed a yard sign for a construction company. Their advertising slogan was,

Creative solutions for all your building needs.

It's a good thing I didn't have a magic marker with me. I might not have resisted the editorial urge.

For you innocent civilians who see no cause for concern, allow me to elucidate: Needs are not solved. Needs are met. Problems are solved. And, for the record, questions are answered.

No more of this please:

The answer to all your problems.
You've got questions? We've got solutions.

I had to get that off my bullet-proof chest.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Something Punny

I'm a sucker for puns (a pun-sucker?). I laugh out loud at good ones. I've found, however, that I am the exception in this respect. Most people are rather inclined to groan than guffaw. Nevertheless, I share the following for those kindred spirits who happen to visit. My thanks to Randi Crumrine, who passed most of these on to me.
  • Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine.
  • Shotgun weddings: a case of wife or death.
  • Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.
  • When two egotists meet, it's an I for an I.
  • A bicycle can't stand on its own because it's two-tired.
  • Definition of a will: a dead give-away.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
  • In a democracy, your vote counts. In feudalism, your count votes.
  • A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion.
  • If you don't pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.
  • When she got married, she got a new name and a dress.
  • Did you hear about the man who fell into an upholstery machine? He's fully recovered.
  • Did you hear about the glass blower who inhaled? He had a pane in his stomach.
  • If you feel stuck in debt, it's because you can't budge it.
  • A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.
  • Those who are too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
  • If you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.

And my favorite:

  • A midget fortune teller who breaks out of prison: a small medium at-large.

Feel free to contribute your own!

Common Similes

Similes are, as you probably know, figures of speech that compare to relatively unlike things using the words "like" or "as."

I sometimes wonder about the originators of similes like "straight as an arrow" or "fit as a fiddle." They were probably proud of themselves. It's pretty clever stuff. Zoom ahead a hundred years or so, and expressions like these have grown ordinary, bland. Poor guys. We've worn their similes threadbare.

There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with a writer resorting to an occasional simile cliche. The familiarity can be useful if you are not trying to draw too much attention to your linguistic cleverness. But the best writers are masters of the startling simile.

I always liked these from Anne Sexton's poem "Courage":

A child's first step/as awesome as an earthquake
love as simple as shaving soap

Or this from T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock":

Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table

Remember this irritatingly memorable simile from Forrest Gump?

Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get.

Good writers excel at creating original similes. Relying too much on the everyday comparison is a sure sign of literary laziness.

See how you do at completing the cliched similes listed below. I'll provide the answers in a comment. Keep in mind that some of these have more than one "right" answer. And also remember that the degree to which these will be familiar to you may depend upon your age and where you live.

When you're done, give me some I've gotten wrong or left out.

Finish These Common Similes

1. happy as a
2. fresh as a
3. dead as a
4. white as
5. light as a
6. pretty as a
7. neat as a
8. blind as a
9. busy as a
10. clean as a
11. cool as a
12. crazy as a
13. cute as a
14. high as a
15. mad as a
16. old as
17. plain as
18. proud as a
19. quick as
20. quiet as a
21. sharp as a
22. slippery as an
23. silent as
24. slow as
25. smart as
26. sly as a
27. snug as
28. solid as a
29. stubborn as a
30. tight as
31. tough as
32. ugly as
33. wide as
34. good as
35. wise as
36. big as
37. sweet as
38 soft as
39. smooth as
40. bitter as

Kicking it off...

I'm a word nut. I love language. I laugh at puns and get a kick out of riddles. I can be crossword-obsessed if I don't watch it. An evening of Scrabble, Boggle, Balderdash, or Scattergories is fine by me. I think words are fun. I think English is marvelously ridiculous and endlessly entertaining.

I started this blog because I'm quite sure I'm not alone--that there are many of you out there who are equally enamored with the peculiarities and perplexities of the English language.
We'll talk about writing, and various approaches to teaching and learning writing. But my vision for this blog is more than just pedagogy. I see a fun place to provoke thoughts, opinions, and maybe even some laughter. If that sounds good to you, please add WriteAtHome, the Blog to your favorites list...I mean now.