alt.usage.english FAQ

Archive-name: alt-usage-english-faq
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: 29 September 1997

                    THE ALT.USAGE.ENGLISH FAQ FILE

                             by Mark Israel
                     Last updated:  29 September 1997

New entries this year:
        "God rest you merry, gentlemen"
        "if I was" vs "if I were"
        "mouses" vs "mice"
        "try and", "be sure and", "go" + verb
        spaces between sentences
        "suck"="be very unsatisfying"
        "billions and billions"
        "break a leg!"
        "cut the mustard"
        "full monty"
        "Jingle Bells"
        "ollie ollie oxen free"
        words without vowels
        How reliable are dictionaries?
        doubling of final consonants before suffixes

-1.  For those who have asked for a URL for the newsgroup, I'll
   try:  <news:alt.usage.english>

0. 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
   "", directory "pub/usenet/alt.usage.english", file
   "alt.usage.english_FAQ".  (It's also on the World Wide Web:
   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.

1. 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.

2. This is in no sense an "official" FAQ file.  Feel free to start
   your own.  I certainly can't stop you.

3. Please don't expect me to add a topic unless (a) you're willing
   to contribute the entry for that topic; (b) 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

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
        online usage guides
        online language columns
        books that discriminate synonyms
        style manual
        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
        books on rhyming slang

artificial dialects
        Basic English

        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
        "all ... not"
        "between you and I"
        "company is" vs "company are"
        "could care less"
        "could of"
        "different to", "different than"
        double "is"
        "due to"
        gender-neutral pronouns
        "God rest you merry, gentlemen" (NEW!)
        "hopefully", "thankfully"
        "if I was" vs "if I were" (NEW!)
        "impact"="to affect"
        "It needs cleaned"
        "It's me" vs "it is I"
        "less" vs "fewer"
        "like" vs "as"
        "like" vs "such as"
        "more/most/very unique"
        "mouses" vs "mice" (NEW!)
        "near miss"
        "none is" vs "none are"
                plurals of Latin and Greek words
                foreign plurals => English singulars
        preposition at end
        repeated words after abbreviations
        "shall" vs "will", "should" vs "would"
        split infinitive
        "that" vs "which"
        "that kind of a thing"
        the the "hoi polloi" debate
        "true fact"
        "try and", "be sure and", "go" + verb (NEW!)
        "you saying" vs "your saying"

        "." after abbreviations
        spaces between sentences (NEW!)
        ," 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"
        "ebonics" (NEW!)
        "paparazzo" (NEW!)
        "portmanteau word"
        "Santa Ana"
        "sirloin"/"baron of beef"
        "suck"="be very unsatisfying" (NEW!)

phrase origins
        "the bee's knees"
        "beg the question"
        "billions and billions" (NEW!)
        "blue moon"
        "Bob's your uncle"
        "break a leg!" (NEW!)
        "to call a spade a spade"
        "cut the mustard" (NEW!)
        "cut to the chase"
        "The die is cast."
        "dressed to the nines"
        "Elementary, my dear Watson!"
        "Enquiring minds want to know."
        "The exception proves the rule."
        "face the music"
        "fall off a turnip truck"
        "full monty" (NEW!)
        "Get the lead out"
        "Go figure"
        "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste" (Desiderata)
        "go to hell in a handbasket"
        "hell for leather"
        "hoist with his own petard"
        "by hook or by crook"
        "Illegitimis non carborundum"
        "in like Flynn"
        "Jingle Bells" (NEW!)
        "Let them eat cake!"
        "mind your p's and q's"
        "more honoured in the breach than the observance"
        "more than you can shake a stick at"
        "ollie ollie oxen free" (NEW!)
        "peter out"
        "politically correct"
        "push the envelope"
        "put in one's two cents' worth"
        "rule of thumb"
        "shouting fire in a crowded theater"
        "son of a gun"
        "spitting image"/"spit and image"
        "There's a sucker born every minute"
        "to all intents and purposes"
        "wait for the other shoe to drop"
        "Wherefore art thou Romeo?"
        "whole cloth"
        "the whole nine yards"
        "You have another think coming"

words frequently sought
        words ending in "-gry"
        words without vowels (NEW!)
        What is the language term for...?
        "I won't mention..."
        names of "&", "@", and "#"
        "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."
        "Take the prisoner downstairs", said Tom condescendingly.
        What is the opposite of "to exceed"?
        What is the opposite of "distaff side"?
        What do you call the grass strip between road and sidewalk?

        What is a suggested format for citing online sources?
        Does the next millennium begin in 2000 or 2001?
        What will we call the next decade?
        Fumblerules ("Don't use no double negatives", etc.)
        English is Tough Stuff
        What is the phone number of the Grammar Hotline?
        Do publishers put false info in dictionaries to catch plagiarists?
        How reliable are dictionaries? (NEW!)
        etymologies of personal names
        How did "Truly" become a personal name?
        commonest words
        What words are their own antonyms?
        Why do we say "30 years old" but "a 30-year-old man"?
        sentences grammatical in both Old English and Modern English
        radio alphabets
        distribution of English-speakers
        provenance of English vocabulary
        "billion":  a U.K. view
        Biblical sense of "to know"
        postfix "not"
        origin of the dollar sign

        spelling reform
        joke about step-by-step spelling reform
        What is "ghoti"?
        I before E except after C
        How do you spell "e-mail"?
        Why is "I" capitalized?
        "-er" vs "-re"
        "-ize" vs "-ise"
        doubling of final consonants before suffixes (NEW!)
        Where to put apostrophes in possessive forms



   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:

(1) 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
nauseam.  You can find an archive of articles posted in
alt.usage.english and other newsgroups at <>.
Type in a search string in the form "alt.usage.english AND keyword".
Note that Deja News offers a choice of two databases:  Current or 
Old.  "Current" contains the most recent few weeks of articles; 
"Old" goes back to the start of the archive in March 1995.)

(2) questions that can be answered by simple reference to a

(3) 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.

(4) assertions that one variety of English is "true English".

(5) 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.

(6) 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.

   You really are welcome to post here!  Don't let the impatient
tone of this FAQ frighten you off.

Related newsgroups

   There are other newsgroups that also discuss the English
language.  bit.listserv.words-l (which is a redistribution of a
BITNET mailing list -- not all machines on Usenet carry these) is
also billed as being for "English language discussion", but its
participants engage in a lot more socializing and general chitchat
than we do.

   There is a mailing list for copy-editors.  To subscribe, send
e-mail with the text "SUBSCRIBE COPYEDITING-L Your Name" to .

   sci.lang is where most of the professional linguists hang out.
Discussions tend to be about linguistic methodology (rather than
about particular words and phrases), and prescription is severely
frowned upon there.  Newbies post many things there that would
better be posted here.

   alt.flame.spelling (which 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

   alt.usage.english.neologism is described as being for
"meaningless words coined by psychotics".  Fewer sites carry it,
and it gets little traffic; the people who do post to it are
generally not negative about neologisms.

   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 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 rec.puzzles archive, available at
<>  The "-gry" answer is now also
to be found below in this FAQ.

   Wordplay for its own sake (anagrams, palindromes, etc.) belongs
in alt.anagrams.  There are also long lists of such things in the
rec.puzzles archive.  "The Word Gamer's Paradise" at
<> may also be of interest. is a newsgroup devoted to the
teaching of English (especially as a second language). is devoted to software for assisting
language instruction.

   misc.writing is devoted to writing, and especially to the
concerns of people trying to establish themselves as professional

   alt.quotations is the place to ask about origins of quotations
(although there is no firm dividing line between those and phrase
origins, which belong here).  You can access the 1901 edition of
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations at:

   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 look at Jeremy Smith's
British-American dictionary, available on the WWW at:

   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 ( under pub/gnu, or on the WWW:


(also available in paperback form as _The New Hacker's Dictionary_,
ed. Eric S. Raymond, 3rd edition, MIT Press, 1996, ISBN
0-262-68092-0).  Words you encounter on the Net that you can't find
in general English dictionaries ("automagic", "bogon", "emoticon",
"mudding", the prefix "Ob-" as in "ObAUE", "prepend") you may well
find in the Jargon File.  You can discuss hacker language further in
the newsgroup alt.folklore.computers, or in the moderated newsgroup
comp.society.folklore .

   Two newsgroups that don't deal with the English language but
that people often need directing to are:  sci.classics (now
preferably humanities.classics), for questions about Latin and
ancient Greek; and comp.fonts, for questions about typography.


                RECOMMENDED BOOKS

   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 0-87779-201-1) (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 college
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); a more recent book, _The Story of Webster's
Third : Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics_ by
Herbert C. Morton (Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN
0-521-46146-4) is heavily biased in favour of W3.  Merriam-Webster
is working on a 4th edition, with completion expected around the
year 2000.

   Please don't refer to any dictionary simply as "Webster's".
_Books in Print_ has 5 columns of book titles beginning with
"Webster's", from many different publishers!

   One-volume 8"x10" dictionaries are popularly known as "collegiate
dictionaries", but they should be called "college dictionaries" or
"quarto dictionaries", since "Collegiate" is a trademark of Merriam-
Webster.   The college dictionary most frequently cited here is
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Merriam-
Webster, 1994, ISBN 0-87779-712-9) (MWCD10).  Merriam-Webster
publishes sub-editions of its Collegiate dictionaries, so look at
the copyright date to see exactly what you have.  The most
comprehensive British college dictionary is Collins English
Dictionary (3rd edition, HarperCollins, updated 1994, ISBN
0-00-470678-1).  Our British posters seem to refer more often to
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th Edition, Oxford University
Press, 1995, 0-19-861319-9) (COD9) and The Chambers Dictionary
(Chambers, 1994, ISBN 0-550-10256-6).  Some of us believe that the
editorial standard of the Concise Oxford has declined since H. W.
Fowler and F. G. Fowler brought out the first few editions; some of
the partisans of COD9 seem to have bought it COD9 simply because it
said "Oxford" on the cover, and not compared it with other

   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 Webster's New World College
Dictionary (3rd edition, Macmillan, 1996, ISBN 0-02-860333-8).
These are two of the few dictionaries that trace words back to their
reconstructed Indo-European (Aryan) roots.  AHD3 is particularly
useful because it lists the etyma all together in an appendix.
Because the appendix was pared in the third edition, _The American
Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots_, by Calvert Watkins
(Houghton Mifflin, 1985), although out of print, is not obsolete.

   Although AHD3 looks larger than a college dictionary, its word
count puts it in the college range.  If you want an up-to-date
dictionary that is larger than a college dictionary, get the Random
House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, Random House, revised
1993, ISBN 0-679-42917-4) (RHUD2).

Online dictionaries

   You cannot access the OED online, unless you or your
institution has paid to do so.  The second edition is copyright, and
allowing public access to it would be illegal.  A public-access
version of the first edition is conceivable, but I don't know of

   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 "".  Don't ask us where to buy the CD-ROM
version:  your local bookshop can order it for you.  If you want to
submit citations for the next edition of the OED, you can contact
the OED staff directly at "".

   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 learning about SGML is "A Gentle Introduction to SGML" at
<>.  There's
also the book _Industrial-Strength SGML: An Introduction to
Enterprise Publishing_ by Truly Donovan (Prentice Hall, 1996, ISBN

    Merriam-Webster's MWCD10 is publicly accessible at

   Project Gutenberg has put out two versions of an unabridged
dictionary published early in this century by the company that is
now Merriam-Webster.  One version is in HTML format and comes to 45
Mb when unZIPed.  The other is plain text and comes in several ZIP
files with names such as pgwXX04.ZIP, where the XX are the initial
letters of words included.  All are available in
<>.  They're
also on the Web at <>.

   Any "Webster" dictionary that you find anywhere else on the Net
is probably an out-of-date bootleg.  Keep in mind that any
dictionary containing such words as "beat.nik" and "tran.sis.tor" is
too recent to be in the public domain.

   The Macquarie dictionary is accessible online at

   Roget's Thesaurus (1911 version, out of copyright) is available
The Oxford Text Archive at:
has Collins English Dictionary (1st edition) 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.

   The best "Word of the Day" service is the one run by
Merriam-Webster at <>; it can
also be subscribed to by e-mail.  Other Word-of-the-Day services
are at <> (run by Anu Garg, who also
offers dictionary, thesaurus, acronym, and anagram services by
e-mail), <>,
<>, and

General reference

   _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 Principles_
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 (WDEU -- recently reprinted as
_Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage_, ISBN

   Among conservative prescriptivists, the most highly respected
usage book is the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W.
Fowler -- 1st edition, 1926 (MEU); a facsimile of the original
edition was published by Wordsworth Reference in 1994 (ISBN
1-85326-318-4).  The 2nd edition (MEU2), revised by Sir Ernest
Gowers (Oxford University Press, 1965, ISBN 0-19-281389-7) is
generally respected, although not idolized, by Fowler's devotees.
A "third edition", _The New Fowler's Modern English Usage_ (MEU3),
by Robert Burchfield (who edited the OED supplement), appeared in
1996 after a long wait (Oxford University Press, ISBN
0-19-869126-2).  It retains virtually none of Fowler's original
text, is a sharp philosophical departure from Fowler, and has
many errors, although it does contain some information not to be
found elsewhere.  Oxford University Press has announced that it
will keep MEU2 in print as a paperback.  (What was initially
announced as an independent revision of MEU by the late Sir Kingsley
Amis has turned out to be "not a revision of Fowler in any way, but
rather a from-scratch usage book of the discursive-paragraph sort":
_The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage_, HarperCollins, 1997,
ISBN 0-00-255681-2).

   _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).

Online usage guides

   Jack Lynch ( has a style guide that he
originally wrote for business writers and modified for an English
Literature course that he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania:
Some topics that some people expect to be covered in this FAQ file,
such as "affect" vs "effect", "compose" vs "comprise", and "i.e." vs
"e.g.", actually belong in a list of things that writers need to be
cautioned about; you'll find them in Jack's guide.

   A more comprehensive, but more simple-minded, guide, by the
English Department of the University of Victoria, Canada, is at:

   Bill Walsh, copy desk chief of the Washington Times, has a
"Curmudgeon's Stylebook" at <>.

   Project Bartleby at Columbia has an incomplete copy of the 1918
edition of Strunk's book _The Elements of Style_ (before White got
to it), with some simple hypertext markup:
It also has the second edition of _The King's English_ by H. W.
Fowler and F. G. Fowler (1907):

   There is an "anti-grammar" at:

Online language columns

   Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at Random House Dictionary Dept.,
posts a "Word of the Day" column (articles cover all kinds of
English-language topics, not just vocabulary building) at:

   Evan Morris ( posts his syndicated newspaper
column, "The Word Detective":

   Richard Lederer posts excerpts from his columns and has many
useful links at:

   Terry O'Connor ( posts "Word for Word", his
column in the Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail:

    Jed Hartman ( has a weekly column on words and
wordplay, "Words & Stuff", at:

   Collins Cobuild offers a column called WordWatch:

   The OED posts its newsletters:

   The Editorial Eye posts many of its articles:

   Michael Quinion adds a neologism a week in his World Wide Words:

   De Proverbio, an electronic journal of international proverb
studies, is at:

Books that discriminate synonyms

_Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms_  Merriam-Webster, 1984,
ISBN 0-87779-241-0

Style manual

    _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.

Books 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  _Mathematical
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,
ISBN 0-333-09673-8

F. T. Wood  _English Prepositional Idioms_  London: Macmillan, 1969,
ISBN 0-333-10391-2

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
more narrowly.

   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).

   You can order British books from Bookpages at
<>, and U.S. books from Amazon Books at

   Jeremy Smith ( has compiled his own
British-American dictionary, available on the WWW at
<>.  He plans to
publish it as a paperback.  There is another British-American
dictionary, maintained by Mark Horn (, at

   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).  You can
order Australian books from the Australian Online Bookshop at
<>.  Robert P. O'Shea
( has an online dictionary at

   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, 1997, ISBN 0-7715-7399-5).
You can order Canadian books from Canada's Virtual Bookstore at

   For Irish English, see Padiac O'Farrell's _How the Irish speak
English (Mercier, 1993, ISBN 1-85635-055-X); Patrick W. Joyce's
_English as We Speak it in Ireland_ (Wolfhound, 2nd ed., 1987, ISBN
0-86327-122-7); or Niklas Miller's _Irish-English, English-Irish
Dictionary_ (Abson, 1982, ISBN 0-902920-11-1); or search for titles
containing the word "dictionary" at the Read Ireland Bookstore at

   A "Scots Leid Haunbuik an FAQ" is available at
<>.  The FAQ for the
newsgroup soc.culture.scottish has many useful pointers.

   For English in India, see Ivor Lewis's _Sahibs, Nabobs and
Boxwallahs:  A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-Indian_ (OUP, 1991,
ISBN 0-19-562582-X).

Books on phrase origins

   Be warned that every book on phrase origins so far published
has etymologies that are more speculative and less rigorous than
those in general dictionaries.

Christine Ammer  _Have a Nice Day -- No Problem! : A Dictionary of
Cliches_  Plume Penguin, 1992, ISBN 0-452-27004-9

Robert Hendrickson  _The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and
Phrase Origins_  Facts on File, 1987, ISBN 0-86237-122-7  (The
paperback reprint, _The Henry Holt Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase
Origins_, is no longer available.)

Nigel Rees   _Bloomsbury Dictionary of Phrase and Allusion_
Bloomsbury, 1991, ISBN 0-7475-1217-5

Ivor H. Evans, ed.  _Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable_
14th ed., Harper & Row, 1989, ISBN 0-304-31835-3

Charles Earle Funk  _2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings, and
Expressions from White Elephants to Song & Dance_  (an omnibus of
four earlier books, 1948-58)  Galahad, 1993, ISBN 0-88365-845-3

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,
ISBN 0-7475-1426-7

Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf  _The Official Politically
Correct Dictionary and Handbook_  Villard, 1993, ISBN
0-679-74944-6  (This book should be consulted with care.
Anything attributed to "The American Hyphen Society" is in fact
satire made up by friends of the authors.)

Books on group names

James Lipton  _An Exaltation of Larks_  Viking Penguin, 1991,
ISBN 0-670-3044-6

Ivan G. Sparkes  _Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms_
Gale, 2nd ed, 1985, ISBN 0-8103-2188-2

Rex Collins  _A Crash of Rhinoceroses:  A Dictionary of Collective
Nouns_  Moger Bell, 1993, ISBN 1-55921-096-6

There's an online collection at <>.

Books on rhyming slang

Julian Franklyn   _A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang_  3rd ed.,
Routledge, 1990, ISBN 0-415-04602-5

Paul Wheeler  _Upper Class Rhyming Slang_  Sidgwick & Jackson,
1985, ISBN 0-283-99295-6

John Meredith  _Dinkum Aussie Rhyming Slang_  Kangaroo, 1991,
ISBN 0-86417-333-4

The largest collection on the Web seems to be:



Basic English

   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 at <>
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
0-918970-38-5.  The most pertinent Web page seems to be



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
(  The complete scheme can be accessed on
the WWW at:
I show here only examples for the sounds most often referred to in
this newsgroup.  Where there are two columns, the left column shows
British Received Pronunciation (RP), and the right column shows a
rhotic pronunciation used by at least some U.S. speakers.  (There's
a WWW page that shows what the IPA symbols look like:
The IPA itself has a home page:

The consonant symbols [b], [d], [f], [h], [k], [l], [m], [n], [p],
[r], [s], [t], [v], [w], and [z] have their usual English values.

[A] = [<script a>] as in:
        "ah"            /A:/            /A:/
        "cart"          /kA:t/          /kArt/
        "father"        /'fA:D@/        /'fA:D@r/
        "farther"       /'fA:D@/        /'fArD@r/
        and French _bas_ /bA/.  This sound requires opening your
        mouth wide and feeling resonance at the back of your mouth.
[A.] = [<turned script a>] as in British:
        "bother"        /'bA.D@/
        "cot"           /kA.t/
        "hot"           /hA.t/
        "sorry"         /'sA.rI/
        This symbol (for the sound traditionally called "short o")
        is not much used to transcribe U.S. pronunciation.  [A] or
        [O] is used instead, according to which vowels the speaker
        merges; but the sound used by many such speakers will
        certainly be heard by Britons as [A.].  The sound is
        intermediate between [A] and [O], but typically of shorter
        duration than either.  Imagine Patrick Stewart saying "Tea,
        Earl Grey, hot."
[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/ (yes, folks, the sound
        traditionally called "long i" is actually a diphthong!),
        "out" /aUt/.  Typically, [a] is not distinguished
        phonemically from [A]; but if you use in "ask" a vowel
        distinct both from the one in "cat" and the one in "father",
        then [a] is what it is.
[C] = [<c cedilla>] as in German (Hochdeutsch) _ich_ /IC/
[D] = [<edh>] as in "this" /DIs/
[E] = [<epsilon>] as in:
        "end"           /End/           /End/
        "get"           /gEt/           /gEt/
        "Mary"          /'mE@rI/        /'mE@ri/
        "merry"         /'mErI/         /'mEri/
        Some U.S. speakers do not distinguish between "Mary",
        "merry", and "marry".
[e] as in:
        "eight"         /eIt/           /eIt/
        "chaos"         /'keA.s/        /'keAs/
[g] as in "get" /gEt/
[I] = [<iota>] as in "it" /It/
[I.] = [<small capital y>] as in German _Gl"uck_ /glI.k/.
        Round your lips for [U] and try to say [I].
[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/           /O:l/
        "caught"        /kO:t/          /kO:t/
        "court"         /kO:t/          /kOrt/
        "oil"           /OIl/           /OIl/
        The [O] sound requires rounded lips, but lips making a
        a bigger circle than for [o].  If you do not use the
        same vowel sound in "caught" as in "court", then you are
        one of the North American speakers who use [O] only
        before [r]:  you do not round your lips for "all" and
        "caught", and you should use some other symbol, such as
        [A] or [a], to transcribe the vowel.
[o] as in U.S.:
        "no"                            /noU/
        "old"                           /oUld/
        "omit"                          /oU'mIt/
        The pure sound is heard in French _beau_ /bo/.  British
        Received Pronunciation does not use this sound,
        substituting the diphthong /@U/ (/n@U/, /@Uld/, /@U'mIt/).
        If you are one of the few speakers who distinguish such
        pairs as "aural" and "oral", "for" and "four", "for" and
        "fore", "horse" and "hoarse", "or" and "oar", "or" and
        "ore", then you use [O] for the first and [o] for the
        second word in each pair; otherwise, you use [O] for both.
[R] = [<right-hook schwa>], equivalent to /@r/, /r-/, or even /V"r/
[S] = [<esh>] as in "ship" /SIp/
[T] = [<theta>] as in "thin" /TIn/
[t!] = [<turned 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 British RP:
        "hurry"         /'hVrI/
        "shun"          /SVn/
        "up"            /Vp/
        U.S. speakers tend not to use [V] in words (such as "hurry")
        where the following sound is [r]:  they would say /'h@ri/.
        And some U.S. speakers, especially in the eastern U.S.,
        substitute [@] for [V] in all contexts.  If you do not
        distinguish "mention" /'mEn S@n/ from "men shun" /'mEn SVn/,
        then you should use [@] and not [V] to transcribe your
[V"] = [<reversed epsilon>] as in:
        "fern"          /fV":n/         /fV"rn/
        "hurl"          /hV":l/         /hV"rl/
        Many U.S. speakers substitute [@] for [V"], so they would
        say /f@rn/, /h@rl/.  Many other U.S. speakers pronounce "fern"
        with no vowel at all:  /fr:n/, /hr:l/.  If you are one of the
        few speakers who distinguish such pairs as "pearl" and "purl"
        (using a lower, more retracted vowel in "purl"), then you can
        transcribe "pearl" /p@rl/ and "purl" /pV"rl/.
[W] = [<o-e ligature>] as in French _heure_ /Wr/, German _K"opfe_
        /'kWpf@/.  Round your lips for [O] and try to say [E].
[x] as in Scots "loch" /lA.x/, German _Bach_ /bax/
[Y] = [<slashed o>] as in French _peu_ /pY/, German _sch"on_ /SYn/,
        Scots "guidwillie" /gYd'wIli/.  Round your lips for [o] and
        try to say [e].
[y] as in French _lune_ /lyn/, German _m"ude_ /'myd@/.  Round your
        lips for [u] and try to say [i].
[Z] = [<yogh>] as in "beige" /beIZ/
[&] = [<ash>] as in:
        "ash"           /&S/                /&S/
        "cat"           /k&t/               /k&t/
        "marry"         /'m&rI/             /'m&ri/
[@] = [<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 /pE*@l/.  If you are a U.S. speaker but
        distinguish "pedal" from "petal", then you do not use this
- previous consonant syllabic as in "bundle" /'bVnd@l/ or /'bVndl-/,
        "button" /bVt@n/ or /bVtn-/
~ previous sound nasalized
: previous sound lengthened
; previous sound palatalized
<h> previous sound aspirated
' 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

[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@/   e 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]    <eng>              ng                ng                <eng>
[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          '

   Auditory files demonstrating speech sounds can be obtained by
anonymous ftp from (or on the World Wide Web at
Look in "/user/ai/areas/nlp/corpora/pron" and

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".

   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,
it's /zd/.

   In many dialects, "the" is pronounced /D@/ before a consonant,
and /DI/ before a vowel sound.  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 that have different pronunciations for specialized
meanings include the noun "address" (often stressed on the first
syllable when denoting a location, but stressed on the second
syllable when denoting an oration) "contrary" (often stressed on the
second syllable when the meaning is "perverse"); the verb "discount"
(stressed on the first syllable when the meaning is "to reduce in
price", but on the second syllable when the meaning is "to
disbelieve"); the verb "process" (stressed on the second syllable
when the meaning is "to go in procession"); the noun "recess"
(stressed on the first syllable when it means "a break from
working", but on the second syllable when it means "a secluded
part"); the verb "relay" (stressed on the first syllable when it
means "to pass on radio or TV signals", but on the second syllable
when it means "to pass on something that was said"); and the verb
"second" (stressed on the first syllable when it means "to endorse
a motion", but on the second syllable when it means "to temporarily
re-assign an employee".  "Offence" and "defence", usually stressed
on the second 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 .)

Words whose spelling has influenced their pronunciation

   "Cocaine" used to be pronounced /'coU cA: in/ (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 "strong point" comes from French _fort_=
"strong, strong point"; the English spelling is what the OED calls
an "ignorant" substitution of the feminine form of the adjective
for the masculine noun.  But even in the French feminine form
_forte_, 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 /zoU@'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"
was "cokedrill".

   "Golf" is Scots.  The traditional Scots pronunciation is /gof/.
"Ralph" was traditionally pronounced /reIf/ 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 /reIf faInz/.

   "Medicine" and "regiment" were two-syllable words in the 19th
century:  /'mEdsIn/ and /'rEdZm@nt/.  /'mEdsIn/ can still be heard
in RP.  In 19th-century England, "university" was pronounced
/,ju:nIv'A:sItI/ and "laundry" was pronounced /'lA:ndrI/.

   King Arthur would have pronounced his name /'artur/.  The h's in
"Arthur" (now universally reflected in the pronunciation) and
"Anthony" (reflected in the U.S. pronunciation) were added in the
15th century -- ornamentally or, in the case of "Anthony", because
of a false connection with Greek _anthos_="flower".

   The new pronunciations in such cases are called "spelling
pronunciations".  The "speak-as-you-spell movement" is described in
the MEU2 article on "pronunciation".


                USAGE DISPUTES


   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 of 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
Web (<>) or by e-mail
(send the word "help" to

"all ... not"

   "All ... not" cannot be condemned on the grounds of novelty, as
"All that glitters is not gold" and "All is not lost" show.  "All
that glitters is not gold" is from _Parabolae_, a book of poems
written circa 1175 by Alanus de Insulis, a French monk:  _Non teneas
aurum totum quod splendet ut aurum_ = "Do not hold as gold all that
shines like gold".  It was Englished by Chaucer in the _Canterbury
Tales_ (1389) as:  "But al thyng which that shyneth as the gold /
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told."  (Shakespeare used the
wording "All that glisters is not gold" in _The Merchant of Venice_;
"glister", an archaic variant of "glisten", is still sometimes heard
in allusion to this.)  "All is not lost" occurs in Milton's
_Paradise Lost_ (1667).

   The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs gives the proverbs "All
truths are not to be told" (1350), "All things fit not all persons"
(1532), "All feet tread not in one shoe" (1640), "All are not saints
that go to church" (1659), and "All Stuarts are not sib to the king"
(1857).  It gives no proverbs at all beginning "Not all".

   "All ... not" can, however, be condemned on the grounds of
potential ambiguity.  When I proposed the sentence "All the people
who used the bathtub did not clean it afterwards" as ambiguous,
many people vigorously disputed that it was ambiguous.  But they
were about evenly split on what it did mean!  (John Lawler writes:
"There's a very large literature on quantifier ambiguities.  Guy
Carden did the definitive early studies in the '60s and '70s, and
many others have contributed since then.")  "Not all the people who
used the bathtub cleaned it afterwards" (or, if the other meaning is
intended, "None of the people who used the bathtub cleaned it
afterwards") is free of this ambiguity.

   ("Not all" can also be used rhetorically to mean "not even all",
but only in an exalted style incompatible with bathtubs:  "Not all
the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed
king" -- Shakespeare, _Richard II_, 1595.)

   Fowler quoted a correspondent who urged him to prescribe "not
all", and commented:  "This gentleman has logic on his side, logic
has time on its side, and probably the only thing needed for his
gratification is that he should live long enough."


   This misspelling 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
corresponding "alittle".


   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" (i.e., as a subject), and "you and me" in the same contexts
as "me" (i.e., as an object).  In "between you and me", since "you
and me" is the object of the preposition "between", "me" is the only
correct form.  But English-speakers have a tendency to regard
compounds joined with "and" 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".

"company is" vs "company are"

   Use of a plural verb after a singular noun denoting a group of
persons (known as a noun of multitude) is commoner in the U.K. than
in the U.S.  Fowler wrote:  "_The Cabinet _is_ divided_ is better,
because in the order of thought a whole must precede division; and
_The Cabinet _are_ agreed_ is better, because it takes two or more
to agree."

"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...").  Henry
Churchyard believes that this sentence by Jane Austen may be
pertinent:  "You know nothing and you care less, as people say."
(_Mansfield Park_ (1815), Chapter 29)  Meaning-saving elaborations
have also been suggested:  "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."

   Recently encountered has been "could give a damn", used in the
sense "couldn't give a damn".

   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
one word."

   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
such as "fat chance", "Thanks a lot", and "I should worry".

"could of"

   We get frequent complaints about the occurrence of "of" in
unedited prose where the meaning is "have".  "Have" contracts to
"'ve", so "could've", "might've", "must've", "should've",
"would've", etc. (and their negatives, "couldn't've", etc.), should
be so spelled.  People have testified that it's got beyond a
spelling mistake:  they've heard "would of" spoken with a clear
pause between the words.

   WDEU says:  "The OED Supplement dates the naive (or ignorant) use
of _of_ back to 1837.  [...Y]ou had better avoid it in your own
writing. [...]  Bernstein 1977 allows that a schoolchild cannot be
blamed for _could of_ -- once."

"different to", "different than"

   "Different from" is the construction that no one will object to.
"Different to" is fairly common informally in the U.K., 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").

   The Collins Cobuild Bank of English shows choice of preposition
after "different" to be distributed as follows:

                "from"  "to"    "than"
                -----   ----    ------
U.K. writing    87.6    10.8     1.5
U.K. speech     68.8    27.3     3.9
U.S. writing    92.7     0.3     7.0
U.S. speech     69.3     0.6    30.1


   The OED's first citation for "done" in the sense of "finished" is
from 1300, and it has been in continuous use since then.  It was
used in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer ("When the Clerkes have dooen
syngyng"); by Francis Bacon ("Dinner being done, the Tirsan
retireth", 1611); by John Donne ("And having done that, Thou haste
done, I have no more", 1623); by Dryden ("Now the Chime of Poetry is
done", 1697); and by Dickens ("when the reading of this document is
done", 1859).  According to The Oxford Dictionary of English
Proverbs (OUP, 3rd ed., 1970, ISBN 0-19-869118-1), the proverb
"Man's work lasts till set of sun; woman's work is never done" is
first recorded with the words "is never done" in 1721.

   In the early 20th century, for some reason objections to the use
of "done" in the sense of "finished" arose in the U.S.  It became
regarded as colloquial, and in 1969 only 53% of AHD's usage panel
approved of it in writing.  Although these objections have now
subsided, one should still beware that the two senses of "done" may
cause ambiguity:  does "The work will be done next month" mean "The
work will get done next month" or "The work will be done by next

   The use of "be done" with a personal subject, meaning "have
finished", is described by the OED as "chiefly Irish, Sc., U.S., and
dial."  The first citation is dated 1766, and is from Thomas Amory,
a British writer of Irish descent:  "I was done with love for ever."
American users have included Thomas Jefferson ("One farther favor
and I am done", 1771); Mark Twain ("I am done with official life for
the present", 1872); and Robert Frost ("But I am done with apple-
picking now", 1914).   Users in the British Isles have included
Robert Louis Stevenson ("We were no sooner done eating than Clumsy
brought out an old, thumbed greasy pack of cards", 1886) and George
Bernard Shaw ("You can't be done:  you've eaten nothing", 1898).

   "Be finished" is also used in the sense of "have finished".
Jespersen's first citation is from Oliver Goldsmith ("When we were
finished for the day", 1766).  English-speakers should be careful
not to render this construction literally into other languages:
Partridge recounts the story of an Englishman who in a French
restaurant said _Je suis fini_ to the waiter, who looked at the
"finished" customer with some concern.

   Any of "be done", "be finished", "have done", and "have finished"
may be followed either with a gerund, or with "with" plus any
noun phrase.  If "with" is not used and the noun phrase is not a
gerund, then only "have finished" may be used ("have done" would not
have the sense "have finished" here).  Use of "with" changes the
meaning:  "I have finished construction of the building" means that
the building is fully constructed, whereas "I have finished with
construction of the building" means merely that my part is over.

   These uses of "be done" and "be finished" are examples of
what Fowler called the "intransitive past participle", where,
instead of the more usual transformation:
      "A {transitive verb}s B" -> "B is {transitive verb}ed"
we see the transformation:
      "A {intransitive verb}s" -> "A is {intransitive verb}ed"
Fowler gives the examples:  fallen angels, the risen sun, a
vanished hand, past times, the newly arrived guest, a grown girl,
absconded debtors, escaped prisoners, the deceased lady, the
dear departed, coalesced stems, a collapsed lorry, we are agreed,
a couched lion, an eloped pair, an expired lease.

double "is"

   Double "is", as in "The reason is, is that..." is a recent U.S.
development, much decried.  According to MEU3, it was first noticed
in 1971 and had spread to the U.K. by 1987.  Of course, "What this
is is..." is undisputedly correct.

"due to"

   "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.
A thing's functionality includes its functions if and only if it
does what it was designed to do.  This specialized meaning of
"functionality" is not yet in most dictionaries.  The earliest
citation we have was found by Fred Shapiro in the June 1977 issue of
Fortune:  "The way to grow, an I.B.M. maxim says, is to 'increase
the functionality of the system,' or, in plain English, to give the
customer the capacity to do more than he wants to do in the
knowledge that he inevitably will."

   Mark Odegard suggests a similar distinction between "mode" and
"modality":  "A 'mode' is a way of doing something.  A 'modality'
is doing something according to a protocol."

   Outside technical contexts, the word "functionality" may well
strike some readers as jargonistic.  Thought may be needed to
find a substitute that works in the context.  "Utility" is
sometimes suggested, but consider:  "The utility of mainframe
computers has declined sharply over the past decade; their
functionality has remained the same."  Here, "their capabilities
have remained the same" might be the best solution.

Gender-neutral pronouns

   "Singular 'they'" is the name generally given to the use of
"they", "them", "their", or "theirs" with a singular antecedent such
as "someone" or "everyone", as in "Everyone was blowing their nose."
(It does not refer to the use of singular verbs in such mock-
illiterate sentences as "Them's the breaks" and "Them as has,
gets."  Any verb agreeing with a singular "they" is plural:
"Someone killed him, and they are going to pay for it.")

   Singular "they" has been used in English since the time of
Chaucer.  Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1746,
although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed
"he":  "Everyone was blowing his nose."  In 1926, Fowler wrote
that singular "they" had an "old-fashioned sound [...]; few good
modern writers would flout the grammarians so conspicuously."  But
in recent decades, singular "they" has gained popularity as a result
of the move towards gender-neutral language.

   For a defence of singular "they", with examples from Shakespeare,
Jane Austen, and others, see Henry Churchyard's page at
<>.  But note that
not all of us are as keen on singular "they" as Henry is.  Asked to
fill in the blank in sentences such as "A patient who doesn't
accurately report ___ sexual history to the doctor runs the risk of
misdiagnosis", only 3% of AHD3's usage panel chose "their".  AHD3's
usage note says:  "this solution ignores a persistent intuition
that expressions such as _everyone_ and _each student_ should in
fact be treated as grammatically singular."  An example from Fowler
wittily demonstrates how singular "they" never seems to agree
perfectly:  "Everyone was blowing their nose"?  "Everyone was
blowing their noses"?  "Everyone were blowing their noses"?

   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).   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.  John Chao ( was constructing a long FAQ
on this topic:  <>.

   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., of whether a human being is male or female.
This also dates from the 14th century.  By 1900 it was restricted
to jocular use, but it has now been revived because of the "sexual
relations" sense of "sex".)

"God rest you merry, gentlemen" (NEW!)

   First of all, "God rest you merry, gentlemen" is correct,
not "God rest you, merry gentlemen."  The verb "rest" is used
here in the way now most familiar from the phrase "rest
assured".  In earlier English it was used with a variety of
other complements:  the OED has "rest thee merry" from 1400;
"rest you well" from 1420; "God rest you merry", "rest you
fair", and "rest you happy", and "rest myself content" from
Shakespeare; "rest thee tranquil" from Shelley, and "rest thee
sure" from Tennyson.

   The nouns "rest"="repose" and "rest"="remainder" are
etymologically unconnected:  the former is from Germanic
(whence German _Ruhe_); the latter is from Old French _rester_
from Latin _restare_ from _re-_="back" + _stare_="stand".  Some
dictionaries connect "rest" as in "rest you merry" with
"rest"="remainder" rather than "rest"="repose".  So "God rest you
merry" would mean "May God keep you (or make you and keep you)
merry."  Semantic leakage from "rest"="repose" would explain why
we never see uses like "rest agitated" or "rest you sad."

   People sometimes wonder whether "rest you merry" should
be "rest you merrily".  Rest assuredly that it shouldn't. :-)

   The song is now widely misunderstood as being addressed to "merry
gentlemen", first because this use of "rest" is now obsolete except
in the phrases "rest assured" and "rest easy", and secondly because
the familiar tune supports that stress pattern.  A tune "once
ubiquitous in the West Country" of England and that better supports
the stress pattern of "God rest you merry, gentlemen" is given in
_The Oxford Book of Carols_ (by Percy Darmer et al., Oxford, 1928)
and can be heard in _The Carol Album_, conducted by Andrew Parrott
(EMI, 1990, 0777-7-49809-2-0).

   The other dispute about this phrase is whether the pronoun should
be "you" or "ye".  In the references to the song retrieved by
AltaVista, "ye" outnumbers "you" by 5 to 1.  Traditional grammarians
would prefer "you", since the pronoun is the object of the verb
"rest" and hence should be in the accusative.  Although there was
some historical use of "ye" in the accusative (e.g., Thomas Ford's
madrigal "Since first I saw your face I resolved / To honour and
renown ye"), in the prestigious English of the King James Version of
the Bible, "ye" was always nominative and "you" was always
accusative.  (This is counter-mnemonic, since "thou" was nominative
and "thee" was accusative.)  The Oxford Book of Carols quotes the
words from a broadsheet published circa 1800 as:  "God rest you
merry gentlemen".  In _A Christmas Carol_ (1843), Charles Dickens
wrote:  "The owner of one scant young nose [...] stooped down at
Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the
first sound of 'God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you
dismay!' Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that
the singer fled in terror [...]".

"hopefully", "thankfully"

   The traditional, undisputed senses of these words are active:
"in a hopeful manner", "in a thankful manner".

   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
"arguably", "predictably", "regrettably", "inexplicably", etc.),
and on the grounds that "I hope" is more direct.

   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. :-)  Most adverbs that can modify
sentences -- including "apparently", "clearly", "curiously",
"evidently", "fortunately", "ironically", "mercifully", "sadly", and
the "-ably" examples above -- can be converted into "It is apparent
that", etc.  But a few adverbs are used in a way that instead must
be construed with an ellipsis of "to speak" or "speaking".  These
include "briefly" (the OED has citations of "briefly" used in this
way from 1514 on, including one from Shakespeare), "seriously"
(1644; used by Fowler in his article DIDACTICISM in MEU), "strictly"
(1680), "roughly" (1841), "frankly" (1847), "honestly" (1898),
"hopefully", and "thankfully".  Acquisition of such a use is far
from automatic; for example, no one uses "fearfully" in a manner
analogous to "hopefully".

   AHD3 says:  "It might have been expected that the flurry of
objections to _hopefully_ would have subsided once the usage became
well established.  Instead, increased currency of the usage appears
only to have made the critics more adamant.  In the 1969 Usage Panel
survey the usage was acceptable to 44 percent of the Panel; in the
most recent survey [1992] it was acceptable to only 27 percent.
[...]  Yet the Panel has not shown any signs of becoming generally
more conservative:  in the very same survey panelists were disposed
to accept once-vilified usages such as the employment of _contact_
and _host_ as verbs."  AHD3 quotes William Safire as saying:  "The
word 'hopefully' has become the litmus test to determine whether one
is a language snob or a language slob."

   Discussions about "hopefully" and "thankfully" go round and round
for ever without reaching a conclusion.  We advise you to refrain.

"if I was" vs "if I were" (NEW!)

   See under "Subjunctive" below.  The following pair of
sentences shows the traditional and useful distinction:

"If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize."
"If I were a hopeless cad, I would never apologize."

"impact"="to affect"

   "Impact", which comes from Latin _impactus_, past participle of
_impingere_ = "to push against", is first recorded in English in
1601 in the form of the past participle, "impacted".  The verb "to
impact", meaning "to press closely into or in something", dates from
1791.  The noun "impact" dates from 1781.  The (undisputed)
expression "impacted wisdom tooth" dates from 1876.

   There is another English verb derived from Latin _impingere_:
"to impinge", first recorded in 1605.  "To impinge on" shares with
"to impact" the sense "to come sharply in contact with", and some
people consider it stylistically preferable.  Unlike "to impact",
"to impinge on" has acquired the figurative sense "to encroach on",
possibly through confusion with "to infringe".  This sense is
attested from 1758 on.

   The usage dispute centres on the use of the verb "to impact (on)"
in the sense "to affect, to have an effect on, to influence".  The
OED's earliest citations where this is clearly the sense are:  for
"impact on", 1951; and for transitive "impact", 1963.

   Opposition to these uses is widespread.  84% of AHD3's Usage Panel
disapproved of "social pathologies [...] that impact heavily on such
a community"; and 95% disapproved of "a potential for impacting our
health".  Among the objections to such use of "impact" are that it
sounds pretentious and bureaucratic, and that it may connote to the
reader violence that the author did not intend.  The latter
objection can apply also to "impact" the noun.  Kenneth Hudson, in
_The Dictionary of Diseased English_ (Macmillan, 1977), noted:
"'Yves St. Laurent's Triangles give even more design impact to your
bed' (Washington Star, 17.10.76) is not the happiest of sentences.
'Make a nice bed look even better' would have been more reassuring."

"It needs cleaned"

is not standard English, although "It needs to be cleaned", "It
needs cleaning", and "I need it cleaned" all are.  "It needs
cleaned" is common informally in some parts of the U.S., and in
Scotland, where it may have originated.

"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?
        I believe him to be me.  Whom do you believe him to be?

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".

   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,
          I never hope to see one;
        But I can tell you, anyhow,
          I'd rather see than be one.

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_.

   In languages such as 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 frass die Katze_
and _Den Hund frass die Katze_ reverse the meaning of who ate whom.
In Latin, things are even more flexible: almost any word order will
        Feles edit canem
        Feles canem edit
        Canem edit feles
        Canem feles edit
        Edit canem feles
        Edit feles canem
all mean the same, the choice of word order being made perhaps for
rhetorical or poetic purpose.

   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
and accusative.

   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
he is."

   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 (9th century), and is still common in that
sense, especially informally in the U.S.; but in British English it
became so rare that the 1st edition of the OED (in a section
prepared in 1902) gave no citation more recent than 1579 and gave
the usage label "Now regarded as incorrect."  The 2nd edition of the
OED added two 19th-century citations, and changed the usage label to
"Frequently found but generally regarded as incorrect."

   Fowler mentioned it only in passing, and cited no real examples.
In a section whose main intent was to disparage "less" in the sense
"smaller" or "lower", he wrote:  "It is true that _less_ and
_lesser_ were once ordinary comparatives of _little_ [...] and that
therefore they were roughly equivalent in sense to our _smaller_
[...].  The modern tendency is so to restrict _less_ that it means
not _smaller_, but _a smaller amount of_, is the comparative rather
of _a little_ than of _little_, and is consequently applied only to
things that are measured by amount and not by size or quality or
number, nouns with which _much_ and _little_, not _great_ and
_small_, nor _high_ and _low_, nor _many_ and _few_, are the
appropriate contrasted epithets:  _less butter, courage_; but _a
smaller army, table_; _a lower price, degree_; _fewer opportunities,
people_.  Plurals, and singulars with _a_ or _an_, will naturally
not take _less_; _less tonnage_, but _fewer ships_; _less manpower_,
but _fewer men_ [...]; though a few plurals like _clothes_ and
_troops_, really equivalent to singulars of indefinite amount, are
exceptions:  _could do with less troops_ or _clothes_."

   Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1934), gave the
usage label "now incorrect, according to strict usage, except with a
collective; as, to wear _less_ clothes."  Of the panelists for The
Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975), 76% said that they
observed "less"/"fewer" distinction in speech, and 85% in writing.
The editors noted:  "even those panelists who have not observed the
distinction in the past now regard it as a useful precept to bear in
mind in the future."

   Partisans of "fewer" use "one car fewer" rather than "one
fewer car", and "far fewer" rather than "much fewer".

"like" vs "as"

   For making comparisons (i.e., asserting that one thing is similar
to another), the prescribed choices are:

   1.  A is like B.
   2.  A behaves like B.
   3.  A behaves as B does.
   4.  A behaves as in an earlier situation.

In 1 and 2, "like" governs a noun (or a pronoun or a noun phrase).
In 3, "as" introduces a clause with a noun and a verb.  In 4, "as"
introduces a prepositional phrase.  Look at what the word
introduces, and you will know which to use.

   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).  "Like" in 1
and 2 is a preposition; "as"/"like" in 3 or 4 and "as if" are
conjunctions.  Fowler put "_Like_ as conjunction" first in his list
of "ILLITERACIES" (he defined "illiteracy" as "offence against the
literary idiom").

   In some sentences of type of 3, "as" may sound too formal:
"Pronounce it as you spell it."  To avoid both this formality and
the stigma of "like" here, you may use "the way":  "Pronounce it the
way you spell it."  But this solution is available only if you are
specifying a single way; it doesn't work, for example, in "Play it
as it's never been played before."  ("Play it in a way..." might
work here, but lacks the connotations of enthusiasm and excellence
that "play it as" has.)

   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" introduces a noun phrase with no following verb.
When it does, it does not signify a qualitative comparison, but
rather may:

a) 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.

b) introduce examples.  ("Some animals, as the fox and the squirrel,
have bushy tails.")  "Such as" and "like" are more common in this use.
For the use of "like" here, see the next entry.

c) be short for "as ... as":  "He's deaf as a post" means "He's as
deaf as a post" (a quantitative comparison).

"like" vs "such as"

   The Little, Brown Handbook (6th ed., HarperCollins, 1995) says:
"Strictly, _such as_ precedes an example that represents a larger
subject, whereas _like_ indicates that two subjects are comparable.
_Steve has recordings of many great saxophonists such as Ben Webster
and Lee Konitz._  _Steve wants to be a great jazz saxophonist like
Ben Webster and Lee Konitz._"  Nobody would use "such as" in the
second sentence; the disputed usage is "like" in the first sentence.

   Opposing it are:  earlier editions of The Little, Brown Handbook
(which did not use the hedge "strictly"); the _Random House English
Language Desk Reference_ (1995); _The Globe and Mail Style Book_
(Penguin, 1995); _Webster's Dictionary & Thesaurus_ (Shooting Star
Press, 1995); _Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art_ by James
Kilpatrick (Andrews and McMeel, 1993); _The Wordwatcher's Guide to
Good Writing and Grammar_ by Morton S.  Freeman (Writer's Digest,
1990); _Word Perfect:  A Dictionary of Current English Usage_ by
John O. E. Clark (Harrap, 1987); and _Keeping Up the Style_ by
Leslie Sellers (Pitman, 1975).

   The OED, first edition, in its entry on "like" (which is in a
section prepared in 1903), said that "in modern use", "like" "often
= 'such as', introducing a particular example of a class respecting
which something is predicated".  Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department unearthed the following 19th-century citations for me:
"Good sense, like hers, will always act when really called upon",
Jane Austen, _Mansfield Park_, 1814; "A straight-forward,
open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like
Miss Taylor, may be safely left to their own concerns", Jane Austen,
_Emma_, 1816; "[...] to argue that because a well-stocked island,
like Great Britain, has not, as far as is known [...]", Charles
Darwin, _Origin of the Species_, 1859.

   Fowler apparently saw nothing wrong with "like" in this sense:
in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, he gave "resembling, such as"
without a usage label as one its meanings, and gave the example "a
critic like you", which he explained as "of the class that you
exemplify".  And he used it himself in the passage quoted under
"'less' vs 'fewer'" above.  More commonly, though, he wrote "such
...  as" when using examples to define the set ("such bower-birds'
treasures as _au pied de la lettre_, _a` merveille_, [...] and
_sauter aux yeux_"), and "as" or "such as" when the words preceding
the examples sufficed to define the set ("familiar words in -o, as
_halo_ and _dado_"; "simple narrative poems in short stanzas, such
as _Chevy Chase_").  This is the same restrictive vs nonrestrictive
mentioned under "'that' vs 'which'": "Ballads, such as Chevy Chase,
can be danced to" would imply that all ballads can be danced to,
whereas "Such ballads as Chevy Chase can be danced to" would not.

   "Such ... as" is now confined to formal use, and for informal
restrictive uses where the example is not introduced merely for the
sake of example, but is the actual topic of the sentence, "like" is
now obligatory:  "I'm so glad to have a friend like Paul."  _Guide
to Canadian English Usage_ by Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine
(Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-540841-1) rightly points out that "such as"
 would not be idiomatic here.

   _Modern American Usage_ by Wilson Follett (Hill and Wang, 1966)
says:  "_Such as_ is close in meaning to _like_ and may often be
interchanged with it.  The shade of difference between them is that
_such as_ leads the mind to imagine an indefinite group of objects
[...].  The other comparing word _like_ suggests a closer
resemblance among the things compared [...].  [...P]urists object
to phrases of the type _a writer like Shakespeare_, _a leader like
Lincoln_.  No writer, say these critics, _is_ like Shakespeare; and
in this they are wrong; writers are alike in many things and the
context usually makes clear what the comparison proposes to our
attention.  _Such as Shakespeare_ may sound less impertinent, but
if Shakespeare were totally incomparable _such as_ would be open to
the same objection as _like_."  Bernstein, in _Miss Thistlebottom's
Hobgoblins_ (Farrar, 1971), agrees, calling those who object to
"German composers like Beethoven" "nit-pickers".

"more/most/very unique"

   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".

"mouses" vs "mice" (NEW!)

   _Wired Style:  Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age_
(ed. Constance Hale, HardWired, 1996, ISBN 1-888869-01-1) says:
"What's the plural of that small, rolling pointing device invented
by Douglas Engelbart in 1964?  We prefer ~mouses~.  ~Mice~ is just
too suggestive of furry little creatures.  But both terms are
common, so take your pick.  We actually emailed Engelbart to see
what he'd say.  His answer?  'Haven't given the matter much
   "In fact, Engelbart shared credit for the name with 'a small
group in my lab at SRI.'  Nobody among his colleagues seems to
remember who first nicknamed the device, but all agree that the name
was given because the cord ('tail') initially came out the 'back' of
the device.  'Very soon we realised that the connecting wire should
be brought out the "front" instead of the back,' Engelbart notes,
but by then the name had stuck."

   _The Microsoft(R) Manual of Style for Technical Publications_
(ed. Amanda Clark, Microsoft Press, 1995, ISBN 1-55615-939-0)
says:  "Avoid using the plural _mice_; if you need to refer to more
than one mouse, use _mouse devices_."

   Markus Laker reports from the U.K.:  "In the early eighties, a
few people did selfconsciously say 'mouses', but the traditional
plural 'mice' gained ground rapidly and is now more or less
universal here."

"near miss"

   A near miss is a near-hit.

"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 and Greek words

   Not all Latin words ending in "-us" had plurals in "-i".
"Apparatus", "cantus", "coitus", "hiatus", "impetus", "Jesus",
"lapsus linguae", "nexus", "plexus", "prospectus", "sinus", and
"status" were 4th declension in Latin, and had plurals in "-us" with
"genus", and "opus" were 3rd declension, with plurals "corpora",
"genera", and "opera".  "Virus" is not attested in the plural in
Latin, and is of a rare form (2nd declension neuter in -us) that
makes it debatable what the Latin plural would have been; the only
plural in English is "viruses".  "Omnibus" and "rebus" were not
nominative nouns in Latin.  "Ignoramus" was not a noun in Latin.

   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
is "quotas".)

   Not all classical-sounding words ending in "-um" have plurals in
"-a".  "Factotum", "nostrum", "quorum", and "variorum" were not
nouns in Latin.  (_Totus_ = "everything" and _noster_ = "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
is "octopodes").

   The classical-style plurals of "penis" and "clitoris" are "penes"
/'pi:ni:z/ and "clitorides" /klI'tOrIdi:z/.

   The Latin plural of "curriculum vitae" is "curricula vitae".
Some people who know a little Latin think it should be "curricula
vitarum" (since _vitae_ means "of a life" and _vitarum_ means "of
lives"); but to an ancient Roman, "curricula vitarum" would suggest
that each document described more than one life.  This is a feature
of the Latin genitive of content, which differs in this regard from
the more common Latin genitive of possession.

Foreign plurals => English singulars

   Some uses of classical plurals as singulars in English are
undisputed:  "opera", "stamina", "aspidistra".  ("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", "memorabilia",
"phenomena", "strata".

   "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").
"Biscotti" seems to be going the same way.  The names of types of
pasta (cannelloni, cappelletti, ditali, fusilli, gnocchi,
maccheroni, manicotti, ravioli, rigatoni, spaghetti, spaghettini,
taglierini, tortellini, vermicelli, ziti, which are masculine plural
in Italian; and conchiglie, farfalle, fettuccine, linguine, rotelle,
which are feminine plural; some of the -e words are often spelled
with -i in English; _maccheroni_ is "macaroni" 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

Preposition at end

   Yes, yes, we've all heard the following anecdotes:

(1) 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
Dictionary of Quotations 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.  According to the
Oxford Companion to the English Language, Churchill's words were
"bloody nonsense" and the variants are euphemisms.)

(2) 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.

(3) "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?"

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


   The attributive use of "quality", as in "quality workmanship", is
sometimes questioned.  The alternative that nobody will object to is
"high-quality" (for which OED's first citation is from 1910).

   OED's first citation of "quality" in the sense "high quality,
excellence" is from Shakespeare (1606):  "The Grecian youths are
full of qualitie, Their loving well composed, with guift of nature."
(Troilus and Cressida, IV iv).  It seems to have been in steady use
since then.  The proverb "Quality is better than quantity" is first
recorded in 1604 in the form "The gravest wits [...] The qualitie,
not quantitie, respect."

   The attributive use of "quality" is another matter.  OED has a
citation of "quality air" from 1701; but there is only scattered
evidence between then and the following note in _A Manual for
Writers_, by John Matthews Manly and John Arthur Powell (University
of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1915):  "~Quality~ is grossly misused as
an adjective; fortunately the misuse is confined almost entirely to
advertisements, where all sorts of violence are done to the
language:  'Quality clothes!  Built (!) from the most exclusive (!)
designs.'"  The next dictionary evidence after the OED's citation is
the listing in Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed.
(1934), which labels it "colloquial, chiefly U.S.".  Chamber's
Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1959 edition, calls it "vulgar".
Modern dictionaries do not give it a usage label.  It is attacked by
Morton S. Freeman (_A Handbook of Problem Words and Phrases_, ISI,
1987) and by James Kilpatrick (_Fine Print: Reflections on the
Writing Art_, Andrews and McMeel, 1993), and prohibited by _The
Globe and Mail Style Book_ (Penguin, 1995).  It is defended by
Theodore Bernstein (_Dos, Don'ts, and Maybes of English Usage_,
Barnes & Noble, 1977).  _Bloomsbury Good Word Guide_ (Bloomsbury,
1988) and _Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage_ (Harper & Row,
1975 & 1985) note that some people object to it.

   The term "quality time", meaning "time spent in social
interaction with another person, especially one's young child",
dates from 1980.  It is widely derided as faddish.  "High-quality
time" is not used.  In England, up-market, broadsheet newspapers
have been called "the quality papers" since 1961.

   Other words that have acquired similarly specialized meanings
are:  "fortune" meaning "good fortune" (dates from 1390, and had
precedent in Latin); "luck" meaning "good luck" (1480); "behave"
meaning "to behave properly" (1691); "criticize" meaning "to
criticize unfavourably" (1704); "temper" meaning "ill-temper, short
temper" (1828); "class" meaning "high class, elegance" (1874;
informal; originally a sports term; the term "class act" dates from
1976); "temperature" meaning "feverish temperature" (1898; informal;
an ironic development, since "temperature" once meant to be in
temper, to be free from the distemper that fever indicates); and
"attitude" meaning "hostile attitude" (1962; U.S. informal; probably
from such phrases as "You'd better change your attitude" and "I
don't like your attitude").  Context usually indicates the
specialized meaning, e.g., in "He has a temper"; one would have no
occasion to want to say, "He has a temper, but I'm not going to tell
you whether it's long or short or anything else about it."

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.

    It cannot be denied, though, that many such repetitions stem
from ignorance.  The more familiar someone is with computer memory,
the less likely he is to say "ROM memory" or "RAM memory".


   Scots' preferred adjective for Scotland and for themselves is
"Scots".  "Scottish" is also acceptable.  But "Scotch" (although
used by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and still used by some
Americans of Scots descent) is now considered offensive by many
Scots.  Certain Scots hold that only three things can be "Scotch":
"Scotch whisky", "Scotch egg", and "Scotch mist".  They are not
interested in considering additions to this list, although many
other terms containing "Scotch" can be found in dictionaries.

   The term "Scotch tape" (a trademark for clear sticky tape made by
the 3M company, based in Minnesota) was originally a reference to
the stereotype of Scots miserliness.  3M at one time made a tape with
no adhesive along the middle.  The tape was intended as a masking
tape for painting cars (masking off areas that you didn't want to
paint), so 3M thought it didn't need a full sticky coating; but
customers were not impressed.

"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,
you can access the relevant section of _The King's English_ at
<>.  Usage
outside England has always been different, although the historical
prevalence of "shall" in the U.S. is sometimes underestimated:
Benjamin Franklin said, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we
shall all hang separately"; and the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" has
"To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed."

   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."

split infinitive

   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 substantive, and no one would think
of calling _the good man_ a split substantive.'  It is a bad rule
too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly [...]."  The
split infinitive construction goes back to the 13th century, but was
relatively rare until the 19th.  No split infinitives are to be
found in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Pope, or Dryden, or in
the King James Version of the Bible.

   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
a fetish".

   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 trace 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" and "to
have always thought" are not.

   Certain kinds of adverbs are characteristically placed before
"to".   These include negative and restrictive adverbs: "not" ("To
be, or not to be"), "never", "hardly", "scarcely", "merely", "just";
and conjunctive adverbs:  "rather", "preferably", "moreover",
"alternatively".  But placing adverbs of manner in this position is
now 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 introduce 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.  "Which" seem to have more "weight" than
"that"; the weight often just adds starch, but it can be of use
when the relative pronoun is separated from the antecedent:  "This
is the only book in my personal library which I haven't read."
Often, too, euphony favours one or the other.

   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").

   Robert Sigley ( is writing a Ph.D.
thesis on relative pronoun choice.

"that kind of a thing"

   The forms you're likely to encounter, in roughly decreasing
order of formality, are "that kind of thing", "those kinds of
things", "those kind of things", and "that kind of a thing".  Sir
Ernest Gowers wrote:  "it is as well to humour the purists by
writing _things of that kind_."

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), sometimes proffered as a phrase with three articles, actually
contains only two:  _alamein_ is Arabic for "two flags" (which is
appropriate for a town on the border between Egypt and Libya), and
does not contain the Arabic article _al_.

"true fact"

   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
S.P.E. tracts.

   It follows that "true fact" need not be a redundancy.

"try and", "be sure and", "go" + verb (NEW!)

   These colloquial constructions are synonymous, or nearly so,
with "try to", "be sure to", and "go and" respectively, those
equivalents being undisputedly acceptable in both formal and
informal style.  They are syntactic curiosities in that they can
only be used in conjugations identical to the infinitive:  we can
say "to try and do it", "try and do it" (imperative), "I'll try
and do it", "if I try and do it", and "he did try and make the
best of it", but not "if he tries and does it" or "he tried and
did it" with the same sense.

   Some commentators maintain that there is no semantic difference
whatever between "try and" and "try to"; certainly in many contexts
they are interchangeable:  "I will try to/and attend the party
tonight."  But in other contexts "try and" seems to imply success:
"Do try and behave" suggests that the only reason the listener is
not behaving is that he is not trying to.  Then there are the ironic
contexts where "try and" implies failure:  "Try and make me move."
Here, "try to" would not be idiomatic.

   WDEU suggests that "try and" may actually be older than "try
to"; both are first attested in the 17th century.  "Go" + bare
infinitive was used by Shakespeare ("I'll go see if the bear be
gone"; "I'll go buy spices for our sheep-shearing") but is now
nearly confined to informal American usage, and elsewhere to a few
fixed expressions ("hide and go seek", "He can go hang for all I

   Most handbooks disapprove of these expressions in formal
style; even the permissive WDEU admits of "try and" that "most of
the examples are not from highly formal styles".  Fowler wrote,
"It is an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when
it comes natural"; but he also wrote that it is "almost confined to
exhortations and promises", and these are more common in informal
than in formal contexts.


   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.
        I gave it to him.  Whom did I give it to?  That's the man
        whom I gave it to.
        I gave him a book.  Whom did I give a book?  That's the man
        whom I gave a book.

   (The construction in the last two sentences is rare.  Usually a
preposition, in this case "to", is used when the indirect object
is separated from the direct object.)

   Note the difference between:

        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
is it?"

   The case of "whoever" is determined by its function in the
dependent clause that it introduces, not by its function in the main
clause:  "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:
in _Woe is I_ (Grosset/Putnam, 1996, ISBN 0-399-14196-0), Patricia
T. O'Conner contrasts the sentences "Basil dislikes that woman's
wearing shorts" and "Basil dislikes that woman wearing shorts":
"Both are correct, but they mean different things.  In the first
example, Basil dislikes shorts on the woman.  In the second, he
dislikes the woman herself.  The lesson?  Lighten up, Basil!"

   Other commentators have been less critical of the fused
participle than Fowler.  Jespersen traced 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" => "showing
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
the subject.



"." 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.

spaces between sentences (NEW!)

   This issue is more suited to comp.fonts than here.  In recent
years, printers typesetting with proportional fonts have generally
not made the inter-sentence space any greater than the inter-word
space, although greater inter-sentence space can be found quite
often in older books.  Traditionally, students in typing classes
have been taught to put two spaces between sentences.  Some people
never like the extra space, some always do, and some like it if the
text is monospaced but not if it is proportionally spaced.  The
traditional UNIX text formatter, troff, uses extra space; in TeX it
is optional, but turned on by default.  The extra space, if used,
need not be as much as the normal interword space (it can be less in
TeX, but not in troff).  Advocates of the extra space argue that
the practice speeds reading by making it easier to pick out
sentences.  And sometimes it can aid clarity.  A passage such as:

| "What's pluperfect?" is a reasonably reasonable question that has
| yet to be sweetly but fully answered on a.u.e. I answer the
| questions about Erzherzoginen (Habsburg archduchesses).

is far from clear on first reading.

," vs ",

   According to William F. Phillips (, 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.
Logical placement is accepted by many more publishers outside than
inside the U.S.

   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 second style was recommended by Fowler, and is Oxford
University Press house style (hence it is also called "the Oxford
comma"; it is also known as "the Harvard comma"); it 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."


                FOREIGNERS' FAQS

   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 "".  They also
have an ftp/gopher site, "", and a WWW page,
<>.  A popular and pleasant site for
getting grammar questions answered is the Lydbury Grammar Clinic:

   Another WWW page that may be of interest to learners of English
is The Comenius Group's Virtual English Language Center:
<>.  If you wish to improve your
English by exchanging e-mail with an English-speaker, you can post
a request to the newsgroup "soc.penpals".  This is free (to you),
so you should not pay the fee for Comenius' "E-mail Key Pal

   An elementary grammar of English, designed primarily for French-
speakers but useful to all, can be found at
<>.  Other grammars are at
<> and

   The FAQ is maintained by Meg Gam
(  At the moment, it lists resources of
interest to teachers (not students) of English as a foreign
language.  If you can't find it in the standard FAQ places, send
Meg e-mail with the subject "m.e.l.e. FAQ" and no text.

   There are some mailing lists that are primarily for people
studying English as a foreign language:  CHAT-SL (general
discussion), DISCUSS-SL (advanced general discussion), BUSINESS-SL
(business and economics), ENGL-SL (discussion about learning
English), EVENT-SL (current events), MOVIE-SL (movies), MUSIC-SL
(music), SCITECH-SL (science, technology, and computers), and
SPORT-SL (sports).  To subscribe to any of these lists, send a
message to with, for example, "subscribe
DISCUSS-SL" as the body of the message.

   Roger Depledge writes:  "since you rightly show some concern for
the non-native speaker, you might care to consider adding to your
list of dictionaries the _Collins Cobuild English Dictionary_
(HarperCollins, 2nd ed., 1995, ISBN 0-00-379401-8), all of whose
plentiful examples come from their 200-million-word corpus.  As a
freelance translator in Toulouse, I find it invaluable when my
native ear for English fails me.  And for usage for the non-
specialist, I know of none better than Michael Swan, _Practical
English Usage_ (OUP, 2nd ed., 1995, ISBN 0-19-431197-X).  In its
favour I would cite the 26 reprints of the 1980 edition, and the six
pages on taboo words, including the priceless example, 'Bugger me!
There's Mrs Smith. I thought she was on holiday.'"

   Anno Siegel recommends _The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of
English_, by Morton Benson, Evelyn Benson, and Robert Ilson,
Benjamins, 1986, ISBN 90-272-2036-0.

"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

(1) 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"

(2) 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.)

   Is it "a FAQ" or "an FAQ"?  These days, probably the former,
although some of us do say "an F-A-Q".

"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
basic rules can be found in the Purdue University Online Writing
Lab's WWW page titled "The Use and Non-Use of Articles":


(very brief), and in "An Overview of English Article Usage for
Speakers of English as a Second Language" by John R. Kohl of
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:


(As explained in the document "Accessing the Internet by E-Mail FAQ"
posted to, you can obtain textual WWW pages by
e-mail.  Send e-mail to "" with, in this case,
"send" as
the message body.)  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 been recommended.

   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 in all English-
speaking countries.

   The construct <preposition><noun>, 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 (U.K.) = 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 campus.
   He was taken to hospital (U.K.) = He was hospitalized.  (A
      U.S. speaker might say "to the hospital" even if there
      were several hospitals in the area.)


Present Subjunctive

   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:

(1) 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..."

(2) 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 thought!"

(3) 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..."

(4) 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/
    that".  "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 one).

(5) after "lest".  "Should" can also be used after "lest".  After
    the synonymous "in case", the plain indicative is usual.

(6) "Come...", meaning "When ... comes"

Past Subjunctive

   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:

(1) 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:

                                Present         Past

    Possible condition:         "If I am"       "If I was"

    Counterfactual condition:   "If I were/was" "If I had been"

    "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.  ("As if" and
    "as though" are exceptions to the above table in that they take
    the past subjunctive, not the pluperfect subjunctive, for
    counterfactuals in the past.  The past tense of "If he were a
    fool, he would mention it" is "If he had been a fool, he would
    have mentioned it"; but the past tense of "He talks as if he
    were a fool" is "He talked as if he were a fool."  "He talked as
    if he had been a fool" would mean that he seemed, not foolish,
    but regretful of earlier foolishness.)

    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".

(2) 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..."

(3) in archaic English, sometimes to introduce the apodosis
    ("then" part) of a conditional:  "then I were" = "then I would

(4) 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").


                WORD ORIGINS


   "A.D." stands for _Anno Domini_ = "in the year of the Lord", not
for "after the death".

   Most stylebooks prescribe placing "A.D." before the year:
"Arminius died A.D. 21."  WDEU calls this "the traditional and still
most frequently used styling" (the OED has citations from 1579 on);
but Collins English Dictionary says "this is no longer general
practice."  Placing "A.D." after the year is, if anything, better
supported by precedents from Classical Latin (whose word order was
flexible enough that either placement would be grammatical):  the
ancient Romans did not use A.D. dating, but Cicero (_Pro Flacco_ I)
has _quingentesimo anno rei publicae_ = "in the five-hundredth year
of the state".

"alumin(i)um" (notes by Keith Ivey)

   This word is usually "aluminum" /@'lu:m@n@m/ in the U.S. and in
Canada, and "aluminium" /,&lU'mInI@m/ in other English-speaking

   People sometimes complain that the American form is inconsistent
with other element names, which end in "-ium".  But even in British
spelling, there are elements that end in "-um" not preceded by "i":
lanthanum, molybdenum, platinum, and tantalum (not to mention
argentum, aurum, cuprum, ferrum, hydrargyrum, plumbum, and stannum;
but then those aren't English names, just the names from which the
symbols are derived).

   A widespread false belief among those who spell the word
"aluminium" is that theirs is the original spelling, from which the
American version is a later development, perhaps resulting from a
typographical error.  The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics
(63rd ed., p. B-5) gives this bit of history:

     The ancient Greeks and Romans used alum in medicine as an
     astringent, and as a mordant in dyeing.  In 1761 [Baron Louis-
     Bernard Guyton] de Morveau proposed the name alumine for the
     base in alum, and [Antoine] Lavoisier, in 1787, thought this
     to be the oxide of a still undiscovered metal. [...]  In 1807,
     [Sir Humphrey] Davy proposed the name alumium for the metal,
     undiscovered at that time, and later agreed to change it to
     aluminum.  Shortly thereafter, the name aluminium was
     adopted to conform with the "ium" ending of most elements,
     and this spelling is now in use elsewhere in the world.
     Aluminium was also the accepted spelling in the U.S. until
     1925, at which time the American Chemical Society officially
     decided to use the name aluminum thereafter in their

   I used to work for ACS, but I have no idea why they would have
chosen "aluminum" over "aluminium", especially if "aluminium"  was
already established.

   _A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles_
(University of Chicago Press, 1938, ISBN 0-226-11737-5) gives U.S.
citations of "aluminum" from 1836, 1855, 1889 (two), and 1916, and
says:  "This form is in common use in mining, manufacturing, and
the trade in the U.S.; the form _aluminium_ is used with practical
uniformity in Great Britain and generally by chemists in the U.S."

   "Aluminium" is given as the only form by Noah Webster's 1828
dictionary; and as the preferred form by _The Century Dictionary_
(1889) and by the 9th and 11th editions of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica.  The Britannica yearbook switched its index entry from
"aluminium or aluminum" to "aluminum" in 1942.


   The use of "bloody" as an intensifier used to be considered
highly offensive in England, as the fuss made over it in Shaw's
_Pygmalion_ shows.  (It is less offensive now, as shown by its
use on mainstream British TV programmes such as EastEnders.)

   Eric Partridge, in _Words, Words, Words_ (Methuen, 1933), lists
the following suggested origins:

1. From an alleged Irish word _bloidhe_, meaning "rather".  This
   was proposed by Charles Mackay in the 19th century, but is highly
   implausible:  even if the word exists, it would presumably have
   been pronounced /bli:/ since the early Modern Irish period.  The
   closest I could find to it in an Irish dictionary was _bluire_=
   "a bit, some".
2. "by our Lady" (an invocation of the Virgin Mary).  There was
   an interjection "byrlady", attested since 1570 and frequently
   used by Shakespeare, which did mean "by our Lady".  But
   this was an interjection, not an adverb, although a citation
   from Jonathan Swift ("it grows by'r Lady cold") shows a possible
   intermediate use.  The transition from "byrlady" to "bloody" is
   phonetically implausible.
3. "S'blood", an ancient oath shortened from "God's blood".  The
   Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says this is "probably"
   the origin, but the OED says "there is no ground for the notion".
   The etymologies in the OED are largely untouched since the first
   edition; the ODEE is generally more up to date.
4. blood with reference either to menstruation or to "the bloody
   flux", an old term for dysentery.  "Ingenious, but [...] much too
   restricted", says Partridge.
5. "blood", an aristocratic young roisterer.  The OED plumped for
   this one, because its earliest citations of "bloody" as an
   intensifier were in the phrase "bloody drunk", which it
   conjectured meant "as drunk as a blood" (cf. "as drunk as a
   lord").  But the earlier citation found by Weekley (see below)
   makes this less plausible, and "bloody drunk" would be an
   unusual lexicalization of "as drunk as a blood".
6. blood's being something vivid or distressing.  Partridge himself
   plumps for this one.

   Ernest Weekley, in _Words Ancient and Modern_ (Murray, 1926),
finds analogous uses of French _sanglant_, German _blutig_, and
Dutch _bloedig_.  He gives one citation that antedates those in the
OED ("A man cruelly eloquent and bluddily learned", John Marston,
1606 -- but "bluddily" may be a descriptive adverb rather than an
intensifier here), and two ("It was bloody hot walking to-day",
Swift, 1711; "bloody passionate", Samuel Richardson, 1742) that show
that "up to about 1750 it was inoffensive".  He attributes the
dropping of "-ly" from "bloodily" to "an instinct which tends to
drop _-ly_ from a word already ending in _-y_", as seen in "very",
"pretty", and "jolly".

   A Merriam-Webster etymologist (in e-mail to me) chose 6, possibly
influenced by 3, considering the analogy of German _blutig_ the
strongest argument, and added:  "'Bloody' in 19th-century England --
like 'fucking' and other so-called intensifiers -- functioned
principally as a marker of speech register signaling group or class
membership.  In a society in which speech register was strongly
associated with economic class, and class distinctions were
extraordinarily significant, it is not too hard to see why 'bloody'
became so taboo for Victorians.  I'm not sure any other explanation
need be sought.  The taboo on 'bloody' as well as a lot of other
constraints in Britain declined in force with the social upheavals
initiated by  World War I."


   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.  See the Jargon File.  It may come from "bug" in the
obsolete sense "frightful object", whose use in Coverdale's 1535
translation of the Bible led to its being nicknamed "the Bug Bible".
(Coverdale rendered Psalm 91:5 as "Thou shalt not nede to be
afrayed for eny bugges by night"; the King James Version reads
"terror".)  This word, which was the source of the current word
"bugbear" and may be related to "bogey", comes from Middle English
"bugge", which was used in the senses "scarecrow" and "demon".
Possible etyma are Welsh _bwg_="ghost" and proto-Germanic *_bugja_=
"swollen up, thick".  The latter is also posited as the etymon of
the Norwegian dialect _bugge_="important man" and English "big",
from the proto-Indo-European *_beu-_="to blow up, swell", whence the
English words "poach"="cook", "pocket", "poke"="bag", "pout",
"Puck"="sprite", and "pucker".

   "Bug"="insect" (which gave rise to the senses "germ", "annoy",
"enthusiast", and "listening device") is attested from 1622.  It may
come from Anglo-Saxon _budda_="beetle", influenced by "bug"=
"frightful object".

"Caesarean section"

   The OED erroneously states that Julius Caesar was born by
Caesarean section.  Merriam-Webster Editorial Department (on its AOL
message board, in response to a query from me) writes:

   "The name 'Caesar' is a cognomen, a nickname given to one member
of a Roman clan and borne by his descendants as a kind of surname.
No one knows who the original Caesar was, but his descendants
within his clan, the Julii, continued to use his cognomen and formed
a major branch of the clan.
   "According to a legend related by the Roman naturalist Pliny,
the first Caesar was so called because he was cut from the womb of
his mother (_a caeso matris utero_), _Caesar_ supposedly being a
derivative of the verb _caedere_ 'to cut'.  This etymology is
dubious, but the name 'Caesar' has continued to be associated with
surgery to remove a child that cannot be delivered naturally.
   "The OED gives evidence for the belief that Julius Caesar, the
most famous bearer of the cognomen, was delivered this way that
dates from 1540.  There is no authority for this notion in ancient
sources.  Moreover, Julius Caesar's mother lived long after his
birth -- unlikely if she had undergone such an operation, which few
women would have survived in those days.  In any case, the earliest
record we have for the term 'cesarean section' used in English dates
from 1615.  You can easily see from these dates why we say that the
term came from the belief, and not, to throw in a little more Latin,
vice versa."

   The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins
suggests that Caesar's name may have become associated with the
operation because of an edict of the Caesars of Imperial Rome (Lex
Caesarea) that any pregnant woman dying at or near term was to be
delivered by C-section; but Merriam-Webster Editorial Department
says "We can find no evidence for" such an edict.

   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 less than 2% erucic acid, and whose
solid component contains less than 30 micromoles per gram of
glucosinolates.  (This has been the statutory definition in Canada
since 1986.)  If you ever come across rapeseed oil that is not
canola, avoid it, because erucic acid causes heart lesions, and
glucosinolates cause thyroid enlargement and poor feed conversion!
   Rape plants have been grown in Europe since the 13th century;
rapeseed oil was used in Asia and Europe originally in lamps, and
later as a cooking oil.  Canola was developed between 1958 and 1974
by two Canadian scientists, Baldur Stefansson and Richard Downey.
   Dictionaries have variously explained "canola" 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
   "Canola" was originally a trademark in Canada, but is now a
generic term.  It's the only term one is now likely to encounter
there on packaging and in newspapers and books; some sources do say
that canola was "formerly called rape".  But the term "rape" still
has some currency among Canadian farmers.  (Although "rape" denoting
the plant is etymologically unconnected with "rape" meaning forced
sexual intercourse, the homonymy doubtless contributed to the former
term's falling into disfavour.)
   The Canola Council of Canada, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, told
me that "Canola" was registered as a trademark in 1978 (that's one
year before MWCD10's 1979) by the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers'
Association, and that control of the term was transferred in 1980 to
the Rapeseed Association of Canada, which changed its name to the
Canola Council of Canada the same year.  They say that the origin is
simply "Canadian oil", that "it's not an acronym", and that rapeseed
oil that does not meet the criteria for canola should still be called
"rapeseed oil".
   "Designer eggs", low-cholesterol eggs developed at the University
of Alberta, are produced by adding canola and flax to the hens'


   "Catch-22" means a trap created by mutually frustrating
regulations.  It was coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel
_Catch-22_, which satirized military illogic.  From the novel:

        Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach.
     "Is Orr crazy?"
        "He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.
        "Can you ground him?"
        "I sure can.  But first he has to ask me to.  That's part of
     the rule." [...]
        "And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.
        "No.  Then I can't ground him."
        "You mean there's a catch?"
        "Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied.  "Catch-22.
     Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."
        [...] Yossarian [...] let out a respectful whistle.  "That's
     some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
        "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

Later in the novel, Yossarian visits a former brothel from which
soldiers have chased away all the prostitutes.  Yossarian asks why.

        "No reason," wailed the old woman.  "No reason."
        "What right did they have?"
        "Catch-22. [...]  Catch-22 says they have a right to do
     anything we can't stop them from doing. [...]  What does it
     mean, Catch-22?  What is Catch-22?"
        "Didn't they show it to you?" Yossarian demanded, stamping
     about in anger and distress.  "Didn't you even make them read
        "They don't have to show us Catch-22," the old woman
     answered.  "The law says they don't have to."
        "What law says they don't have to?"
        "Catch-22." [...]
        Yossarian [...] strode out of the apartment, cursing
     Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he
     knew there was no such thing.  Catch-22 did not exist, he was
     positive of that, but it made no difference.  What did matter
     was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse,
     for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute [...].

It is not logical for "Catch-22" to be hyphenated; other such
expressions in English normally are not.  But that's the way Heller
did it.  Heller originally planned to title the novel _Catch-18_,
but changed it because of Leon Uris's 1961 novel _Mila 18_.


does not stand for "constable on patrol" or "constabulary of police".
The noun "cop" (first attested meaning "policeman" in 1859) is short
for "copper" (first attested meaning "policeman" in 1846).  "Copper"
in this sense is unlikely to derive from copper buttons or shields
worn by early policemen.  Rather, dictionaries derive it from "to
cop" (first attested meaning "to grab" in 1704 and meaning "to
arrest" in 1844).  "To cop" may come Dutch _kapen_ = "to steal"; or
it may come from Old French dialect _caper_ = "to take", from Latin


   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 1782 311378), and also at the Science Museum in London.  The
word "crap" was imported into English from Dutch in the 15th
century, with the meaning "chaff".  It is recorded in the sense "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.

   The Crapper company lived on until 1966 -- 105 years in business.
See the article "Thomas Crapper: Myth & Reality" from the June 1993
issue of _Plumbing and Mechanical_ at
<>.  You can see some
photographs of Thomas Crapper at

"ebonics" (NEW!)

   This recently popular term for what linguists usually call
BEV (Black English Vernacular) or AAEV (African-American English
vernacular), or BVE or AAVE, was devised in 1973 by Robert Lewis
Williams (born in 1903), a retired professor of linguistics at
Washington University; he expanded on it in his 1975 book _Ebonics:
the True Language of Black Folks_ (published by the Institute of
Black Studies in St. Louis).

   The term came to wide attention when on 18 December 1996 the
Oakland, California, school board unanimously voted to recognise
Ebonics as a second language and to alter educational procedures
to account for the difference between English taught in schools and
the "primary language" of many of the district's students.  The text
of the resolution can be found at
<>.  Backlash to the Oakland
School Board's decision prompted an amended resolution
on 15 January 1997, explaining that the board instructed teachers to
accept Ebonics as a primary language and facilitate the transition
to standard English, not to teach Ebonics in classrooms.

   The most distinctive characteristics of Ebonics are not
conjugating the verb "to be" and dropping final consonant sounds,
but there are of course many other differences from standard
English.  Ebonics can make some distinctions that standard English
cannot, for example, the use of "be" to signify habitual action:
"He be sick" means that he is chronically ill, whereas "He sick"
means that he is ill at present.  The corresponding negative forms
are "He don' be sick" and "he ain' sick"; the interrogative forms
are "Do he be sick?" and "Is he sick?"  "He be sick right now" and
"He sick all the time" would be ungrammatical.  Some of the
grammatical features are listed at
<>.  There are also
semantic differences; for example, Ebonics shares with U.S. Southern
English "carry" in the sense "to escort"; the sentence "I'm going to
take you, but I'm not going to carry you" would in Ebonics be "I
gonna carry you, but I ain' gonna tote you."

   A resolution on Ebonics adopted by the Linguistic Soceity of
America can be found at
<>.  There is
a bibliography at
<>.  A forthcoming
book is _The Ebonics Controversy : Exploring the Roots of an
African-American Dialect_ (Birch Lane Press, 1997, ISBN


   This verb meaning "to eject or debar from premises, to reject or
abandon" was previously an expression used by waiters and bartenders
indicating that the supply of an item was exhausted or that a
customer was not to be served.  Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase
Origins says:  "[...] 86 may well have come from a number code
created by [...] soda fountain clerks [...].  Originally, according
to the _American Thesaurus of Slang_, it was a password used between
clerks to indicate:  'We're all out of the item ordered.'  The
transition from this meaning [...] to the bartender's sense of
'Serve no more because of the shape he's in' is fairly obvious.  The
number code developed by soda clerks was very extensive [...].  A
hissed '98' from one soda-popper to another indicated 'The assistant
manager is prowling around.  Watch out.' [...]   And most cheerful
warning of all, 87 1/2, meaning 'There's a good-looking girl out

   The earliest clear citation is from the February 1936 issue of
_American Speech_, which gives the definition "_Eighty-six_, item on
the menu not on hand."  The Random House Historical Dictionary of
American Slang cites a comedy with a date range 1926-35 in which a
waiter gives his number as 86.

   AHD3 gives the etymology:  "Perhaps after Chumley's bar and
restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York
City."  But most other dictionaries, including MWCD10, suggest that
eighty-six was rhyming slang for "nix".  On its AOL message Board,
Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes:  "The etymology we give
at 'eighty-six' is the one we'll stand by.  It is our contention
that the address at Chumley's is purely coincidence, and that the
word was developed in rhyming slang, and originally used by
restaurant workers so that the average customer didn't know what
they were talking about.

   "The earlier citations for 'eighty-six' [...] do not influence
our decisions about the etymology [...].  In fact, if the first
citation is from the early part of the range, it would tell against
the Chumley's hypothesis, as Chumley's did not exist before 1927-29.
Finally, because slang usually exists in the language for a number
of years before it is recorded, the existence of a citation from the
1920s tells strongly against the Chumley's explanation.

   "There are a number of other theories about the origin of the
word:  that it originated in the heyday of the British merchant
marine (the standard crew was 85, so that the 86th didn't get to
go); that 86 was the number of the California (or Florida) law that
forbade bartenders to serve the overly intoxicated; and that it
refers to the number of tables (85) at the New York restaurant 21,
and the table (86, in other words, no table) that the undesirable
got.  There are more, but the Chumley's theory is the most popular."

   "Eighty-six" is attested as a verb meaning "get rid of" from
1955 on.  It was surely in reference to this meaning that Maxwell
Smart, the hero of the 1960s sitcom "Get Smart!", was Agent 86.


   It now seems unlikely that "Eskimo" means "eater of raw meat".
Merriam-Webster changed its etymology when it brought out MWCD10,
and referred me to an article by Ives Goddard in _Handbook of
North American Indians_ (Smithsonian, 1984), vol. 5, p. 5-7.
Goddard cites the following Amerindian words:

Montagnais _ayassimew_="Micmac"
Plains Cree _ayaskimew_="Eskimo"
Attikamek Cree _ashkimew_="Eskimo"
North Shore Montagnais _kachikushu_ or _kachekweshu_="Eskimo"
   "not analysable but explained by speakers as meaning 'eater of
   raw meat'"
Ojibwa _eshkipot_="Eskimo" (literally "one who who eats raw")
Algonquin Eastern Ojibwa _ashkipok_="Eskimo" (literally "raw

   Goddard writes:  "In spite of the tenacity of the belief, both
among Algonquian speakers and in the anthropological and general
literature [...] that Eskimo means 'raw-meat eaters', this
explanation fits only the cited Ojibwa forms (containing Proto-
Algonquian *_ashk-_ 'raw' and *_po-_ 'eat') and cannot be correct
for the presumed Montagnais source of the word Eskimo itself. [...]
The Montagnais word _awassimew_ (of which _ay-_ is a reduplication)
and its unreduplicated Attikamek cognate exactly match Montagnais
_assimew_, Ojibwa _ashkime_ 'she nets a snowshoe', and an origin
from a form meaning 'snowshoe-netter' could be considered if the
original Montagnais application (presumably before Montagnais
contact with Eskimos) were to Algonquians."

   _A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language_ by Bishop Frederic Baraga
(Beauchemin & Valois, 1878) gives _ashkime_="I lace or fill
snowshoes"; the phrase _agim nind ashkima_ with the same meaning
(_agim_ is the noun for "snowshoe"); _askimaneiab_="babiche, strings
of leather for lacing snowshoes"; and _ashkimewin_="art or
occupation of lacing snowshoes".  But there are no other obvious
cognates:  the words for "snowshoe", "lace", "leather", "net", and
"string" are all unrelated.  In all other words beginning with
"ashk-" or "oshk-", the prefix signifies "raw, fresh, new".

   Eskimos' self-designations include:

     singular  plural     language      places

     Inuk      Inuit      Inuktitut     Canada, West Greenland
     Inupiaq   Inupiat    Inupiaq       North Alaska
     Inuvialuk Inuvialuit               Mackenzie Delta
               Katladlit  Kalaallisut   Greenland
     Yupik                Yupik         Southwest Alaska
     Yuk       Yuit                     Siberia, St. Lawrence Island

"Inuk" and "Yuk" mean simply "person"; "Inupiaq" and "Inuvialuk" mean
"real, genuine person".

   Goddard writes:  "In the 1970s in Canada the name Inuit all but
replaced Eskimo in governmental and scientific publication and the
mass media, largely in response to demands from Eskimo political
associations.  The erroneous belief that Eskimo was a pejorative
term meaning 'eater of raw flesh' had a major influence on this
shift.  The Inuit Circumpolar Conference meeting in Barrow, Alaska,
in 1977 officially adopted Inuit as a designation for all Eskimos,
regardless of their local usages [...]."

   For the the number of words the Eskimos supposedly have for snow,
see the sci.lang FAQ, or the alt.folklore.urban archive under


   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

   "Flammable" is first attested in an 1813 translation from Latin
It was rare until the 1920s when the U.S. National Fire Protection
Association adopted "flammable" because of concern that the "in-" in
"inflammable" might be misconstrued as a negative prefix.
Underwriters and others interested in fire safety followed suit.
Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), the linguist who shares credit for the
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language shapes thought, may have been
influential in promoting this change.  Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department writes:  "Though we have been unable to confirm that
Benjamin Whorf was responsible for the word's adoption, the theory
seems plausible enough:  he was, in fact, employed by the Hartford
Fire Insurance Company from 1918 to 1940, and was widely recognized
for his work in fire prevention."

   "Flammable" is still commoner in the U.S. than in the U.K.;
in figurative uses, "inflammable" prevails (e.g., "inflammable

   Other words where an apparently negative prefix has little
effect on the meaning are:  "to (dis)annul", "to (de)bone", "to
(un)bare", "to (un)loose", and "to (un)ravel".  "Irregardless"
(which probably arose as a blend of "irrespective" and "regardless";
it was first recorded in western Indiana in 1912), means the same as
"regardless", but is not considered acceptable.


   The "free" in "freeway" never referred to lack of a speed limit;
nor did it originally refer to a lack of tollbooths, although W3's
second definition is "a toll-free highway".  The word is attested
since 1930, and in the earliest citations it is defined as a
thoroughfare to which the abutting owners have no right of direct


   "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 English since the 15th
century (few acronyms predate the 20th century), with cognates
in other Germanic languages.  The Random House Historical
Dictionary of American Slang (Random House, 1994, ISBN
0-394-54427-7) cites Middle Dutch _fokken_ = "to thrust, copulate
with"; Norwegian dialect _fukka_ = "to copulate"; and Swedish
dialect _focka_ = "to strike, push, copulate" and _fock_ = "penis".
Although German _ficken_ may enter the picture somehow, it is
problematic in having e-grade, or umlaut, where all the others have
o-grade or zero-grade of the vowel.

   AHD1, following Pokorny, derived "feud", "fey", "fickle", "foe",
and "fuck" from an Indo-European root _*peig2_ = "hostile"; but
AHD2 and AHD3 have dropped this connection for "fuck" and give no
pre-Germanic etymon for it.  Eric Partridge, in the 7th edition of
_Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English_ (Macmillan, 1970),
said that "fuck" "almost certainly" comes from the Indo-European
root _*peuk-_ = "to prick" (which is the source of the English words
"compunction", "expunge", "impugn", "poignant", "point", "pounce",
"pugilist", "punctuate", "puncture", "pungent", and "pygmy").
Robert Claiborne, in _The Roots of English: A Reader's Handbook of
Word Origin_ (Times, 1989) agrees that this is "probably" the
etymon.  Problems with such theories include a distribution that
suggests a North-Sea Germanic areal form rather than an inherited
one; the murkiness of the phonetic relations; and the fact that no
alleged cognate outside Germanic has sexual connotations.


does not stand for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden".  It is a
Scots word mentioned in 1457 in reference to the game.  Possible
cognates are Scots _gowf_="to strike", Dutch _kolf_="club for
striking balls", Swedish _kolf_="butt-end", and Old Icelandic
_kolfr_="bolt".  The postulated Proto-Germanic root is *_kulb-_.
The English word "club" comes from the possibly related
Proto-Germanic *_klumbon_="heavy stick".


   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.

"ISO" by Mark Brader

   ISO is the International Organization for Standardization, not
the International Standards Organization.  Some people think the
organization's initials in French are ISO, but actually they would
be OIN (for "Organisation internationale de normalisation").
According to someone I met who worked there, the abbreviation ISO
was adopted because they didn't want to use the actual English
initials, but could permute them into the Greek-derived prefix iso-
meaning "same" (which is what standards are for making things the
:-) ).  In other words, it's wordplay.  For the official account,
see <>.

   Coordinated Universal Time is UTC because the C is of secondary
importance and can be written as a subscript.  This one, too, is
mistaken for coming from French, but does not.


   "Jury-rigged", which means "assembled in a makeshift manner",
is attested since 1788.  It comes from "jury mast", a nautical term
attested since 1616 for a temporary mast made from any available
spar when the mast has broken or been lost overboard.  The OED
dubiously recorded a suggestion that this was short for "injury
mast", but recent dictionaries say that it is probably from Old
French _ajurie_="help or relief", from Latin _adiutare_="to aid"
(the source of the English word "adjutant").

   "Jerry-built", which the OED defines as "built unsubstantially of
bad materials; built to sell but not last" is attested since 1869,
and is said to have arisen in Liverpool.  It has been fancifully
derived from the Biblical city of Jericho, whose walls came tumbling
down; from the prophet Jeremiah, because he foretold decay; from the
name of a building firm on the Mersey; from "jelly", signifying
instability; from French _jour_="day" (workers paid day-by-day
considered less likely to do a good job); and from the Romany
_gerry_="excrement".  More likely, it is linked to earlier
pejorative uses of the name Jerry ("jerrymumble", to knock about,
1721; "Jerry Sneak", a henpecked husband, 1764; "jerry", a cheap
beer house, 1861); and it may have been influenced by "jury-rigged".

   "Jerry" as British slang for "a German, especially a German
soldier" is not attested until 1898 and is unconnected with


   "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<eng>-urru_ "a large black or grey species
of kangaroo".

   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 name 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").


   The meaning of "limerence" falls somewhere between "infatuation"
and "romantic love".  It was coined circa 1977 by Dorothy Tennov,
then professor of psychology at the University of Bridgeport,
Connecticut.  It was an arbitrary coinage; there is no specific
etymology.  For further information on limerence see her book
_Love and Limerence_ (Stein and Day, 1979); or you may e-mail her
directly at "".


   This British colloquial word for "toilet" was established usage
by the 1920s.  Suggested origins include:
French _lieu d'aisance_ = "place of easement"
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.  According to Chris Malcolm
        (, this phrase is still sometimes used by
        common folk in Edinburgh when heaving water or slops, and
        tour guides say that it originated there circa 1600.)
"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 location)
a "water closet"/"Waterloo" joke.  (James Joyce's _Ulysses_ (1922)
        contains the following text:  "O yes, _mon loup_.  How much
        cost?  Waterloo.  water closet.")


   On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department
writes:  "The notion that the sports term 'love' comes from the
French _l'oeuf_ seems to be another popular fallacy; so far, our
etymologists have been unable to find any evidence that _oeuf_ was
ever used in a 'zero' or 'goose-egg' sense in reference to game
scores.  A more probable, if less imaginative, explanation can be
found in the Oxford English Dictionary, which links this sense of
'love' to the phrase 'for love' (i.e. 'without stakes, for

"merkin" (notes by Michael B. Quinion and Ruth Bygrave)

   The word "merkin" is one of the perpetual bad puns of the
Internet.  It actually means "pubic wig" (such wigs are used,
apparently, in the theatrical and film worlds as modesty devices in
nude scenes).  It can also be a contrivance used by male
cross-dressers designed to imitate the female genitals, or, as Eric
Partridge delicately puts it, "an artificial vagina for lonely men".
The OED dates it 1617 in the sense "pubic wig"; the origin is

   Then "merkin" was coined afresh to mean "an American", because it
sounds a bit like the half-swallowed pronunciation of "American" by
some Americans, particularly President Lyndon Johnson; and the fact
that it had a "naughty" meaning didn't hurt.  Punning use of the
word dates back to at least the early 1960s.  Bill Fisher writes:
"I'd guess multiple re-invention is going on here.  When I was
fooling around with the Orange Blossom Playhouse in Orlando, FL,
about 1963, we were amusing ourselves with trying to change a word
here or there in the play 'Teahouse of the August Moon' -- without
really screwing anything up -- and one guy cracked the cast up one
night when instead of the line 'But ... but ... he's an American!'
he said 'But ... but .. he's a Merkin!'  (The cast had been
laughing for a week or two about the definition of 'merkin' that
someone had found in a dictionary.)"

   One of Peter Sellers' roles in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film _Dr.
Strangelove_ was U.S. President Merkin Muffley.  This gets two
risque' locutions past the censor at once, since "muff" is another
slang term for female genitals or pubic hair (as in "muff-diving"
for cunnilingus).  This name was presumably the work of Kubrick or
his scriptwriter Terry Southern.  The film was based on the 1958
novel _Two Hours to Doom_ (titled _Red Alert_ in the U.S.), by Peter
George, pseudonym of Peter Bryant (1924-1966).  The novel was
serious -- Bryant had served in the RAF -- and does not name the
presidential character.  But when Kubrick filmed it as a satire,
Bryant was so convinced that he then re-novelized the film.

   On Usenet, "merkin" is only a few years old.  A few people recall (a newsgroup dedicated to the writings of Terry
Pratchett, a British writer of humorous fantasy) as the origin, but
Matthew Crosby ( writes:  "I
believe I was the original person to use 'Merkin' in AFP (certainly
it was my use of the word that started the large thread on it), and
I'm sure that 'Merkin' was being used before that as an underhand
insult.  By me, if nothing else."

   "Merkin" is now widely used on Usenet to designate Americans
(especially by non-Americans).


   Genesis 10:8-9, in describing how the Seventy Nations were
founded by the descendants of Noah, says that Nimrod, son of Cush,
son of Ham, son of Noah, was "a mighty man on earth" and "a mighty
hunter before the LORD".  The word "nimrod" is recorded in English
since 1545 with the (now obsolete) meaning "tyrant", and since
1712 with the meaning "hunter".

   In contemporary U.S. slang, "nimrod" means "fool, numbskull".
Rex Knepp ingeniously suggested that the origin of this was Bugs
Bunny's taunt of Elmer Fudd:  "So long, Nimrod."  Unfortunately for
this theory, Jesse Sheidlower says that Random House has two
citations of "nimrod" = "numbskull" from the 1930s, before the Bugs
Bunny episode containing the taunt.


   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.  The earliest known citation is from
the Boston Morning Post of 23 March 1839:  " [...] he of the
Journal, and his train-band, would have the 'contributions box,' et
ceteras, o.k. -- all correct -- and cause the corks to fly."  This
was a facetious suggestion by a Boston editor that a Providence
editor (the Journal mentioned was in Providence) sponsor a party.

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 "oll korrect".
American "O.K.", abbreviation of Orrins-Kendall crackers
American "O.K.", abbreviation of Otto Kaiser, American industrialist
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,
Choctaw _(h)oke_ = "it is so"
English opposite of "K.O." ("knock out")
English "of Katmandu"
English "open key"
English "optical kleptomaniac"
English "our kind"
Ewe (West African)
Finnish _oikea_
French _Aux Cayes_, a place in Haiti noted for excellence of its rum
French _aux quais_, stencilled on Puerto Rican rum specially
   selected for export
German _ordnungsgemaess kontrolliert_ "properly checked"
German letters of rank appended to signature of Oberkommandant
Greek _olla kalla_ = "all good"
Latin _omnia correcta_ = "all correct"
Mandingo (West African) = _o ke_ "that's it", "all right"
Occitan _oc_ = "yes" (Occitan or Langue d'Oc is so called because it
        uses _oc_ where French uses _oui_.)
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.

   Queried about the Dalby citations, Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department told me:  "A word pronounced approximately 'kai' is an
expression of surprise or amusement in Jamaican Creole and in Sea
Islands Creole (Gullah).  If you take into account the pronunciation
and meaning, you'll see that it does not fit 'okay' either
semantically or phonetically.  There is nothing in the history of
'O.K.' or 'okay' that suggests it has an African-American origin."


does not come from English "out" + "rage".  It comes from French
_outre_ = "beyond" + _-age_.  French _outre_ comes from Latin

"paparazzo" (NEW!)

   This word for a freelance photographer who pursues celebrities
is first attested in English in 1966.  It comes from Paparazzo,
the surname of the photographer played by Marcello Mastroianni in
Federico Fellini's 1960 film _La Dolce Vita_.  Fellini got the
name "Paparazzo" from the name of a hotelkeeper in George Gissing's
1901 novel _By the Ionian Sea_.  _Paparazzo_ could be analysed in
Italian as _papa_="pope" + _razzo_="rocket"; according to Jesse
Sheidlower, _paparazzo_ means "a buzzing insect" in dialectal
Italian.  Webster's New World College Dictionary derives _paparazzo_
from French _paperassier_="a scribbler, rummager in old papers".


   This word, for which our earliest citation so far is from 1913
(found by Fred Shapiro with Lexis) nearly always means "shaped like
a slice of pie", not "shaped like a pie".  (A use found by Matthew
Rabuzzi in W3's entry "Jack Horner pie" may mean the latter.)
The word is quite common in North America (a search by Myles Callum
on Nexis turned up more than a thousand instances), but little
known elsewhere (a search on a British corpus turned up nothing,
and British correspondents tell us that they "would not
automatically assume that that was what was meant").  The word,
for which there is no entry in any dictionary, was discovered by
Mark Israel on 11 July 1995, when Matthew Rabuzzi used it in a
suggested emendation to the "Origin of the dollar sign" entry in
this FAQ, and it was found to be missing from the dictionaries.
That's right, folks; in future years, when you open your dictionary
and see an entry for "pie-shaped" there, remember:  you have me
to thank for it!

   Other discoveries of mine are:  "underwear" in the specific sense
"(women's) underpants" (American women have taken a dislike to the
word "panties", and will now say things like "I put two pairs of
underwear in the wash", or "I'm not wearing any underwear" when
wearing a bra); "slab leak" (a leak from a pipe embedded in a
concrete slab; many plumbers advertise in the Yellow Pages that this
is something they can repair); and "go to temple" (dictionaries note
that "church" has a specific sense in which it is used as a mass
noun, "divine worship at a church", but do not note that "temple"
and "shul" can be used in a similar way).

"portmanteau word"

   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 (e.g., "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 "galumph" (which
is in the OED) are generally understood as "chuckle" + "snort" and
"gallop" + "triumph" respectively, although Carroll himself never
explained them.

   Blend words predate Carroll:  MWCD10 derives "squiggle" from
"squirm" + "wriggle", and dates it circa 1816.

   There is a dictionary of them:  _Portmanteau Dictionary:  Blend
Words in the English Language Including Trademarks and Brand Names_
by Dick Thurner (McFarland, 1993, ISBN 0-89950-687-9).

   There is a Lewis Carroll WWW page at:


   "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 seen
steamship tickets with "P.O.S.H." overprinted.  And William Safire's
_I Stand Corrected_ (Times, 1984, ISBN 0-8129-01097-4) quotes a
letter from an Ellen Thackara of Switzerland:  "When I lived in the
Orient the P.&O. (Pacific [sic] and Orient) Line out of London _did_
put beside the names of important people 'POSH', so they would have
the cooler side of the ship."  (The P&O is actually the Peninsular
and Oriental Steam Navigation Company; it's not clear whether the
mistake is Thackara's or Safire's.)  But to convince us, you'll have
to find one of these tickets and send a copy to Merriam-Webster.


   This is first recorded in 1749 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".

"Santa Ana"

   This California term for "a strong, hot, dust-bearing wind
blowing towards the southern Pacific coast from the desert" comes
from (according to MWCD10) the Santa Ana mountain range or
(according to AHD3) the Santa Ana Canyon, not from the California
city of Santa Ana.


   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.


   "Sincere" is sometimes said to derive from Roman quarrymen's
temporarily concealing imperfections in marble blocks by rubbing wax
on them.  On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department writes:  "The theory that 'sincere' ultimately derives
from Latin _sine cera_, meaning 'without wax', is a popular one;
unfortunately, there is no evidence to support it.  A far more
likely origin, in our view, is that the Latin word _sincerus_
derives from _sem-_ ('one') and _-cerus_ (akin to Latin _crescere_,
meaning 'to grow')."

"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
its superiority.

   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", for "Sure of Sinking", or
for the Russian _Spasiti Ot Smerti_ (= "save from death").  The
signal "...---...", recommended for international distress calls at
the international Radio Telegraph Conference of 1906 and officially
adopted in 1908, was not chosen for any alphabetic significance.

   Such a signal is now known as a "prosign" (from "procedural
signal").  Those prosigns (such as this one) that are transmitted
without interletter gaps are notated with an overbar.  Since
"..." is S and "---" is O in Morse code, the distress signal is
conventionally represented as:
but since there are no interletter gaps, it could also be analysed
as various other combinations of Morse code letters.

   Fred Bland writes:  "Three of anything (e.g. gun shots, fires,
cairns) is a conventional signal of distress recommended in survival
guides.  I don't know whether this convention or the use of three
dots and dashes is older."

  Mark Brader writes:  "The sign used before SOS was CQD, which
was composed of the usual 'calling' sign CQ, plus D for Distress.
Even in 1912 when the Titanic was sinking, its operator put out a
CQD first and only added SOS after being reminded."

   Thomas Hamilton White ( writes:  "I have
read that the international distress call evolved from SOE (sent as
three letters), which had been used as a distress signal by German
companies.  However, because the final E in this sequence consisted
of a single dot, the signal was modified to ...---...  to be more
distinctive and symmetrical. [...]  I can think of one very practical
reason for continuing to informally treat the distress signal as
SOS -- ever try to stamp ...---... in a snowbank?"


   This term for interchanging 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"; "You
hissed my mystery lectures"; "My boy, it's kisstomary to cuss the
bride"; "Take this in aid of Oxford's beery wenches"; "When the boys
come home from France, we'll have hags flung out"; "Pardon me,
madam, you are occupewing my pie.  May I sew you to another sheet?";
and "Have you any signifying glasses?  Oh well, it really doesn't

   But after the publication of _Spooner: A Biography_ by Sir
William Hayter (W. H. Allen, 1976, ISBN 0-491-01658-1), 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."  The OED says the word "spoonerism" was
"known in colloquial use in Oxford from about 1885."  In his diary
entry of 9 May 1904, Spooner wrote that someone he met at dinner
"seemed to think he owed me some gratitude for the many
'Spoonerisms' which I suppose have appeared in Tit Bits."  One of
the undergraduates who attested "weight of rages" commented:  "Well,
I've been up for four years, and never heard the Spoo make a
spoonerism before, and now he makes a damned rotten one at the last

"suck"="be very unsatisfying" (NEW!) by John Davies

   It is pretty clear that "suck" started out as a sexual insult,
e.g., "Charlie sucks", what he sucks being unnecessary to spell out.
As a term of general disapproval it did not take long to be applied
to all sorts of things, animate and inanimate, to the point where it
is now used by all manner of people, small children included,
without any consciousness whatsoever of the sexual origin of the
term.  Some of them seem to find it very hard to accept that it ever
had a sexual connotation.  It has crossed the Atlantic, but would be
regarded both by those who use it and those accustomed to hearing it
as a conscious Americanism.

   The curious thing is that "sucks!" as a taunt or term of derision
seems to be even older in U.K. english, but it has never to my
knowledge had any hint of a sexual meaning attached to it, though
that doesn't mean it never did have.  The construction is not at all
the same as the contemporary US phrase.  To quote Eric Partridge's
_Dictionary of slang and Unconventional English_:  "Sucks!  An
expression of derision:  schools (?mostly boys') since late C19.
Often sucks to you.  E. F.  Benson, _David of Kings_ (1924) has
Sucks for----!  (That's a disappointment for so-and-so).  'Sucks to'
may also be directed at others, e.g. 'Well, sucks to them! they can
jolly well go without'."

   But for people of a certain age, "Yah boo, sucks to you" is
indelibly associated with Billy Bunter, a fat schoolboy created by
Frank Richards (1875-1961), and immortalized in children's books and
comics of the period.  Even when I was a small boy in the 1940s,
"sucks" in that context sounded old-fashioned and upper-class, and
personally I've never heard or seen it except as a conscious parody
of Bunter.


   The conjunction "till" is not a shortening of "until".  MWCD10
dates "till" from the 12th century and "until" from the 13th century.
"Until" was a compound, whose first element also survives in "unto",
and whose second element was the ancestor of "till".

   The spelling "'til" occurs, but is not standard anywhere.


   "Tip", in the sense of "gratuity", does NOT stand for "to insure
[i.e., ensure] politeness/promptness" or "to improve performance".
It may derive from "tip" in the sense "to tap, to strike lightly"
or in the sense "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, and in the U.S. Index of Patents for the year 1910 (published
in 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_, literally "support-throat".)

   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."

   On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department
writes:  "dull though it may be, all the available etymological
evidence indicates that the word derives from the French 'brassiere'
[...]; there are many examples of the use of 'brassiere' in the
women's apparel sense throughout the 19th century -- in French.
[...]  Given the word's history and that country's language
heritage, it is not surprising that the first occurrence of the
"brassiere" in English comes from Canada. [...]  We can find no
verifiable evidence that anyone named either 'Titzling' or
'Brassiere' had anything to do with the origin of the term."


   This word, meaning "to fish by trailing bait behind one's boat",
and hence "to post an article to Usenet designed to elicit flames
from new or unperceptive readers, while signalling levity to the
savvy and experienced", is unconnected with "to trawl" (="to fish
by dragging a net along the sea floor").  "Troll" seems to come
from Middle French _troller_="to run here and there", of Germanic
origin, cognate with Middle High German _trollen_="to walk or run
with short steps" and perhaps also with "troll", the mythological
being; "trawl" seems to come from Middle Dutch _traghel_="dragnet",
perhaps from Latin _tragula_="dragnet", from _trahere_="drag".


   "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".  The Jargon File also gives "mouso", a ubiquitous kind
of error in this point-and-click era.)

   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 that you can find in older dictionaries by looking up 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 It

"widget" (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 the 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!
---- 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.

Part of the point, of course, is that no one ever tells him
what "widgets" are.


   "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".

"wonk" (notes by Fred Shapiro)

   The OED defines "wonk" as "a studious or hardworking person".
An article in _Sports Illustrated_, 17 Dec. 1962, explains that
in Harvard slang, there was a tripartite classification of students
into wonks, preppies, and jocks.  I believe that this classification
is in fact the origin of each of the three terms.  The earliest
citations in the OED for the three terms are dated, respectively,
1962, 1970, and 1963.  I have found an occurrence of "wonk" in
_Time_ in 1954; an occurrence of "preppie" in the _Cambridge Review_
in 1956; and an occurrence of "jock" in the _Harvard Crimson_ in
1958.  In all three instances the context is a Harvard one.  (But
Esther Vail recalls:  "'jocks'; we called them that at Syracuse
Univ. as early as 1948".)

   "Wonk" is said to derive from the word "know" spelled backwards,
but this is not certain.  Other suggested origins are the adjective
"wonky" = "weak, shaky", and "wanker" = "masturbator".  "Preppy"
comes from "preparatory school".  "Jock" (attested from 1922 in the
sense "athletic supporter") comes from "jockstrap", from "jock" =
"penis", from the male name Jack.


   This derogatory word for "an Italian" does not stand for "without
papers/passport", for "working on pavement", or for "western
Oriental person".  It comes from Italian dialectal _guappo_ =
"thug", ultimately from Latin _vappa_ = "flat wine".


   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
spelling pronunciation.


                PHRASE ORIGINS

"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" (pyjamas were
still new enough to be daring), and similar phrases which made less
sense and didn't endure:  "the eel's ankle", "the elephant's
instep", "the snake's hip".  Stories in circulation about the
phrase's origin include:  "b's and e's", short for "be-alls and
end-alls"; and a corruption of "business".

"beg the question"

   Fowler defines "begging the question" as the "fallacy of
founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as
the conclusion itself."

   "Question" here does not mean "a sentence in interrogative form".
Rather, it means "the point at issue, the thing that the person is
trying to prove".  The phrase is elucidated by William Fulke in
"Heskins parleamant repealed" (1579):  "O shameless beggar, that
craveth no less than the whole controversy to be given him!"  The
OED's first citation for "to beg the question" is from 1581.

   Common varieties of begging the question are paraphrase of the
statement to be proved ("Telepathy cannot exist because direct
transfer of thought between individuals is impossible"), and
arguing in a circle ("The Bible must be true, because God wouldn't
lie to us; we know God is trustworthy, because it says so in the
Bible").  Fowler gives two example of non-circular question-begging:
"that fox-hunting is not cruel, since the fox enjoys the fun, and
that one must keep servants, since all respectable people do so".
Gowers notes that single words, such as "reactionary" and
"victimization", can be used in a question-begging way.

   The Latin term for the fallacy is _petitio principii_, a
translation of the Greek _to en archei aiteisthai_="at the
beginning to assume"; but _aiteisthai_ does literally mean "to beg".
The phrase can be traced back to Aristotle (4th century B.C.):
"Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the
expression in its widest sense) in failing to demonstrate the
required proposition.  But there are several other ways in which
this may happen; for example, if the argument has not taken
syllogistic form at all [...].  If, however, the relation of B to C
is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly
convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging
the point at issue." (_Prior Analytics_ II xvi)

   Many people unaware of the technical meaning of "to beg the
question" in logic use it in one of two looser senses.  The first of
these, "to evade the question, to duck the issue", is attested since
1860 (WDEU).  The second, "to invite the obvious question, (with an
inanimate subject) to raise the question", is now the most commonly
heard use of the phrase, although we have found no mention of it
prior to The Oxford Guide to English Usage, 1st edition (1983), and
it is not yet in most dictionaries.  The meaning of the adjective
"question-begging" does not seem to have suffered a similar

"billions and billions" (NEW!)

   Carl Sagan (1934-1996), in his last book _Billions & Billions_
(Random House, 1997, ISBN 0-679-41160-7), admitted that in the
TV series _Cosmos_, first aired in 1980, he "pronounced 'billions'
with a fairly plosive 'b'" to distinguish it from "millions".  But
he asserted that he never used the phrase "billions and billions"
in that show, and that the public association of him with that
phrase is due to a parody that Johnny Carson did of Sagan on _The
Tonight Show_.

"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 ago, 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 turning
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 September 1950 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 sadness
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

"Break a leg!" (NEW!)

   There is a superstition in the theatre that wishing an actor
good luck "tempts the gods" and causes bad luck, so negative
expressions are substituted.  In French one says _Merde!_ ("Shit!")
when an actor is about to go on stage.  The German expression is
_Hals und Beinbruch_="neck and leg fracture" (_Bein_ used to mean
"bone" in German, so the translation "neck and bone break" may be
correct if the expression is sufficiently old).  The leading
theory is that the English expression came from the German, possibly
via Yiddish.  Other suggested origins are:  John Wilkes Booth, the
actor who broke his leg shortly after he assassinated Abraham
Lincoln in 1865; the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who "had
but one leg and it would be good luck to be like her"; wishing
someone a "big break", that is, good luck leading to success; and
the Hebrew _hatzlacha u-brakha_ = "success and blessing".

"to call a spade a spade"

is NOT an ethnic slur.
   It derives from an ancient Greek expression:  _ta syka syka, te:n
skaphe:n de skaphe:n onomasein_ = "to call a fig a fig, a trough a
trough".  This is first recorded in Aristophanes' play _The Clouds_
(423 B.C.), was used by Menander and Plutarch, and is still current
in modern Greek.  There has been a slight shift in meaning:  in
ancient times the phrase was often used pejoratively, to denote a
rude person who spoke his mind tactlessly; but it now, like the
English phrase, has an exclusively positive connotation.  It is
possible that both the fig and the trough were originally sexual
   In the Renaissance, Erasmus confused Plutarch's "trough"
(_skaphe:_) with the Greek word for "digging tool" (_skapheion_;
the two words are etymologically connected, a trough being
something that is hollowed out) 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".  (_Bartlett's Familiar Quotations_ perpetuates Erasmus'
error by mistranslating _skaphe:_ as "spade" three times under
   "To call a spade a bloody shovel" is not recorded until 1919.
"Spade" in the sense of "Negro" is not recorded until 1928.  (It
comes from the colour of the playing card symbol, via the phrase
"black as the ace of spades".)

   This, of course, does not necessarily render the modern use of
"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 as "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.

"cut the mustard" (NEW!)

   This expression meaning "to achieve the required standard" is
first recorded in an O. Henry story of 1902:  "So I looked around
and found a proposition [a woman] that exactly cut the mustard."

   It may come from a cowboy expression, "the proper mustard",
meaning "the genuine thing", and a resulting use of "mustard" to
denote the best of anything.  O. Henry in _Cabbages and Kings_
(1894) called mustard "the main attraction":  "I'm not headlined
in the bills, but I'm the mustard in the salad dressing, just the
same."  Figurative use of "mustard" as a positive superlative dates
from 1659 in the phrase "keen as mustard", and use of "cut" to
denote rank (as in "a cut above") dates from the 18th century.

   Other theories are that it is a corruption of the military phrase
"to pass muster" ("muster", from Latin _monstrare_="to show", means
"to assemble (troops), as for inspection"); that it refers to the
practice of adding vinegar to ground-up mustard seed to "cut" the
bitter taste; that it literally means "cut mustard" as an example of
a difficult task, mustard being a relatively tough crop that grows
close to the ground; and that it literally means "cut mustard" as
an example of an easy task (via the negative expression "can't
even cut the mustard"), mustard being easier to cut at the table
than butter.

   The more-or-less synonymous expression "cut it" (as in "'Sorry'
doesn't cut it") seems to be more recent and may derive from
"cut the mustard".

"cut to the chase"

   On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department
writes:  "The phrase 'cut to the chase' developed from cinema
terminology, where it referred to the act of switching from a less
action-packed scene to a more exciting sequence -- typically a chase
scene -- in order to draw the audience's attention back to the
screen.  Within the past fifteen years or so, 'cut to the chase' has
come to be used outside of the film industry with the figurative
meaning of 'get to the point.'"

   Jesse Sheidlower adds:  "The literal use -- as a director's
instruction to go to a chase scene -- is quite old.  A 1929 novel
about Hollywood has 'Jannings escapes....Cut to chase', for example.
The figurative use, which is now quite common, is fairly recent; it
seems to date only from the early 1980s."

"The die is cast."

does NOT mean "The metal template has been molded."   It's what
Julius Caesar said on crossing the river Rubicon to invade Italy in
49 B.C.  The "die" is a gambling die, and "cast" means thrown.  The
phrase means "An irrevocable decision has been made."  (The Latin
words, "Jacta alea est", are given in Suetonius' _Divus Julius_,
XXXII.  _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.)

   Plutarch wrote two accounts in Greek of Caesar's crossing the
Rubicon.  Both times, he gives the words as _Anerriphtho: kubos_ =
"Let the die be cast."  In one of the accounts (Life of Pompey), he
says that Caesar actually uttered the words in Greek; in the other
(Life of Caesar), he suggests that the words were already a proverb
before Caesar uttered them.

"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"; and a reference to the 9 muses.

"Elementary, my dear Watson!"

does not occur as such in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock
Holmes stories, although Holmes does exclaim "Elementary" in "The
Crooked Man", and says "It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I
assure you" in "The Cardboard Box".  The first recorded
juxtaposition is in the 1929 film _The Return of Sherlock Holmes_
(the first Holmes film with sound).

   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 WWW Sherlockian home page is at:

"Enquiring minds want to know." (notes by James Kiso)

   This originated as a slogan used in TV ads in the 1980s by the
National Enquirer.  The Enquirer (based in Lantana, Florida; not to
be confused with Philadelphia Inquirer, a fine paper) is the
largest-selling "news" weekly in the U.S.; it belongs to the
sensationalistic genre known as "supermarket tabloids" or "checkout-
line rags" because the most familiar points of distribution are racks
near supermarket checkout lines.

   The ads featured a series of "ear-catching" headlines from recent
issues followed by actors (I hope) miming surprise at the revelation.
The stories ranged from amazing weight-loss diets based on the intake
of broccoli and ice cream to the tragic story of Michael Jackson's
unrequited love for Liz Taylor.  A following voice-over would say,
"Enquiring minds want to know."

"The exception proves the rule."

   The common misconception (which you will find in several books,
including the _Dictionary of Misinformation_) is that "proves" in
this phrase means "tests".  That is not the case, although "proof"
does mean "test" in such locutions as "proving ground",
"proofreader", "proof spirit", 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 that 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.
1. 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".]
2. _The reports of Sir Edvvard Coke, Kt., late Lord Chief-Justice
   of England_ (1658 edition; Sir Edward Coke died in 1634): "[...]
   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 that by the Awarding 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 lieth, although the Principal Judgment was never given; in
   this case, _Exceptio probat regulam_, & _sic de similibus_."
   ["A writ of error lieth" = "an appeal is admissible"; "exigent"
   = writ of suspension of civil rights; _ad tale grave damnum_ =
   "to such great loss"; _sic de similibus_ = "thus about similar
3. 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."]
4. 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 brave!'."]
5. 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."
To convince us that in this particular phrase "proves" originally
meant "tests", you will have to produce citations as old as or older
than these to support your view.

"face the music"

   This expression, meaning "accept the unpleasant consequences", is
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

"fall off a turnip truck"

   This is now a very common phrase, as a search of Deja News
will show.  But Merriam-Webster reports that it has no citations of
the whole phrase earlier than 1988, and no citations of "turnip
truck" earlier than 1985.  R. J. Valentine writes:  "This phrase
has been used for many years by Johnny Carson, who hosted _The
Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson_ on NBC from the early 1960s to
the early 1990s.  He used it in precisely in the context discussed.
He may not have originated it, but he certainly popularized it, and
began doing so long before 1985."

   Evan Morris, at <>, says that
this phrase "seems to be a good example of an entire class of catch
phrases based on urban-rural rivalry.  The thrust of such phrases
is, of course, that 'I am not a fool or a newcomer,' and, in this
case, that 'I am not an ignorant country bumpkin who just arrived in
the big city on a truck full of lowly turnips that I was dumb
enough, on top of everything else, to fall off of.'  This image of a
bewildered hayseed ripe for fleecing by urban con artists is a
close relative of more general phrases used to assert one's 'insider
status' and thus intelligence or savvy.  The United States being a
nation largely composed of immigrants, it's not surprising that the
all-time most commonly heard phrase of this type is 'I didn't just
get off the boat.'"

"full monty" (NEW!)

   This British expression meaning "the whole thing", or more
specifically "16 megabytes of memory, when fitted to an IBM PC or
compatible computer", is first attested in 1986.  To Michael
Quinion's comprehensive treatment at
<> may be added a story
reported by Simon Gray that the origin is "the full diamond mount",
i.e., the whole diamond ring; and the Jargon File's statement:
"This usage is possibly derived from a TV commercial for Del Monte
fruit juice, in which one of the characters insisted on 'the full
Del Monte'."

"Get the lead out"

is short for "Get the lead out of your ass/britches/butt/feet/
pants", which is long for "Move!"  These expressions originated in
the U.S. circa 1930.

"Go figure"

   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 Rosten,
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.')"

   Gianfranco Boggio-Togna writes:  "The expressions an Italian is
likely to use to show bafflement correspond exactly to "go figure":
_va a capire_='go understand' or _va a sapere_='go know'.  The _va
a_ idiom is common in colloquial Italian."

   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_); "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_);
"That's for sure" (_Dos iz oyf zikher_); and "Who needs it?" (_Ver
darf es?_).

"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 who subsequently printed it asserted that
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.

"go to hell in a handbasket"

   This phrase, meaning "to deteriorate rapidly", originated in the
U.S. in the early 20th century.  A handbasket is just a basket with
a handle.  Something carried in a handbasket goes wherever it's going
without much resistance.

   James L. Rader of Merriam-Webster Editorial Dept. writes:  "The
Dictionary of American Regional English [...] records 'to go to
heaven in a handbasket' much earlier than [...] 'hell,' which is not
attested before the 1950s.  The earliest cite in our files is from
1949 [...].  'In a handbasket' seems to imply ease and and speed
[...].  Perhaps part of the success of these phrases must simply be
ascribed to the force of alliteration.  DARE has a much earlier
citation for another alliterative collocation with 'handbasket'
(1714), from Samuel Sewall's diary:  'A committee brought in
something about Piscataqua.  Govr said he would give his head in a
Handbasket as soon as he would pass it.' I suspect that 'to go to
hell in a handbasket' has been around much longer than our records
would seem to indicate."

"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 _from 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.]"

"hoist with his own petard"

   "For 'tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his owne
petar" -- Shakespeare, Hamlet III iv.  "Hoist" was in Shakespeare's
time the past participles of a verb "to hoise", which meant what "to
hoist" does now:  to lift.  A petard (see under "peter out" for the
etymology) was an explosive charge detonated by a slowly burning
fuse.  If the petard went off prematurely, then the sapper (military
engineer; Shakespeare's "enginer") who planted it would be hurled
into the air by the explosion.  (Compare "up" in "to blow up".)  A
modern rendition might be:  "It's fun to see the engineer blown up
with his own bomb."

"by hook or by crook"

   This phrase formerly meant "by fair means or foul", although now
it often (especially in the U.K.) means simply "by whatever
necessary means".  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 names 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.

"in like Flynn"

   This phrase's first meaning was "in favour, assured of success,
in an enviable position".  Some writers allege that it originated
in allusion to Edward Joseph "Boss" Flynn (1892-1953), a campaign
manager for the U.S. Democratic party during Franklin Delano
Roosevelt's presidency.  Flynn's machine was so successful at
winning elections that his candidates seemed to be in office

   But the phrase was popularized with reference to Australian-born
Hollywood actor Errol Flynn (1909-59), whose amorous exploits gave
it a second meaning:  "being a quick seducer".  The earliest
citation we have seen does refer to Errol Flynn (but not to
seduction):  "_In like Flynn._  Everything is O.K.  In other words,
the pilot is having no more trouble than Errol Flynn has in his
cinematic feats." (1945 in _American Speech_ Dec. 1946, 310)

   The phrase "In Like Flint" has also been heard: it was the title
of a 1967 movie, a sequel to "Our Man Flint" (1965).  Both films
were spy spoofs starring James Coburn.  The 1967 title was, of
course, wordplay on "in like Flynn" and the character name "Flint".

"Jingle Bells" (NEW!)

   This song by James Pierpont was fist published in 1857 by Oliver
Ditson & Co., with the title "The One Horse Open Sleigh".  In 1859
Ditson reissued it with a new cover, and the title "Jingle Bells,
Or the One horse open Sleigh."  The book _Popular Songs of
Nineteenth-Century America_ (ed. Richard Jackson, Dover, 1976,
ISBN 0-486-23270-0) reprints this second edition in facsimile.
There is no comma between "Jingle" and "bells" in either the
title or the chorus.  The first verse has "Bells on bobtail ring"
(not "bobtails").  The word "fun" appears nowhere in the song:
the first verse has "Oh what sport to ride and sing / A sleighing
song tonight", and the chorus has "Oh! what joy it is to ride /
In a one horse open sleigh."  The verse tune and the words of
both the verse and the chorus are nearly identical to those
familiar today.  The chorus tune is much less monotone than the
chorus tune familiar today, but would have been too difficult for
children to sing:  it must have been corrupted by generations of
schoolchildren into what we have now.

   In the same volume are facsimiles of "Jim Crack Corn" (the
words "Jim crack corn I don't care" have no "and", and "don't"
rather than "I" on the downbeat), and "Oh My Darling Clementine"
(said to be originally a serious song; the original does not
include the verse with "And her shoes were number nine").

"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.
(When famine struck Paris, she actually took an active role in
relieving it.)  Jean-Jacques Rousseau attributed the words 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.

   John Wexler writes:  "French law obliged bakers to sell certain
standard varieties of loaf at fixed weights and prices.  (It still
does, which explains why the most expensive patisserie will sell you
a baguette for the same price as a supermarket.)  At the time when
this quotation originated, the law also obliged the baker to sell a
fancier loaf for the price of the cheap one when the cheap ones were
all gone.  This was to forestall the obvious trick of baking just a
few standard loaves, so that one could make more profit by using the
rest of the flour for price-unregulated loaves.  So whoever it was
who said _Qu'ils mangent de la brioche_, she (or he) was not being
wholly flippant.  The idea was that the bread shortage could be
alleviated if the law was enforced against profiteering bakers.  I
have seen this explanation quoted in defence of Marie Antoinette.
It seems a pity, after all that, if she didn't say it."

   Gregory Titelman, in _Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs
& Sayings_ (1996), writes:  "Zhu Muzhi [head of the official Chinese
Human Rights Study Society in the People's Republic of China] traces
it to an ancient Chinese emperor who, being told that his subjects
didn't have enough rice to eat, replied, 'Why don't they eat meat?'"

"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); the substitution of /p/ for "qu" /kw/ in the
speech of uneducated ancient Romans; or the confusion by students
learning both Latin and Ancient Greek of such cognates as _pente_
and _quintus_.  And yes, we've heard the joke about the instruction
to new sextons:  "Mind your keys and pews."

   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 the observance"

   From _Hamlet_, Act 1, Scene 4.  Shakespeare meant "BETTER broken
than observed", not "more often broken than observed".

"more than you can shake a stick at"

   This 19th-century Americanism now means "an abundance"; but its
original meaning is unclear.  Suggestions have included "more than
one can count" (OED, AHD3), "more than one can threaten" (Charles
Earle Funk), and "more than one can believe" (Dictionary of American
English).  No one of these seems easy to reconcile with all the
following citations:  "We have in Lancaster as many taverns as you
can shake a stick at." (1818)  "This was a temperance house, and
there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a
stick at."  (David Crockett, _Tour to the North and Down East_,
1835)  "Our queen snake was [...] retiring, attended by more of her
subjects than we even dared to shake a stick at." (1843)  "I have
never sot eyes on anything that could shake a stick at that."
(= "set eyes on anything that could compare with that", 1843)
"[...] Uncle Sam [...] has more acres than you can throw a stick
at." (1851)  "She got onto the whappiest, biggest, rustiest yaller
moccasin that ever you shuck er stick at." (1851)

   A connection with the British expression "hold (the) sticks
with", meaning "compete on equal terms with" and attested since
1817, is not impossible.

   OED staff told me:  "The US usages in DAE do appear to have a
different sense to that given in OED. [...]  All the modern examples
I've found on our databases conform to OED's definition so I think
this is still the most common usage."

   Merriam-Webster staff opined that the "count" interpretation
"works as well for 'as many as you can shake a stick at' [...] if
you take it to mean that there is no limit to how many of the
objects in question one could shake one's stick at. [...]  We would
consider 'A can't shake a stick at B' a different expression
entirely, with a meaning similar to 'A can't hold a candle to
B' [...]."

   In their 1897 work _A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant_,
Albert Barrere and Charles Leland suggested that Dutch immigrants
originated the expression using the Dutch word _schok_ = "to shake
or hit."

"ollie ollie oxen free" (NEW!)

   At <>,
Jesse Sheidlower writes:  "'Ollie ollie oxen free' is one of about a
bajillion variants (I know -- I counted) of a phrase used in various
children's games [...], especially hide-and-(go-)seek. [...]  The
original form of the phrase was something like 'all in free or all's
out come in free', both standing for something like 'all who are out
can come in free'.  These phrases got modified to 'all-ee all-ee
(all) in free' or 'all-ee all-ee out(s) in free'; the '-ee' is
added, and the 'all' is repeated, for audibility and rhythm.  ['All
ye' has also been suggested as the origin.]   From here the number
of variants takes off, and we start seeing folk etymologies in
various forms.  The most common of these has 'oxen' replacing
'out(s)' in, giving 'all-ee all-ee oxen free'; with the 'all-ee'
reinterpreted as the name 'Ollie' [the nickname for Oliver ...].
It's difficult to determine early dates for these expressions --
most of them weren't collected until the 1950s and later -- but
based on recollections of the games, it seems that they were in
common use by the 1920s, and probably earlier ('home free' is found
in print in the 1890s, and the game hide-and-seek is at least four
centuries old).

"peter out"

   This expression meaning "to dwindle to nothing" is recorded from
1846, which precludes derivation "peter" in the sense "penis", an
Americanism not attested until 1902.  "To peter out" was apparently
first used by American miners referring to exhausted veins of ore.
The origin is uncertain.  It may come from "saltpetre" (used in the
miners' explosives, so called because it forms a salt-like crust
on rocks, ultimately from Greek _petra_ = "rock", whence we also
get "petrify" and "petroleum"); or it may come from French _peter_,
which literally means "to fart" but is used figuratively to mean
"to fizzle" and in the phrase _peter dans la main_ = "to come to
nothing" (this comes from the Indo-European root _*perd-/_*pezd-_,
whence we get "fart", "feisty", "fizzle", "partridge", "pedicular",
and "petard").

"politically correct"

   MWCD10 (1993) dates this expression 1983.  But Merriam-Webster
has since discovered a much earlier use, in H. V. Morton's _In the
Steps of St. Paul_ (1936).  The passage reads:  "To use such words
would have been equivalent to calling his audience 'slaves and
robbers'. But 'Galatians', a term that was politically correct,
embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch
to the little slave girl in Iconium."

   Jesse Sheidlower of Random House sent me this citation from the
U.S. Supreme Court decision Chisholm v. Georgia (1793):  "The
states, rather than the People, for whose sakes the States exist,
are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal
attention [...].  Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind
prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language.  Is a toast
asked?  'The United States,' instead of the 'People of the United
States,' is the toast given.  This is not politically correct."

"push the envelope"

   "Push the envelope" is now used figuratively to mean "stretch the
boundaries".  (The image is not of pushing a mailing envelope across
a desk:  those who push this sort of envelope do it from within.  Cf.
"pressing the limits".)  On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster
Editorial Department writes:  "A sentence we spotted in a 1991 issue
of the Wall Street Journal provides a typical example of the use of
the phrase [...]:  'Ads...seem to be pushing the envelope of taste
every day.'  'Push the envelope' in this sense is a very recent
arrival on the scene, dating only from 1988 according to the
evidence in our files.

   "The phrase has its origins in the world of aviation, where
'envelope' has, since at least the late 60s, had the meaning 'a set
of performance limits that may not be safely exceeded.'  Test pilots
are often called on to 'push' a new aircraft's performance envelope
by going beyond known safety limits, as in determining just how fast
an airplane can be flown.  In 1979 Tom Wolfe's best-seller 'The Right
Stuff' vividly described the life of test pilots during the 50s and
60s, and it appears that this book, and the subsequent movie, did
much to popularize the notion of pushing the envelope.  [Stuart
Leichter reports that the words used in the movie are "pushing the
outside of the envelope"; someone should check what they were in the

   "The idea of an envelope as a kind of enclosing boundary is of
course not new.  In 1899 Arnold Bennett wrote: 'My desire is to
depict the deeper beauty while abiding by the envelope of facts.'"

"put in one's two cents' worth"

   This expression meaning "to contribute one's opinion" dates from
the late nineteenth century.  Bo Bradham suggested that it came 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".   According to the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, the first-class postal rate was 2 cents an ounce between
1883 and 1932 (with the exception of a brief period during World War
I).  This OED citation confirms that two-cent stamps were once
common:  "1902 ELIZ. L. BANKS Newspaper Girl xiv, Dinah got a letter
through the American mail.  She had fivepence to pay on it, because
only a common two-cent stamp had been stuck on it."  On the other
hand, "two-cent" was an American expression for "of little value"
(similar to British "twopenny-halfpenny"), so the phrase may simply
have indicated the writer's modesty about the value of his

"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."  Jesse Sheidlower writes at
"It seems that in 1782 a well-respected English judge named Francis
Buller made a public statement that a man had the right to beat his
wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb.  There was
a public outcry, with satirical cartoons in newspapers, and the
story still appeared in biographies of Buller written almost a
century later.  Several legal rulings and books in the late
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mention the practice as
something some people believe is true.  There are also earlier
precedents for the supposed right of a man to beat his wife.

   "This 'rule' is probably not related to the phrase 'rule of
thumb', however.  For one thing, the phrase is [...] attested
[earlier ...].  (Of course, it's possible that it was a well-known,
but unrecorded, practice before Buller.)  Another problem is that
the phrase 'rule of thumb' is never found in connection with the
beating practice until the 1970s.  Finally, there is no semantic
link [... from what was presumably a very specific distinction to
the current sense 'rough guideline'].  The precise origin of 'rule
of thumb' is not certain, but it seems likely to refer to the thumb
as a rough measuring device ('rule' meaning 'ruler' rather than
'regulation'), which is a common practice.  The linkage of the
phrase to the wife-beating rule appears to be based on a
misinterpretation of a 1976 National Organization of Women report,
which mentioned the phrase and the practice but did not imply a
connection.  There is more information about this, with citations
from relevant sources, at the Urban Legends Archive."

   Thumbs were used to measure lots of things (the first joint
was roughly one inch long before we started growing bigger, and
French _pouce_ means both "inch" and "thumb").  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..."

   For a definitive rule of thumb, see the paper "Thumb's rule
tested: Visual angle of thumb's width is about 2 deg." by Robert P.
O'Shea in _Perception_, 20, 1991, pp. 415-418.

"shouting fire in a crowded theater"

   This is from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Schenck v. U.S.
(1919), setting limits on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the
First Amendment to the Constitution.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,
Junior, wrote:  "The most stringent protection of free speech would
not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a

"son of a gun"

dates from 1708; therefore, NOT son of a "shotgun marriage", which
is only recorded from 1922.  Possibly, it means "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".

"spitting image"/"spit and 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".

"There's a sucker born every minute"

   Those of P. T. Barnum's acquaintances who mentioned the
subject were unanimous in insisting that he never said this.  The
closest thing to it that can be found in Barnum's writings is:
"I said that the people like to be humbugged when, as in my case,
there is no humbuggery except that which consists in throwing up
sky-rockets and issuing flaming bills and advertisements to attract
public attention to shows which all acknowledge are always clean,
moral, instructive, elevating, and give back to their patrons in
every case several times their money's worth" (the Bridgeport
Standard, 2 Oct. 1885).

   Captain Alexander Williams, a New York City police inspector
at the time, attributed "There's a sucker born every minute, but
none of them ever die" to Joseph Bessimer, a notorious confidence
trickster of the early 1880s known to the police as "Paper Collar
Joe".  See _P. T. Barnum: the Legend and the Man_, by A. H. Saxon
(Columbia University Press, 1989).

   "There is a Sucker Born Every Minute" is the title of one of
the songs in the 1980 Broadway musical _Barnum_ by Jim Dale.

"to all intents and purposes"

   This cliche (meaning "practically") is a shortening of the legal
phrase "to all intents, constructions, and purposes" (found in an
act adopted under Henry VIII in 1547).  The corruption "for all
intensive purposes" is frequently reported.

"wait for the other shoe to drop"

   This phrase means "to await an event causally linked to one that
one has already observed".  In the form "drop the other shoe",
meaning "say the next obvious thing" or "end the suspense", it dates
from the early 20th century.  It derives from the following joke:

   A guest who checked into an inn one night was warned to be quiet
because the guest in the room next to his was a light sleeper.  As
he undressed for bed, he dropped one shoe, which, sure enough,
awakened the other guest.  He managed to get the other shoe off in
silence, and got into bed.  An hour later, he heard a pounding on
the wall and a shout:  "When are you going to drop the other shoe?"

   Markus Laker reports that The Goon Show (a 1950s BBC radio
comedy) made reference to this.  The character Eccles was an idiot
and a bit of a freak.
   "What's that noise?"
   "Oh, that's just Eccles taking his boots off."

"Wherefore art thou Romeo?"

  "Wherefore" means "why", not "where".

"whole cloth" (notes by Ellen Rosen)

   The phrase "made out of whole cloth" (and variants) currently
means "utterly without foundation in fact, completely fictitious."
MWCD10 gives only this sense for "whole cloth" and dates it 1840.
The phrase did not always have this connotation, however.

   The OED has citations for "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 garment, etc."  This sense is still used by people who sew or
quilt, who use "whole cloth" to mean "uncut fabric".

   The OED also gives several citations for the phrase "cut (or
made) out of whole cloth".  The earliest citation is from 1579.
These citations indicate that for roughly 300 years, the phrase was
used to connote entirety, but not falsehood (an example from 1634:
"The valiant Souldier ... measureth out of the whole cloath his
Honour with his sword". This positive sense of "whole cloth"
persisted in England until at least the beginning of this century
(a citation from 1905: "That Eton captain is cut out of whole cloth;
no shoddy there".)

   Before the Industrial Revolution, few people had ready access to
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 meaning of the phrase "made out of whole cloth" appears to
have begun to change in the United States in the first half of the
19th century.  The OED labels the falsehood sense "U.S. colloquial
or slang", and provides a citation from 1843:  "Isn't this entire
story ... made out of whole cloth?"  The change of meaning may have
arisen from deceptive trade practices.  Charles Earle Funk suggests
that 19th-century tailors advertising whole cloth may really have
been using patched cloth or cloth that was falsely stretched to
appear to be full-width.

   Alternatively, the modern figurative meaning of "whole cloth"
may 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.

   A Web search done by Michael Papadopoulos (
indicates (a) that the original British usage has not been left
behind by the British and (b) that "the opposite US usage meaning
'completely fictitious' is neither the only US usage nor the
dominant one."

"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,
alleged to average about 9 cubic yards.  Some people (e.g., James
Kilpatrick in _Fine Print:  Reflections on the Writing Art_) have
satisfied themselves that the concrete-trucks explanation is the
correct one; but I haven't seen the evidence.  And Matthew Jetmore
has unearthed some evidence to the contrary, a passage from the
August 1964 issue of _Ready Mixed Concrete_ Magazine:  "The trend
toward larger truck mixer units is probably one of the strongest and
most persistent trends in the industry.  Whereas, just a few years
ago, the 4 1/2 cubic yard mixer was definitely the standard of the
industry, the average nationwide mixer size by 1962 had increased to
6.24 cubic yards, with still no end in sight to the demand for
increased payload."  The phrase is covered by Cecil Adams in _More
of the Straight Dope_, pp. 252-257.  A "canonical collection" of
explanations has been compiled by "Snopes" (

   Michael Nunamaker writes that a friend of his in the U.S. Air
Force suggested a World War II origin:  "According to him, the
length of the ammunition belt (feeding the machine guns) in the
Supermarine Spitfire was nine yards.  Therefore, when a pilot had
shot all his ammunition he would say he had 'shot the whole nine

"You have another think coming"

   "If you think that, you have another think coming" means "You are
mistaken and will soon have to alter your opinion".  This is now
sometimes heard with "thing" in place of "think", but "think" is the
older version.  Eric Partridge,  in _A Dictionary of Catch Phrases_,
gives the phrase as "you have another guess coming", "US: since the
1920s, if not a decade or two earlier".   Clearly "think" is closer
to "guess" than "thing" is.  The OED gives a citation with "think"
from 1937, and no evidence for "thing".  Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department writes:  "When an informal poll was conducted here at
Merriam-Webster, about 60% of our editors favored 'thing' over
'think,' a result that runs counter to our written evidence."



words ending in "-gry"

   Yes, questions like this belong in rec.puzzles, not here, but
in a desperate attempt to reduce the volume of queries, I give here
the answer from the rec.puzzles archive:


   Aside from "angry" and "hungry" and words derived therefrom,
there is only one word ending with "-gry" in W3:  "aggry."
However, this word is defective in that it is part of a phrase
"aggry beads".  The OED's usage examples all talk about "aggry

   Moving to older dictionaries, we find that "gry" itself is a word
in Webster's Second Unabridged (and the OED):

gry, n. [L. gry, a trifle; Gr. gry, a grunt]
   1. a measure equal to one-tenth of a line. [Obs.] (Obs. =
   2. anything very small. [Rare.]

   This is a list of 100 words, phrases and names ending in "gry":
[Explanation of references is given at the end of the list.]

aggry [OED:1:182; W2; W3]
Agry Dagh (Mount Agry) [EB11]
ahungry [OED:1:194; FW; W2]
angry [OED; FW; W2; W3]
anhungry [OED:1:332; W2]
Badagry [Johnston; EB11]
Ballingry [Bartholomew:40; CLG:151; RD:164, pl.49]
begry [OED:1:770,767]
bewgry [OED:1:1160]
bowgry [OED:1:1160]
braggry [OED:1:1047]
Bugry [TIG]
Chockpugry [Worcester]
Cogry [BBC]
cony-gry [OED:2:956]
conyngry [OED:2:956]
Croftangry [DFC, as "Chrystal Croftangry"]
dog-hungry [W2]
Dshagry [Stieler]
Dzagry [Andree]
eard-hungry [CED (see "yird"); CSD]
Echanuggry [Century:103-104, on inset map, Key 104 M 2]
Egry [France; TIG]
ever-angry [W2]
fire-angry [W2]
Gagry [EB11]
gry (from Latin _gry_) [OED:4/2:475; W2]
gry (from Romany _grai_) [W2]
haegry [EDD (see "hagery")]
half-angry [W2]
hangry [OED:1:329]
heart-angry [W2]
heart-hungry [W2]
higry pigry [OED:5/1:285]
hogry [EDD (see "huggerie"); CSD]
hogrymogry [EDD (see "huggerie"); CSD (as "hogry-mogry")]
hongry [OED:5/1:459; EDD:3:282]
huggrymuggry [EDD (see "huggerie"); CSD (as "huggry-muggry")]
hungry [OED; FW; W2; W3]
Hungry Bungry [Daily Illini, in ad for The Giraffe, Spring 1976]
iggry [OED]
Jagry [EB11]
kaingry [EDD (see "caingy")]
land-hungry [OED; W2]
leather-hungry [OED]
Langry [TIG; Times]
Lisnagry [Bartholomew:489]
MacLoingry [Phillips (as "Flaithbhertach MacLoingry")]
mad-angry [OED:6/2:14]
mad-hungry [OED:6/2:14]
magry [OED:6/2:36, 6/2:247-48]
malgry [OED:6/2:247]
man-hungry [OED]
Margry [Indians (see "Pierre Margry" in bibliog., v.2, p.1204)]
maugry [OED:6/2:247-48]
mawgry [OED:6/2:247]
meagry [OED:6/2:267]
meat-hungry [W2]
menagry [OED (see "managery")]
messagry [OED]
nangry [OED]
overangry [RHD1; RHD2]
Pelegry [CE (in main index as "Raymond de Pelegry")]
Pingry [Bio-Base; HPS:293-94, 120-21]
podagry [OED; W2 (below the line)]
Pongry [Andree (Supplement, p.572)]
pottingry [OED:7/2:1195; Jamieson:3:532]
puggry [OED:8/1:1573; FW; W2]
pugry [OED:8/1:1574]
rungry [EDD:5:188]
scavengry [OED (in 1715 quote under "scavengery")]
Schtschigry [LG/1:2045; OSN:97]
Seagry [TIG; EB11]
Segry [Johnston; Andree]
self-angry [W2]
self-hungry ?
Shchigry [CLG:1747; Johnson:594; OSN:97,206; Times:185,pl.45]
shiggry [EDD]
Shtchigry [LG/1:2045; LG/2:1701]
Shtshigry [Lipp]
skugry [OED:9/2:156, 9/1:297; Jamieson:4:266]
Sygry [Andree]
Tangry [France]
Tchangry [Johnson:594; LG/1:435,1117]
Tchigry [Johnson:594]
tear-angry [W2]
tike-hungry [CSD]
Tingry [France; EB11 (under "Princesse de Tingry")]
toggry [Simmonds (as "Toggry", but all entries are capitalized)]
ulgry [Partridge; Smith:24-25]
unangry [OED; W2]
vergry [OED:12/1:123]
Virgy [CLG:2090]
Wirgy [CLG:2090; NAP:xxxix; Times:220, pl.62; WA:948]
wind-hungry [W2]
yeard-hungry [CED (see "yird")]
yerd-hungry [CED (see "yird"); OED]
yird-hungry [CED (see "yird")]
Ymagry [OED:1:1009 (col. 3, 1st "boss" verb), (variant of "imagery")]

This list was gathered from the following articles:

George H. Scheetz, In Goodly Gree: With Goodwill, Word Ways 22:195 (Nov. 1989)
Murray R. Pearce, Who's Flaithbhertach MacLoingry?, Word Ways 23:6 (Feb. 1990)
Harry B. Partridge, Gypsy Hobby Gry, Word Ways 23:9 (Feb. 1990)
A. Ross Eckler, -Gry Words in the OED, Word Ways 25:4 (Nov. 1992)

(Many references are of the form [Source:volume:page] or [Source:page].)

Andree, Richard. Andrees Handatlas (index volume). 1925.
Bartholomew, John. Gazetteer of the British Isles: Statistical and
        Topographical. 1887.
BBC = BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of English Names.
Bio-Base. (Microfiche) Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1980.
CE = Catholic Encyclopedia. 1907.
CED = Chambers English Dictionary. 1988.
Century = "India, Northern Part." The Century Atlas of the World. 1897, 1898.
CLG = The Colombia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World. L.E.Seltzer, ed. 1952.
CSD = Chambers Scots Dictionary. 1971 reprint of 1911 edition.
Daily Illini (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).
DFC = Dictionary of Fictional Characters. 1963.
EB11 = Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed.
EDD = The English Dialect Dictionary. Joseph Wright, ed. 1898.
France = Map Index of France. G.H.Q. American Expeditionary Forces. 1918.
FW = Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language. 1943.
HPS = The Handbook of Private Schools: An Annual Descriptive Survey of
        Independent Education, 66th ed. 1985.
Indians = Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. F. W. Hodge. 1912.
Jamieson, John. An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language. 1879-87.
Johnston, Keith. Index Geographicus... 1864.
LG/1 = Lippincott's Gazetteer of the World: A Complete Pronouncing Gazetteer
        or Geographical Dictionary of the World. 1888.
LG/2 = Lippincott's New Gazetteer: ... 1906.
Lipp = Lippincott's Pronouncing Gazetteer of the World. 1861, undated
        edition from late 1800's; 1902.
NAP = Narodowy Atlas Polski. 1973-1978 [Polish language]
OSN: U.S.S.R. Volume 6, S-T. Official Standard Names Approved by the United
        States Board on Geographic Names. Gazetteer #42, 2nd ed. June 1970.
Partridge, Harry B. "Ad Memoriam Demetrii." Word Ways, 19 (Aug. 1986): 131.
Phillips, Lawrence. Dictionary of Biographical Reference. 1889.
RD = The Reader's Digest Complete Atlas of the British Isles, 1st ed. 1965.
RHD1 = Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. 1966.
RHD2 = Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition
        Unabridged. 1987.
Simmonds, P.L. Commercial Dictionary of Trade Products. 1883.
Smith, John. The True Travels, Adventvres and Observations: London 1630.
Stieler, Adolph. Stieler's Handatlas (index volume). 1925.
TIG = The Times Index-Gazetteer of the World. 1965.
Times = The Times Atlas of the World, 7th ed. 1985.
W2 = Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language,
        Second Edition, Unabridged. 1934.
W3 = Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language,
        Unabridged. 1961.
WA = The World Atlas: Index-Gazetteer. Council of Ministires of the USSR, 1968.
Worcester, J.E. Universal Gazetteer, Second Edition. 1823.

   This puzzle has been plaguing AOL since at least mid-1995, and more
recently Usenet.  It is often presented with embellishments such as
"you use it every day, and if you've listened closely, I've already
told you the answer."  A post by gives a clue to the
origin of this version:

| I heard this riddle 20 years ago from a fiddle player.  He got it
| from his wife who taught pre-school.  It was worded slightly
| differently from the version that got onto the radio recently.  As
| I remember it from 1975:
|   Think of words ending in 'gry'.  Angry and hungry are two of them.
|   There are only three words in the English language.  What is the
|   third word?  The word is something that everyone uses every day.
|   If you have listened carefully, I have already told you what it is.
| The answer, I remember, was 'language' (the first two words being
| 'the' and 'English').

   A person who doesn't know the trick and asks someone else to try
the puzzle will almost certainly change the wording, unwittingly
making it insoluble.  It appears that one of these changed versions
made it into circulation on phone-in radio shows.

   Other trick answers, each allegedly original, are "what" (as in
"What is the third word?"), "say" (with "g or y" pronounced to
sound like "g-r-y" in the question), and "gry" (to satisfy the
statement that the word has just been used).

words without vowels (NEW!)

   When I was 6 years old, my schoolmistress said, "There are no
words in the English language that have no vowels.  To anyone who
can tell me a word with no vowels, I'll give threepence."

   I raised my hand and said, "Shhh."

   The mistress looked at me very contemptuously and said, "He
thinks 'shhh' is a word.  But it isn't; it's just a sound that
people make."

   A couple of weeks later, the mistress asked the class, "Has
anyone thought of a word without any vowels yet?"

   Another little boy raised his hand and said, "My.  Try.

   "No," replied the mistress, "'y' is a vowel there.  But I'll give
you threepence anyway, because you've been thinking."

   After all these years, I still think my example was better than
that other little boy's.


   The word "vowel" has more than one meaning.  From MWCD10:

# 1: one of a class of speech sounds in the articulation of which
# the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and is not
# constricted enough to cause audible friction; broadly : the one
# most prominent sound in a syllable  2: a letter or other symbol
# representing a vowel -- usu. used in English of a, e, i, o, u, and
# sometimes y

Children are usually taught sense 2, because meaning 1 would be
harder for them to grasp.  But since sense 2 is not that useful
except as a rough approximation to sense 1 (and on the U.S. TV
show _Wheel of Fortune_), "words without vowels" in sense 2 (such as
"cwm", "nth", "Mrs.", and "TV") are not terribly interesting.  Words
without vowels in sense 1 (such as "shhh", "psst", and "mm-hmm")
are interesting, because they tell us something about the
phonology of the language.

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",
"anthimeria", "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", "pangram", "paradiastole", "paragoge",
"paragram", "paralinguistic", "paraph", "paraphasia", "paraplasm",
"parasynesis", "parataxis", "parechesis", "parelcon",
"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", "synchysis", "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.  There are also two lists on
the WWW:  <>
and <>.)

"I won't mention..."

   Mentioning something by saying you aren't going to mention it
(e.g., "I won't mention his laziness") is called "apophasis" or
"preterition".  Joseph Shipley's _Dictionary of World Literary
Terms_ (The Writer, 3rd ed., 1970) says: "~apophasis~  Seeming to
deny what is really affirmed.  Feigning to pass by it while really
stressing it" (e.g., "not to mention his laziness"):  "paralepsis.
Touching on it casually:  metastasis.  Pretending to shield or
conceal while really displaying (as Antony with Caesar's will in
Shakespeare's play):  parasiopesis. [...]  ~autoclesis~ (P. the
self-inviter).  Introduction of an idea by refusing before being
requested, intending thus to awaken (and respond to) a demand, as
Antony with the will in _Julius Caesar_."  "Paralepsis" is more
often spelled "paraleipsis" (which is the Greek form) or
"paralipsis".  A few sources (such as The Century Dictionary,
and the Universal English Dictionary by Henry Cecil Wyld) do not
support a distinction between apophasis and paraleipsis.

names of "&", "@", and "#"

   (The lists of names given in this entry are DELIBERATELY
incomplete.  For a comprehensive list of formal and informal terms
for these and many other keyboard symbols, see the entry ASCII in
the Jargon File.)

   "&" is called "ampersand".

   The longest name for "@" is "commercial at sign"; the first and
last words may each be omitted.  The official ANSI/CCITT name is
"commercial at".

   There are actually two typeset symbols, with distinct histories,
for which we use "#" in ASCII text.
   One (with horizontal strokes slanted and thicker than the
vertical strokes) is the musical "sharp (sign)", as in "the key of
C# major".
   The other (with vertical strokes slanted) is called "number
(sign)", as in "the team finished in the #5 position", or "pound
(sign)", referring to weight, as in "a 5# bag of potatoes".
Although use of this sign to denote weight has declined, "pound" is
the most widely used name for it in the U.S.  But it confuses people
who expect that term to mean the symbol for sterling currency
(located on many British keyboards in the same place as "#" is found
on U.S. keyboards).  "Number sign", adopted by ANSI/CCITT, is
unambiguous, but little known in both the U.K. and the U.S.
   Computer-users in the U.K. usually call the symbol a "hash", from
its appearance (reminiscent of marks one might make when chopping).
   Finally, in a failed attempt to avoid the naming problem by
creating a new name, the term "octothorp(e)" (which MWCD10 dates
1971) was invented for "#", allegedly by Bell Labs engineers when
touch-tone telephones were introduced in the mid-1960s.  "Octo-"
means eight, and "thorp" was an Old English word for _village_:
apparently the sign was playfully construed as eight fields
surrounding a village.  Another story has it that a Bell Labs
supervisor named Don MacPherson coined the word from the number of
endpoints and from the surname of U.S. athlete James Francis Thorpe.
Merriam-Webster Editorial Department told me:  "All of the stories
you record are known to us, but the evidence does not line up nicely
behind any one of them."

"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

   Sentences containing every letter of the alphabet are called
"pangrams", or "holalphabetic sentences".  They are covered in part 2
of the language section of the rec.puzzles archive.

"Take the prisoner downstairs", said Tom condescendingly.

   A sentence where a description of the manner of saying refers
punningly to quoted matter is called a "Tom Swifty".  (Some
people restrict "Tom Swifty" to sentences where the pun is in an
adverb, and use "croaker" for sentences where the pun is in the
verb:  "'I'm dying', he croaked.")  The name "Tom Swifty" derives
from the Tom Swift adventure series for boys (whose enthusiastic use
of adverbs modifying "said" they parody); but the form goes back to
the 19th century, and was used by James Joyce in _Ulysses_ (1922).

   I maintain the Canonical Collection of Tom Swifties, with over
900 entries.  It's available on the WWW as:
or by e-mail from me.

   A sentence where words following a quotation humorously
reinterpret what is quoted ("'Eureka!' said Archimedes to the
skunk") is called a "wellerism", after the character Sam Weller in
Dickens' novel _The Pickwick Papers_.  The form predates Dickens.

What is the opposite of "to exceed"?

   "To fall short of".  "To trail" can also come in handy when both
things are moving.

What is the opposite of "distaff side"?

   "Spear side", but I prefer Truly Donovan's suggestion, "datstaff
side". :-)

What do you call the grass strip between road and sidewalk?

   This varies regionally.  Terms include "verge" (U.K.); "nature
strip" (south Australia); "berm" (New Zealand); "parkway" and
"planting strip" (western U.S.); "parking strip", "parking", "tree
belt", "tree lawn", "lawn strip", "devil strip", "boulevard", and
"terrace" (all eastern U.S.); "city strip" and "boulevard strip"
(both Canada); and "long acre" (rural Ireland and elsewhere).  Most
of these terms have other meanings also.



What is a suggested format for citing online sources?

   Michael Quinion has an essay on this.  It is available at his WWW
site <> or by e-mail
from him (

Does the next millennium begin in 2000 or 2001?

   Many of us will be happy if people can even spell "millennium"!
As Mark Brader has noted in the relevant entry in the
news.announce.newusers FAQ "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
about Usenet", the A.D. calendar system was devised before
"origin 0 counting" was invented.  The first year assumed
(incorrectly, as most scholars now believe) to have begun after
Jesus' birth was A.D. 1, not A.D. 0; the previous year was 1 B.C.
This gives us the millennia 1-1000, 1001-2000, and 2001-3000.  On
the other hand, the convenience of grouping together years,
decades, and centuries having like digits is obvious.  The standard
joke is that those who say the next millennium will begin in 2001
and not 2000 are right, but they'll be missing one hell of a party!

What will we call the next decade?

   "2000" and "2001" will probably be called "two thousand" and
"two thousand and one", under the influence of the movie _2001: A
Space Odyssey_; but after that, people will probably gradually
switch to calling the years "twenty oh three", etc.  As for what
we'll call the decade 2000-2009 (comparable to "the eighties", "the
nineties", etc.), who knows?  Several people have suggested "the
aughts", but this may be too archaic to bear revival.  No, don't
bother snowing me with other proposals; let's just wait and see.

Fumblerules ("Don't use no double negatives", etc.)

   _Fumblerules_ was the title of a 1990 book by William Safire
containing such rules, but it seems these rules should actually be
credited to George L. Trigg.  For the rules and their provenance,
see <>.

English is Tough Stuff

   This poem is properly titled "The Chaos", and appeared in _Drop
Your Foreign Accent - Engelse Uitspraakoefeningen_, by G. Nolst
Trenite (5th rev. ed., H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1929).  It can
be found at:

What is the phone number of the Grammar Hotline?

   There are many such.

   Of the two most prominent, one ("The National Grammar Hotline")
is run by Michael Strumpf, Professor of English at Moorpark
Community College, Moorpark, California, and author of _Painless,
Perfect Grammar:  Tips from the Grammar Hotline_ (Monarch, 1985,
ISBN 0-671-52782-7).  The phone number is (805) 378-1494; the hours
are irregular, but he will return calls.

   The other ("The Write Line") is run by Richard Francis Tracz,
Chairman of the English Department at Oakton Community College in
Des Plaines, Illinois, and author of _Dr. Grammar's Writes from
Wrongs:  A supremely authoritative guide to the common and not-so-
common rules of the English language_ (Vintage, 1991, ISBN
0-679-72715-9).  The phone number is (708) 635-1948, and the hours
are 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Central Time while classes are in
session.  His e-mail address is "".

   In general, Prof. Strumpf gives more conservative advice than
Prof. Tracz.

   For a "grammar hotline directory" that lists services state by
state across the U.S., see:

Do publishers put false info in dictionaries to catch plagiarists?

From: (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
> unintentional errors, and they could serve the same purpose.

   On the other hand, books such as _Who's Who_ do have fictitious

How reliable are dictionaries? (NEW!)

   A former senior lexicographer at a major dictionary publisher has
told me by e-mail:  "An editor seldom sits down and composes new
text for any lemma out of whole cloth.  Even for a supposedly
thoroughgoing revision, what usually happens is that you take the
text from your previous edition, apply whatever mechanical
formatting changes have been decreed, and then check two or three of
your competitors' books to see if they've said anything different
from what you have.  (Right -- it's no accident that all the major
dictionaries look so much alike!)  This practice can lead to some
pretty awful results; the nautical terminology in [a dictionary that
I worked on] was based on 19th-century square-rigger stuff
originally copied out of OED -- and evidently they didn't have any
sailors on the staff either!

   "In any case, the citation files don't normally even get looked
at unless something in the entry raises a red flag -- it's a new
word, or a member of some class of words marked for special scrutiny
(e.g., gender-specific terms or personal pronouns), or has been
tagged for special attention as the result of someone's query
somewhere along the line."

   For more on the frightening extent to which dictionaries copy
from one another, see "The Genealogy of Dictionaries", in Robert
Burchfield's _Unlocking the English Language_ (Hill and Wang,
1992, ISBN 0-374-52339-8), pp. 147-165.

   Thus we see that a consensus of dictionaries does not necessarily
indicate a consensus of actual research.  Nor does disagreement
among dictionaries necessarily indicate actual scholarly
controversy:  it may simply be that the lexicographers were too
overworked and deadline-pressed to copy from one another more
thoroughly.  Samuel Johnson's observation, "Dictionaries are like
watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be
expected to go quite true", remains highly pertinent today, despite
the improvements in both products since Johnson's day.

etymologies of personal names

   See <>.

How did "Truly" become a personal name?
by Truly Donovan (

   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.


   (None of the information here has been verified from legal
sources.  I collated it from Richard Lederer's _Crazy English_
and from various dictionaries.  Thanks to Anno Siegel, to Steve
Cramer, and to Jesse Sheidlower of Random House, for doing
electronic searches for me.  Question marks indicate that my
sources conflict.  The info, even if not totally mistaken, often
applies only to some countries.)

1) words that were once trademarks, but as a result of legal
decisions or otherwise lost that status

a) familiar words

aspirin, brassiere ? , cellophane, celluloid, corn flakes ? ,
corselet (undergarment, from Corselette), Cuisenaire rod,
dry ice ? , escalator, gramophone, granola, gunk, heroin, immunogen,
jungle gym (from Junglegym), kerosene, lanolin ? , launderette,
linoleum, lite (beer) ? , magnum (gun, cartridge), mah-jongg, milk
of magnesia, mimeograph, pogo (stick), raisin bran ? , saran,
shredded wheat, tabloid, tarmac ? , thermos, touch-tone ? ,
trampoline ? , vibraharp, vulcanized fibre, windbreaker (jacket) ? ,
yo-yo, zipper

b) chemical and medical terms

agene, amidol, antipyrine, duralumin, formalin, hirudin,
Janus green (from Janus), malathion, mecamylamine, ninhydrin,
parathormone, pulmotor, ronnel, toxaphene, vasopressin

c) miscellaneous more obscure words

Allen screw, Allen wrench, autogiro, barathea, beaverboard,
chainomatic, cube steak ? , corona (cigar), cyclostyle, ditto (to
copy printed matter etc. on a duplicator), excelsior (wood
shavings), georgette, graphophone, gunite, iconoscope, kinescope,
kinetoscope, klaxon ? , klystron, leatherette, moviola, moxie,
simonize (from Simoniz), speedwriting, stenotype ? , thyratron

2) words derived from trademarks

aqualunger (from Aqualung), Bundt cake, cola (from Coca-Cola),
dexamethasone (perhaps from Dexamyl), isoproterenol (from
Arterenol), kart (probably from GoKart), organza (probably from
Lorganza), payola (influenced by Victrola), Phillips head (from
Phillips Screws), pyronine (from Pyronin), secobarbital (from
Seconal), STP (hallucinogenic drug, probably from STP motor-oil

3) words that are still trademarks, although many people use them

Adrenalin (the generic words are "adrenaline" and "epinephrine"),
AstroTurf, Autoharp, BVDs, Baggies, Bakelite, Band-Aid, Beer Nuts,
Benzedrine, Biro, Boogie Board, Breathalyzer, Brillo Pads, Caplet,
Carborundum, Chap Stick, Chemical Mace, Chiclets, Cinerama,
Coca-Cola/Coke, Colorization ? (process of adding colour to
black-and-white footage), Cuisinart, Dacron, Day-Glo, Deepfreeze,
Demerol, Dianetics, Dictaphone, Dictograph, Ditto machine, Dixie
cups, Dolby, Dow Jones Average, Dry Ice ? , Dumpster, 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,
Hoover, 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, Post-it Note, 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, Touch-Tone ? , TV Dinners, UNIX, Valium, Vaseline, Velcro,
Victrola, Vitallium, Walkman, Wedgwood (ceramic ware), Welcome
Wagon, Wiffle Ball, Windbreaker (jacket) ? , X-Acto, Xerox, Yellow
Pages ? , Zamboni

4) words erroneously believed to be trademarks


   Trademark information can be obtained from the International
Trademark Association (INTA; formerly the U.S. Trademark
Association), 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY

Commonest words

   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 the King James
Version of the Bible is also "the".  The commonest word in spoken
English is "I."

   _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
          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 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:

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 our 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 antonyms?

   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:
anabasis = military advance, military retreat
anathema = something cursed,
        [rare] something consecrated to divine use
apparent = seeming, clear ("heir apparent")
argue = to try to prove by argument, [disputed] to argue against
arsis = the unaccented or shorter part of a foot of verse; the
        accented or longer part of a foot of verse
at the expense of = by sacrificing ("at the expense of accuracy"),
        [disputed] by tolerating or introducing ("at the expense
        of inaccuracy")
aught = all, nothing
bad = of poor quality, [U.S. slang] good
bill = invoice, money
bolt = to secure, to run away
bomb = [U.S. slang] a failure, [U.K. slang] a success
buckle = to fasten, to fall apart ("buildings buckle at an
by = spoken representation of multiplication sign ("3-by-3 matrix"),
        spoken representation of division sign ("d y by d x")
cannot praise too highly = no praise is too high, cannot praise very
certain = definite, unspecified
chine = ridge, [British dialect] ravine
chuffed = pleased, annoyed
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 commencement")
comprise = to contain, [disputed] to compose
consult = to ask the advice of, to give professional advice
contingent = unpredictable, dependent on a known condition
continue = to keep on doing, [Scots and U.S. law] to adjourn
copemate = antagonist, partner
critical = opposed to ("critical of"), essential to ("critical to")
custom = usual, special
deceptively shallow = shallower than it looks, deeper than it looks
dike = wall, ditch
discursive = moving from topic to topic without order,
        proceeding coherently from topic to topic
divide by a half = to double, [disputed] to halve
dollop = a large amount, [U.S.] a small amount
dress = to put items on, to remove items from ("dress the chicken")
dust = to remove fine particles, to add fine particles
edited = remaining after omissions have been made,
        [disputed] omitted
egregious = outstandingly bad, [archaic] distinguished
enervate = to deplete the energy of, [disputed] to invigorate
enjoin = to prescribe, [law] to prohibit
factoid = speculation reported as fact, [disputed] unimportant fact
fast = rapid, unmoving
fireman = firefighter, fire-stoker (on train or ship)
first-degree = most severe ("first-degree murder"), least severe
        ("first-degree burns")
fix = to restore, to castrate
flog = to criticize harshly, to promote aggressively
gale = a very strong wind, [archaic] a gentle breeze
garble = to mix up, [archaic] to sort out
garnish = to enhance (food), to curtail (wages)
give out = to produce, to stop being produced
go off = to become active, to become inactive
grade = an incline, level ("grade crossing")
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
inexistent = inherent, [obsolete] nonexistent
infer = to take a hint, [disputed] to hint
inside lane = [U.K.] traffic line next to edge of road,
        [sometimes in U.S.] traffic lane next to centre of road
into = as a divisor of, [in India] multiplied by
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)
mean = lowly ("rose from mean beginnings"), excellent ("plays a mean
model = archetype, copy
moot = debatable, [disputed] not worthy of debate
nauseous = nauseating, [disputed] nauseated
note = promise to pay, money
out = visible (stars), invisible (lights)
out of = outside, inside ("work out of one's home")
oversight = care, error
peep = to look quietly, to beep
peer = noble, person of equal rank
priceless = having a value beyond all price, [rare] having no value
put out = to generate ("candle puts out light"), to extinguish
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")
quiddity = essence, trifling point
quite = rather, completely
ravel = to disentangle, [archaic] to tangle
referent = something referred to by something, [disputed] something
        referring to something
rent = to buy temporary use of, to sell temporary use of
resign = to quit, [hyphen recommended] to sign up again
reword = to repeat in different words, [archaic] to repeat in the
        same words
rummage = [rare] to jumble, [obsolete] to put in order
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 show, to hide from view
secrete = to extrude, to hide
seeded = with seeds, without seeds
shank of the evening = end of the evening, early part of the evening
skin = to cover with, to remove outer covering
straight = not using drugs, [obsolete] under the influence of drugs
strand = shore, [Scots] sea
substitute = to put (something) in something else's place,
        [disputed] to replace (something) with something else
strike = to miss (baseball), to hit
tabby = a silk fabric, a rough kind of concrete
table = [U.K.] to propose, [U.S.] to set aside
temper = calmness, passion
think better of = to admire more, to be suspicious of
to a degree = [archaic] exceedingly, [disputed] to a certain extent
to my knowledge = to my certain knowledge, as far as I know
toast = popular ("the toast of the town"), [U.S. slang] doomed
transparent = obvious, invisible
trim = to put things on ("trim a Christmas tree"),
        to take things off
trip = to stumble, to move gracefully ("trip the light fantastic")
unbending = rigid, relaxing
undersexed = having a lower-than-normal sex drive,
        [disputed] sexually deprived
watershed = the divide between regions drained by different rivers,
        [disputed] the region drained by one river
wear = to endure through use, to decay through use
weather = to withstand, to wear away
widdershins = counterclockwise,
        [in the southern hemisphere] clockwise
wind up = to start ("wind up a watch"), to end
with = alongside, against

A couple of homophones:
aural, oral = heard, spoken
erupt, irrupt = burst out, burst in
raise, raze = erect, tear down

Why do we say "30 years old" but "a 30-year-old man"?
by Rich Alderson

   This pattern goes all the way back to Old English (alias
Anglo-Saxon).  It's the same reason many of us say that someone is
"5 foot 2" rather than "5 feet 2".

   The source of the idiom is the old genitive plural, which did not
end in -s, and did not contain a high front vowel to trigger umlaut
("foot" vs "feet").  When the ending was lost because of regular
phonetic developments, the pattern remained the same, and it now
seemed that the singular rather than the plural was in use.

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.

There is an English-to-Old-English Dictionary:  _Wordcraft_, by
Stephen Pollington (Anglo-Saxon Books, 1993, ISBN 1-898281-02-5).

radio alphabets

   Brian Kelk ( has a collection of radio
alphabets (A alpha, B bravo, C charlie, etc.), available on the WWW
at <>.  For comic
alphabets (A for 'orses, B for mutton, C for yourself, etc.), see
Eric Partridge, _Comic Alphabets_, Routledge & Paul, 1961.  There's
one at <>.

distribution of English-speakers

   From the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1995 yearbook, Bob Cunningham
estimated the number of mother-tongue English-speakers in the world
at 326,652,000, of whom 69% live in the United States.

   Information on the distribution of English-speakers throughout
the world can be found at:
and in the CIA World Fact Book:

provenance of English vocabulary (notes by Lucia Engkent)

_Syllable Stress & Unstress_ by Howard Woods, a 1978 Govt. of Canada
publication, has this breakdown:

           In a dictionary       In a daily newspaper
                               (showing frequency of use)
Anglo-Saxon     20.2%                   78.0%
French          28.3%                   15.2%
Latin           28.5%                    3.1%
Old Norse        1.4%                    2.4%
Greek            3.6%                    0.9%
other           18.0%                    0.4%

"billion":  a U.K. view

by Ken Moore, assisted by Olivier Bettens

   The U.S. and traditional British names for large numbers are as

           U.S.                Traditional British
10^6     million              million
10^9     billion              thousand million or milliard
10^12    trillion             billion
10^15    quadrillion          thousand billion
10^18    quintillion          trillion
10^21    sextillion           thousand trillion
10^24    septillion           quadrillion
10^27    octillion            thousand quadrillion
10^30    nonillion            quintillion
10^33    decillion            thousand quintillion
10^36    undecillion          sextillion
10^39    duodecillion         thousand sextillion
10^42    tredecillion         septillion
10^45    quattuordecillion    thousand septillion
10^48    quindecillion        octillion
10^51    sexdecillion         thousand octillion
10^54    septendecillion      nonillion
10^57    octodecillion        thousand nonillion
10^60    novemdecillion       decillion
10^63    vigintillion         thousand decillion
.        .
.        .
.        .
10^303   centillion
.                             .
.                             .
.                             .
10^600                        centillion

   The word "billion" has existed in France since the 15th century.
Opinions differ as to its initial meaning:  one possibility is that
it meant 10^12 to mathematicians and 10^9 to others.  The first
use in England recorded in the OED is by Locke in 1690:  the
quotation clearly shows that for Locke it meant 10^12.  This
remained the standard British meaning until the middle of the 20th
century.  Early in the 18th century, French arithmeticians revised
its meaning to 10^9, and the U.S., acquiring the word directly from
the French, took this meaning also.

   French has the word "milliard", also meaning 10^9, which had
largely displaced "billion" by the beginning of the 20th century.
("Milliard" is given in English dictionaries, though most of the few
people who know it would think of it as a French word.)  By 1948,
the use of large numbers in the sciences and the declining value of
the franc led the French Weights and Measures conference to
recommend the return of "billion" to its original meaning of 10^12.
This became official policy in 1961.  For more information on
international usage, see

   By this time, the British had been introduced to the U.S.
meaning.  MEU warns us that the usages differ; MEU2 (1965) suggests:
"Since _billion_ in our sense is useless except to astronomers, it
is a pity that we do not conform [to the U.S. meaning]".  The
British Government took this advice in 1974, when Prime Minister
Harold Wilson announced to the House of Commons that the meaning
of "billion" in papers concerning Government statistics would
thenceforth be 10^9, in conformity with U.S. usage.

   Despite this, the U.S. meaning is still rare outside journalism
and finance, its introduction having served merely to create
confusion.  Throughout the U.K., a common response to the question
"What do you understand by 'a billion'?" would be: "Well, I mean a
million million, but I often don't know what other people mean."
Few schoolchildren are confident of the meaning, though, again,
10^12 seems to be preferred.  Many well-educated adults, aware of
both meanings, either avoid the term altogether or use it only in
the unambiguous phrases "English billion" and "American billion".
English-speaking South Africans, Australians, and New Zealanders
are similarly reluctant to use a term that has become ambiguous.

   Scientists have long preferred to express numbers in figures
rather than in words, so it is easy to avoid "billion" in contexts
where precision is required.  The plural is still used freely with
the colloquial meaning of "a very large number".

Publications consulted:

OED, Editions 1 and 2.
Robert, Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise.
P Pamart, "A propos d'une reforme des mesures legales", in "Vie et
Langage", (125)1962, pp 435-437.

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's 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 _gino:sko:_ is used similarly in the New Testament.

Postfix "not"

   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!' _Not!_"

Clay Blankenship found a citation from "circa 1906" in the comic
strip _Buster Brown_ on page 32 of _The Comics: An Illustrated
History of Comic Strip Art_ by by Jerry Robinson (Putnam, 1974).
A girl in the strip says, "Swell time I had -- NOT!"  Jesse
Sheidlower writes:  "Jonathan Lighter and I wrote an article
about this in _American Speech_ in 1993, which included the 1905
E. P. Butler quote as well as an earlier (1900) quote from George
Ade that's somewhat equivocal; we also cited a number of later
but still early uses including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund
Wilson, and others.  Since then we've found an even earlier one
(1893 _Princeton Tiger_ (Mar. 30) 103: An Historical Parallel--
Not.) as well as more early examples (though the Buster Brown
example is new to us)."

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 book called _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

   Spanish pesos were also called piastres, Spanish dollars, and
pieces of eight.  (The piece of eight was so called because its
value was eight reales.  Some countries made one-real coins by
slicing pieces of eight into eight sectors; the still-current U.S.
slang "two bits" for a quarter of a dollar may refer to this,
although "bit" denoting any small coin -- as in "threepenny bit" --
was already in use.)  The coins 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 dollar
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  -- 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 was
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.



Spelling reform

   The Simplified Spelling Society has a WWW page at:


   Only a small minority of alt.usage.english participants favour
spelling reform.

Joke about step-by-step spelling reform

   The original version of this joke was apparently by Mark Twain,
and can be found at
<>.  A more
elaborate version, by Dolton Edwards (probably a pseudonym), which
gives no credit to Twain, was published in the science fiction
magazine _Astounding_ in 1946 and can be found at
Various other versions are in circulation.

What is "ghoti"?  (notes by Jim Scobbie)

   It's an alternative spelling of "chestnut". :-)  O.K., it's
"fish", re-spelled by a Victorian spelling-reform advocate to
demonstrate the inconsistency of English spelling:  "gh" as in
"cough", "o" as in "women", "ti" as in "nation".

   "Ghoti" is popularly attributed to George Bernard Shaw.  But
Michael Holroyd, in _Bernard Shaw: Volume III: 1918-1950: The Lure
of Fantasy_ (Chatto & Windus, 1991), p. 501, writes that Shaw "knew
that people, 'being incorrigibly lazy, just laugh at spelling
reformers as silly cranks'.  So he attempted to reverse this
prejudice and exhibit a phonetic alphabet as native good sense
[...].  But when an enthusiastic convert suggested that 'ghoti'
would be a reasonable way to spell 'fish' under the old system
[...], the subject seemed about to be engulfed in the ridicule from
which Shaw was determined to save it."  We have not been able to
trace the name of the "enthusiastic convert".  Bill Bedford
( writes:  "I seem to remember a film/TV
clip of Shaw himself referring to this - but don't ask for chapter
and verse."

   It has also been suggested that "ghoti" could be a spelling
of "huge":  "h" having its usual value, [h]; "g" making [j], the
sound of "y" in yes, after the following consonant as in
"lasagne"; "o" = [u] as in "move", "t" = [d] as in "Taoism", and
"i" = [Z] as in one pronunciation of "soldier".

   In the same vein is "ghoughpteighbteau":

P    hiccough
O    though
T    ptomaine
A    neigh
T    debt
O    bureau

   Supposedly, this is an example of how awful English spelling is,
and why it ought to be reformed.  In fact, it argues that English
spelling is kind and considerate, and easy.  Why?  Because "potato"
isn't spelled "ghoughpteighbteau".  It's spelled "potato"!  O.K,
O.K., "neigh" isn't spelt "ne", and we can get into all the old
arguments, but these really fun examples overstate the case and
strike those of us opposed to spelling reform as self-defeating.

I before E except after C (notes by Mark Wainwright)

   This old schoolroom spelling rule is supposed to help remember
the spelling of vowels pronounced /i:/, the long "e" sound of "feed".
It has no value for words where the vowel is pronounced in any other
way, the key fact which people bemused by many "exceptions" to the
rule usually do not realise.  A version often cited in the U.K.
makes the restriction clear:

        When the sound is /i:/,
        it's I before E
        except after C.

A common U.S. version:

        or when pronounced /eI/
        as in "neighbour" and "weigh".

is misleading, as "ei" has many other pronunciations, as in, for
instance, "height", "heifer", and "forfeit".  The rule also fails to
apply to names (Sheila, Keith, Leigh, etc.).

"I before E":  Properly applied, the rule is a very useful guide for
people who are not naturally excellent spellers; those who are may
look out for themselves.  To an RP speaker, the exceptions in common
use are very few:  they are "seize", "inveigle", "caffeine",
"protein", and "codeine".  (The last three were originally
pronounced as three-syllable words.)  Other dialects pronounce a few
other -ei- words with /i:/, making extra exceptions:  "either" and
"neither" (RP vowel: /aI/, as in "pie"), "geisha" and "sheik(h)"
(RP: /eI/, as in "say"), and "leisure" (RP: /E/, as in "get").  (Of
course, derivatives of the above words, such as "seizure",
"decaffeinate", and "sheik(h)dom", are spelled similarly.)  There
are many exceptions in Scots, so speakers with a large Scots
vocabulary may as well give up on this rule.  The vowel in "weir"
and "weird" is usually quite different, as comparison of "weird" and
"weed" will show; for most speakers, "weird" has a diphthong.

"except after C":  Fowler, who called the rule "very useful", noted:
"The c exception covers the many derivatives of Latin _capio_
[= "take"], which are in such common use (_receive_, _deceit_,
_inconceivable_; cf. _relieve_, _belief_, _irretrievable_) that a
simple rule of thumb is necessary."  For most Britons, /i:/ after C
is always "ei" rather than "ie", except in "specie" and "species".
Americans generally pronounce -cies and -cied in words derived from
-cy endings (e.g., "fancies" and "fancied" from "fancy") with /i:/
rather than /I/, making these words exceptions.  Still, few people
have any difficulty pluralizing -y, so such speakers should still be
able to extract some value from the rule, by the application of a
little common sense.

How do you spell "e-mail"?

   In September 1995, Jeff Adams ( did a search on
"a corpus of about 40 million words of Usenet news articles", and
counted the following forms:

        email      19371
        e-mail     15359
        E-mail      7572
        Email       5906
        E-MAIL      3659
        E-Mail      2986
        EMAIL       1269
        EMail        521
        eMail        303
        e-Mail        42
        eMAIL          5

and several other forms each rare enough to be probably "just dumb

        Total without hyphen:   27378
        Total with    hyphen:   29622

   Bob Cunningham searched articles posted to alt.usage.english
between mid-May and mid-September 1995, found 604 instances of
"e-mail" and 235 of "email".

   A 1995 poll of subscribers to the Copyediting-L mailing list
produced 60 votes for "e-mail" and 24 votes for "email".

   In favour of "e-mail", it has been argued that there are
analogous nonce compounds in "e-" (e.g, "e-vote", "e-boyfriend");
that the hyphen is a clue that the word is stressed on the first
syllable; and that _email_ is French for "enamel".  In favour of
"email", it has been argued that this is the spelling used in the
Jargon File, and that there has been a general trend away from
hyphenating words once they become established.  Many dictionaries
favour "E-mail", which can be justified by analogy with such forms
as "A-bomb", "C-section", and "G-string".

Why is "I" capitalized?

   The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (Wilson, 1988, ISBN
0-8242-0745-9) says: "~I~ _pron._ 1137 _i;_ later _I_ (about 1250,
in _The Story of Genesis and Exodus_); developed from the unstressed
form of Old English (about 725) _ic_ singular pronoun of the first
person (nominative case).  Modern and Middle English _I_ developed
from earlier _i_ in the stressed position.  _I_ came to be written
with a capital letter thereby making it a distinct word and avoiding
misreading handwritten manuscripts.  In the northern and midland
dialects of England the capitalized form _I_ appeared about 1250.
In the south of England, where Old English _ic_  early shifted in
pronunciation to _ich_ (by palatalization), the form _I_ did not
become established until the 1700's (although it appears
sporadically before that time)."


   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 the U.K. 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 the U.K. 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 verbs 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, reprise,
revise, rise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise.  (At least,
they're almost always spelled that way:  "advertize",
"merchandize", and "surprize" ARE listed in some U.S. college
dictionaries, but are not the usual forms anywhere.)   A useful
mnemonic is that, except "improvise", none of these make nouns in
"-isation", "-ization", or "-ism".  (Exceptions in the other
direction are "aggrandize", "capsize", "recognize", and verbs from
which no verb "-ization" has been formed because the parent or
cognate noun already had the desired meaning.)

   "Apprise" means "to inform"; "apprize" means "to appreciate".
U.K. "prise open" = U.S. "pry open".

   "Exorcize" is most commonly spelled "exorcise" in the U.S.,
though "exorcize" (which Fowler would have recommended) also occurs.

   For other verbs, "-ize" is usual in the U.S. and recommended by
Fowler, although "-ise" is also used in the U.K.  Fowler recommends
"-yse" in "analyse", "catalyse", and "paralyse", although "-yze" is
usual in the U.S.

doubling of final consonants before suffixes (NEW!)

  The general rule is that when one of the suffixes "-ed", "-ing",
"-er", and "-est" is applied to a word ending in one consonant
preceded by exactly one vowel, the consonant is doubled if and only
if the word's final syllable is stressed:  "omitted" but "edited";
"preferred" but "offered".  Americans obey the stress rule when the
final consonant is "l":  "repelled" but "traveled".  Britons double
"l" regardless of stress:  "repelled", "travelled".  Detailed
discussion of doubling can be found in MEU under "-B-, -BB-",
"-C-, -CK-", "-D-, -DD-", etc.

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" (or "it has"), "they are", and "who is" (or "who has")
respectively.  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).


1. The standard rule:  Use 's for the singular possessive, and a
   bare apostrophe after the plural suffix -s or -es for the plural
   possessive.  For example:

                            Singular         Plural
      Nominative              dog             dogs
      Possessive              dog's           dogs'

2. 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:

                            Singular         Plural
      Nominative             class          classes
      Possessive             class's        classes'

   (The possessive plural is what is wanted in "the Joneses'".
   This is short for "the Joneses' house", which is not "the
   Jones's house".)

   There are, however, examples where the singular possessive suffix
   is a bare apostrophe:

                           Singular         Plural
      Nominative            patience        patiences
      Possessive            patience'       patiences'

   (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.

   A. The 's suffix is preferred for one-syllable words (grass's) or
   where the final syllable has a primary or secondary stress

   B. The bare apostrophe is preferred:
      - for words ending in -nce (stance');
      - for many classical names (Aristophanes', Jesus', Moses');
      - where the juxtaposition of two or more [s] sounds would
        cause an awkwardness in pronunciation (thesis').

   C. 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.

3. 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
omitted letter.

   (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 18th
century, but today the "its" form is considered to be the only
correct spelling.

   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.


   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 /klA:s@z/.

   For nouns where there is some difference of opinion over whether
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 is
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.

--                     Mark Israel