Submitted by Hairy Scot  •  April 7, 2014

Have diphthongs gone for good?

Will words like fæces, archæologist, fœtus disappear from our language or should they be preserved?

Submitted by trudi woodward  •  January 16, 2014

Pronunciation of “often”

As a kid in the ’50s I pronounced the word ‘often’ with the ‘t’ sound until I looked it up and found preferred pronunciation ‘of-en’. Now I always hear it with the ‘t’ pronounced. Did I imagine the change?

Submitted by Hairy Scot  •  November 23, 2013

Selfie

Selfie becomes a word!

The selfie – defined as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself’ – has taken off to such a degree in 2013 that the term was last week named Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Progress indeed!

Submitted by Brus  •  October 2, 2013

Plural forms of words borrowed from Latin

The Latin plural for neuter nouns ends -a  (in the nominative case which is the case we use when adopting Latin nouns into English). The singular ends with -um, in many examples, but not all (caput - capita as in per capita which should really be per caput as it means ‘per’ head, not heads). In English we follow this rule with words we realise are borrowed from Latin, so we have errata for plural erratum, data for plural datum (given ‘thing’, but no one seems to notice that even data is used in the English singular), crematoria for plural of crematorium, corrigenda for things which need correcting, gerundive of obligation of corrigere = to correct. One error needing correcting: corrigendum. These, when they were born, were of course Latin words. 

Sometimes not -a, however, for no particular reason. This was mentioned in a recent Daily Telegraph letter to the editor, by a James Wraight of Kent, mentioning mausolea (or mausoleums?). Apparently students at the Royal Military College of Science told their tutor “we have finished the experiment with pendula, have done the sa and are sitting on our ba sucking winega”. 

Why pendula? Not pendulums? Pendulum is neuter Latin. Just usage? The other plurals here are of course facetious, (as they are not from Latin), but make the point that the students thought pendula was a bit over the top. Like the story of the charabanc parking spot by Magdalene College at Oxford, signposted “charsabanc”, because technically it was the chars not the banc which were plural (although there were more than one row of bancs in each vehicle the term banc here was used adjectivally, describing how the chars were arranged - in a row, or rows. But the chars in each vehicle were plural too, so perhaps each vehicle should have been called a charsabanc, leaving the pedants nonplussed when it came to pluralising it, as the good bursar’s department of the college must have been doing. So they renamed the vehicle an omnibus, Latin meaning “for all” (ablative masculine/feminine neuter plural) soon abbreviated to ‘bus, as it is spelled in books published up to the Second World War, now just bus, plural buses, not busses because that means kisses. 

English isn’t hard, is it?

Submitted by Margee  •  June 4, 2013

“my bad”

Where or how did the term “my bad” originate? I hear it more frequently all the time and it really annoys me. Bad is an adjective, not a noun or verb.

Submitted by fbf  •  May 4, 2013

When did we start pluralizing prepositions?

How can backwards be a word if backward is as well? Forwards and forward? Beside and besides?

I can’t turn a light switch ons, can I? Go outs the door?

Nouns can be plural, and verbs have tense, but prepositions? 

When did we start pluralizing those?

Submitted by R  •  December 10, 2012

Hey

Why, in English, do we say ‘hey’ as a conversation starter? Why not hello? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, hey is “used especially to call attention or to express interrogation, surprise, or exultation”. It does not mention any connection to the word hello. Why then, do we so often hear hey substituted for hello? Whether talking on the phone, texting, or just trying to make small talk in person, everyone always seems to begin with hey, even when you are already talking to the person and you don’t need their attention. My best guess is that is probably another development in our ever-changing language that came about over time, but does anyone know how this connotation came to be?

Submitted by Warsaw Will  •  September 29, 2012

You’ve got another think/thing coming

If you’re over a certain age, you will probably be familiar with the expression - ‘If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming’. But if you’re a bit younger than me, you might well have heard it as - ‘You’ve got another thing coming’, especially if you’re a heavy metal fan. While I can understand that the saying could have changed through mishearing (an eggcorn?), I am puzzled as to how people who use the newer version understand it’s meaning. The original has a perfect logic to it (if not perfect grammar) which seems to me to be completely lost in the newer version.

Submitted by sigurd  •  September 11, 2012

-ic vs -ical

What’s the difference in meaning between ‘-ic’ and ‘-ical’, for example, as in ‘horrific’ versus ‘horrifical’, ‘comic’ versus ‘comical’ ‘fantastic’ versus ‘fantastical’, ‘Eucharistic’ versus ‘Eucharistical’, ‘feministic’ versus ‘feministical’, ‘ecclesial’ vs ‘ecclesiastic’ vs ‘ecclesiastical’, etc? 

The more informative the answer(s), the better.

Submitted by Dyske  •  April 30, 2012

“hack” in “hackathon”

The word “hack” has two distinct definitions. One means “to cut or sever with repeated irregular or unskillful blows.” This must be the origin of the word “hack” as used in the world of computers, i.e., to “hack into” a computer. You keep trying different tactics and passwords until you succeed.

But the word “hack” also means to cope with something, to make do with what you have and forget about the details, even if it’s not the proper way to do it, as in a “hack job”. This is a very different definition from the first but the two are often used interchangeably in a confusing way.

“Hackathon” for instance does not mean what many people assume it does. It’s not an event where a bunch of computer hackers try to hack into a system. The term “codefest” better describes what “hackathon” really is, where a bunch of computer programmers get together and collaborate on software applications. They are using the second definition, not the first.

I’m wondering which definition came first. And, where did the second definition come from? Did it exist before the days of computers?

Submitted by Thomas guzzi  •  October 28, 2011

Terms of Endearment from the 20s and 30s

I am playing rooster in a production of Annie and I need some terms of endearment that were used in the 20s and 30s. I use the term “blondie” but the woman I say it to isn’t blonde. How about “sweet cheeks”? Any help?

Submitted by sigurd  •  September 14, 2011

While/among/amid vs whilst/amongst/amidst

While/among/amid vs whilst/amongst/amidst 

Which of the foregoing variants is older?

Submitted by pje  •  February 19, 2011

to-day, to-night

I have seen to-day and to-night used in literature up to the 1920′s. When and why did this become obsolete?

Submitted by spencer  •  October 18, 2010

Stymie and stifle

How popular is the word stymie? Is it possible that it derives from the word stifle?

Submitted by shaunc  •  July 14, 2010

“Anglish”

Has anyone come across “Anglish”? Anglish or Saxon is described as “...a form of English linguistic purism, which favours words of native (Germanic) origin over those of foreign (mainly Romance and Greek) origin.”

Does anybody have an opinion or thoughts on “Anglish”...

Submitted by dan2  •  June 27, 2010

Origin of insincere “oh wait”

I’ve noticed the phrase “oh wait” being used insincerely/sarcastically, to make a point. For example: “DOW 10,000!!!! Oh Wait, Make That 7,537.” What is the origin of this sort of usage of “oh wait”?

Submitted by gretchen  •  March 16, 2010

mines

I hear people make the word “mine” plural as in, “The book is mines.” This drives me crazy! Has anyone else had this experience and where did this word come from? I have been teaching for over 20 years and it seems to have surfaced in the last 6-8 years or so. Is it just people being lazy?

Submitted by Dyske  •  April 14, 2009

Why Don’t We Abolish Irregular Verbs and Nouns?

My 4-year old daughter haven’t learned about irregular verbs and nouns yet, so she often uses the regular versions like “hided”, “breaked”, “mouses”, “fishes”, etc.. Obviously kids learn the rules and try to consistently apply them instead of learning the usage of every word case by case. So, they face the same exact frustration that ESL students do, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I thought kids learn in a more empirical, case-by-case manner, rather than relying on logical patterns.

This lead me to look up the history of irregular verbs and nouns. If native speakers of English have a hard time learning it at first, how did irregular verbs and nouns come into existence in the first place? It’s as if some sadistic English teacher invented them so that he would have more things to test his students on.

I found this entry on Wikipedia about Indo-European ablaut which explains the history of it. Not being a linguist, I didn’t quite get some of the things explained there, but I understood that the irregular verbs and nouns came from different linguistic systems within which they were perfectly regular. In other words, the English language has incorporated different systems of inflection, and now we are stuck with them.

But I feel that this is something that we could all agree to change, just as the whole world (except for the Americans) decided at one point to adopt the metric system. We just have to deal with the grammar Nazis cringe and squirm uncontrollably for several years until they get over it. We would have one less thing we have to study at school, and the same time and effort can be used to learn something more meaningful and useful.

Submitted by howardthornhill  •  May 11, 2008

“pi the type”

I have now found the phrase “pi the type” in two different books and have an idea of the meaning from the context. I would hope to learn more about the meaning and how it might have originated.

Submitted by goossun  •  July 26, 2007

Dick & Bob

Can anyone explain why the short forms or the nicknames for Robert and Richard are Bob and Dick?

« previous   1 | 2 | 3 | 4