All posts by Allan Metcalf

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May Day! May Day! May Day!

Today isn’t just any day. It’s May Day, the first of May.

Geoffrey Chaucer knew it was special. In “The Legend of Good Women,” he wrote that he tossed his book aside when May came:

On bokes for to rede I me delyte . . .
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok, and my devocioun!

And on the first day of May, from before Chaucer’s time to our own, northern countries have celebrated the end of …

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Getting Down to Brass Tacks — and Silver Ones

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and catch up with Comments on Etymology, that unique journal edited and self-published eight times each academic year by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology. The journal is on paper only, but you can reach the editor/publisher by email at: gcohen@mst.edu.

So far this year Comments on Etymology has documented in detail the possible or likely origins of abacus, kibosh, ukulele, and jazz. Now brass tacks has its turn. The latest issue…

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The Double Meaning of ‘Bi-’

Poster by Chris Corneal, Michigan State U.

When we clash about usage, sometimes the arguments are so fierce because the stakes are so small. Does it really matter, for example, whether we say “20 items or fewer” or “20 items or less”? Of course it does, to those who see “less” as a sign of the collapse of civilization, but not much to the rest of us. Either way, there’s no question what the sign means. Count the contents of your cart, and direct it toward the appropriate aisle.

Most other questi…

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Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?

A forensic linguist once used DARE to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio. Image courtesy DARE archives.

Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, b…

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Naming the Numbers of March Madness

As warriors of the hard court advance from contest to contest in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, the names of the stages of the struggle follow a heroic poetic pattern going back beyond even the Old English age of Beowulf. This pattern is alliteration, the repetition not of the ends of words (as in rhyme) but the beginnings.

The whole event has the alliterative title March Madness, repeating initial M. And the tournament, encompassing 68 tribes or clans, begins with competition …

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Me and I, Sailing to Skye

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), of “Outlander.”

Why me? Why I?

That’s the grammatical puzzle posed by a newly popular Scottish ballad. It’s a strange song, as well as a haunting one, that begins every episode of the Starz series Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling novels, the TV series is an impressively realistic  re-creation of life in Scotland in the 1740s, to which the 20th-century heroine, Claire Beauchamp, finds herself transported. This happe…

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Monday Is OK Day

Monday is the anniversary of the birth of the expression OK, 176 years ago, on the second page of the Boston Morning Post for Saturday, March 23, 1839. OK began as a joke, a deliberately misspelled abbreviation of “all correct.” And it remained a joke for the better part of a century, even as it was being put to serious use in OK-ing documents, train departures and arrivals, and wholesome products like Pyle’s O.K. Soap.

But that’s not the most important reason for celebrating OK. In all seriousn…

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Coming and Going

GrizzlyThe complexity of language mirrors the complexity of life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called deictic words, those that connect a particular situation in language directly to a situation in life. Consider this and that, for example. This is something closer to the speaker or writer; that  is something more distant.

Similarly, here and there depend on who or what’s closer, whether to the speaker or to something the speaker is discussing. Now and then require decisions about time. 

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OK: Konspicuous, Kurious, Komical

single-k-letter-green-mdAt last it’s March, a month to celebrate the arrival of spring and the anniversary of America’s greatest word. On March 23, three days after the vernal equinox, comes the 176th anniversary of the birth of that word: OK.

Among the many unusual qualities of OK is the fact that we know exactly when and where it was created, thanks to the indefatigable research of Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. It came from the pen and the newspaper of Charles Gordon Greene. On Page 2 of the Saturday, Mar…

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Greek Weekend

As the Romans did thousands of years ago, so today we continue to hold the ancient classical Greek language in high regard. Among other things, this regard gives us a triad of Greek occasions on the second weekend of March 2015.

One is pi day. Not pie but pi, although many celebrate the day with pies. But this is the Greek pi, standing for perhaps the most famous number in mathematics, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The ancients, starting with Archimedes, figured thi…