Category Archives: Words

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Academic Writing as Such

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times…

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Here’s My Truth

5870-i-feel-safe-to-speak-and-live-my-truthI know a guy who wakes up in the night and scrawls candidates for his WBM list. These things don’t necessarily make the cut the next morning. They have to be scrawled night after night, or linger in his head through the day, and eventually they’re added. WBM stands for What’s Bugging Me. If you don’t write “Susy shoes front hall” more than once or twice, Susy’s habit of leaving her galoshes in the middle of the hallway doesn’t really bug you, and you should get over it.

My truth has been making …

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How ‘Offline’ Came to Mean ‘Online’

I read this sentence in The New York Times not long ago: “Most evenings, before watching late-night comedy or reading emails on his phone, Matt Nicoletti puts on a pair of orange-colored glasses that he bought for $8 off the Internet.”

The phrase that caught my inner ear was “off the Internet.” It sounded odd because, given the widespread use of the expressions online and on the Internet, one would expect the preposition to be on. 

A possible explanation for the “bought it off the Internet” for…

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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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Funiculi, Funicula

Ngram antennaI woke up this morning thinking of larvae. Not the actual creatures, but the word. I moved on from there to hippopatomi and stigmata.

All of these, of course, are Latinate plurals adopted into English. Some are used more than others. What my waking brain was trying to discover was a pattern. Why do we tend to Anglicize some of these plural forms and let others be? And has anyone settled on the pronunciation of ae, and does it disappear at the same rate and the same time as the ligature, æ?

I’m…

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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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The ‘-cene’ of Instruction

The recent spate of criticism around the concept of the Anthropocene (first used, says the Oxford English Dictionary, by P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000) asks us to consider the period of time within which humans have become the dominant form of life on Planet Earth. Whether that dominance is a good thing or not might depend on whether one views the subject from the perspective of, say, a strip miner, an amoeba, or a hydrogen atom.

The term Anthropocene is, of course, modeled on the tradi…

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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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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…