Friday, June 30, 2006

Drop That Pasty, eh?

Q. What is the difference between dialect and jargon?

A. Dialect is usually associated with a geographic region. It involves features such as vowel sounds, diphthong values, speed of talking, clipped or unclipped words, sentence structure, and idiomatic vocabulary. Note that it's not too difficult for the average person to identify broadly where someone came from (California, Deep South, Maine, etc.). Aside from geography being a determiner, sometimes class is a factor. In that case, the technical term used is sociolect. When dialect leads to mutual unintelligibility, it is usually in its spoken form. Written out, common features are more apparent.

Jargon, rather than being limited to a specific region or class, is usually the property of particular professions, hobbies, pursuits, sects, and so on. Generally, a specialized vocabulary is the strongest feature of jargon. Speakers will retain their regional accents, but they will share a common technical vocabulary. When it is designed merely to exclude outsiders, jargon is justly subject to ridicule; when it is designed to allow professionals to communicate efficiently and accurately, it serves a useful purpose.

The word vernacular covers the everyday language spoken by a people as opposed to a more literary language; it is native or indigenous. But sometimes it is a synonym for dialect (the vernaculars of New York City) and sometimes a synonym for jargon (the legal vernacular).

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

More of the Same

Q. Can you say something about words which sound alike but have different spellings, and words which are spelled alike but have different meanings?

A. There are actually three variations here, word sets with certain similarities as well as differences. Focusing on the similarities, we have homographs, homonyms, and homophones.

(1) A homograph [from Greek homo-, same, and –graph, something written] is a word spelled the same as another, but having a different meaning, derivation, or pronunciation.
  • lead (led/leed)
He used a lead pencil to lead the orchestra.
  • bow (boe/baugh)
She tied a bow to the bow of the ship.
  • entrance (ENtrens/enTRANCE)
I was entranced by the ornate entrance.

When we focus on the differences, it is called a heterograph.

(2) A homonym [from Greek homo-, same, and –nym, name] is a word spelled and sounding the same as another, but having a different meaning and origin.
  • pool
    The pool table was located near the swimming pool.
    The neighbors pooled their money for the football pool.
  • bank
    They slid down the bank into the river.
    Don’t forget to put your check in the bank.
    She approached a bank of elevators.
    We flew through a cloud bank.
    Don’t forget to bank the campfire before you go to sleep.
    If you bank the 8-ball, it will go into that far pocket.

When we focus on the differences, it is called a heteronym.

(3) A homophone [from Greek homo-, same, and –phoné, sound] is a word sounding the same as another, but having a different meaning or derivation or spelling.
  • all/awl
    All I know about an awl is that it is a pointed tool.
  • fair/fare
    Do you have enough bus fare to get to the fair?
  • to/two/too
    The two of us want to go with you, too.
  • there/they’re/their
    They’re trying to tell you that their house is over there.

When we focus on the differences, it is called a heterophone.

Homonym is often considered a broader term which encompasses both homographs and homophones.

homographs look the same,
homophones sound the same, and
homonyms look and sound the same.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Home is Where the Hearth Is

Metaphors are shortcuts, a way of quickly getting to the heart of the matter by using comparisons. The basic requirements are that the comparison be clear and that it be apt. It also doesn’t hurt if it presents a striking or colorful image.

It’s not surprising that familiar objects tend to be the focus of metaphors. The mental movement is from the familiar to the less familiar, and what could be more familiar than the structures that shelter us, the furniture that supports us, and the clothing that protects us? So today, let’s visit some metaphors that feature the structures that shelter us.


I’m going to use the neologism structuronym to describe metaphors based on features found in buildings. The –nym part signifies a name or term. The first part comes from the Latin stem -struct-, which means built. Let’s take a home tour.

By looking up, we can see the source of hit the ceiling and the negatively charged glass ceiling. We also have wage and price ceilings. And while we all live under the same roof, as it were, some of us raise the roof at times, especially when gas prices go through the roof. It’s good to have a roof over one’s head, a structure that makes it possible to shout from the rooftops (unless your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth), but don’t make yourself feel like a cat on a hot tin roof.

Walls seem to be a favorite way to express desperation and frustration. Thus, we may force someone to the wall, or, in a variation, drive someone to the wall. At that point, you’ll find yourself with your back to the wall or your nose to the wall, where you may bang your head against the wall, climb the wall, or run into a brick wall. If you find yourself in a hole-in-the-wall, you may encounter wall-to-wall people and discover that the walls have ears—probably belonging to that fly on the wall. If you go to the wall for your cause, you’ll be able to read the handwriting on the wall, which is sometimes off the wall. Above all else, don’t let yourself get walled in.

Looking down, you may be floored to discover that you are in on the ground floor. If you take the floor, you will have the floor to do as you wish—perhaps mop up the floor with someone. It’s enough to make you pace the floor.

If you beat a path to someone’s door or if you darken someone’s door, it may be because you’re trying to get a foot in the door or to lay something at their door. But it’s always possible that even if you go door to door, they won’t open a door for you or that they will show you the door, only to shut the door on you. They’re determined to keep the wolf from the door, hoping that he will decline and be at death’s door. All of this takes place as they hide behind closed doors.

Eyes are the window to the soul (or TV the window to the world), but if you don’t see a window of opportunity, or if you miss the launch window, your hopes may all be out the window.

It’s a home truth that a man’s home is his castle, a place to make yourself at home, but a woman makes a house a home. Charity begins at home, so bringing home the bacon will drive the point home. And unless the chickens come home to roost, and until the cows come home, there may be nothing to write home about. Of course, with all those animals milling about, someone may eat you out of house and home, something that will hit close to home. So keep the home fires burning and you’ll be home free—unless nobody’s home.

If meals are on the house and you have a boarding house reach, you’ll bring the house down as people watch you munch like a house on fire. If you wish to hold an open house, you’ll have to clean house and put your house in order. If you’re playing house in a house of ill-repute, you’ll find yourself living in a house of cards. People who live in glass houses, after all . . . .

Unless you are in the cellar and don’t have enough room to swing a cat, you probably have a room with a view; perhaps you even live in an ivory tower. If you have a skeleton in the closet, you may want to come out of the closet and beard the lion in his den—unless he’s hanging from the rafters.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Monday, June 26, 2006


Q. I know that an emoticon is a small figure composed with punctuation marks, but where did the word come from?

A. Emoticon is a blend of EMOTion and ICON. The emoticon is meant to show tone or emotion that might otherwise be missed. The first instance of the word listed in the OED is from 1990, and it was used in the New York Times, January 28, section I, page 39, column 4. You’ll find a glossary of emoticons here.

An emoticon may show a wide range of reactions, but the most famous is the smiley face, with :-) or without :) a nose. Given that it’s so ubiquitous, I was surprised to discover that the first person to use it has been documented. He was Scott Fahlman, and he used it on the Carnegie Mellon University online bulletin board in 1982. He says he invented the icon to mark sarcasm or humor that might be missed by some readers, thus leading to tedious and unnecessary responses that took funny statements seriously. You may read his musings on the invention here.

This is the original posting:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use



Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Snow White Meets the Crapulent God

If you were born between January 21 and February 19, your symbolic gem is the amethyst, a word with an interesting history.

It is Greek in origin. The a- that starts the word is a privative, a negative. The -methus- stem means intoxicated. So amethyst literally means “not intoxicated.” The ancients believed that dropping a piece of amethyst in a goblet of wine--or, better yet, drinking from a goblet made of amethyst--prevented drunkenness. A strange belief, and one rooted in mythology.

Dionysus was the ultimate party animal, the god of wine, celebration, and excess. One day he felt angry and vindictive toward humans who didn’t share his love of debauchery, and he vowed to kill the next sober human that came his way. As luck would have it, a young virgin named Amethyst strolled into his vicinity, and true to his word, Dionysus summoned up ferocious tigers to rip her apart.

Innocent Amethyst was on her way to worship the goddess Diana. When Diana saw what was about to happen, she quickly transformed the young mortal into a glimmering pure white stone--quartz--to make her impervious to the teeth and claws of the tigers.

Dionysus got the message, and immediately he felt remorse. Struck now by the viciousness of his actions, he began to cry. Copious tears fell into his goblet of wine, which began to overflow. Wine dripped onto the white stone, giving it a purple color that endures today.


Footnote: They just opened a bar on the moon. The drinks are good, but the place has no atmosphere.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Writing Tips

Q. Aside from "write about what you know," which all English teachers urge, what advice can you give about nonfiction writing?

A. I love these open-ended questions, but I'd need an entire book to answer that one. Writing is a juggling act; a writer has to keep many things spinning simultaneously. But let me mention three considerations that are sometimes given short shrift.

First, never lose sight of your audience. They have a major role in shaping what you have to say and how you burnish it. Use questions such as these as guidelines:
  • What does my audience already know about the subject?
  • What do I think they should know or believe about my subject?
  • What do they already know about me and my credentials?
  • What do I want them to know about me or my specific angle?
  • Do they have contrary attitudes that I need to overcome?

Second, keep your purpose sharply in mind as you write. Ask yourself
  • Do I want to explain something about the subject?
  • Do I want to express something about myself or stay in the background?
  • Do I want to persuade my audience to do something or simply to believe?
  • Do I want to learn something by inviting readers' responses?
  • What one strong outcome do I desire after people have read my piece?
Finally, strictly control your tone, the attitude which shows through in your words. Being formal or informal, serious or humorous, magisterial or inquiring — these must always be matters of deliberate choice. Try using these considerations to set your tone:
  • Does this assignment place me in the role of teacher or leader?
  • Does this assignment place me in the role of an equal?
  • Does this assignment place me in the role of a learner or disciple?
  • Is this a formal or a relaxed situation?
  • Will humor dishonor my topic or alienate some of my readers?
  • Should I speak from the head or from the heart?
APT advice: audience, purpose, tone.

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Rose By Any Other Name

Journalist Franklin P. Adams coined the term aptronym to designate a name that is suited to a profession. And so we have Roy Holler, auctioneer; James Bugg, exterminator; Linda Toot, flautist; Dorothy Reading, librarian; Marvin Dime, coin dealer; and Priscilla Flattery, publicist. Today, let’s take a look at some categories that have more than their share of suitable names. (You’ll find an entire chapter on this subject in my latest book, On The Lamb in a Doggy Dog World.)


• Rev. James R. God is minister of the Baptist Church in
Congress, South Carolina
• Rev. D. Goodenough is a Methodist minister
• Donald Goodness is the rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York City
• There is a feminist theologian named Dr. Carol Christ.
• The Rev. Samuel Abbot is an Episcopalian priest, as is Rev. George Easter. Father Donald
Abbot serves the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.


• Dr. Tom Fillar is a dentist.
• So are Dr. Aichen and Dr. Chiew.
• Dr. Hertz was a dentist in Ft. Lauderdale.
• Dr. Yankelovich is a dentist in Palos Heights, Illinois.
• Dr. Les Plack is a dentist in the San Francisco Bay Area.


• Dr. Dick Chopp is an Austin, Texas, vasectomy specialist.
• Joseph C. Babey is a pediatrician.
• Dr. Harry Beaver is a Virginia gynecologist.
• American Urological Association members include Dr. P.P. Peters, Dr. Wiener, Dr. Cox,
Dr. Dick, and Dr. John Thomas..
• Dr. Richard Bone is an osteopath.


• In Traverse City, Michigan, three lawyers are named Justice, Robb, and Law.
• If your reputation has been defiled, you may want to consult with Boston’s Joshua Stayn,
and if you pay by the hour, Florida’s Kathy Klock might be your pick.
• Michael Ram will help you with Military Law, but not as avidly as Michael Guerra (Spanish
for war).
• Daniel Saylor specializes in Maritime Law.
• In Rochester, David Tennant will help you with Real Estate Law.


• Prof. Martin Braine is an American cognitive psychologist.
• S.M. Breedlove writes on sexual dimorphism for the Journal of Neuroscience.
• Gene Shearer is a Biologist with the U.S. National Institute of Health.
• The American expert on deformed frogs is Professor Hoppe of Southwest University of
• Dr. Randolph Seed worked on a project on artificial insemination at the Reproduction and
Fertility Clinic in Chicago.


Specialists in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry include
  • Dr. Denton
  • Dr. Hugg
  • Dr. Noh
  • Dr. Panik
  • Dr. Van der Gaag

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Who Put the Heath in Heathen?

I had occasion to look up the word pagan the other day, and as is true of so many deceptively simple words, it has an interesting and elusive background.

Ultimately, it comes from a Latin word that means a country dweller, a geographical rather than theological designation. Obviously, it has traveled a long way to get to today’s meaning, and the route is not entirely clear.

One suggestion found in dictionaries is that Christianity had its fastest growth in its early years in cities or along important trade routes. Thus, those who lived in remote areas clung to polytheistic worship longer than those in densely-populated regions; they were pagani -- rustics.

A second line of reasoning taking us from “rural” to “heathen” suggests the US vs. THEM dichotomy. If you were not of my community, if you did not live in my village, you were out there somewhere in the heath--bare, uncultivated wasteland.

Another meaning of paganus in Latin was a civilian, as opposed to a member of the military. So the line of reasoning used here is that Christians became soldiers of Christ, while non-Christians were civilian, or unsaved. Read Ephesians 6:11-17 for military metaphors involving armor: breastplates, shields, and helmets. A classic division of Christian church members spoke of The Church Militant (those still on earth) and The Church Triumphant (those already in heaven).

The ironic thing about this is that you’ll probably find more pagans in big cities than in rural America.


Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Can You Topo This?

Toponymy is the study of place names. It comes from the Greek topos, a place, and onoma, a name. It is a serious field of study; there is even a permanent United Nations commission soberly known as the Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).

Toponymy involves history, etymology, and geography, of course, but I’m bypassing all that and going straight for the funny bone. I confess: it’s the silliness of some place names that attracts me. It’s shallow and sophomoric on my part, but life is serious enough already; a day without a snicker and a snort can be oppressive.

So here are a few strange place names that I’ve encountered. If I’ve missed some of your favorites, let me know.

  • AL: Burnt Corn
  • AK: Eek
  • AZ: Horse Thief
  • AR: Toad Suck
  • CA: Weed
  • CO: Last Chance
  • CT: Giant Neck
  • DE: Slaughter Beach
  • FL: Picnic
  • GA: Experiment
  • HI: Volcano
  • ID: Hellhole
  • IL: Oblong
  • IN: Santa Claus
  • IA: What Cheer
  • KS: Speed
  • KY: Rabbit Hash
  • LA: Waterproof
  • ME: Purgatory
  • MD: Mousetown
  • MA: Sandwich
  • MI: Hell
  • MN: Sleepy Eye
  • MS: Hot Coffee
  • MO: Tightwad
  • MT: Joe
  • NE: Magnet
  • NV: Jackpot
  • NH: Rye
  • NJ: Cheesequake
  • NM: Truth or Consequences
  • NY: Horseheads
  • NC: Lizard Lick
  • ND: Beach
  • OH: Mudsock
  • OK: Greasy
  • OR: Talent
  • PA: Intercourse
  • RI: Tarbox Corner
  • SC: Coward
  • SD: Tea
  • TN: Soddy Daisy
  • TX: Cut and Shoot
  • UT: Helper
  • VT: Satan's Kingdom
  • VA: Lick Fork
  • WA: Humptulips
  • WV: Left Hand
  • WI: Disco
  • WY: Chugwater

I can't promise that these aren't apocryphal stories, but two of the towns above appeared in unintentionally hilarious headlines. A paper in Waterproof, Louisiana, is said to have carried this headline for a tragic story: Waterproof Men Drown. And in Illinois, not too far from the farming community of Oblong, there is a city named Normal. A society section headline allegedly read, Normal Man Marries Oblong Woman.

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Gimme That Olde Tyme Lingo

Q. When I read an old text, such as the Declaration of Independence, I practically get whiplash from all the capital letters that keep my head bouncing up and down. Why were they so much in love with capitals?

A. Let's take a look at a sentence that will confirm your impression:

"WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation."

Using uppercase letters was simply a convention of 18th century printing. Notice that the words capitalized (except for When) are all nouns; that was their practice. Within a sentence, our practice is to capitalize only those nouns which are proper names.

Aside from convention, it actually seems to have helped people read better, especially foreigners. Sometimes the same spelling is used for a noun and a verb, so if the noun is capitalized and the verb is not (Respect/respect) there is an unmistakable signal. Additionally, there are some pronunciation shifts depending on the part of speech:
  • Digest/digest
  • Bow/bow
  • Lead/lead
  • Refuse/refuse, etc.
Once again, capitals helped. So they weren't quite as arbitrary as it first appears.

A related question came in soon afterwards:

Q. In old documents, the letter –s often looks like an –f, as in fuccefs for success. What was going on?

A. Printers imitated a fancy script –s from earlier scribes, mostly because it led to pleasing letter combinations. The –f version of the letter also had a sibilant sound, and it was called the long or medial -s. We have to use the letter –f to represent it, but it was a letter unto itself, with a very short crossbar. The general rule was this: use the medial –s at the beginning of a word or inside a word, but use the small –s as the last letter of a word.

Here's an example from Thomas Paine's Common Sense:

"Perhaps the ƒentiments contained in the following pages are not yet ƒufficiently faƒhionable to procure them general favor...."

Coincidence or not, the same thing happened in Greek, where an initial or internal sigma had one form (σ), and the sigma at the end of a word had another (s).

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Tautological Pleonastic Redundancies

Q. People are getting pretty sloppy about acronyms. I saw a bank ad that spoke of its convenient ATM machines.

A. I assume that you’re referring to the redundancy involved in Automated Teller Machine machine. My guess is that some folks have no idea what the initials stand for. There are more of these than you might at first notice.

  • ABM missile [Antiballistic Missile]
  • ABS system [Antilock Braking System]
  • AC current [Alternating Current]
  • ACT test [American College Test]
  • ADSL line [Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line]
  • A.M. in the morning [Ante Meridiem: lit. before noon]
  • ATM machine [Automated Teller Machine]
  • BASIC code [Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code]
  • CAD design [Computer-Aided Design]
  • CNN network [Cable News Network]
  • DC current [Direct Current]
  • DMZ zone [ Demilitarized Zone]
  • DOS operating system [Disk Operating System]
  • ESOP plan [Employee Stock Option Plan]
  • GIF format [Graphic Interchange Format]
  • GMT time [Greenwich Mean Time]
  • GOP party [Grand Old Party]
  • GRE exam [Graduate Record Examination]
  • HIV virus [Human Immunodeficiency Virus]
  • HTML language [Hypertext Markup Language]
  • ICU unit [Intensive Care Unit]
  • ISBN number [International Standard Book Number]
  • ISDN network [Integrated Services Digital Network]
  • LAN network [Local Area Network]
  • LCD display [ Liquid Crystal Display]
  • LED diode [Light Emitting Diode]
  • NATO organization [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]
  • OPEC countries [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries]
  • PC computer [Personal Computer]
  • PIN number [Personal Identification Number]
  • Please RSVP [Répondez S'il Vous Plaît: lit. reply, please]
  • P.M. in the evening [Post Meridiem: lit. after noon]
  • RAM memory [Random-Access Memory]
  • SALT talks [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks]
  • SAT test [Scholastic Aptitude Test]
  • SCSI interface [ Small Computer System Interface]
  • START treaty [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]
  • UPC code [Universal Product Code]
  • VAT tax [Value Added Tax]
  • VIN number [Vehicle Information Number]
By the way, an acronym can be pronounced as if it were a word (CAD, DOS, PIN, RAM). If the initials are read individually, the abbreviation is known as an initialism (FBI, GOP, HTML, SAT).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Holy Mackerel, Kingfish!

Q. Where did the mackerel in Holy Mackerel come from?

A. Often, when you see holy preceding another word, it’s a euphemism (Holy Smokes, Holy Cow, Holy Moley). For reasons of delicacy towards others or fear of offending God, the speaker will often substitute a less offensive word in the original phrase. Quite often, it will be a word beginning with the same letter or rhyming with the word that it replaces. So in this case, it’s likely that the original was Holy Mary or Holy Mother of God; Holy Mackerel is a softer, gentler way of expressing it.

A quick search on google reveals that it’s currently used as the name of an indie folk label, a rock band, a tackle shop, a seafood restaurant in Australia, a font family, and some cat treats. Because the fish had dark wavy bars on its back and a silvery belly, it gave rise to the term a mackerel sky, also known as a buttermilk sky.

But why mackerel instead of marble or milkmaid or mudpies? It may be related to the insulting or derisive term mackerel snapper. This was a reference to a Roman Catholic, and it recalls the former Catholic custom of abstaining from meat on Fridays, eating fish instead. The mackerel was an important food fish, widely distributed in the Atlantic Ocean. Snapper in the phrase refers to a biter, an eater, not to someone who cracks a fish’s backbone. In 1855, it also appeared in print as mackerel snatcher.

This answer was followed by a related question the very next week:

Q. “I had the bad habit of saying holy mackerel also. When we lived in France, I discovered that mackerel is some form of dirty word. I was so embarrassed; it did not cure me from saying it, but I did not say it in France! Why was it socially unacceptable?”

A. My Francophile son provided the answer. In French, maquereau means mackerel, but it also is used to designate a pimp. In folklore, the mackerel allegedly would lead fish to their spawning grounds, making it a procurer of sorts. I have seen speculation that Mack Daddy has maquereau as its origin.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A - Z words

Q. T-shirt: what does the T stand for?

A. It simply describes the shape of the garment when you spread it out. The use of traditionally capital letters to create words is fairly common. Here is a sampling.

  • A-frame: a structure, such as a house, with steeply angled sides that meet at the top in the shape of the letter A.
  • B-ball: abbreviation for basketball.
  • C-clamp: a clamp in the shape of a C; a device (used by carpenters) that holds things firmly together.
  • D-ring: an item of hardware, usually a metal ring shaped like the letter D. It may be used at the end of a leather or fabric strap, or may be secured to a surface with a metal or fabric strap.
  • E-mail: a system for sending and receiving messages electronically over a computer network.
  • F-shaped pattern: Jakob Nielsen’s eyetracking studies show that people reading a web page often use a dominant reading pattern that looks somewhat like an F. There is a horizontal eye movement across the top of the page (top bar), a second horizontal eye movement lower down the page (lower bar), and a vertical eye movement down the left side (support bar).
  • G-clamp: one of the most widely-used clamps. The screw section can be adjusted to make the jaws one to eight inches in width.
  • H-bomb: abbreviation for hydrogen bomb
  • I-beam: a steel joist or girder with short flanges and a cross section formed like an I.
  • J-particle: an electrically neutral meson having a mass 7,213 times that of the electron and a mean lifetime of approximately 1 x 10 -20 seconds.
  • K-ration: an emergency field ration for U.S. troops in WWII, consisting of a single packaged meal.
  • L-: [L-amino acid ] in biochemistry, a symbol used as a prefix to indicate the spatial configuration of certain organic compounds with asymmetric carbon atoms.
  • M-day: The day on which national mobilization for war is ordered; mobilization day.
  • N-bomb: abbreviation for a neutron bomb.
  • O-ring: a flat ring in the shape of an O, made of rubber or plastic, and used as a gasket.
  • P-particle: the most elementary particle, meaning that all other particles are made from it.
  • Q-ship: a decoy ship, especially an armed ship disguised as a merchant ship to entice submarines to surface so that they may be attacked with gunfire.
  • R-class: a rare class of asteroid, distinguished by a moderately high albedo and a reflectance spectrum with a strong absorption feature at wavelengths shorter than 0.7 µm and a fairly strong absorption feature near 1 µm.
  • S-curve: when you plot expertise with respect to time on a graph, it traces an S-shaped curve.
  • T-shirt: a collarless shirt with short sleeves, configured like the letter T.
  • U-turn: a turn, as by a vehicle, completely reversing the direction of travel.
  • V-neck: a neckline, as of a sweater, shaped like the letter V.
  • W-4: an IRS form used by an employer to withhold the correct federal income tax from a person’s pay.
  • X-ray: a relatively high-energy photon having a wavelength in the approximate range from 0.01 to 10 nanometers.
  • Y-chromosome: the sex chromosome associated with male characteristics in mammals, not occurring in females, and occurring with one X-chromosome in the male sex-chromosome pair.
  • Z-score: in statistics, a measure of the distance in standard deviations of a sample from the mean.
Now I know my A-B-Cs.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Takes a Licking, Keeps on Ticking

Q. My question involves a saying that my grandfather was fond of: a lick and a promise. What I think it refers to is a smack upside the head followed by a promise: “you do that again and you’ll really feel pain!”

A. And they said that family abuse was on the decline. No, even though to take a licking can involve violence, the origin of a lick and a promise is far more benign. The licking involved here is the rapid lapping of the tongue. Picture a cat cleaning its fur and you’ve captured the image. The idea behind a lick and a promise is that something was done in a hasty manner--a superficial and perfunctory washing, for example--but with the promise of a more thorough job later. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as the first citation: 1860 W. WHITE All round the Wrekin, xx. 207. “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.”

An allied phrase is to lick something into shape, and it has a most curious origin. Again, rather than speaking of fisticuffs, it refers to a parent animal licking its offspring. For centuries, the myth persisted that bears are born in a shapeless clump, and it is up to Mama and Papa Bear to lick them into their proper shape. It is apparent that someone with a vivid imagination saw a mother bear removing the amniotic sac from its cub and then cleaning up the amniotic fluid by licking and grooming. The image was appealing, and authors frequently called it into service.

In The Pylgremage of the Sowle [1413], Guillaume De Guileville wrote: "Beres ben brought forthe al fowle and transformyd and after that by lyckyng of the fader and the moder they ben brought in to theyr kyndely shap." [Bears are brought forth all foul and transformed, and after that, by the licking of the father and the mother, they are brought into their appropriate/ customary shape.]

Shakespeare’s King Henry VI Part 3 [Act III, Scene ii] alludes to the legend when Gloucester muses,

Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.

John Dryden’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses puts it this way:

The cubs of bears a living lump appear
When whelp’d, and no determined figure wear.
The mother licks them into shape and gives
As much of form as she herself receives.

Alexander Pope, in the Dunciad, has these lines:

"So watchful Bruin forms, with plastic care,
Each growing lump, and brings it to a bear . . . .

Samuel Butler’s Hudibras includes this:

A bear’s a savage beast, of all
Most ugly and unnatural;
Whelp’d without form, until the dam
Has lick’d it into shape and frame.

An essay by Montaigne contributes this: “Will you know what I think of it? I think they are nothing but shadows of some imperfect images and conceptions that they know not what to make of within, nor consequently bring out; they do not yet themselves understand what they would be at, and if you but observe how they haggle and stammer upon the point of parturition, you will soon conclude, that their labour is not to delivery, but about conception, and that they are but licking their formless embryo.”

Thus, it was a potent and enduring image that lasted until 19th century naturalists debunked it. The next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that maggots don’t develop from garbage. Abiogenesis rules!

Visit the Senior Corner at

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Q. I know that the word facetious contains all the vowels in order with no repetition, but my daughter claims that there are more words like that. Can you help me meet her challenge?

A. I'd be happy to provide some of them. Abstemious (moderate or spare), abstentious (self-denying), acheilous (without a lip), adventious (rare form of adventitious), aerious, (airy), affectious (obs., loving), alpestrious (obs., mountainous), anemious (growing in windy conditions), annelidous (pertaining to a worm), arsenious (containing arsenic), arterious (arterial), arteriosus (prolongation of right ventricle in mammals), caesious (bluish-gray), fracedinous (producing heat through putrefaction), gareisoun (obs., garrison), gravedinous (obs., drowsy), majestious (rare, majesty), materious (obs., material), parecious (proximity of reproductive organs in certain mosses), placentious (obs., complaisant), and tragedious (calamitous) all meet the requirements.

Remember that –y- is sometimes used as a vowel, so if you want to include that letter at the end, simply form the adverbs facetiously, abstemiously, abstentiously, and so forth.

To put your daughter on the defensive, ask her to come up with some words that contain the vowels in reverse order with no repetition. She may get subcontinental (under a continent), unoriental (not oriental), and unoccidental (not of the west), but probably only science majors know about juloidea (insect classification), muroidea (rodent superfamily), muscoidea (the family of two-winged flies), prunoidea (a suborder of radiolarian protozoa), pulmonifera (pulmonata), subhyoidean (beneath the hyoid bone), subpopliteal (recess in the knee), and suoidea (pig classification). And only avid readers of the Oxford English Dictionary will recognize quodlibetal (pert. to a scholastic debate) and duoliteral (consisting of two letters only).

Thank heavens for searchable dictionaries on disk. In the old days, we'd never be able to do a precise search such as this unless we riffled through a dictionary page by page. Even retirees don't have that kind of time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ex-Lax for Verbs

Q. I am writing to find out the difference between sung and sang. I used it to thank someone after they "sung Happy Birthday" the day before. He thought he "sang Happy Birthday." Which was correct? Thanks! Have a great day!

A. "He sang Happy Birthday" is the correct form. This is one of the irregular verbs, and they are notorious for causing problems.

The three principal parts of this verb are sing/ sang/ sung. The second spelling is used for simple past time: "My mother sang me to sleep each night." As a pure verb, the third spelling is used only with the helping verbs have/ has/ had:
  • "I have sung my last song."
  • "She has sung the National Anthem countless times."
  • "Before she had sung the last note, the crowd erupted in applause."
All of this is a trace of how complicated verbs used to be in the English language. Now, aside from roughly two hundred or so frequently used irregular verbs, all verbs simply slap on a -d or -ed (occasionally a -t) to show past time of any kind.

The forms are not always predictable. We have swim/swam/swum, but it’s swing/swung/swung. There is no swang.

If you get confused, help is near:

Visit Mike's web site at

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Thee point is . . .

Q. In church, the words thee, thou, thy, and thine show up in hymns, but nobody uses them in real life. Why is that?

A. Once upon a time--thanks to Scandinavian contributions to Germanic Old English--our pronoun system was very complicated. A strange feature of language is that, unlike government, it gets simpler as it ages.

The words you mention, along with others, were forms of what is called the second person pronoun (the one spoken to). Thee, thou, thy, and thine were used to speak directly to an individual in an intimate way. You and ye were used to address a group.

Each function of a pronoun--singular, plural, subject, object, modifier--had its own distinct spelling. In the second person, we are now reduced to you (the only spelling for singular, plural, subject, object), your (modifier right in front of the word it modifies), and yours (modifier at a distance from the word it modifies).
You dislike Tom.
Tom dislikes you.

Your dislike is apparent.
The loss is yours.

Thou used to be the singular subject form (Thou hearest my prayers) and thee was the singular object form (We beseech Thee, hear us). Thy was the singular modifier to use right in front of the word modified (Thy kingdom come) and thine was the singular modifier placed at a distance from the word it modified (For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory).

We find an example in the King James Version of the Bible. In the 5th chapter of Luke, we encounter the story of the man with palsy who is brought before Jesus for a cure; his friends let him down through the roof because things are so crowded. In the 24th verse, we find this: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy), I say unto thee, arise, and take up thy couch, and go unto thine house.” The ye refers to the scribes and Pharisees who were present; it is a plural form. Then there is a switch to thee, thy, and thine as the afflicted man alone is addressed in the familiar form.

One more observation: just as the article a is used today in front of a consonant sound and an is used in front of a vowel sound, thy was used in front of a consonant sound (thy leg trembles) and thine was used in front of a vowel sound (thine arm trembles).

I'm telling thee, tymes were different.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Almost There

Q. People seem to love to use the word "penultimate" when describing something that is the very best. It is my understanding that it actually means next to the last. Am I right?

A. You are correct, CJ. I’ve seen it misused on various web sites, for instance, as well as in print. Obviously, some people mistake it as an intensified form of ultimate. If only they knew the truth: they are actually proclaiming themselves as second best!

In fact, this is one of the terms used to describe the position of the last 3 syllables in a word. This was important in classical Greek, where certain elements of stress could or could not be used depending on the syllable’s location. The ultima was the very last syllable (ultima = "last"), the penult was one syllable back ("almost last"), and the antepenult was two back from the end ("before the almost last"). The adjectives for those words would be ultimate, penultimate, and amtepenultimate.

The -pen- segment comes from the Latin word paene, almost. It also appears in the word peninsula, which may be translated as “almost an island.” Also related is the word penury, meaning the condition of being destitute; hardship, poverty, need. Penumbra, a partial shadow (as in an eclipse), may be translated as “almost shadow.”

Speaking of misused terms, have you noticed how "that begs the question" has been wrenched from its proper meaning? For centuries, it was a philosophical term designating an argument in which the truth is assumed instead of being buttressed by evidence. It is circular reasoning, as in, "He can't possibly be lying because he's a truthful person." Another example: "God exists because the Bible says so, and God wrote the Bible, so it can't be wrong."

Now commentators and writers use "that begs the question" as if it meant "that raises the question." I don't care how widespread it's become (it's a regular gaffe on CNBC); it's still ignorant.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

To a Starving Dog, Everything Looks Like a Bone

Since we are endoskeletal, we don’t think about our bones very often. We take them for granted until we fracture one, but they are our staunch supporters and they deserve better.

Let’s indulge in some osteo-appreciation by taking a little time to recall the way that bones show up in figures of speech.

For one thing, bones are often used to express intensity or depth. When we say that a quality is bred in the bone or is in someone’s bones, we are saying that it is inherent, an inseparable component. A person who is bad to the bone or rotten to the bone is just as thoroughly corrupt as a cadaver is decomposed. If I am tired beyond endurance, I am bone-tired or weary to the bone. Aridity is expressed by bone-dry or dry to the bone, but in a downpour, you are soaked to the bone. If you catch a draft while wet, you may be chilled to the bone. A laggard is so useless that he’s bone-idle; he’s a lazy-bones. When I am absolutely convinced that something is about to happen, I feel it in my bones. And something that wounds us deeply, especially emotionally, is close to the bone.

Cemeteries, of all places, have been given descriptive names based on bones, the last survivors. They have been called bone factories or bone orchards or boneyards. Sometimes people wind up in one if they weren’t taken to a sawbones soon enough after an accident. This is especially true if your vehicle was T-boned, struck from the side by another vehicle. Others have been done in by earthquakes (bone rattlers) or shattered by violent rides (boneshakers), or they have been involved in bone-crushing events that were enough to shake their bones.

Other bone imagery includes
  • bag of bones (emaciated)
  • bare bones (no frills)
  • big-boned (large)
  • bonehead (idiot)
  • bone of contention (source of disagreement)
  • bone to pick with you (disagreement)
  • bone up (study for a test)
  • boned (copulated)
  • boner (mistake or erection)
  • bones (dice or an underlying plan)
  • brittle bones (fragile)
  • funny bone (sense of humor)
  • grind your bones into paste (threat)
  • make no bones about it (don’t object)
  • skin and bones (emaciated)
  • take you apart bone by bone (threat)
  • toss [the dog] a bone (stave off)
  • work your fingers to the bone (grinding labor)
Finally, there are the protruding bones of the hand--the knuckles. Knuckle balls and knuckle dusters show up in baseball, but only a knucklehead would try to dust off burly batters; that would invite a knuckle sandwich. On the home front, when using a knuckle buster (wrench), it’s a case of knuckling down or knuckling under.

As children, we used to answer taunts with the refrain, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." There's a skeleton of truth in that.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Q. I came across this word in a commercial. It is another word that appears to have changed its meaning through the ages. Should not WORTH-LESS mean that it is no longer valued at the original value? However, it now means 'Worth nothing'. I heard it and thought of you. Not to assume that you are worth nothing, of course.

A. Hey, thanks for the huge vote of confidence, Dave. Now I can start the day in a burst of adequacy. Oddly enough, the detached word LESS and the suffix -LESS are not the same word and do not come from the same word stem.

LESS as a detached word means "not as much as before," as you have pointed out:
My account is worth less today than it was a year ago.
As my son matures, he blames me less for the loss of his goldfish.
-LESS as a suffix means "not having; devoid of":
This cheap watch is worthless. [without value or worth]
I am blameless in this matter, your Honor. [without blame or guilt]

A good question, and one that reminds us that some word forms that seem to be identical are mere spelling accidents. An instructive example is the letter combination -PED-. Let’s give examples of its various uses:

pedant n. 1. One who pays undue attention to book learning and formal rules. 2.One who exhibits one’s learning or scholarship ostentatiously. 3. Obsolete A schoolmaster.
pedestrian n. A person traveling on foot; a walker. adj. 1. relating to a pedestrian 2. Performed on foot. 3. Undistinguished; ordinary.
pedocal n. A soil of semiarid and arid regions that is rich in calcium carbonate and lime.
pedometer n. An instrument that gauges the approximate distance traveled on foot by registering the number of steps taken.
pedomorphism n. Retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult, occurring in mammals.
pedophile n. An adult who is sexually attracted to a child or children.
peduncle n. 1. Botany The stalk of an inflorescence or a stalk bearing a solitary flower in a one-flowered inflorescence. 2. Zoology A stalklike structure in invertebrate animals, usually serving as an attachment for a larger part or structure. 3. Anatomy A stalklike bundle of nerve fibers connecting different parts of the brain. 4. Medicine The stalklike base to which a polyp or tumor is attached.
pedology-1 n. The study of the physical and mental development and characteristics of children.
pedology-2 n. The scientific study of soils, including their origins, characteristics, and uses.

Those last two are particularly confusing, since the identical word is used for two unconnected fields of study. (Well, kids do like to play in the dirt.)

What emerges is that there are three sources for the -PED- sequence:

(1) PED: Latin pes-/ped-, foot (pedestrian, pedometer, peduncle)
(2) PED: Greek pais-/paid-, child (pedant, pedomorphism, pedophile, pedology-1
(3) PED: Greek pedon, soil, earth (pedocal, pedology-2)

Your safety measure is this: when ascertaining the meaning of a word, especially an academic or professional field word, be sure to use context and dictionary etymology [found in brackets] as well as word parts that you may have memorized.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Shell Game

Q. Over the holidays my family divided into two camps: (1) those who thought that nuts WITHOUT shells were called "shelled nuts" because they 'have been shelled' (like salted nuts 'have been salted'), and (2) those who thought that nuts WITH shells were called "shelled nuts" because they 'have shells' (like salted nuts 'have salt'). What is going on here? Have we all gone completely nuts?! (Or, as I suspect, are we just two tense? -- sorry, I couldn't resist adding that last pun...)

A. You're two tents only if you think you are a tepee and a wigwam at the same time.

Here's what a web site touting California walnuts has to say: "Clean and dried walnuts are stored until ready to be cracked by state of the art equipment to produce what are called 'shelled' walnuts, which also mean shell-removed." The opposite term is "inshell" nuts

What's crazy is the language itself. Is a "criminal law professor" a law professor who has turned to crime, or a specialist in the field of criminal law? And a "small business owner"--is she the very short woman who owns the clothing store down the street?

Once upon a time, when English was a youngster, these ambiguities didn't happen. The reason is that words that belonged together had endings that signified that connection clearly; our language was synthetic in form. Over the centuries, it evolved into an analytic language-- position determines meaning (but not always clearly). If "Darla loves Tommy," it's not the same as saying "Tommy loves Darla." Old Tommy boy may not even know that the girl down the street has a crush on him.

Latin is still a synthetic language. "Canis parva habet dominum magnum" can mean only one thing: "the small dog has a large owner." It doesn't matter where you move the Latin words. Because of its ending, parva (small) must be paired with canis (dog), and magnum (large) must be paired wiith dominum (owner).

But in English, everything depends on position: spelling doesn't change:
  • The small owner has a large dog.
  • The large dog has a small owner.
  • And "has the a owner dog large small" is unthinkable--and indecipherable.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

By THE Sea, By THE Sea

Q. Why do some geographical features use the definite article (the Carp River) and others don’t (Lake Michigan)?

A. There may be exceptions, but the following observations generally hold:

Rivers, (the Carp River) canals (the Erie Canal) oceans (the Pacific Ocean), seas (the Sargasso Sea), groups of mountains (the Rocky Mountains), groups of islands (the Hawaiian Islands), a country composed of smaller divisions (the United States), deserts (the Sahara Desert), and place names containing the word of (the Bay of Fundy) usually take THE.

Countries (Canada), states (Michigan), harbors (Good Harbor), creeks (Shalda Creek), bays (East Bay), ponds (Walden Pond), islands (Mackinac Island), mountains (Mount Ranier), parks (Grant Park), counties (Leelanau County), and provinces (Nova Scotia) normally do not take THE.

Notice that the definite article in these instances is written in lower case. An exception would be if the definite article is the first word in a sentence. There, it is capitalized not because it is part of the name, but because of the rule that says you must capitalize the initial letter in a sentence.
Dona Sheehan's prints