Thursday, October 01, 2020



Terry wrote to ask about the word lug, which is the name of the container used to haul cherries (the orchard produced 100 lugs of cherries). Additionally, she asked about lugging something up the stairs, an act of dragging. Finally, she wondered if the word luggage is at all connected to the first two.

The lug used to haul cherries, the luggage we pack for trips, and the act of dragging are connected. They come from an old Swedish word that meant to move something slowly and heavily, to drag it along.

Lug was also a long stick or pole that measured roughly six yards and was used to collect fruit by beating the branches to make the fruit fall. That same lug or stick was also used as a land measure. And the word lug was used as slang to designate a clumsy or not very bright person.

But the lug nuts used to secure a tire and the lug wrench used to tighten or loosen the lug nuts come from a different source. They came from a Scandinavian word that meant a projecting part. The original word meant the ear flaps of a hat.

Listen to Mike's program Words to the Wise in real time every Tuesday morning (9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST) by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You'll also find some podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.

Thursday, May 07, 2020


 Fred from Elk Rapids called in to vent about a coworker who uses the form stoled as the past tense of the verb to steal, as in “someone stoled my jacket when I wasn’t looking.”
You are correct to complain, Fred. It is substandard English.

The principle parts of that verb are steal, stole, stolen. The first part is used to form the simple present tense and the simple future tense (with shall or will):
·      Who steals my purse steals trash.
·      My neighbor will steal any tool not locked up or hidden from view.

The second part is used for the simple past tense:
·      Someone stole my jacket when I wasn’t looking.
·      She stole my heart the first time I met her.

The third part is used to form a more complicated past tense (with has, have, or had) and the simple *future perfect tense* (with shall have or will have)
·      While on parole, my cousin has stolen computer parts again.
·      They have stolen before, and they will do it again.
·      After she had stolen the jewels, she fled to Canada.
·      By next summer, I will have purchased a new motorcycle.
·      As of next month, Lois will have stopped smoking for ten years.

All this said, stoled is actually a perfectly good word in a very limited sense, something probably only the British monarchy or the formal clergy would ever use. Stoled (an adjective) means wearing a stole – a liturgical vestment that drapes around the neck and over the shoulders, or a woman’s long fur garment worn in the same way.
·      The stoled priest was ready to hear confessions.
·      The queen, stoled in ermine, walked slowly in procession.

    [The future perfect tense shows an action that will be completed before some definite
     future time. Both the starting time and the future finishing time are brought together
     in this tense. The word perfect here is used as a synonym for completed.]


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Monday, December 30, 2019


Ginger from Acme, Michigan, asked, “What does anadromous mean, and can you please review its etymology?”

An anadromous fish is born in fresh water, heads downriver to the sea, where it spends most of its life, and then goes back up to fresh water to spawn. Salmon, smelt, and sturgeon are common examples. As for its etymology, here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to offer: < Greek ἀνάδρομος running up (a river)  < ἀνά [ana] up + δρόμος [dromos] running + -ous suffix.

A catadromous fish does the opposite. It lives in fresh water and goes back down to salt water to spawn. Most of the eels are catadromous. The OED has this: < Greek κατάδρομος  < κατά [kata] down + -δρομος [dromos] running + -ous suffix.

It’s not a fish, but the dromedary shares the same root. It’s a lighter and quicker breed of camel that will get you to your destination faster. As a combining form, -drome often means a racecourse, and it shows up in hippodrome (horses), aerodrome (airplanes), palindrome (reading the same backwards and forwards), and syndrome (several symptoms running together in a disease).

Several other running words are not very common:

·      dromomania: an excessive love of jogging
·      dromometer: an old medical instrument for measuring the speed of blood flow
·      dromoscope: an old instrument to measure the speed of a train or other vehicle
·      dromotropic: affecting the passage of nervous impulses through the muscles of the heart
·      dromophobia: fear of, or aversion to, running

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

Monday, December 16, 2019


“Tis the season when mulled wine makes its annual appearance. Mulled wine is heated wine enhanced by sugar, spices, and fruit. The origin of the word is obscure. Some say it refers to the powdered spices used to flavor it, but there is no unanimous agreement.

A listener called in to ask what the word mull means in, “I’ll have to mull this over.” It means to consider or ponder upon, and it may be based on a Dutch word meaning to ruminate.

What struck me was the multitude of words found in the Oxford English Dictionary sharing that spelling but coming from different sources with varying meanings. I’m always intrigued by multiple meanings, so let’s go down that path.

·      something reduced to small particles
·      a suspension of finely ground solid in a liquid
·      a promontory or headland in Scotland
·      the lips of an animal
·      the female labia
·      a heifer
·      a thin variety of muslin fabric
·      a snuffbox
·      a muddle or mess
·      humus mixed with underlying mineral soil
·      mulled wine

·      to pulverize
·      to warm a wine, sugar, spice, and fruit mix
·      to massage
·      to reflect and ponder
·      to give something a granular surface
·      to moisten leather to make it supple

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Doubling a Consonant

Doubling a Consonant

Harry from Suttons Bay, Michigan, asked about doubling the consonant on a stem word when adding a suffix. It gets a bit complicated (or tedious), but you should be OK if you take the following steps.

 (A) When you add a suffix to a word that ends in two or more consonants side by side, there is no spelling change.  [fill/filling, snarl/snarled, world/worldly]

 (B) When you add a suffix to a word that ends in a single consonant, there may be a spelling change. Three determining questions follow.
  • If you get a YES answer to all three of these questions, double the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix.
  • If you get a NO answer to any of these questions, do not double the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix.

            (1) YES or NO: does the suffix begin with a vowel?
                        YES  –er/-ing      [win/winner, forget/forgetting, begin/beginning]
                        NO   –ful/-ment   [wonderful, discernment]
            (2) YES or no:  are the last 3 letters of the word a consonant-vowel-consonant            (in that exact order)?
                        YES   win, forget     [win/winner, forget/forgetting]  
                        N O    greet, treat    [greeting, treated]

            (3) YES or NO:  Does the accent of the word fall on the last syllable?
(One-syllable words get an automatic YES answer)
                        YES   [stop/stopping, begin/beginner]
                        NO     secret, furtive   [secretive, furtively]

Once again, if you get a YES answer to all three of these questions, DOUBLE the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix. If you get a NO answer to any of these questions, do not double the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Phony Grammar Rules

The Dryden Code:
A Language Conspiracy Unmasked

I was an English teacher for 29 years. I saw it as my job--my profession--to uphold the standards and distinctions of English that mark the educated person. It was the least that I could do for my students.

It was only after retirement, when I finally had time to do some independent research and satisfy my curiosity, that I discovered that part of what I had done was to perpetuate language myths. They didn’t harm anyone, but they were part of a chain of beliefs that extended back to the 18th century. Unwittingly, most English teachers repeat language commandments that they acquired in graduate school without ever having the opportunity to question them. I suspect that it’s true in other disciplines, too. At any rate, I’d like to focus on that aspect of language today.

Even though English had been in existence as a distinct language since the late 8th or early 9th century, no one bothered to standardize spelling and grammar until the 18th century, and even then, there was no pressing need. The language had survived for 1,000 years without strict rules. In fact, that was what gave it strength. It was a sponge. It absorbed other languages and their features in an organic way. Taking the line of least resistance was what made English thrive. If strict rules had showed up early on in its history, today English would be a neat but dead language, like Latin, and it wouldn’t serve as the closest thing that the world has to a universal language.

Let me quickly review some time-honored grammar rules:

  • Never use double negatives
  • Never use double comparatives
  • There should be a sanctioned spelling, a sanctioned pronunciation, and a sanctioned definition for each word in English.
  • Be careful to distinguish who, which, and that
  • Use shall with the pronoun I for simple future and use will to signal determination; reverse that for the 2nd and 3rd person
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition
  • Between signifies two items and among signifies three or more
  • Never split an infinitive

I’m not normally a conspiracy buff, but I have stumbled across a 300 year old conspiracy that involves the origin of these rules.

Let me set the scene by quoting some of the more prominent early conspirators.

(1)  Poet John Dryden set the plot in motion. In 1672, referring to Shakespeare: “I dare almost challenge any man to show me a page together, which is correct in both sense and language.”   “And what correctness after this, can be expected from Shakespeare or from Fletcher, who wanted that Learning and Care which Ben Jonson had? I will therefore spare my own trouble of inquiring into their faults: who had they liv’d now, had doubtless written more correctly.”

(2) In 1697, novelist Daniel Defoe proposed an Academy to “advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduced . . .”                       

(3)  In 1712, Jonathon Swift complained “. . .that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means perfect in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and that in many instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Swift also believed that “there is no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing”

(4)  Conspirator #4, the Earl of Chesterfield, 1712: “It must be owned that our language is at present in a state of anarchy.” “Toleration, adoption, and naturalization have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary.” 

(5)  Conspirator #5, Samuel Johnson, 1755: “. . .I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated . . .” “I have laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations.”

Other writers, such as Joseph Addison, did not hesitate to use terms such as corrupt, unrefined, and barbarous when referring to English.

You can feel the indignation and sense the quivering lower lips. These men and others like them were humiliated by what they considered a degenerate language, and they planned to do something about it.

Words like chaos, anarchy, and unregulated abomination were not being tossed about lightly. In 18th century England, there was a deep social phobia about disorder; this wasn’t mere hyperbole. After 150 years of social and political upheaval, the British were legitimately uneasy.

In that brief period, they had endured the Reformation, the dissolution of monasteries and the rise of life-threatening religious intolerance, the Gunpowder Plot, two civil wars, the execution of a king (Charles I) Irish and Scottish rebellions, three wars with the Dutch, the Restoration, the Great Plague and Fire of London, and the glorious revolution of 1688. And those pesky colonials in America were beginning to act up.

The desire to stabilize every facet of society, to restore order and predictability to everyday life, was the primary goal, the dream of a generation. And language was an easy target because of the large number of social climbers and newly rich yearning to be accepted into the upper or nearly upper class. [The current practice of awarding baronetcies was originally introduced in England and Ireland by James I of England in 1611 in order to raise funds.]

So here’s the core of the conspiracy: the gentlemen mentioned previously and two more about to be named made up the rules with which we started; they made them up! They chose them arbitrarily, ignoring historical precedent, and deliberately made it seem that there was no choice. Follow their rules and you were right; ignore their rules and you were wrong. It was that simple.

It all fell into place. The half century between 1750 and 1800 saw more English grammars published than in the previous two centuries.  And all of them attempted to repair what was seen as a severely damaged language. Two grammar books in particular set norms that lasted 300 years. Robert Lowth wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762. By 1800 it had gone through 45 editions. His preface states that “The English language as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of our most approved authors, oftentime offends against every part of grammar.”

His work inspired Lindley Murray to write English Grammar, Adapted to Different Classes of Learners in 1784. Murray was a New York lawyer who retired to Holgate, England. He wrote the grammar book for students at a local girls’ school. The book caught on like wildfire. It went through 200 editions by 1850 and sold over 20 million copies. [Gone with the Wind, one of the bestselling American novels in the last century, has sold approximately 28 million copies.] Most important, it influenced every grammar book written until the last half of the 20th century.

Both Lowth and Murray clucked at the sloppy grammar of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift and everyone else except themselves. Murray even criticized the King James version of the Bible, in one instance saying that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” ought to be “will follow me and I shall dwell. 

 Most of their choices were based on personal preference alone (“this is harsh; that sounds elegant.”) Occasionally they used the big stick: “this is how it is done in Latin.” The problem is, the structure of English has no connection to Latin structure. English is an analytic language; meaning depends primarily upon word arrangement. Latin is a synthetic language; meaning depends strongly upon word endings.

Notice what I am NOT saying: I am not saying that there are no rules. I am saying that a number of the so-called rules that have burdened us for 300 years have no basis in the language itself. Clarity and precision may be achieved without wooden-headed, inflexible rules, and clarity and precision are the hallmarks of good writing.

The so-called rules of language are simply brief, summary statements of currently accepted usage. Language is the result of human action, but not of human design. To try to fix it in place and prevent change is to turn it into a corpse on a morgue table.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

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