Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Word to the Whys

Can I have a word with you? How about a few dozen?

Falling Behind

etymology, word history

At The Grammarphobia Blog this week, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman answer the question that has been dogging many of us for ages: Is butt short for buttock? The answer, as they say, may surprise you.


writing, abbreviations

If you haven’t learned it by now, this may come as a shock to you: English isn’t a single thing, with a single grammar and a single set of rules that governs all writing. I’m not talking just dialects, either: Fiction writers don’t have the same set of rules as nonfiction writers. The editors of The Chicago Manual of Style recognize this, as evidenced by Carol Saller’s post this week about using abbreviations in fiction.

The standard rule for using abbreviations is to spell out what they mean on first reference — but that doesn’t necessarily apply to fiction. Read her post to explore other approaches.

From the Mountains to the Prairies to the Oceans White with Fomites

vocabulary, etymology

Nancy Friedman of Fritinancy this week discovered a pertinent word she hadn’t seen before, and neither had I. The word is fomite, “an inanimate object that may be contaminated with infectious agents and serve in their transmission.” She gives a little more history and etymology of it as her latest Word of the Week.

Yes Stir, No Stir

podcast, word history

If you have any interest in etymology or word history, you should know about the That’s What They Say podcast from Michigan Radio. Each Sunday, in a five-minute segment (perfect for a snack break), University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan digs into the history of one word or phrase.

This week, in “Stir-crazy? Join the Club,” she explores the stir in stir crazy, which links to another quirk of the English language: If jail and prison are (practically) synonyms, why are jailer and prisoner opposites?

Dukes of Hazard Pay

etymology, euphemism

If you can hoist yourself over The New York Times’ paywall, Ben Zimmer takes a closer look this week at the history and etymology of the word hazard, as we find people in government this week euphemizing hazard pay with phrases like Patriot Pay and Heroes Fund.

The Air o’ Parent

sexism in language

There’s no denying that an indecent amount of sexism is baked into our language, and often in ways we don’t normally notice but that seem so obvious once they’re pointed out. A post at Language: A Feminist Guide this week brought one to light for me. Consider the completely separate meanings of mothering and fathering and what that says about the inherent expectations on the individual parents of a child. Recognition of this gender specificity is surely a contributing factor to the rise in popularity of the word parenting since the 1980s.

Mirror or Rim?

palindromes, wordplay

And we'll end with a little fun wordplay. Yes, the title of the Language Nerds post “28 Palindrome Words and Phrases You’ve Probably Never Thought Of” is a bit ambitious. (I mean, come on: racecar? A word that only ever shows up in lists of palindromes?) Still, there are a few in here that I hadn’t seen before, and considering how scientists think the coronavirus came from bats, the palindrome “Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?” ought to be finding new popularity.

Featured image by Dirck van Baburen (PD).