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Gifts of the Magi—Linguistically Speaking

A ubiquitous symbol of the Christmas season is the image of the Magi, the “wise men from the east” mentioned in Matthew 2. Matthew doesn’t say how many magi made the journey, but because they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—tradition has settled on three. Whereas Matthew calls them merely “wise men,” they have come to be called “kings”...

Double-Parking, Straddle, and To Seek Out

I find language fodder everywhere. This post was prompted by a Facebook video clip. Situation A woman is loading her groceries. The woman’s car is barely over the painted line on her left. A red car has parked as closely as possible to her driver’s side. The owner of the red car lurks in hiding to film the woman’s predictable difficulty. Once the...

Words To Describe Disasters

The past few weeks have seen a surge of fevered rhetoric in the media. Here are a few examples: Senator Warns of a Republican Blood Bath Lawmakers gloomy, back on defense after debate fiasco Election Experts Warn of November Disaster [One Party] warns of chaos if [Other Party] wins Senators warn of ‘catastrophe’ if eviction protections expire Critics...

Five Linguistic Oddities in the Media

Here are five usages that caught my attention recently. aye and yea Both aye [pronounced “I”] and yea [pronounced “yay”] mean “yes.” Archaic in Standard American English, they still exist in some English dialects and are retained in the formal language of voting. The etymology of aye is uncertain, but yea was a form of yes before 1600. As I watched...

Uses of the -ing Participle

A reader has questions about the following type of sentence: “the education chief’s sudden resignation left him scrambling to find a replacement”. This construction – “left her struggling to/has seen him battling…” is common. I haven’t been able to classify the -ing form in such sentences. I ruled out gerund (“his scrambling” can’t be right), and...

List of Halloween Words

A reader asks, Could you comment on Halloween words such as jack-o’-lantern vs jack o’ lantern and Trick-or-treat vs Trick or treat? I’ll add the word Halloween to the list. If all that is wanted is a guide to spelling and hyphenation, here’s how the words are handled in my two main dictionary references: Oxford English Dictionary jack-o’-lantern,...

Meanings of “Of Course”

A reader asks about the placement of the phrase, “of course”: Please discuss which of the following is correct: “Of course, the photography was superb.” “The photography was, of course, superb.” “The photography was superb, of course.” Short answer: They are all correct. Although In some contexts, the placement of an adverb or adverbial phrase...

Post-positive Adjectives in English

An often-noted difference between English and the Romance languages is that in English, adjectives precede the noun. English-speakers say “the red car,” whereas French-speakers say, “the car red” (la voiture rouge). Nevertheless, English possesses many examples of post-positive adjectives: adjectives that follow the noun. Some of these after-the-noun...

Cognition and Cognitive Offshoots

Before my use of Facebook, I imagined that, apart from insignificant personal differences, most people I know agreed on matters of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. No more. Now, I never fail to be astounded by how differently my friends and relatives and I may react to the same morning headlines. In my search for understanding, I encountered...

Hoax, Fake, and Other Words for Deception

It’s a harsh indictment of human nature that we have so many words for deception. (I’m assuming that English is not alone in this.) The frequent use of the words hoax and fake in these duplicitous times has led me to explore their meanings and synonyms. Hoax functions as either a noun or a verb. Although the noun dominates in current usage, the verb...

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