I recently bought The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, by Tony Thorne. It’s fun to read although many entries would get an R rating. Browsing through it, I came across “get one’s knickers in a twist,” a British locution from the late 1950s and originally of purely sexual meaning. In America it is used to illustrate a state of agitation, over-excitement, of being flustered and generally rattled.
“Knickers” itself is British usage for underwear (the lower garments only) and is a shortened form of “knickerbockers,” a centuries-old Dutch word meaning baggy, knee-length undergarments. Women’s underpants are also called knickers, particularly in Britain. (Don’t say you don’t learn anything from my blog.)
In addition to getting your knickers in a twist, you might also find your knickers or panties in a wad or a knot. If that happens, take some deep breaths—or a stiff drink.
Perhaps you’ve never heard the word “uptalk”? Even if you haven’t, I know you’ve heard it every day? You might be wondering why I’m ending these sentences with question marks? I’ve just written three declarative sentences that should end with a period. But the question mark tells the voice to rise at the end, making each sentence sound like a question. The result is uptalk.
That is what linguists have named the common tendency of people to end their sentences with a rising inflection. It is associated with “Valley Girl” cadences, seems to be more common among females, and may serve several purposes.
It may show genuine uncertainty: “You asked me where Joseph put his report, but I’m not sure?”
It may indicate lack of confidence: “I really would prefer not to head that committee?”
It may soften correcting another person: “Sheila has been with this company for five years, not three?”
When a man uptalks in public to correct a woman, he may think he is being chivalrous, telling her she is wrong but being careful about not embarrassing her: “I know you meant well when mentoring Alex, but it would have been better to listen to him first before challenging him?”
As much as I find it annoying, I think uptalk is here to stay.
(His name probably isn’t Mr. Fisher.)
Did you know that chandlers are candlemakers and coopers make and repair barrels? Here is a partial list of occupation-related last names from a Wikipedia list. These days, many are being used as first names as well.
If you go to the list at the website below and click on any name, it will tell you the occupation associated with it. The list includes many German, Italian, Spanish and French names as well as a lot from other ethnicities. Being a word geek, I love things like this—and I hope you’ll enjoy it too.
It’s common for people to use these two words interchangeably, but an important distinction exists. You know both of them involve making false statements about another. But slander is spoken defamation and libel is written. It’s easy to remember which is which because SLANDER starts with S, as does SPEECH.
Don’t confuse “libel” with “liable”: the latter means either “likely to do something” (She is liable to become the next head of the committee) or “legally responsible”: (He is liable for all charges on his credit card”).
Those flashes of electricity contain no E: “Which do you prefer to watch, bolt or sheet lightning?”
If you include an E, you may or may not hear that letter, but the meaning is very different: “Have you noticed that Bruno has been lightening his hair? Now his beard doesn’t match.”
Faithful correspondent Jeff wrote me about words that have confused him in the past. One of them was the distinction between “gray” and “grey.” If you are American, chances are overwhelming that you spell that color with an A. But did you know that the rest of the English-speaking world spells it with an E? If you decide you like the E-variant better for the color, go ahead and use it; you won’t be wrong. Just be consistent in any one document.
Oddly enough, even though in the United States we spell “gray” with an A, as we do with “graybeard,” “gray-haired,” “gray matter,” “gray wolf” and “gray market,” we spell “greyhound” with an E. That’s a word you can’t spell with an A. Go figure.
“The new mall would be phased in over a period of months and will require several parking adjustments, depending on the number of users.”
That sentence uses both “will” and “would.” Aside from being grammatically confusing, it refers to two different situations:
“Will” says something is going to happen. The parking adjustments WILL be made. “Would” is provisional; the mall MAY be built—but it may not. This sentence requires that both parts use either WILL or WOULD.