Mark Twain Said It First

Reader. suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Find the Error

This from the Los Angeles Times recently:

Throughout American history, incumbent presidents run for a second term by highlighting policy accomplishments. But President Trump is far from typical—uniquely disinterested in most policy matters and instead focused on personal grievances and political quarrels.

Did you spot the word that’s used incorrectly? It’s disinterested. That word most commonly means unbiased, having no preference one way or the other, open to all points of view. The correct word would be uninterested, displaying a lack of interest.

I do admit that disinterested is more and more often used as a synonym for uninterested; because languages are changed by their users, it will be a matter of time before the word on the street can claim victory.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

More From Cami!

I think I should just retire and let my friend Cami take over my blog. During these grim times–and before–she has provided me, and you, with so many lists to bring a smile to your faces. Here’s another:

Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine.

A man’s home is his castle, in a manor of speaking.

Dijon vu – The same mustard as before.

Practice safe eating – Always use condiments.

Shotgun wedding – A case of wife or death.

A man needs a mistress to break the monogamy.

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.

Dancing cheek-to-cheek is really a form of floor play.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.

When two egotists meet, it’s an I for an I.

A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it is two-tired.

What’s the definition of a will? (It’s a dead giveaway.)

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

In democracy, your vote counts. In feudalism your count votes.

She was engaged to a boyfriend with a wooden leg but broke it off.

A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.

If you don’t pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.

With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress.

The man who fell into an upholstery machine is fully recovered.

You feel stuck with your debt if you can’t budge it.

Local Area Network in Australia – the LAN down under.

Every calendar’s days are numbered.

A lot of money is tainted – Taint yours and taint mine.

A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.

He had a photographic memory that was never developed.

A midget fortune teller who escapes from prison is a small medium at large.

Once you’ve seen one shopping center, you’ve seen a mall.

Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.

Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses.

Acupuncture is a jab well done.

Thank you, Cami!

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

It’s a Pundemic

Another from my friend Cami, who knows I love wordplay. I hope these bring you a smile during this stressful time.







Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

What a Misplaced Modifier!


download The other day I read an online piece of clickbait stating that “a man in Wisconsin was a suspected terrorist walking a dog wearing a KKK hood.”

For some reason I pictured a very small dog–a Pomeranian or a dachshund–completely covered by the hood.

The rule is to put the modifier right next to the person or object it is describing. Easy peasy. “A man in Wisconsin, wearing a KKK hood….”

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

If You Love Wordplay…

…this is for you, from my friend Cami. So many made me smile.

1. The meaning of opaque is unclear.

2. I wasn’t going to get a brain transplant but then I changed my mind.

3. Have you ever tried to eat a clock? It’s very time consuming.

4. A man tried to assault me with milk, cream and butter. How dairy!

5. I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I can’t put it down.

6. If there was someone selling marijuana in our neighborhood, weed know about it.

7. It’s a lengthy article about ancient Japanese sword fighters but I can Sumurais it for you.

8. It’s not that the man couldn’t juggle, he just didn’t have the balls to do it.

9. So what if I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’? It’s not the end of the world.

10. Police were called to the daycare center. A 3-year old was resisting a rest.

11. The other day I held the door open for a clown. I thought it was a nice jester.

12. Need an ark to save two of every animal? I Noah guy.

13. Alternative facts are aversion of the truth.

14. I used to have a fear of hurdles, but I got over it.

15. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.

16. Did you know they won’t be making yardsticks any longer?

17. I used to be addicted to soap but I’m clean now.

18. The patron saint of poverty is St. Nickeless.

19. What did the man say when the bridge fell on him? The suspension is killing me.

20. Do you have weight loss mantras? Fat chants!

21. My tailor is happy to make a new pair of pants for me. Or sew it seams.

22. What is a thesaurus’s favorite dessert? Synonym buns.

23. A relief map shows where the restrooms are.

24. There was a big paddle sale at the boat store. It was quite an oar deal.

25. How do they figure out the price of hammers? Per pound.


Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Hanged vs. Hung


Hanged and hung are both past tenses of the verb to hang. You want to display some photographs on the wall. Which will it be? Would you say you hanged them or you hung them? I hope you hung them. Hanged is used to indicate death by suspension: The criminal was hanged at dawn. All other uses call for hung: you hung up the phone, you hung laundry out to dry, you hung out with your friends, you hung loose during the quarantine. Even to describe, ahem, male endowment, you’d use well hung.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

What is a Paraprosdokian?

A paraprosdokian is a long word to describe a short phrase that is familiar to most of us–but then it veers off into an unexpected conclusion. Here are some examples:

1. Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you …but it’s still on my list.

3. Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak

4. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

5. We never really grow up — we only learn how to act in public.

6. War does not determine who is right, only who is left.

7. Knowledge, is knowing a tomato is a fruit Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

8. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

9. I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

10. In filling out an application, where it says, “In case of an emergency, notify…” I answered “a doctor.”

11. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

12. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

13. I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.

14. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

15. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

16. You’re never too old to learn something stupid.

17. I’m supposed to respect my elders, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to find someone older than me.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

For Want of a Comma, a Suitcase Got Ironed

You have probably learned that in addition to VP Pence’s exposure to a staff member who has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus (Steven Miller’s wife, by the way) (I still cannot believe someone agreed to marry him, but I digress), Trump’s personal valet has also tested positive. This is the valet who serves him all his meals. Apparently, Trump, who refuses to wear a mask for reasons of vanity, became livid when he heard the news.

This is how the incident was reported in the press:

At the residence, they [his three valets] do his laundry, iron and pack his suitcases, a former White House official said.

What fascinates me is that it might be necessary to iron one’s suitcases. What a difference a comma can make.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Emigrate or Immigrate?

You often hear and see these two words used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. It depends on whether you are coming or going.

IMMIGRATE is the word to use when referring to people entering a new country: Canada has experienced great interest from people wanting to immigrate to that country from the United States.

EMIGRATE is used to refer to people leaving a country to take up residence elsewhere: Many people are considering emigrating from the United States to Canada .

Sadly, the US/ Canadian border has been closed because of the pandemic, so both words can be used only wishfully by some.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language


I realize I’ve been absent for several weeks, but I hope you’ll understand. On March 8, my husband had a severe fall and we are still dealing with the repercussions. Our son and DIL are helping me out and we are eternally grateful for their love and support. I’ll update this blog when I have time. Hang with me. I wish ALL of you good health. Take every precaution and protect yourself and everyone else. We’re all in this together.


So many phrases we hear and read daily are redundant, but we rarely have the awareness to eliminate them; we have gotten used to them.  Are any of these your favorites?

Easter Sunday

The end result

A contributing factor

Face up to the problem

Suffocated to death

Modest about himself

Own her own home

Revert back

Shrug her shoulders, nod her head

New developments

Proceed onward

Jewish rabbi

Future plans


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Mark Twain on the French Language

Mark Twain traveled widely, both for pleasure and exploration and for delivering humorous speeches to welcoming audiences. Here is his take on French, both the people and their language.

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French. I never did succeed in making those idiots understand  their own language.”


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

More Remarkable Names of Real People


The Rosetta Stone, in the British Museum, which allowed the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics


From a book of remarkable names, compiled by John Train:

Cardinal Sin, of Manila   He was in the news not too long ago.

Reverend Christian Church of Florence, Italy, active in the recovery efforts after the devastating flood of 1966.

Cigar Stubbs, listed in the Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics

Mrs. Belcher Wack Wack  Ms. Belcher married Mr.Wack and then married his brother

Silence Bellows, an editor at the Christian Science Monitor

and finally, Rosetta Stone, of New York City. I feel lucky because my unmarried name was Stone, and I could have ended up as another Rosetta.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Mark Twain on Religion

Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, is one of my favorite authors. I particularly appreciate his cynicism. This quotation is from The Lowest Animal:

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Mark Twain on Telling Lies

From Pudd’nhead Wilson:

“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.”

Some politicians should think about this.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

A Word That Should Be Revived: Snollygoster

From Merriam-Webster:  Snollygoster, “a shrewd & unprincipled person, especially an unprincipled politician.” Just added it back.

They had taken it out of the dictionary because it was rarely used any more, but as soon as Trump was elected, use of the word surged and M-W put it back in.

I came across snollygoster on a list of outdated words and immediately wanted to apply it to 99% of the Republican politicians in America today. There’s one in particular who stands far above the rest (or is it that he slinks far below the rest?), and I am running out of pejoratives to hurl at the television when  I see or hear him. For me, for this week at least, he will be the Snollygoster-in-Chief.



Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

A “Word” From Nikki Haley’s Advisor


© Judi Birnberg 2020

I put “word” in quotation marks because I was struck by how unwordlike Ms. Haley’s advisor’s “word” was. See if you can spot it:

“She wants to stay out of politics for the next several years and make some money while maintaining optionality for ’24.”

I knew you’d spot it. It wasn’t difficult, was it? “Optionality.” I suppose it could be a word, but why bother? Why not say that she wants to maintain her options for ’24? Does “optionality” convey any information that “options” doesn’t?

Keep it simple. If a good word already exists, don’t try to impress your audience with a bunch of extra la-de-dah syllables that add nothing.


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Do You Misplace Your Modifiers?

Misplaced modifiers happen when a word or group of words ends up modifying (giving information about) another word in the sentence. Often, the results are very funny.

I found this in one of my favorite magazines, The Week, which is a digest of articles from around the world. In an article on street food, with an accompanying recipe for Dan Dan Noodles (too complicated for me), Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau, chefs at a Philadelphia restaurant, V Street, declare, “We want the stuff that a little old lady is frying up in her flip-flops….”

Where to begin? First of all, how does the little old lady stand the heat? How does the food stay on her flip-flops? And do we really want to eat food cooked on a shoe and redolent of the odor of the foot that recently occupied that flip-flop?


You need to know that a modifier needs to be placed next to the word about which it gives information. Here’s an example:

“I met Harry only once before.” How many times did you meet Harry? “Only” once.

But here’s the problem: most people would write (and say), “I only met Harry once.” However, you didn’t “only” meet. You did meet. “Only” tells you how many times you met him: Once.

“Only” is the most commonly misplaced modifier. Others to watch out for are “hardly,” “even,” “scarcely,” “nearly,” “almost” and “just.”

Fix the modifiers in the following sentences:

1. “I almost ate the whole pizza.”
2. “The sweater was what Anna had been looking for in the store window exactly.”
3. “Paul’s boss nearly decided to pay him $700 a week.”

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Where Are the Positives?

The other day I was thinking about words, as I often do, and came up with a few that are negative but have no positive: I thought of unbeknownst and unwieldy, wondering if something we are familiar with could be knownst, and if something easy to handle is wieldy.

I was mayed and jected by my conclusion, that indeed no positives exist for them.

In fact, I felt downright gruntled and consolate. But I was definitely hibited and decided to stage a promptu tryout of my new positive words. I was proud of how sipid they were. They were ane and challant! I was couraged as I approached strangers and began to talk in my most communicado manner. But how sad I soon became as these strangers held me in dain, trying to make me feel less ept. I had givings and found myself in a souciant mood, realizing I would have have to try another day to spread my new and enhanced vocabulary.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language


Do you catch yourself saying or writing any of the following? Be aware they are redundancies.  Cut out the deadwood.

• Future plans

• Positive benefit

• Exact same

• End result

• Added bonus

• PIN number, VIN number

• Repeat again

• Very/So/Extremely unique (Unique means one of a kind; there’s nothing else like it.)

• Free gift

• Hot water heater (it’s actually a cold water heater)

• Open trench (have you ever seen a closed trench?)

• Revert back

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

A Quick Latin Lesson for Your License Plate Frame

Although I never studied Latin (and truly wish I had, and I’ll tell you why in a minute), I get a teensy bit annoyed when I see a female driving a car with her license plate frame announcing that she is an Alumni of UCLA or some other university. She’s an alumna. Here is a quick Latin lesson for you:

Alumnus: one male graduate

Alumna: one female graduate

Alumnae: more than one female graduate

Alumni: more than one male graduate, or a mix of male and female graduates.

My regret: I wish I had studied Latin because it is the foundation of all Romance languages. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian are the ones we are most familiar with, although dozens of others are in the same grouping.

As a word nerd, I am fascinated by language similarities and differences. Latin would have increased my vocabulary in English and also in the Spanish I did study. I figure, the more languages we know, the better. It’s a small world.

1 Comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

What’s an Initialism?

Initialism is a word I had not seen nor heard before today’s blogpost at, written by the brilliant and hilarious Patricia T. O’Conner, she of Woe Is I fame (among her many other linguistic accomplishments).

Her post was about using or omitting apostrophes in abbreviations. A reader asked Pat which plural was correct: PJs, PJ’s, pjs pj’s, P.J.’s. The answer is that you can find support for just about every variant, but the most commonly accepted seems to be plain old PJs. That is, unless your PJ’s pants (possessive) have a hole in the seat.

Did you know that PJs is an initialism? Neither did I. It means an abbreviation pronounced by saying each letter separately : PJs, USA, ATM, TV, RPMs, IRS, DOJ, UCLA, NYU, OMG, for example.

When you pronounce an abbreviation as a word, that is an acronym. (I’ve discussed this before in my blog.) An acronym is an abbreviation, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Here are some acronyms: NASA, scuba (so common it’s lost its caps), radar (ditto), fubar (look it up), RAM, AWOL, POTUS, SCOTUS, FLOTUS.

This post is my holiday gift to you. What? You were expecting jewelry, candy, money? I’ll see what I can come up with, ASAP. Until then, enjoy the day.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word-of-the Year

It’s THEY. Why would that have been chosen as the WOTY? Everyone knows what they means, don’t they? Look at that last sentence I wrote: Everyone is singular and they is a plural pronoun. Not so long ago, that would have been considered a grammatical error. However, it’s very common for people to use that “incorrect” construction, the singular they, in speech and in everyday informal writing.

But Merriam-Webster is calling attention to this use of they for a serious reason. The LGBTQ community has been advocating for an inclusive pronoun that does not refer to any specific gender. Trans people are troubled by the use of he and him or she and her; Jamie may have been assigned one gender at birth but later transitioned to another gender. Do we refer to Jamie as she or as he? Or is Jamie gender-fluid? Sometimes, Jamie may even be referred to by the de-humanizing pronoun it.

To be respectful of the variety of human identity and sexual orientations, they has been adopted to represent everyone. If you don’t know what pronoun a person prefers, my thinking is that they would welcome you asking them.

Language changes. All languages change. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all used they/them/their in their writing when referring to one person. But then The Grammarians (you know, people like me) insisted on strict pronoun agreement: singular with a singular referent, plural with plural. I no longer do. If a person is comfortable using they as their pronoun, I respect that. I hope you’ll think about what making this small gesture might mean to that person.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Double Ownership

This post is about apostrophes. What do you do when more than one person shares ownership in something?

Donna’s pets are Shetland Sheepdogs. Donna is the sole owner, so you just add ‘s to her name.

But Donna has a husband, Frank. The dogs belong to both of them. Donna and Frank’s pets are Shetland Sheepdogs. What happened to Donna’s apostrophe? Here’s the deal: When two or more people share ownership, only the person closest to the item owned gets an apostrophe.

Which of the following two examples is wrong?

Ryan and Thad’s wives

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

If you think Ryan and Thad share wives, then neither example is incorrect. But chances are Ryan and Thad each has his own wife, so Ryan needs an apostrophe too.

1 Comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Idioms, not Idiots

Idioms are words that when combined differ in meaning from each individual word. A little bird told me has nothing to do with birds. If you have some information and don’t want to divulge how you know it, that’s the sentence for you. An apple a day keeps the doctor away doesn’t mean you have to literally eat an apple every day; all healthy foods are good for you.

Here are some idioms, courtesy of http://Word GeniusWord Genius, from countries other than the U.S. Some are pretty funny:

Pulling water from my own rice paddy

我田引水 (ga den in sui) is a Japanese idiom that means to do or say something for your own benefit. You’re giving yourself advice, even though you’re the only one who needs it.

To walk around hot porridge

Chodit kolem horké kaše is a Czech phrase similar to the English idiom beat around the bush. If you’re walking around hot porridge, you’re avoiding the topic and making up distractions so you don’t have to discuss it.

He who doesn’t have a dog hunts with a cat

Quem não tem cão, caça com gato is a Portuguese saying meaning you use what’s available and make the best of it. To be fair, cats are pretty good hunters, even if they won’t listen to you.

The carrots are cooked

Les carottes sont cuites comes from French, and it means you can’t change the situation. It’s too late, and you probably have mushy carrots.

Drawing a snake with feet

If you’re drawing a snake with feet, you’re giving it unnecessary body parts and putting way more effort into that drawing than you need to. 画蛇添足 (Huà shé tiān zú) is a Chinese idiom that means to tell a story with unnecessary information.

To talk a dog out of a bush

If you can actually talk a dog out of a bush, you’re probably some kind of dog whisperer. ń Hond uit ń bos gesels means to have a great conversation (with people) in Afrikaans. Being a good conversationalist is just as valuable a skill as talking to dogs.

Not my circus, not my monkeys

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy is a Polish idiom that you’ve probably heard spoken in English, too. If the circus and monkeys aren’t yours, then it’s not your problem.

He sold him for an onion peel

بايعها بقشرة بصلة (baa’hu beqishra basala) is the Arabic equivalent of the “he’d sell me out for one corn chip” meme. It means to throw away a relationship for nothing. Personally, we’d take a corn chip over an onion peel.

To not have hairs on your tongue

No tener pelos en la lengua is a Spanish phrase that means to speak your mind straightforwardly. And we’d like to avoid hairballs.

Train go, sorry

Even sign language has idioms. This one means, “Sorry, I won’t repeat what I said.” Kind of like when people say, “You missed the boat on that one.” You’re out of luck.

To hurl a cap

टोपी उछालना (toh-pee uh-chhahl-nah) is a Hindi idiom that means to criticize someone. Why stop at just hurling insults?


Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Mark Twain on the German Language

I know this is a rerun, but I’m jetlagged and hungry. This quotation always makes me laugh. I hope you’ll enjoy it anew.

Mark Twain traveled extensively, in the United States, in Europe, and in the Middle East. He was quite critical of the way the German language is constructed. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he wrote the following:

She had exactly the German way; whatever was in her mind to be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Anachronisms, Inc.

We still say these things, even though we don’t actually do them any more.

When was the last time you rolled down a car window?

Remember those little stalks with a small knob on the end? I can’t remember the last car I was in that didn’t have automatic windows.

Have you dialed a number?

You’ve probably seen videos of teenagers being presented with an old-fashioned clunky telephone and told to figure out how to make a call. Try as they might, the kids remain clueless. After rotary dial phones, we thought we were so up to date when pushbutton phones appeared. Now it’s primarily touching a number if you need to call someone whose number isn’t programmed into your smartphone. If it is, just touch or say their name.

You still cc on emails—but you might not even know what that stands for.

We still send cc’s in emails. I’m wondering how many people even know what that means—it’s carbon copy and comes from the time of the manual or electric typewriter when you wanted to make a duplicate. You’d put a special piece of paper called carbon paper between your regular typing paper and a second sheet and feed them together into the machine. When you took the papers out, a duplicate of your original showed up on the paper that was behind the carbon paper.

Where’s the World Wide Web?

Remember what you’d have to write to get to a website in the early days of using computers? You’d have to put in www and then the rest of the address to reach your destination. It’s rare when you have to use that abbreviation any more. Things we take for granted change in a flash.



Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Hyperbole, Inc.

If you’re not sure what hyperbole means, this advertising on the side of a truck I saw today will enlighten you:



(Who knew swimming pools existed on Alpha Centauri or even on poor, demoted Pluto?)

Incidentally, and sad to say, I once worked with an English teacher who pronounced hyperbole as hyperbowl. I swear. The word is Greek, and the last syllable is pronounced —lee.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

May I Have Two Tickets, Please?

These are eventful times. I live in the Los Angeles area, where many fires are burning. Our house is in no danger, but we are going to pack a “go bag” just in case we have to evacuate.

It got quite windy today and I heard newscasters, both on radio and television, giving information about the “wind event.” When  it rains, we have “rain events.” I led workshops for many automobile companies, and they were fond of staging “sales events.” (Does that suggest balloons and doughnuts?)

Why tack on those “events”? It’s perfectly clear to just say wind, rain, and sale. The event doesn’t make the message any more clear, but it does add an air of pomposity.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Correcting Others’ Grammar, et al

download-1.jpgOK, I admit I do this fairly often. It’s the suppressed English teacher in me coming through. If you are a friend or relative, I will try very hard not to voice my correction (lie or lay? who or whom? it’s or its? was or were?), but if you are a certain president, he who shall not be named, no holds are barred. That’s me yelling and sneering at the television. And I don’t confine myself to grammar: typos, incorrect spelling, and syntax are fair game. And well they should be. I fear we are the world’s laughingstock . Me? I’m crying–for so many reasons.

Oh, to have a literate (and sane) president once more.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Here’s to Clear Writing

download.jpg   When I taught business writing classes in the corporate world, I used this example from George Orwell (a phenomenal writer whose essays I highly recommend) to illustrate how overwrought language does not impress but does confuse:

 “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

I see you scratching your head. Did you read it more than once, hoping to discern a clue? What does this paragraph even mean? I’ll bet you can define all the words yet still cannot explain the meaning of them when laid side by side. So many multi-syllable words—saying what?

Now try this:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

You are likely familiar with this excerpt from Ecclesiastes, whether you are religious or not. It is saying. “The race is not to the swift” has become a staple of advice in the English language. Although you read an archaic word (“happeneth”), you still understood it.

That unwieldy first paragraph was Orwell deliberately rewriting the portion from Ecclesiastes by using the most convoluted, confusing, off-putting language possible. Just giving a cursory look at both paragraphs, who would choose to read the first one?

The lesson is simple and clear: Rid your writing of pomposity. Use clear, straightforward words. Writing simply will not cause others to assume you are simple-minded; instead, they will look forward to reading what you write. Won’t that be satisfying?





Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

How the States Got Their Names


Recently, I was sent this information from I found it interesting and hope you do too:

Every state in America has its own unique culture, flavor and quirks – including their names. State pride is alive and well from Alabama to Wyoming, but have you ever wondered how your state got its name?

While the name etymology for some states is a bit muddled, in general, a good number are derived from Native American tribes and languages, such as Algonquin, Sioux and Iroquois. Still others are nods to the origins of the European settlers who claimed patches of America for their own – and their sovereigns.

Here’s a guide to where all 50 state names came from – and what they mean!

Alabama comes from the Choctaw word albah amo meaning thicket-clearers or plant cutters.

Alaska has ties to the Aleuts and the Russians, with the words alaxsxaq and Аляска respectively, essentially meaning mainland.

Arizona has ancient roots as an Uto-Aztecan word ali sona-g that was adopted by the Spaniards as Arizonac, meaning good oaks.

Arkansas is the French pronunciation of an Algonquin name for the Quapaw people, akansa.

California is truly a magical place. So magical in fact, it’s named after a fictional world invented by the author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, which Spanish explorers adopted when setting foot on the gold coast.

Colorado is another Spanish-influenced name that essentially means ruddy or ruddish. The name was first applied to the Colorado River for its distinctive color.

Connecticut much like Colorado, was named for the river running through it. The word itself possibly stems from the Native American word quinnitukqut, meaning beside or at the long tidal river.

Delaware is also named for a body of water, but that body of water was named for Baron De la Warr, the first English governor of Virginia. The Baron’s name is old French for of the war.

Florida taps into its Spanish roots by referencing Pascua florida, meaning flowering Easter, as Spanish explorers found the lush area during Easter. There’s also ties to the Latin word floridus, meaning strikingly beautiful.

Georgia may be known for its southern hospitality now, but it’s actually named for King George II from Great Britain. Fun fact: if HRH Prince George of Cambridge takes the throne one day, he’ll be King George VII!

Hawaii stems from the Hawaiian language itself, specifically the Polynesian word hawaiki, meaning place of the Gods. It was however, originally named the Sandwich Islands by James Cook in the late 1700s.

Idaho has notorious roots in the Athabaskan word idaahe, meaning enemy. It was originally applied to part of Colorado before being officially given to the gem state.

Indiana as you might expect stems from the English word, Indian, to describe Native Americans. The Latin suffix tacked on the end roughly means land of the Indians.

Iowa comes from the Dakota word yuxba, meaning sleepy ones.

Kansas quite simply references another group of people living here, the Kansa tribe, meaning people of the south wind. Makes sense for tornado alley!

Kentucky is yet another state named for the river running through it, inspired by the Shawnee word for on the meadow.

Louisiana like Georgia was named for a regent of the times, specifically, Louis XIV of France.

Maine has uncertain origins, although notably, France also has a province called Maine.

Maryland is a tip of the hat from King Charles I to his wife Henrietta Maria. Some husbands give jewelry; King Charles gave naming rights to an entire (albeit small) state.

Massachusetts comes directly from the Algonquian word Massachusett that again, references the people living in the area, and means at the large hill.

Michigan also comes from a body of water, based on the French spelling of the Algonquin word meshi-gami, meaning big lake.

Minnesota, like many other Midwest states, comes from Native American languages. In this case, the Dakota word mnisota meaning cloudy, milky water.

Mississippi literally means big river in Algonquin Ojibwa, although it’s based on the French variation of the word.

Missouri relates to the Algonquin word wimihsoorita which translates as people of the big canoes.

Montana has some Spanish flair that links back to the Latin mons, for mountains.

Nebraska stems from the Sioux name for the Platte River, omaha ni braska, meaning flat water.

Nevada quite simply comes from the Spanish name for the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain range, which essentially means snowy mountains, or snowcapped.

New Hampshire is the first of many states and cities named as new outposts of other parts of the world. In this case, Hampshire was a county in Southampton, England.

New Jersey was coined by Sir George Carteret of the Channel island of Jersey.

New Mexico is self-explanatory and based on the Spanish Nuevo Mexico, although did you know the Aztec language actually coined the word Mexihco for their ancient capital?

New York was named for the Duke of York and future King James II.

North / South Carolina are more states named after regents, King Charles II in fact, as Carolus is the proper Latin version of Charles.

North / South Dakota: The word Dakota of course describes the Dakota people, but it also means friendly or allies.

Ohio once again comes from a body of water, this time, the Ohio River, which the Seneca Native Americans billed as a good river.

Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw word meaning red people.

Oregon’s origin is less clear, although some scholars point to Algonquin as the source.

Pennsylvania was named for Admiral William Penn, after being suggested by Charles II, and literally means Penn’s Woods.

Rhode Island has multiple name theories, including the idea that Dutch explorer Adrian Block applied the name Roodt Eylandt, meaning red island, to reflect the red cliffs of the region. Alternatively, it may come from the Greek island of Rhodes.

Tennessee comes from the Cherokee village name ta’nasi, although its meaning is unclear.

Texas is another old Spanish name from the word tejas, meaning friends or allies.

Utah has a short, spunky sound from the Spanish yuta, the name given to indigenous Uto-Aztecan people of the mountains.

Vermont has an elegant French sound and meaning – mont vert means green mountain in French.

Virginia / West Virginia is a Latin nod to sovereign Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.

Washington, naturally, is named for President George Washington, and his name actually means estate of a man named Wassa in old English.

Wisconsin may come from the Miami word meskonsing, which was spelled by the French as mescousingand then shifted to ouisconsin.


Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Favorite Clichés



These clichés are favorites of so many people; I hope you’re not one of those bores.

At the end of the day, another day comes. That should give you some food for thought. Your audience’s attention may grind to a halt when you don’t engage in meaningful dialog. If you want your speech and writing to be interesting, go back to the drawing board and polish your diamond in the rough. Then you will be a tough act to follow, instead of writing and speaking in a manner in which your readers/audience, all innocent bystanders, won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. Make your prose world class!



Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Do You Say These Phrases?

images.jpg Our ears can play tricks on us. Remember when you (and I) thought duct tape was duck tape? (Who would ever tape a duck?)

Here are some more phrases you might be saying and writing incorrectly:

Hear, hear! It’s not Here, here! You really are saying, “I hear you and agree with you.”

Free rein, not free reign. No royalty involved. If you give someone free rein, it’s like giving a horse freedom to gallop without a rider pulling back on the reins.

Heartrending, not rendering. Rending is like breaking, such as in a heartrending sob, as if one’s heart were broken in  two.

•  Statute of limitations, not statue. A statute is akin to a law. In some cases, you have a certain time within which you must bring charges. It does not involve equestrian statues in the park.

Shoo-in, no fancy footwear involved. If you shoo a mosquito away, you’re likely waving your hand to make that nuisance disappear quickly. If Eliza is a shoo-in for class president, she’s got a clear, easy shot at the position, as if her supporters are pushing her into it.


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language


You know I’m hooked on words.  I was daydreaming this morning, thinking about the various sounds a double O makes:

Food  (OO)

Good (the schwa sound)

Brooch (OH)

Floor (AW)

Blood (UH)

Cooperate (this is a diphthong: the first O says OH and the second O says AH)

Don’t you wonder how we ever learned to read?



Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Oh, Say Can You See?


The Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey

My title refers to your sense of vision, your sight. It also could be a reference to understanding, insight.

I just came across a reference to a scholarly article in which the author “sites” examples in a novel. Site means location: Ephesus is a major archeological site in Turkey.

And then there is cite, which is what the author of the scholarly article meant to write; to cite is to mention particular items or people that bolster an argument. The author of Howard’s End, E.M. Forster, cites many examples of the rapidly changing mores in early 20th century England.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Names for Bathrooms and Toilets, Courtesy of Roto-Rooter


Sir Thomas Crapper himself. He did not invent the flush toilet, but he did make significant changes to it and held many plumbing patents.

Here are a slew of English or English-adopted euphemisms for the bathrooms and toilets. (We use bathrooms far more often for activities other than bathing. And how often do you rest in a restroom? Just asking.)

1. Big White Phone

2. Bog

3. Can

4. Chamber Pot

5. Chunder Box

6. Cloakroom

7. Comfort Room

8. Comfort Station

9. Commode

10. Convenience

11. Cloakroom

12.  Crapper

13. The Dunny

14. El Baño

15. Facilities

16. Garderobe

17. Gardyloo

18. God of Poo

19. Head

20. Hopper

21. House of Ease

22. Jakes

23. Jax

24. Jericho

25. Jerry

26. John

27. Johnny House

     28 El Baño

     28. Latrine

     29. Lav

    30. Pan

    31. Porcelain Throne

    32. Porcelain God

    33.  Pot

    34. Potty

    35. Powder room

    36. Place of


    37. Privy

    38. Reading Room

    39. Restroom

   40. Lavatory

   41. Lavvy

    42. Little Boys’ Room

    43. Little Girls’ Room

    44. Loo

    45. Long Drop

   46. Necessarium

   47. Necessary

   48. Outhouse

   49. Oval  Office

   50. Seat

   51. Small house

    52. Seat

    53. Small house

    54. Stool

    55. Thunder Mug

   56. Thunder Box

   57. Toilette

   58. The Bogs

   59. The Gents

   60. The Ladies

   61. The Office

   62. The Smallest Room

   63. Throne

   64. Throne Room

   65. The Vin

   66. W.C.

   67. Wash room

   68. Water Closet

I’m certain you can add to this list. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Runner-up for the Most Common Error I See

Right on the heels of its vs. it’s are whose vs. who’s. Let me explain:

Who’s is the contraction for who is or who has. Who’s going to the toga party this Saturday night? (Who is going?) Who’s taken my copy of Julius Caesar? (Who has taken it?)

Whose is a possessive pronoun; it shows ownership.  Whose car is parked in the 20-minute spot? (Who does that car belong to?)

As I wrote about it’s vs. its, possessive pronouns do not use apostrophes to show ownership. Only nouns do: Caesar‘s attending the toga party Saturday night.

Got it? Good!

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

The Most Common Error I See (and Hear)

You’d be surprised how often I’m asked what’s the most common writing error I see. It has always been, and perhaps always will be its vs it’s.

Without the apostrophe, its is a possessive: Robert’s dog barked its head off at everything she saw. But, you counter, Robert gets an apostrophe to indicate the dog is his. You’re right. Robert is a noun. But pronouns never take an apostrophe when they indicate possession: ours, yours, theirs—and its is a pronoun that can stand for just about any thing. Anything. The mouse scuttled back to its hole. The helicopter found its landing pad. The river overflowed its banks. 

It’s is a contraction: it’s an abbreviation for it is or it has. If you can’t substitute either of those constructions, you need the its without the apostrophe, the possessive form. (See the previous paragraph.)

It’s been extremely hot throughout most of the country recently. (It has)

It’s going to be very crowded at the airport tomorrow. (It is)

If you start using its and it’s correctly, I’ll have to change my answer to the most common error I see to who’s vs. whose. Next post.


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Forget the last post; this is the real deal

Two days ago I wrote a post about Mary Norris, The New Yorker‘s “Comma Queen” and her review of three new grammar books with very different approaches. Unfortunately, the link was incorrect. The link below should take you to her brief article. I think you’ll enjoy it. She’s quite witty.


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Very Interesting Reviews of Three Grammar Books



The reviews were written by Mary Norris, not the three books. She is the famous “Comma Queen” copy editor at The New Yorker. I think you’ll enjoy her takes on the three very different approaches to grammar and punctuation. Let me know which camp you fall into:






Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Mark Twain on the German Language

Mark Twain traveled extensively, in the United States, in Europe, and in the Middle East. He was quite critical of the way the German language is constructed. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he wrote the following:

She had exactly the German way; whatever was in her mind to be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Do You Peruse My Posts?


 Chances are you don’t. If you don’t spend much time reading them and just skim or scan or quickly give them the once-over, you haven’t perused them. Peruse means to read carefully and comprehensively. Granted, the posts I write are rarely worthy of perusal; I write them so they can be skimmed quickly.

Now you know that perusing a document requires much more of your time. If you’re studying for a class or writing an important letter, you’ll need to peruse supporting documents so you can be fully informed.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. If you comment, I will respond.

Thank you for skimming.


Filed under All things having to do with the English language

How Popular Drinks Got Their Names


Well, who knew? This is from the blog WordGenius. (I started salivating while looking for the margarita image.)

Old Fashioned

The story behind the Old Fashioned is really all in the name. It’s a simple drink involving a spirit (typically whiskey), a dash of sugar or simple syrup and a small amount of an aromatic bitter. There are variations on the spirit and the potential to add an ice cube but really the drink is straightforward and, you guessed it, old fashioned.

Tom Collins

This drink sounds more like your typical suburban neighbor than an upscale cocktail. Unfortunately, by all accounts, there is no egotistical genius mixologist named Tom Collins behind the drink. Part of the name came from a gin drink called a John Collins. There is also an urban legend about an 1870s prank that involved sending bar hoppers on wild goose chases looking for a mysterious “Tom Collins.” Eventually barkeeps stopped playing and started offering them a drink instead. It is likely these two explanations merged and gave us the cocktail we are all familiar with today.


There are a few stories flying around out there about where margaritas came from. Margaret “Margarita” Sames claimed to invent the drink in 1948, though there are Jose Cuervo tequila adverts for margs dating back to 1945. It also might have been invented by Danny Negrete for his sister Margarita’s wedding in the 1930s. What we do know is that margarita is Spanish for daisy. So it’s quite possible that the drink came as an evolution of another flower-named drink — a tequila daisy or a magnolia.


Famously enjoyed shaken, not stirred, by James Bond, martinis date back to around 1900. Again, there are a few theories out there about where the name came from. The simplest and most likely is that the drink was created using Martini & Rossi vermouth and gin, and martini stuck as the name.


Here begins the Cuban portion of the article. The Cuban people managed to create some particularly tasty rum, and, clearly, they go to work figuring out the best ways to enjoy it. First up, we have the Mojito. En español, mojo is the name for a Cuban citrus marinade. The prominence of lime in the drink permeated through to the name, as mojito means little mojo.

Cuba Libre

Literally translated, Cuba Libre means Free Cuba. It is thought that the drink was created after the liberation of Cuba from the Spaniards during the Spanish-American war in 1900, though it is unclear whether the drink was made by Cubans or Americans.


Also from the island of Cuba, we have a drink that is very similar to a mint-less Mojito. Daiquiri is a village on the southeast coast of Cuba. Supposedly, it was also invented around the Spanish-American war, this time by Americans who ran out of gin and had to figure out the best way to enjoy the Cuban rum. Sugar, soda and lime oughta do it!


A simple mixture of champagne and orange juice played a key role in defining the meal of brunch, as well as creating the perfect excuse to drink before noon. The vivid orange-yellow color is reminiscent of the mimosa plant, which is where the name comes from.



Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Has Got or Has Gotten?

Do you think that has gotten is outdated, a little strange? Apparently, the Brits do because you very rarely  see it or hear it in Great Britain. But has gotten is alive and thriving in the U.S. because we recognize it does mean something other than has got.

Look at these two sentences:

  1. Amanda has got the required botany book.   
  2. Amanda has gotten the required botany book.

The first sentence tells you Amanda possesses that book; she may have already owned it. It’s the same as saying she has the book.

The second sentence says Amanda has acquired the book; however she got it, she didn’t previously own it.


Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

You Can Do It!

So many people I’ve taught were afraid of writing. Why? Because they thought they were controlled by endless and confusing rules! I am here to tell you that many of those rules that used to be set in stone no longer apply. Even in business and academic writing, you have much more leeway than just a few generations before you came along.  Here are some once-revered rules you can ignore:

Never start a sentence with and or but. Why not? You can start a sentence with any word you choose. But if you prefer not to, that’s fine, too.

Data is always plural. It can be, but you can also use it in a singular sense with a singular verb: The data is unequivocal.

Never end a sentence with a preposition. No reason exists in English to follow this admonition. How would you feel about writing, “With whom was that person I saw you rollerskating at the park?”

The subject of a sentence must always come before the verb. Says who?

Never split an infinitive. That’s the to- form of the verb: to pontificate, to ponder, to perambulate. The old rule, which has something to do with a Latin construction, ordered us never to put an adverb between the to and the verb. You all know the world’s most famous split infinitive: to boldly go. Now you boldly go.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Streets and Their Names

From WordGenius. I thought this was informative:

First, let’s look at the supposed differences between roads, streets, lanes, avenues and boulevards. In theory, a road is something that connects two points. Simple enough. Streets are public roads with buildings on each side. Avenues are the same, but run perpendicular to streets. Boulevards are wide streets (or avenues), often with a median. Lanes are the smaller version of a boulevard.

The duty of bestowing roads with their actual names usually falls with the land developers who planned, financed, designed and built them. Often these developers opt to name streets after their nearest and dearest, offering a glimpse of recognition and legacy to their wives, girlfriends and loved ones.

However, developers do not get the final say. The names are submitted to the relevant city planning departments, including building, engineering and public works. This process (unsurprisingly) takes quite a bit of time from start to finish.

The departments with ultimate vetoing power are the emergency services. If the police or fire teams decide that a name is not unique and intelligible enough to be quickly found in an emergency, it will not stick.

Another factor that can hamper developers’ creative outputs are local themes. Some cities and towns want their streets to be named after types of birds (Blue Jay Street, Robin Road), for example, or to have a beach feel (Ocean Drive, Seabreeze Avenue). In Washington D.C., all 50 states are represented with a street name.

Across the United States, the most common inspiration for most streets is trees, and you’ll find an Oak Street or Maple Drive in almost every city. Almost all cities also have a numbered street system. In fact, the most common street name in the U.S. is 2nd Street or Second Street. What happened to all the first streets, you ask? They are often called something like Main or Broadway instead.

Other common influences include landmarks (Hill Road, Canal Street), politicians (particularly Washington, as well as local government) and celebrated figures (Dr. King comes to mind). Local industries (Vineyard Street) or institutions (College Avenue) also have an effect.

Street names can add extra appeal for developers who are trying to sell their properties. Names such as Ocean View or Buckingham Drive can make the areas seem more desirable.

Once names are set, they are difficult to change. The impact on maps and local businesses (websites, business cards) has to be considered. Therefore, it’s probably better to choose an alluring name at the first time of asking.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Mark Twain on the World’s Greatest Authors






On being introduced as one the world’s greatest authors, Twain had this to say:

“I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spenser is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I am not feeling very well myself.”

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Music, as Conceived by Curmudgeons





From Jon Winokur’s book, The Portable Curmudgeon.

The chief objection to playing wind instruments is that it prolongs the life of the player.

— George Bernard Shaw

(I can’t find who said the following, but I concur: The reason bagpipe players walk while they play is to get away from the music.)

Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable. 

— Samuel Johnson


— Arturo Toscanini to his orchestra

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

More From The Portable Curmudgeon (Jon Winokur)

Curmudgeons on LOVE:

Many a man has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it.

—Maurice Chevalier

It’s possible to love a human being if you don’t know them too well.

—Charles Bukowski

When we want to read of the deeds that are done for love, whither do we turn? To the murder column.

—George Bernard Shaw

Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.

—H. L. Mencken

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

%d bloggers like this: