Word of the Day: punch (the drink) No, it has nothing to do with packing a wallop.  When the British conquered India, they were delighted to discover real food and refreshments, among which was a delicious drink named in Hindi for having five ingredients.  The Hindi number is punj, as in the Punj-ab, the land of the five rivers (cf. Gaelic abhainn, brook, Welsh afon, river). Hindi, descended from ancient Sanskrit, is a distant cousin of English and Latin… Read more

Grammar Lesson of the Day: Odd Plurals Old English words formed their plurals in various ways, depending upon the declension of the noun.  All that means is that nouns belonged to different groups, and would take endings on the root according to that group, and the noun’s function in the sentence.  The most plentiful group of nouns formed their nominative and accusative plurals by adding –as (accusative is the case for direct objects and for the objects of certain prepositions):… Read more

  Word of the Day: queen All my life long, feminists have claimed that language used to describe women was either nasty or condescending or narrow-minded.  I don’t intend here to placate them.  You can’t cool a volcano with an ice cube.  I simply mean to show how language can turn an ordinary word into a term of high honor; and can do the reverse, applying a term of high honor to ordinary people. I have in mind that fine… Read more

Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Future Participle “Hail, Caesar!” cried the gladiators in the arena.  “We who are about to die salute you!” In our last lesson we defined the term participle: it’s a form of a verb used as an adjective, retaining many of the properties of verbs.  One of those properties is tense, referring to the time of an action.  That’s the simple way of putting it, for now.  What’s important about the tense of a participle… Read more

Word of the Day: dust, again. Lily Munster walks about the tumbledown parlor, shaking a mop-like thing over the pump organ, the raven-clock, the sofa, and the electric chair.  Smoke scatters everywhere.  “Excuse me,” she says to the astonished visitor, “I was just dusting the furniture.” The joke’s on us English speakers.  How odd it is, that we turn nouns into verbs, just like that, to mean that we put that noun onto something else.  We paint things by putting… Read more

Grammar Lesson of the Day: Participles I ask my college freshmen, “How many of you studied English grammar in school?”  They all raise their hands.  “What’s a participle?”  Embarrassed looks all round.  No one knows.  “No, you don’t know grammar.” A participle is a verbal form used as an adjective – used, that is (for my students also do not really know what an adjective is), to modify or restrict the meaning of a noun or pronoun.  Participles are extraordinarily… Read more

Word of the Day: dust “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return,” said the Lord God to Adam after the first sin.  It’s a fine translation of the Hebrew, that dust; it suggests transience and insubstantiality.  By the nineteenth century, in Britain at least, the word came to denote garbage of any sort.  So Mr. Boffin in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend is called The Golden Dustman because he has inherited several enormous mounds of dust, apparently worth a… Read more

MPE Award of the Day (Maximum Possible Error): James Rado and Gerome Ragni: The Age of Aquarius.      The hit song with the catchy gimmicky tune and the inane lyrics was written for the musical Hair, in which the singing actors stripped to the altogether and showed more hair than decent people cared to see.  It’s astonishing to consider how quickly not only moral sensibility but taste collapsed, so that people soon were doing in public what would have roused… Read more

Grammar Lesson of the Day: Redundancy The word redundant suggests a wave that keeps splashing over the side of the boat, over and over.  We use it to signify something unnecessary because it has already been said or done.  It is not the same as repetition, which can be extraordinarily effective. Redundancies in poor writing occur most often when the meaning of an adverb is already implied by the verb.  They can lead to real silliness: “Successfully foiled again!” snarled… Read more

Word of the Day: slack. Have you ever noticed that there aren’t any words in French or Spanish that begin with sl-?  There weren’t any in Latin, either.  Every language rules out certain combinations of consonants, as being too hard to pronounce.  Hawaiian rules them all out!  You never get two consonants together in Hawaiian, but you sure get a lot of vowels to make up for them. Now then, we know that the English language is a cousin of… Read more

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