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The Spell of the Holidays

The year-end holidays are an alternate reality. People dress differently, act differently … and even talk differently. This time of year has its own vocabulary, and some of these old-fashioned words have eccentric spellings. So here is our holiday spelling quiz. You’ll find the answers directly below.

1. ___ the night before Christmas.

A) T’was
B) ’Twas
C) ’T’was
D) Twas

2. They have a live ___ down at the shopping mall.

A) raindeer
B) reindeer
C) raindear
D) reindere

3. It was a festive ___ gathering.

A) yueltide
B) yuletyde
C) yueltied
D) yuletide

4. Please! Go easy on the ___.

A) egg nog
B) eggnawg
C) eggnog
D) egg nogg

5. Our ___ holds nine candles.

A) menorah
B) mennorah
C) mennora
D) menorrah

6. “Santa Claus” refers to ___.

A) Saint Nicholas
B) Saint Nichlaus
C) Saint Nicalos
D) Saint Nichollas

7. In European folklore, ___ is considered magical.

A) misletoe
B) mistletoe
C) missletoe
D) misiltoe

8. The winter ___ falls on December 22 this year.

A) soulstice
B) sollstise
C) solstise
D) solstice

9. “O little town of ___.”

A) Bethlahem
B) Bethleham
C) Bethlehem
D) Bethelhem

10. Stop spinning that ___ and join us for dinner.

A) dradle
B) dreidle
C) draydel
D) dreidel



1: B) ’Twas

2: B) reindeer

3: D) yuletide

4: C) eggnog

5: A) menorah

6: A) Saint Nicholas

7: B) mistletoe

8: D) solstice

9: C) Bethlehem

10: D) dreidel


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Posted on Monday, December 7, 2015, at 6:22 pm

Give the Gift of Pedantry

If there is a logophile—word lover—on your holiday gift list, you can’t go wrong with What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster. Elster is a formidable scholar, but he has written a book that is fun to read, yet packed with information.

Scattered throughout the book’s seven chapters are astute quotations, “fascinating facts,” and “bodacious brainteaser” quizzes on grammar trivia. Numerous sidebars hold forth on topics that range from frivolous to esoteric. We learn, for instance, that “there are more synonyms for drunk than for any other word in the language”—over 2,660 of them (including quilted, upholstered, and iced to the eyebrows). And did you know that Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary, was an insufferable prig; and Socrates was an “arrogant runt” whose wife despised him?

Each chapter has a brief introductory essay, followed by a series of questions and answers. The questions are from the author’s readers and fans. This format could quickly become tedious, but the discussions are on topics every armchair linguist has wondered about, and the answers are crisp, informed, and entertaining.

Chapter One deals with “word histories, mysteries, hoaxes, and hype.” A couple of examples: all decked out does not come from sailing. It comes from dekken, a Dutch word meaning “to cover.” Xmas (as a stand-in for Christmas), thought by some to be a modern monstrosity, has been around since the sixteenth century.

Chapter Two covers bad usage that is gaining acceptance. The author’s contempt for comprised of (always incorrect) and ’til (use till instead) will warm every nitpicker’s heart. In the chapter’s intro, Elster discusses good and bad change: “Change that springs from creativity, that is advanced by need, and that is reinforced by utility is unobjectionable. But change that results from ignorance, pomposity, eccentricity, a mania for fashion, or a desire for novelty is suspect.”

Chapter Three offers a trove of esoteric words: The philtrum is the groove that runs from the nose to the upper lip. A logophile loves words, but a logolept is obsessed with them. A librocubiculist is one who likes to read in bed (the author made that word up—he does that).

Chapter Four deals with “distinctions, clarifications, niceties, and other little things” that may help writers refine their style. Use a, not an, before historic, heroic, and other words that begin with an audible h. Avoid in regards to (make it in regard to) and shun irregardless (just say regardless). Anyone who disagrees is a grobian (“a rude, clownish, blundering oaf”).

Chapter Five, on the spoken word, mainly addresses pronunciation. When we say homage and flaccid, we should pronounce them HAHM-ij and FLAK-sid, not oh-MAHZH and FLASS-id. We should also enunciate clearly and not say “claps” instead of collapse, “yerp” for Europe, or “jeet” when we ask, “Did you eat?”

Chapter Six covers Americanisms. Jim Crow was originally a nineteenth century song-and-dance number. Thomas Jefferson made up the word belittle. And who knew that glitch is a Yiddish word? In this chapter the author claims—apparently in all seriousness—that the word ginormous was invented by his daughters. (If so, Dad should be proud that ginormous is listed in the 2014 edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary.)

The seventh and final chapter is a catch-all for information that “just didn’t fit anywhere else.” Here are some highlights:

• The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains around 616,500 words. (Approximate number of words in the German language: 185,000.)

• The average educated adult’s vocabulary: twenty-five thousand to forty thousand words.

• The word nth is one of English’s very few legitimate vowel-less words (two others: hmm and psst).

• The word set has more meanings (almost two hundred) than any other word in English.


Pop Quiz

Here are a few quiz questions from What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We write P.S. to add something at the end of a letter or an email. What does P.S. stand for?

2. Which is the correct spelling:
A) forceable
B) force-able
C) forcible
D) forcable

3. Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg: Which poet wrote which famous first line?
A) “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”
B) “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”
C) “It was many and many a year ago”

4. What well-known proverbs are hiding in these pompous paraphrases:
A) Hubris antedates a gravity-impelled descent.
B) Abstention from speculatory undertaking precludes achievement.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. In Latin, postscriptum; in English, postscript.

2. C) forcible

A) Frost, “Mending Wall”
B) Ginsberg, “Howl”
C) Poe, “Annabel Lee”

A) Pride comes before a fall.
B) Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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Posted on Tuesday, December 1, 2015, at 6:43 pm

What’s That I Spell?

Want to make your Labor Day party the hit of the season? During a lull, pull out this spelling test and challenge your guests. Nothing endears you to your friends and neighbors quite like making them feel foolish in public.

You’ll find the answers directly below.

1. Maria looked sharp in those ___ pants.

A) kakhi
B) khakhi
C) khaki
D) kakki

2. The ___ blaze was too much for the firemen.

A) firey
B) firy
C) fierey
D) fiery

3. The speed ___ on my car is broken.

A) gauge
B) guage
C) gage
D) gayge

4. Why would anyone show up in such a ___ outfit?

A) garisch
B) garrisch
C) garrish
D) garish

5. The ___ made the proper call.

A) refferee
B) referee
C) referree
D) refferree

6. The ___ was behind the old church.

A) cemetary
B) cemetery
C) cematery
D) cematary

7. We try to ___ all the different needs of our clients.

A) accomodate
B) accomadate
C) accommadate
D) accommodate

8. I prefer mustard, never ___.

A) mayonnaise
B) mayonaise
C) mayonaisse
D) mayonnaisse

9. Bobby was an ___ who thought of himself as an artist.

A) entrepeneur
B) entrepaneur
C) entrepreneur
D) entrapreneur

10. Javon and KoKo just got back from the ___.

A) Philipines
B) Phillippines
C) Philippines
D) Phillipines



1: C) khaki

2: D) fiery

3: A) gauge

4: D) garish

5: B) referee

6: B) cemetery

7: D) accommodate

8: A) mayonnaise

9: C) entrepreneur

10: C) Philippines

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Posted on Tuesday, September 1, 2015, at 7:46 pm

Don’t Put It in Writing

Today we’ll discuss a word and a phrase, either of which would sound fine in a casual exchange but could attract unwanted attention if used in formal writing.

Ahold  Although few people would notice anything amiss in a sentence like I wish I could get ahold of a good grammar book, many editors would change get ahold of to either get hold of or get a hold of.

Dictionaries differ on ahold. Back in 1966, Random House’s Dictionary of the English Language listed ahold, but called it “informal”—and the American College Dictionary (1968), also from Random House, refused to list the word at all. (Maybe Random House wanted to discourage college kids from using it.)

Nor can ahold be found in the American Heritage dictionary’s 1980 edition. However, American Heritage’s 2004 and 2011 editions include the word without comment.

Our most recent dictionary, Webster’s New World (2014), lists ahold but, like Random House half a century ago, labels the word “informal.”

Most of the language websites we checked did not recommend ahold. Here are some examples: “Ahold does not exist as a word in standard English.” “Ahold poses no problem in informal speech and writing, but it might be considered out of place in more formal contexts.”In standard English you just ‘get hold’ of something or somebody.”

We found only one website that endorsed this word with any enthusiasm: “Don’t hold back on your use of ahold … a word recognized by Merriam-Webster, Garner’s Modern American Usage and most other writing authorities.”

We confirmed that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary does recognize ahold, but the statement about “most other writing authorities” conflicted with our own findings. And as for Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, all it says about ahold is that “it verges on being standard”—hardly a resounding endorsement.

In close proximity  Proximity does not mean “distance”; it means “nearness,” so close proximity means “close nearness.” Besides its redundancy, in close proximity takes three times as many words and three times as many syllables as are needed to express an elementary concept: nearby.

You see in close proximity all the time, and it always manages to sound ungainly and comically self-important. Here’s a small sampling of what we found on the Internet: “The hotel is in close proximity [close] to the corporate, financial and fashionable heart of the city.” “Investigators believe the aircraft went down after coming in close proximity [too close] to another plane.” “The car’s controls are in close proximity [within easy reach].”

Traditional usage guides advise against close proximity. Typical of these is Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage: “Say close to or near, according to the context.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words finds the phrase too obviously silly to get worked up about. Bremner’s droll entry under close proximity: “The best kind.”

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Posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, at 3:42 pm

Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, at 12:23 pm