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Peeping Tom Cried “Mayday!” as he Ate an Avocado at Xmas

As I kept reading Charles Harrington Elster’s book “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions About Language,” I found myself fascinated by the stories of how certain words or phrases began.

So, here are some more.

Avocado — From the Aztec word ahuacatl, which Spanish conquerors mispronounced as aguacate, which is what the fruit is called today. Other Spanish speakers translated ahuacatl as “avocado.”

Jiffy — It originates from the 1785 book “Baron Munchausen’s Travels” by Rudolph Raspe (other sources call it “Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia” by Rudolf Erich Raspe), who likely invented the word and used it as a measure of time (“six jiffies”).

Mayday — From the French m’aider, in the phrase venez m’aider, meaning “come help me.” In English m’aider is pronounced “mayday.”

Mind your p’s and q’s — Elster dismisses the notion it means “pints and quarts.” He says no one is really sure what it means, but the most likely answer comes from penmanship. P and Q follow each other in the alphabet, and the lower-case versions are often confused by youngsters just learning how to write them.

Peeping Tom — He was a tailor who bored a hole in his shutter and watched Lady Godiva ride by.

The whole story, from folklore and not literature, has Lady Godiva, wife of Leofric (sometimes spelled Leoffric), Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, riding through town naked (some sources says she wore form-fitting satin) because she cared about her subjects and wanted her husband to stop taxing them so highly, which he said he would do if she rode though the city. She issued a proclamation saying everybody stay inside with the windows and shutters closed while she did this. Tom was severely punished. Some sources say he was killed, others say he was blinded. None of them explain how he was discovered.

Xmas — X is the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, chi, and stands for Christ.

Until next time! Use the right words!


July 24, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

(this headline intentionally written all lower case)

I received the following email:

this is mark fish i come back here in the state and i ask of your fund $4.8 and the home land security told me that is still in there office and i need to inform you if you still need in just emaill me your new address now for the urgent delivery
thank mark fish
call me or text (404­448­2­27­3

Although the name is Mark Fish (I’ll capitalize it correctly, thank you), the email address is from an A. Rodriguez, and it ends “.mx,” making it from Mexico. Maybe it was also written by somebody who speaks Spanish as a first language — the person certainly doesn’t speak English as a first language.

I counted 21 errors.

Also, please, nobody call or text that number.

Until next time! Use the right words!

April 25, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Happy New Ear” and Other Soundalike Problems

English is a funny language, isn’t it? Unlike Spanish, in which the words can be spelled just by sounding them out, English requires one to know how to spell or else you’ll make some funny mistakes, as these from the great Richard Lederer demonstrate:

–To celebrate at feasts, the inhabitants sometimes cut the head off the biggest bore and carried it around on a platter.

–My uncle suffers from sick as hell anemia.

–Most teachers could careless about their students’ problems.

–Vestal virgins are pure and chased.

–No bear feet allowed.

–Due to repairs in the air-conditioning system, offices will be very humid in the coming days. Please bare with us.

–Our menu is guaranteed to wet your appetite.

–At our restaurant, the sauce compliments the salad, and we specialize in full-coarse meals.

–To win, you’ve got to knock down your opponent with wreckless abandon.

–Matt Millen is the most inciteful of sportscasters.

–Man arrested for possession of heroine.

And here’s one from Sly Stone: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”

Until next time! Use the right words!

January 2, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If English Were Phonetic, Part 2

Due to popular demand — and by that I mean due to me demanding I do this again — here is another group of words that, if English were phonetic in the way Spanish and other Latin-based languages are, we might have these words  and names with these definitions.

Again, I got these off the Internet. I created none of them, although I wish I was that brilliant and clever.

Bernadette — the act of torching a mortgage or credit card bill.

burglarize — what a crook uses to see. Similarly, polarize is what penguins use to see.

counterfeiters — workers who assemble kitchen cabinets.

eyedropper — a clumsy ophthalmologist.

Left Bank — what the robber did when his bag was full of money.

pharmacist — a helper on a farm.

relief — what trees do in the spring.

rubberneck — what you do to relax your wife, especially when she asks for it.

Until next time! Use the right words!

November 13, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If English Were Phonetic

I didn’t create any of the following. These were found on the Internet.

If English words were pronounced phonetically the way Spanish and other Latin-based languages are, we might have these words and these definitions:

arbitrator — someone who leaves Arby’s to work for another fast food place

avoidable — what a bullfighter tried to do

eclipse — what a barber does for a living

heroes — what a guy in a boat does

paradox — two physicians

parasites — what you see from atop the Eiffel Tower

primate — remove your spouse from in front of the TV or computer or phone

selfish — what the owner of a seafood store does

Sudafed — litigation brought against a government official

Until next time! Use the right words!

November 10, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In What Department Do You Teach?

For many, school has started, or it will soon. So, now is a time to remind people how to correctly write the departments where they teach.

You write most departments, such as math, geography, political science and biology,  in lower case. Similarly, the word department would be lower case.

You capitalize departments such as English, Spanish, French and German because you would normally capitalize these words, but you would not capitalize the word department in these cases.

However, if you have a specific department from a specific school, you would capitalize it thusly: UCLA Department of Communications. Take away the school, and you have a communications department or department of communications.

Next time: academic titles. Stay tuned.

Until next time! Use the right words!


August 27, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cannibalism in Breakfast Cereal

Recently, I saw a TV commercial in which one piece of cereal licked, then ate another piece of cereal.

It’s supposed to be funny and send the message that the cereal is that good. What I saw, however, was cannibalism.

At least that’s what I thought I saw. I wasn’t sure if non-humans could be cannibals. There are famous episodes throughout history (Donner Party, Jeffrey Dahmer, Uruguayan college rugby team, etc.) as well as famous fictional characters (Hannibal Lecter comes to mind), but they’re all human-on-human. I’ve never seen a nature show in which the animal ate its own kind.

So I checked the dictionary and the Internet. I found cannibal originated with the earliest Spanish settlers witnessing the natives eating or chewing human flesh after a war. This was a perfectly normal ritual to the natives, but to the Spanish, it was sacrilegious, and it was one reason they called the  natives “savages.”

The dictionary defines cannibal as “one that eats the flesh of its own kind.” So breakfast cereal is fair game.

Online, I’ve found no accounts that say humans taste like cinnamon toast. It seems we taste like either pork or veal. This could explain why I’ve heard firefighters hate bacon: It smells like burnt flesh.

Until next time! Use the right words!



January 2, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

C is for Confusing, That’s Good Enough for Me

Anybody catch my Cookie Monster reference in the title?

There are plenty of words that confuse and confound. Here are 10 that start with C:

can’t hardly — This implies a double negative, which is OK if you’re speaking Spanish or a host of other Latin-based languages; but it’s a no-no in English. It’s better to use can hardly.

cement — This is the stuff that one uses to make concrete, so concrete driveway is correct; cement driveway is not. Hopefully that cements things for you.

chain saw — not chainsaw, so the 1974 version of the film is correctly titled; the 2003 version is not.

cigarette — is correct, although it’s not correct to smoke them.

clear-cut — is an adjective and correctly spelled here.

close-up — is correct, as Norma Desmond undoubtedly knows. But Unilever spells its toothpaste Close Up.

cocaine — the name of the stimulant. Don’t call it coke, unless you’re quoting someone. Coke is a trademarked name of a soda (Coca-Cola, which had cocaine in it until 1903). Crack is refined cocaine in crystalline rock form, so it’s OK to use the word crack if that’s what you mean.

collide — Two objects must be in motion before they can collide. So, a car never collides with a tree. It crashes.

commissioner — Never abbreviate, unless you’re referring to the television show starring Michael Chiklis.

couple of — It’s never just couple, unless you mean two people.

Until next time! Use the right words!

November 29, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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