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A Cop Bought the Farm during the Dog Days

Many of my friends and associates know what I do with words, and so they often send me photos or passages demonstrating words being used correctly or, more often, incorrectly.

But one friend sent me a book. It’s a 2005 book by Charles Harrington Elster called “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions about Language.” According to Wikipedia, Elster has written many books about language.

In the first part of the book, people ask questions about where phrases’ origins. Here are some.

Bought the farm — When a pilot crashed in a rural area, the owner often sued the government and got enough money to pay off the mortgage and own the farm outright.

Cop — Police are called this because in northern England, to cop meant “to capture, catch, lay hold of,” and that’s part of the job description.

Decked out — “Deck” is a verb meaning “to clothe” and “to adorn.” This is why we “deck the halls with boughs of holly.”

Dog days — In Roman times, the hottest days of summer were called caniculares dies because they believed the dog star (Sirius), when it rose with the sun, added heat.

German chocolate cake — “German” actually is Samuel German, who developed the recipe.

Green room — Elster says this term goes at least back to a 1701 play. It probably has to do with the rooms had walls painted green to give the eyes some welcome contrast to the bright lights they experienced on stage. “Probably” because no one is completely sure, Elster says.

Pinkie/Pinky finger — From the Dutch pinkje, the diminutive form of “pink.” But Elster can’t explain why the Dutch used that word to describe the little finger.

Pushing the envelope — “Envelope” refers to an aircraft’s performance limits, so when a pilot tries to do that (see: Tom Cruise’s character in “Top Gun”), he’s pushing the envelope.

Santa Ana wind — This hot wind is named for the large flow of gasses that comes out of the Santa Ana Mountains.

What the dickens/deuce — A euphemism for “what the devil.”

Thanks to Warren S. for the book.

Until next time! Use the right words!


July 19, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Yorker also got it Right

When I was a teenager, I recall seeing a commercial for the magazine The New Yorker that raved, “The New Yorker is the best magazine in the world today, possibly the best magazine of all time.” Or something like that. Regardless, it is a highly respected publication.

Wikipedia’s entry about The New Yorker says it’s known for, among many things, “its rigorous fact checking and copyediting.” Even if “copyediting” is two words.

So, imagine my surprise when a networker showed me a copy of the April 24, 2017 issue. On page 72, the sixth page of an article about a South Carolina family that has a tradition of barbecue and white supremacy, a sentence reads, “He explained that he’d got into barbecue as a challenge.”

Whoa. He’d got? Does New York have different rules regarding past participles? It’s he’d gotten.

Or is it?

I typed the sentence into an online grammar check. It came back error-free, but it also flagged it for plagiarism. Funny. It also didn’t flag copyediting as wrong.

I went to and looked up got vs. gotten. It said that gotten is correct in American and Canadian usage, but in England the past participle is usually got.

It continues, “That gotten is primarily used in North America has given rise to the mistaken belief that it is American in origin and hence new and inferior. But gotten is in fact an old form, predating the United States and Canada by several centuries.”

So, I’m right. The New Yorker is right. I can live with that.

Thanks to Richard C. for the idea.

Until next time! Use the right words!

May 29, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Speed up, People! I’ve Got Somewhere to Be

If you live in Los Angeles, or if you have visited it,chances are you are aware of how bad traffic can be. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn this was where the oxymoron “rush hour traffic” was coined. (Wikipedia claims the term refers to volume of traffic and not speed, but I know what rush means.)

What I hate most about traffic is the “spectator slowing,” that is, people slowing down to take a look at whatever caused the traffic in the first place. I’m in the minority, but I don’t care. I want to get to where I’m going, and I don’t need or want to slow down to see someone else’s misfortune (an accident or a stalled vehicle or being pulled over by the Highway Patrol).

I recently saw a sign on my local freeway: “In a minor crash? Pull to the shoulder” or something to that effect.

Don’t the people who wrote these words know that will cause more slowing? It would be better if the sign said, “In a minor crash? Pull off the freeway.” That way, no one sees the fender-bender or whatever the accident is, and then no one slows down.

And I get to where I need to get — on time.

Until next time! Use the right words!

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September 28, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gideons’ Biblical Redundancy

Wherever I travel, the Gideons are sure to follow, placing a Holy Bible in my hotel room. I wondered about the Gideons, so I looked it up. Gideons International is an evangelical Christian organization founded 1899 in Janesville, Wisc. The Gideons’ primary activity is distributing copies of the Bible free of charge, which they started doing in 1908. Wikipedia says the Bibles are in 199 countries and in 93 languages.

What I want to know is: What kind of contract did they sign that allows them to place a book in every hotel room? How many years does the contract last? Can I get a deal like that?

But I digress.

I wondered if Holy Bible is redundant, so I looked up bible in the dictionary. It means “the scared scriptures of Christians comprising the Old Testament and the New Testament.” It also means “the sacred scriptures of some other religion.”

I looked up sacred, and sure enough, holy is a synonym. I looked up holy, and sacred is a synonym.

I wonder if the Gideons realize that they’re placing a Holy Holy Bible or a Holy Sacred Bible or a Sacred Sacred Bible in every room.

Until next time! Use the right words!

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

Extreme Sensitivity to Eating and Breathing — There’s a Name For It

When I was younger, my mother always told me to chew with my mouth closed. No one wanted to look at the food in my mouth, and no one wanted to hear me chomping. So, I learned how to eat that way.

Fast forward some 30 years. I’m still eating the same way, but my daughter has a problem with it. I’m still too noisy.

She absolutely hates the way I eat. I’m not sure what I can do. My wife doesn’t think I eat too loudly.

It turns out my daughter might have a condition called misophonia. It’s extreme sensitivity to sound and causes negative reactions, usually anger and frustration in my daughter’s case.

According to Wikipedia, people who have misophonia are most commonly angered by specific sounds, such as slurping, throat-clearing, people clipping their nails, brushing their teeth, chewing crushed ice, eating, drinking, breathing, sniffing, talking, sneezing, yawning, walking, chewing gum, laughing, snoring, typing on a keyboard, whistling or coughing; saying certain consonants; or repetitive sounds.

My daughter also gets mad when she hears me breathing. I’m not sure what to do because i have to breathe.

I also say she might have misophonia because it hasn’t been classified as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). But it’s a safe bet she has this.

And although it’s also not in the DSM-5, it’s a safe bet I have Living With a Teenager-itis.

Until next time! Use the right words!

December 2, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friday the 13th — Phobia Day

As today is a Friday the 13th, I wonder if anyone out there suffers from paraskevidekatriaphobia. I also wonder how many people know what paraskevidekatriaphobia is.

I sure didn’t. I decided to write about unusual phobias, such as triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13. But the good folks at Wikipedia gave me some other weird ones:

Barophobia — the fear of gravity

Chromophobia —  the fear of bright colors

Emetophobia – the fear of vomiting

Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia — the fear of the number 666

Hypnophobia — the fear of sleep (also called somniphobia)

Koumpounophobia — the fear of buttons

Nomophobia – the fear of being out of mobile phone contact

Omphalophobia – the fear of navels

Papaphobia – the fear of the Pope

Phobophobia — the fear of having a phobia

Sesquipedalophobia – fear of long words (like most of these)

Tetraphobia — the fear of the number 4

Turophobia — the fear of cheese

Xanthophobia – the fear of the color yellow

Until next time! Use the right words!

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

Reconsidering “Overdose”

Rare is the time that I read something that makes me re-think what I’ve always known (or what I thought I knew). But it happened as I read this week’s Time magazine.

In it, writer Aaron Sorkin praises actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman and suggests that Hoffman didn’t die from a heroin overdose but instead died from heroin.

Overdose means “too great a dose” or “a lethal or toxic amount (as of a drug).” When I read Sorkin’s words, I realized that I don’t know what the proper dosage of heroin is (Wikipedia says that the term heroin is usually used when referring to the illegal narcotic; medically, it’s called diamorphine).

I know that morphine is the real drug here. But I don’t know what the proper dosage of morphine is, either. lists it as between 5 and 30 mg, although extended-release capsules can be as high as 100-200 mg but no more than 1,600 mg in a day.

I also don’t know how much of the drug Hoffman took that killed him. The New York Medical Examiner officially ruled the death an accident caused by “acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine.”

It wasn’t revealed if he had taken all of these drugs at once, so for now, I’m seriously considering Sorkin’s point.

Until next time! Use the right words!

February 15, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do You Shop at the Farmers, Farmer’s or Farmers’ Market?

I admit this one stumps me. What is the correct usage to describe the kind of market that usually opens one or two days a week for several hours and usually features produce and other items grown on farms?

I’ve seen it every which way: Farmers Market, Farmer’s Market and Farmers’ Market. Capitalized and lower-cased. Everyone names it one of these three ways, but nowhere can I find a usage guide.

I checked the dictionary. Nothing. I checked Nothing. I searched each separately, and I got the various farmers/farmer’s/farmers’ markets.

So, I’ll explain what each means. Maybe I’ll find the answer there.

A farmers market refers to a market of farmers. This literally means you can go and buy a farmer.

I don’t think that’s it.

farmer’s market means one farmer owns this market and is selling his products/food/livestock/whatever he’s selling.

Usually, there’s more than one farmer, so I don’t think this is it.

A farmers’ market means many farmers own the market and they’re selling their stuff there. I think this one is most correct, and Wikipedia lists this as correct. But Wikipedia’s accuracy is suspect, and the markets I see are usually on non-farm property, so I would need proof that these farmers own the market.

Then again, maybe they don’t need to own the land on which sits the market. Maybe they just have to be there selling.

But here’s another twist: Many of the people selling probably aren’t farmers. That’s an entirely different problem.

And I can’t find a definitive answer online.

Does this mean all are correct? I don’t think so. Maybe we ought to rid ourselves of the name and call it what it is: produce market.

Until next time! Use the right words!

August 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

One Direction’s Attempt to Influence My Daughter’s English

If you have a tween or teenaged daughter, chances are you have heard of One Direction, an English boy band formed at the suggestion of  “X Factor ” (English version) judge Nicole Scherzinger and signed to Simon Cowell’s record label. And if you have said daughter, she probably reads fan magazines in which the boys’ every moves are carefully reported, deconstructed, etc.

My daughter’s favorite is Niall Horan (for you uninitiated, you pronounce his first name Nile). Today while driving my daughter to school, she told me that Horan would date a fan “if she didn’t fangirl him.”

I asked her to repeat what she said to make sure I heard correctly. Then I asked her to use fangirl in a sentence. It became clear that fangirl is a verb meaning “to behave like a female fan, i.e., scream, cry, go crazy, faint or otherwise embarrass herself in front of her idol.”

I didn’t even bother to look it up in the dictionary. I know it’s not there. Wikipedia lists fangirl as a noun meaning “a female who is highly devoted and biased in opinion towards a single subject or hobby within a given field.”

I started thinking about real words she could have used. Words such as scream at, cry hysterically, go crazy, faint, act embarrassingly came to mind.

I sighed. Then I bemoaned the millennial generation.

Until next time! Use the right (and real) words!

March 8, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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