Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about the origins of the expression “people of color.” She also answers questions about our confounding and complex English language. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, has recently been published in paperback, and a paperback version of Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman, was recently issued.

Do you have a question about language and grammar, or about the origins and meanings of certain cat expressions? Call us at 646-829-3985 or leave a comment below!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [64]

Liz from New Jersy

One of my pet peeves is 'verse' when 'versus' is meant. I think it comes from seeing the abbreviation 'vs' and not hearing it used correctly very often.

Apr. 26 2011 11:20 PM
Rhonda from Manhattan

To Peter - Pronouncing route as rhyming with gout is a regionalism, mostly used in the south. The same "ou" as in routine and coupon. Traffic reporters are required to say Root 4. The song and TV series are Root 66.

Apr. 20 2011 04:39 PM
Nola from 10591

This is a question. I'm an old-timer. When did 'making' a decision become 'taking' a decision? Why 'take' rather than 'make?'
I hear it all the time and it bugs me. Thanks

Apr. 20 2011 04:05 PM
a g from n j

to the montclair prof- racism is more accepted in latin america . it is just part of the way things are,unfortunately. but to say it is worse,does not take into account the systematic brutality that exists in the u.s.[ie. prison industrial complex]. one must also take into account, that racial demarcation blends into different peoples in the latin american context. it is not so simply black and white,as we try to pretend it is here. let's not forget that there is "huesim", in the african american context,and not all "whites" are of necessity perecieved alike, ie. nordic and anglo saxons vs. southern and eastern europeon. hey, prof. caller,get some nuance in your question. likewise to patricias' husband,in saying there is more racism in latin amerca. again,how does one measure such a thing as racism ? also,as leonard said,we are talking about different countries, with different hisorical trajectories.

Apr. 20 2011 03:59 PM
Stan from Montclair, NJ

I constantly hear (from high school students and sports announcers—
generally ex-ballplayers—and other announcers, too—and once a professor guest on WNYC): "

"He had gave . . . ." (auxiliary 'had" with passed tense instead of passed particle—He had given . . ."); "He had went . . ." instead of "He had gone . . . ." And others.

Incorrect usage? Surely so. Almost illiterate? Hmm . . .

Montclair, NJ

PS: To Nick from USW: Jewish might not mean a race, but it certainly means an ethnic group—at least for those Jews with an Eastern European background. A jew from Poland is not Polish. He's a Jew. In the defunct USSR, wherever a Jew was from, his internal identity card (all had to carry one) read "Jewish," not Ukrainian or Georgian, or anything else. Converts to Judaism often find the religion simple enough but not the culture. It's like converting to Sioux Indian.

Apr. 20 2011 03:50 PM
Shelley from Prairie Du Chien, WI

(NOTE: Brevity is difficult to use when discussing issues of "race.")

Regarding the comment that a caller (I think) made referring to the statement, "That was white of you," or something close to that, and to the use and usage of terms referring to the descendants of Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the American colonies during the slave trade, as well as those who came and remained free persons of color, I would simply ask that you consider who is using the term, and the historical and locational context in which the term is being used, rather than discussing "Black," "White," "African-", "Afro-", "European-American", "Caucasian" as though they just popped up with no connection to past historical and cultural events. In particular, to pass judgment on who uses what term to refer to people who have more ancestors connected to the indigenous peoples of the western, eastern, middle and southern African countries, than to ancestors whose roots reach back to other and/or European countries is to ignore the existence of NUANCE used by the individual using the term. In other words, when attempting to analyze the terms one uses to identify the group of people with whom they believe they do, or do not share the same or similar phenotypical characteristics, please be so conscientious as to consider WHO uses WHAT terms, and in what CONTEXT.

Thank you.

PS: The wordiness of my opinion is indicative of the lack of accurate language we have to discuss a situation that has arisen from the historically and currently misused, misappropriated word "race." The enlightened anthropologist would say that when speaking of human beings there is 1 race - the Human race. For lack of a better word, I would suggest that "ethnic" is a more accurate term for referring to the physical and cultural differences that so many use when speaking of one's "race" in terms of appearing to descended mostly from African or European peoples.

Apr. 20 2011 02:56 PM
Ash in Chelsea

To nick from UWS:

If you consider the word 'American' to be a noun, as I do, then anything that describes that noun is an adjective. That adjective can be anything: Tall, short, fat, intelligent, black, white, Catholic, atheist, Jewish, and on and on.

The word 'Jewish' is NOT a noun -- it is an adjective (not a national designation like Italian but an ethnic or religious adjective all the same).

The word 'Jew' is a noun. So, one can be a Jewish Pole or a Polish Jew. Depending on how one sees -- or is seen by others -- the essence of one's self.

I have had endless discussions with a non-religious (non-observing, if you prefer) Jew about his calling himself a Jew if he does not subscribe to the Jewish laws in the Torah. He says that he is a "cultural" Jew. That seems contradictory to me, but he certainly is very Jewish to me -- mainly because of his total occupation with Jewish things other than Judaism.

Look at all of the light skinned people who consider themselves black. Hey! It's their call and their perogative.

Apr. 20 2011 02:18 PM
Chris from Amityville

Taken Aback
I would bet the meaning is derived from the nautical term.
Backing a sail would be deliberate, but "taken aback" would involve a surprise wind shift. Imagine a square rigged vessel in irons, with its sails plastered back against the masts, unable to steer, being pushed backwards.

b. (Transport / Nautical Terms) Nautical (of a vessel or sail) having the wind against the forward side so as to prevent forward motion

Apr. 20 2011 02:04 PM
Nick from UWS

There is no such thing as a "JEWISH AMERICAN".


For God's SAKE!!!!!

Apr. 20 2011 02:00 PM
Jack from Manhattan

Why do people say "go" in place of "said?" For example in recounting a conversation, "he said no and I go you better." This sounds so wrong. Is it?


Apr. 20 2011 01:56 PM
Charlie Roberts from Highlands, NJ

The great British group The Hollies had a hit single "Look Through Any Window" . . . is that "brit" or did it just flow better in the context of the song?

Apr. 20 2011 01:55 PM

Happens with single-U also, quash / squash

Apr. 20 2011 01:55 PM
Emily Stevens from UWS, New York

Why do we often say "I could care less" when "I COULDN'T care less" is actually correct?

Apr. 20 2011 01:55 PM
Jerry Schindlinger from New York

Taken aback is derived from sailing ships when a sudden shift in the wind causes a ship to be "taken aback."

Apr. 20 2011 01:55 PM

The recent trend of using the word gift a verb, as in "I gifted her a sweater for her birthday" drives me crazy. We already have a verb for this in English. It's "give/gave." Gift is a noun.

Apr. 20 2011 01:54 PM
shashinyc from nyc

FYI: ABACK is an adverb, not an adjective.

Apr. 20 2011 01:53 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I think the "in-" in "inflammable" isn't an intensifier any more than it's a negative. It's more of an indicator of susceptibility--as in "inflammation."

Apr. 20 2011 01:52 PM
JR from NYC

Having grown up in Brazil, I never noticed my grandma was darker than my mom (she took after my blond blue-eyed Spanish grandfather). It was only after I moved here that I started to pay attention to the different shades of skin.
Also, we use a term of endearment there that would certainly not be "PC" here - nego, nega - which might translate as a corruption of the word negro. It's used with the significant other, a friend, your cat, your dog, just about anybody.
I guess Brazilians have many other things to worry about.

Apr. 20 2011 01:52 PM
Nick from UWS

The word "inflammable" means something that is capable of itself burning as a flame if you apply a flame to it. You can "inflame" it and start it burning.

Apr. 20 2011 01:50 PM
April from New Jersey

Older generations of African Americans sarcastically say, "that's mighty white of you." to comment when someone says or does that is particularly kind or mannerly. It is entirely tongue-in-cheek. Not sure if other groups use the phrase, but in Black circles, it is used sarcastically.

Apr. 20 2011 01:50 PM

Dig yourself out of a hole=

when you dig a hole too deep to climb out of, you would then have to dig slowly upwards at an angle to get yourself out.

Apr. 20 2011 01:49 PM
Danielle Jensen

do you know how the expression "one off" got started?From what I have seen it is used when you would say "one of" as in "one of a kind". The first time I saw this in print I thought it was a typo,now I see and hear it all the time. For some reason it sounds trendy to me and thus I don't like it!

Apr. 20 2011 01:49 PM
chris from brooklyn

my pet peeve is when people use "to try 'and' do something", when it should be "to try 'to' do something". e.g.: "I want to try to help my brother."

Apr. 20 2011 01:48 PM
W.D. from Brooklyn, NY

Regarding the terms African American and black American, the way I learned it in grad school at NYU is that African American (popularized by Jesse Jackson in '80s) is a term that recognizes what we call the "slave narrative" of many black Americans. Going by this definition, only those whose heritage is traced directly back to enslaved peoples in the U.S. can be technically dubbed African American. Black is the more general term. Incidentally, this means that President Obama is America's first black president, not the first African American president, despite the fact that Obama has a much closer link to Ethiopia on his father's side.

For newspapers, the AP style was, and I think still is, always to use black American unless African American is part of the official title of an organization, book, etc.

Apr. 20 2011 01:47 PM
Elisa from Manahattan

Question for Patricia.

I've been told that when something is free of charge one can say he or she received it "free" but "i got it for free" is incorrect since they didn't do anything "for" it. Is this true?

Apr. 20 2011 01:47 PM
Ash in Chelsea

I am black by today's sociologically standards. I prefer to call myself a black American.

To me, this mean grammatically, that I am first an American (the noun). What kind of American am I? A black one (amongst other things), black being the adjective.

I am NOT an American Black (and I don't admire the capitalized B in black as a writing style), That would mean that I am first a black person who just happens to be an American citizen.

In the early 1960s I was dismayed to see a NEWSWEEK cover proclaim: "The American Negro" rather than "The Negro American". It said a lot to me about how NEWSWEEK saw folks likes me. (I feel the same way about "American Jew" and "Jewish American". What is the noun and what is the adjective?)

Apr. 20 2011 01:44 PM
Justin from NJ

President Obama says "look" before he makes a point. Now every other political commentator uses "look" in the same way. How can we put an end to this?

Apr. 20 2011 01:43 PM
Brian from Norwalk, CT

I'd like to know which is correct ... "I like it better", or "I like it more". Liking better seems to be everywhere now, even in print, but it doesn't seem to be correct.

Apr. 20 2011 01:43 PM
Amy from Manhattan

The AMA Manual is the American Medical Association Manual of Style, which has many differences from other style manuals (but at least prescribes use of the serial comma!).

Apr. 20 2011 01:42 PM
rosi from New York

when people hear that I am from Germany some say "I am German too" ; but then it turns out that they are born in Amerika and only their great (great) grand parents came from Germany. Now I got used to it but when I came here first it always irritated me - now I find it amusing.
And the best part is that people treat you special when you're from Europe.
I love New York, Rosie

Apr. 20 2011 01:41 PM
Frank from UES

Why does everyone ignore number agreement in the contraction 'there's'?
Like, there's lots of reasons to...

Apr. 20 2011 01:40 PM
Rich from Rockland County, NY

Had to get out of my car but I feel that the "hyphen" American designation only serves to divide people furthur.
What's wrong with just being an American?
If a person was born here or has earned citizenship, that's what they are!

Apr. 20 2011 01:40 PM
Arthur Bohm from New York

We are bothered by the media saying after a terrorist act that "no one has come forward to claim credit for ....."

We think it should be " no one has admitted blame for ....".

Th former makes it seem like it is deed worthy of credit.

Apr. 20 2011 01:39 PM
Laura from uone down

Question from a Russian women about English:

Does one look out the window or through the window?

Apr. 20 2011 01:39 PM
Peter from Port Washington,NY

Why is route now being pronounced as 'rout'?
After all the the TV show was never pronounced as 'rout' 66.

Apr. 20 2011 01:39 PM
Amy from Manhattan

But "people of color" isn't the same as "colored people," or at least it isn't used to mean the same thing. "Colored people" specifically meant black or African-American people; "people of color" means people of any race other than white. Of course, there's also a distinction btwn. "black" & "African-American," & it's always strange to hear someone use "African-American" to refer to someone who has African ancestry but isn't an American!

Apr. 20 2011 01:38 PM
Carl from Bronx

"White" should be seen as an obsolete designation because it implies a default or "normal" status, when "European-American" would be more accurate and unfreighted with the implied preference, prejudice or priority that is also associated with all the white-is-positive-black-is-negative idiomatic expressions.

Apr. 20 2011 01:38 PM
Alice Bednarhik from Morningside Heights

Re the pronunciation of "ash" words. I believe that he word 'wash' comes from the German 'wasch', wascher'. In that German word the 'a' is pronounced as the 'a' in the English word father.

Apr. 20 2011 01:38 PM
Sue from Manhattan

Question for Patricia: When do you use "which" or "that"? Do you use which when the subject is inanimate or can be numerated?
This has always confused me.

Apr. 20 2011 01:38 PM
Laura from UWS


[Middle English washen, from Old English wacsan, wæscan.]

Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.


Apr. 20 2011 01:36 PM
Lorenzo Bevilaqua from New York

Can the members of Blue Man Group be described as people of color?

Apr. 20 2011 01:36 PM
nancy gluck from new jersey

my experience indicates that the now-entrenched habit of hyphenating every identity and "american" dates from the late 1970s, early 1980s during the "diversity" movement that captured corporate america. where i worked then, every group had it's own "club", sometimes broken down into ever smaller divisions (for example, the asian-american club was divided into the japanese-american club, the pacific-islander-american club, etc.). can't we just all be americans?

Apr. 20 2011 01:36 PM
Fabio from Monclair


my impression is that in the 70's ORIENTAL was still a neutral term, now it is stigmatized as insensitive. I wonder what caused the change. In NY it is still possible to find awnings of restaurants carrying ORIENTAL FOOD signs.

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM

The W modifies the A as in wash, watch, wall etc.

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
lori u.

another ethnicity/race question: I am a teacher in Brooklyn and finishing my Doctorate in Education. In my research, I was advised by my committee not to use the terms "Arab" as a racial or ethnic category, but, at my high school, the students from the Middle East all self-identify as "Arab" racially when asked. Ethnically, they'll say they're from Palestine, Yemen, and so forth.

Why might it be considered inappropriate to refer to a student as "Arab" academically?

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
Shelley from Prairie Du Chien, WI

Please explain the obnoxious overuse of the relatively recent and seemingly trendy use of beginning the answer to a questions with "So..."; using "Me," when the grammatically correct usage would be, "____ and I," and the overuse and misuse of the word "bunch," when 'group' or a 'number of,' etc. would convey more specificity with the much less prosaic 'bunch.' (Feel free to correct my misuse of quotation marks, if you'd like!)

Thank you.

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
CL from New York

"Wash" is not unique. Vide, for example, "squash" or "quash."

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
Lorenzo Bevilaqua from New York

Can the members of Blue Man Group be described as people of color?

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
Dan from Manhattan from Inwood

Hi, I can show the provenance of Axed for Asked.

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
Lis Froding from a listener in New Jersey

The term Afro-American is still used in Denmark, where it's "afro-amerikaner".

Apr. 20 2011 01:35 PM
Mitch from NYC

I've always wondered which is correct: "much" different or "very" different.

People often say things like "that's a much different situation", but it seems like the word should be "very" different.

Apr. 20 2011 01:34 PM
Nick from UWS

When will people STOP talking about Jews as a race? THE JEWS ARE NOT A RACE. Judaism is a RELIGION. The Jews are a RELIGION group. They are not a genetically distinct race. STOP ALREADY.

Apr. 20 2011 01:34 PM
stefano giovannini from brooklyn ny

what about Theresa Heinz Kerry? she was born in Africa and she is white. Does it make her African American as well?

Apr. 20 2011 01:32 PM
Bob from Queens

I know a white South African who became an American citizen? Could she be described as African-American?

Apr. 20 2011 01:32 PM
Peter from Manhattan

The (now) politically correct "people of color" and other names like "students with disabilities" seeks to make "color" or "disabilities" just one in any number of things that might define someone's identity. Simply place the noun before the identifier.

Apr. 20 2011 01:29 PM
Hal from Crown Heights

In my Brooklyn neighborhood I stand out as a person without color...or a colorless person....or a person of no color...I'm not sure which is correct.

Apr. 20 2011 01:28 PM
Dan K from NYC

Either Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart once quipped "Everyone's colored. Otherwise you couldn't see them."

Apr. 20 2011 01:27 PM
Marc Grobman from Fanwood, NJ

Not to pick on Leonard, but at least twice he used the following form to announce dates: "May second," "May twenty-seventh" instead of May 2 and May 27. Also, the New Yorker will refer to an event on, e.g., "May third." Shouldn't that form be limited when a number is in relation to others, such as "the third and fourth occurence"? That at least is the instruction in the AMA Manual of Style.


Apr. 20 2011 01:27 PM
A listener

It drives me nuts when newspaper writers use hyphens to string words into a phrase. After a recent NBA game a writer came up with "Derrick Rose had traveled to the free-throw line a career-high-tying 21 times as part of his playoff-career-high 39 points."

I don't understand why he didn't write "Derrick Rose traveled to the free-throw line 21 times, tying a career high, while scoring 39 points, a new career high."

Apr. 20 2011 01:23 PM
a g from n j

i am very sympathetic to the incredibly painful historical, and current, reality of african americans, but, it is grossly oversimplistic, to refer to any and everyone from latin america, as a "person of color". there is going to be distortion, if one attempts to superimpose a theory of racial taxonomy that may have some relevance in north america,and asume, that it is readily transferable accross a cultural spectrum unto others. the sadest thing at the end of the day, is that it is a fight over naming rights,that were created and imposed by those seeking to colonize and exploit. why can't we strive for "color-blindness" in the more enlightened sense of the term, before it was co-opted by the right -wing. this is to ackowledge,that things were bad and still are, not a negation of the reality. this is just another case where language becomes a powerful weapon,and the left,sadly, has been left behind.

Apr. 20 2011 12:29 PM

I'd like to know if Patricia has yet remarked how people blithely now skip the 'n' before a vowel when saying something like "an apple" or "an A train", saying, instead: "a apple," or "a A train." They pronounce it, "uh-apple, "uh-A train," making the "uh" quite guttural. I brought this up a couple years ago, and she claimed not to have ever heard this. Meanwhile, if you go outside and listen to people, you hear it all the time. I heard a cop say to a man who asked for directions, "You want a A train." My own brother actually declared his intention to eat "a apple." I can't vouch for the cop, but my brother is well educated, has the same background as I do -- but I have not lived in the States all my adult life -- and has no excuse for this usage other than comforming to current (not in the grammar books) convention amongst those he works with. He also once said, "So I says to him...", and when I called him on it, he laughed and said that's how people talk in Long Island. So, let's have it. Has Patricia realized that people regularly skip the 'n' before a vowel these days? And why would they do it? It's harder to say things that way and sounds so childish.

Apr. 20 2011 12:16 PM
Troy from Carroll Gardens

I just heard Leonard mention that you all will be talking about the origin of "people of color." I'm very interested to hear what you have to say. It's a term I've always avoided because it's always seemed to be predicated on the belief that caucasians are not "of color" and therefore the norm or base. So it's always seemed inherently racist to me based on its very nomenclature, but it seems so widely used in what's meant to be a sensitive manner.

Apr. 20 2011 12:06 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

On radio and television news and commercials, I only hear FY-nan-shul, never fih-NAN-shul. Has the difference become obsolete? A WNYC newscaster referred to Bernie Madoff as a FY-nan-seer, I would have said FIH-nan-seer.

Thanks :)

Apr. 20 2011 10:41 AM
Ed from Westchester

Question for Patricia regarding the modifier "in waiting".

I always thought that "in waiting" was used to desribe a person who was basically a servant. The Queen of England has a lady-in-waiting, for example

As recently as yesterday's NYT the term is used as someone who is next in line. Kate Middleton is the Queen in waiting. John Boehner was described a few months back as the Speaker in waiting. etc.

Which is correct? Or both?

Apr. 20 2011 10:02 AM

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