Patricia T. O'Conner on the Language of the Holidays

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about the many euphemisms we have for death—pushing up daisies, bought the farm, kicked the bucket—and she answers questions about English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is now out in paperback, along with Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [29]

Chuck Cairns from New Hyde Park

2 comments about calls to today's show.

First, "dysfluency" refers to any of a class of fluency disorders, of which stuttering is the best known.

Second, I caught only the last part of a discussion of whether or not to use "whom" in a sentence that ended in " who(m) we have seen." (I didn't hear what the subject noun phrase is.) The copula "is" relates the subject to the whole clause "who(m) we have seen." The pronoun "who(m)" is the object of "see." (What other word in the sentence would be the object of "see"?) Of course, as a descriptive linguist, I agree that it would be utterly pedantic to insist on putting the pronoun in the objective case.

Chuck Cairns
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics

Dec. 21 2011 02:00 PM
Barry Ford from NYC

I prefer Strunk & White's rules for possesives. For example, 'girls night out,' but 'the Lopates's house.' Using the apostrophe after the S seems old-fashioned and silly to me.

Dec. 21 2011 02:00 PM
davy from nyc

holiday... holy day,
surely its as simple as that!

Dec. 21 2011 02:00 PM
Sue from Long Island

re: "who(m) we've seen" The relative pronoun takes its case (subjective, possessive, objective) from its use in the relative clause not from the main clause. Thus, who(m) is the object of the verb 've seen, not the subject and should be in the objective case (whom).

Dec. 21 2011 01:59 PM
parisbreakfast from Astoria

There's a new book out, The Etymologicon and it's being read aloud daily on Book of the Week at the BBC4
Thanks Carolg

Dec. 21 2011 01:59 PM
Bill from Queens

So, would "hobgoblin" be a "have goblin," sort of like the one-percent??

Dec. 21 2011 01:56 PM

Re: Aran Islands. Usually pronounced AR-un Islands.

A female announcer for, iirc, a sponsor, talked about AhRAHN Islands and AhRAHN sweaters.

However, to the best of my knowledge, corroborated by checking sources on the web, the accent is on the first syllable.

Now, perhaps these aren't the islands in Galway Bay, but some other area of the world?

Please try to correct the reading of this sponsor's message. It's...embarrassing for the station.

Dec. 21 2011 01:55 PM
Michael from Tuckahoe

I always understood the word "hobnob" to carry the connotation of partying or socializing with those who belong to a higher social stratum that the person doing the "hobnobbing"

Dec. 21 2011 01:55 PM
Freida from UES

Is it shrimp or shrimps?

Dec. 21 2011 01:54 PM
Russ Malta

Does the McGreevy family become the McGreevies [not McGreevys]?

Dec. 21 2011 01:54 PM
Gary from Port Washington

What is the origin of Post Office? At the Postal Museum in Washington DC, they have an exhibit that highlights the Boston Post Road which is the road they used to deliver the mail between Boston and New York as the first "postal" route. The post mark the route and distances, is there a relationship between post and post office?

Dec. 21 2011 01:54 PM
Will from nyc

You cannot put a ' or " in a name on a computer (without changing the way that the some software works on a fundamental level, in others you can) because ' or " are used to designate a string type variable.

If your name is D'Ambrosia you will get an error if they enter your name as:

variable Name = 'D'Ambrosia'

The 2nd ' will cause Name to be 'D' and not 'D'Ambrosia'. ' and " are used interchangeably in most cases. This problem is easily fixed (generally by using a \ before the ' - so Name = 'D\'Ambrosia' would be valid) but it takes a retooling of a companies software which costs money and they honestly don't care enough to bother.

Dec. 21 2011 01:52 PM
David from Brooklyn, NY

I've noticed that when speaking to someone from another country it is P.C. to attempt to pronounce their name according to their own language, but since my name is David, wouldn't that mean if I am speaking French I should be addressed as "David" and not "Dah-veed" as I was called in French class?

Dec. 21 2011 01:48 PM
Mike O from Summit nj

I hear people say all the time they go 'to university'. Isn't it going to 'the' university?

Dec. 21 2011 01:47 PM
Rosita Fernandez-Rojo from New York, NY

This is not really a euphemism, but yesterday my daughter and I were considering whether there is a term, or at least other examples, of the following: the word "sporadically" is used, well, sporadically. Is there a term for a word that describes or defines its own usage? It seems a kind of onomotopaiea of meaning.

2nd question: hasn't Hoi Poloi reversed its meaning over time?

Dec. 21 2011 01:45 PM

What about pluralizing a last name like Higgins or Collins?

Dec. 21 2011 01:44 PM
Clay from Brooklyn

Could you confirm that it is a misuse to use "jive" in place of "jibe" when meaning, "to be in accord with."

Dec. 21 2011 01:43 PM
Bill from Queens

Hi, can you elaborate on how the word "Christmas" emerged from the word, "Yule" in the 12th Century? Thanks.

Dec. 21 2011 01:43 PM


Dec. 21 2011 01:42 PM

Regarding the pluralization of last names question, what about last names that end in 'y,' like 'Kubersky'? 'Kuberskies'? 'Kuberskeys'?

Dec. 21 2011 01:41 PM
Robin Hardman from Ridgewood, NY

Re: mis-use of "proverbial:" I had a religion teacher at college (30 years ago) who railed against people using "myth" to mean "untruth"--a myth is a religous story, which represents a certain kind of truth of its own-it should never be synonymous with "lie." Sadly, I think this was a losing battle.

Dec. 21 2011 01:41 PM
Kate from Washington Heights

..." is whom we have seen"

"whom we have seen" is a phrase, and the grammar has to be consistent within the phrase. Although "whom" might be too formal for a card, you cannot say it is correct as in being the subjective case. It is CLEARLY the object of the verb "seen."

X = [whom we have seen]
X = who

Dec. 21 2011 01:39 PM
Marta from NYC

In "Love is whom we have seen", "whom" is the object of "have seen", not of "is."

Dec. 21 2011 01:38 PM
Theresa from New Rochelle

Re: who/whom

Why doesn't she just say "And love is those we have seen" - sounds better to me.

Dec. 21 2011 01:37 PM
Rose from Frisco, TX

I enjoyed this topic very much, as one of Jehovah Witnesses, we do not celebrate christmas as it is not Jesus' birthday. Your guess was accurate in pointing out that christmas did not come into practice until the twelve century. Thanks for the information.

Dec. 21 2011 01:37 PM
Steve from Rockville Centre, NY

What do you think of "there'll" and it's pronunciation like "they'll"? Both the word and the pronunciation seem odd, though more popular these days.

Dec. 21 2011 01:34 PM
Ken from Soho

How did the British come to misuse the word holiday for vacation?

Dec. 21 2011 01:33 PM
Sherry from UWS

Can you ask her about the words scrooge and grinch? Were these words ever used before their famous books?

Dec. 21 2011 01:32 PM
William H. Lorentz from Maplewood, NJ

Subject - Verb Agreement. Is it a serious violation of English usage for so many presumably educated persons (politicians, media personalities, college professors, etc.) misuse the subject-verb agreement rule by saying : "There's many people who....." or "There's a whole host of reasons why people seem too lazy to properly use language when they should know better" ?

Dec. 21 2011 01:16 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.