Patricia T. O’Conner: Word Maven, Word Schmaven

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner investigates looks at the Yiddish construction that brings us the phrases fancy schmancy and the like. 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 available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

If you have a question about language and grammar, leave a comment or call us at 212-433-9692!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [30]

Kannu from India

What's the difference between "British" and "Britisher"?

Apr. 12 2012 01:27 PM
Roberta Paula Books

For Cory from Earth, there are other national adjectival descriptors using the "ish" ending, including the language of the Angles/Engles (English). I don't think it has a pejorative origin. Others that come to mind are Swedish, Danish, Finnish, (but not Norwish), Kurdish, Polish, Spanish, and last but not least, Yiddish. The suffix "ish" seems to mean "belonging to" or "related to". Extending this suffix to greenish or warmish seems like a short, derivative step. As you suggest, it would be interesting to know the linguistic origin of the suffix. I wonder whether "ish" has an Angle or Germanic origin, given the above list of countries? "Ish" is a common suffix in Yiddish, again having the meaning "belonging to". Yid is the Yiddish word for Jew, so Jewish is likely a straightforward translation of and from the Yiddish.

Mar. 22 2012 08:46 PM
Roberta Paula Books

Your teaser on "paper schmaper" left me wanting more. You talked around the origins of Yiddish in a very imprecise way and then floated a teaser reference to Turkish roots and Columbia linguistics research without providing any clear references or sources. Your time frame was 1300 - or did you say 13th century? The Turkish reference makes me think of Sabtai Zvi, the false messiah, who ultimately converted to Islam, and the horrid massacres of that time period. I would like to follow up. Please "tell me more".

Mar. 22 2012 08:03 PM

I'm with JFreely - the habit of starting sentences with "So..." drives me bonkers. It's all over the place - speech patterns are, of course, often contagious. And oh no! I just heard Neda Ulaby on NPR use one of my other pet peeves: she said "people who could care less..." !!!

Mar. 22 2012 12:39 AM
Carola from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

My father always used to chide us for saying "hopefully" but my feeling about it is that there's no real colloquial alternative - it seems overly pedantic to say "one hopes" or "it is to be hoped," etc. So why not?

Mar. 21 2012 01:58 PM
Michael from Matawan

How did this awful confusion between "its" and "it's" enter mainstream American English? Lastest example is an email from Toyota that I received this morning with subject line: "Your new electric Prius is on it's way to you."

Mar. 21 2012 01:49 PM
Bonn from East Village

"I find it horrifying that people don't know how to use quotations or understand grammar," she said incredulously. "Where did they (not) learn English?"

Mar. 21 2012 01:48 PM
Michael from Green Wood Heights, Brooklyn

The recitation of numbers is a bit of a pet peave for me. Often people, even broadcasters, will say, "Two thousand and ten" for 2010. Isn't this wrong? Shouldn't the "and" always be placed at a decimal point, an in "Two thousand ten dollars and 2wenty-five cents?"

Mar. 21 2012 01:47 PM
Meredith from NJ

Why do people now use "I" so often incorrectly?
I used to be corrected by my mother to say "Maureen and I" when trying to use a plural subject.
Now I hear people saying Maureen and I when they really mean "Maureen and Me" to the point that they even use "Maureen and I's" as a plural possessive instead of "our"
I have even heard this on TV and it makes me want to faint in disbelief.

Mar. 21 2012 01:41 PM
Mark from NJ

Your word mave used "opaque-ness" instead of "opacity"?

(Question mark outside of the quote mark)

Mar. 21 2012 01:40 PM
Missy Fabel from Chappaqua, NY

Love the linguistics...often wondered about "over" versus "more than."
Worked for a women in PR ten years ago, who always had us write "more than" instead of over to mean a greater value. He was more than six feet tall, versus he was over six feet tall. It seems that both are now accepted as correct. Is that true?

Mar. 21 2012 01:39 PM
Mike from Inwood

The first musical version of "Three Litle Words" is Ella Fitzgerald. Does anyone know what male sings the second version that starts with a guitar?

Mar. 21 2012 01:38 PM
Alison C Bernsohn from upper west side

Pet peeve: ubiquitous misuse of the words "less" and "fewer." An example
one hears and see in advertisements constantly is "Less ads, more entertainment."

Mar. 21 2012 01:37 PM
ann from Westchester

What do you do if someone is "saying" the quote that end with a question mark, e.g. in a novel, "Did she go to the movies too?' asked Mary.

Is the above correct?

Mar. 21 2012 01:36 PM
Frank Grimaldi from East Village

I've been noticing for awhile that young people always say "Thank you so much," for things as mundane as a store clerk returning change for a purhase. It used to be that "so much" was used when someone did something really special but that seems to no longer hold true. Am I the only person to pick up on this?

Mar. 21 2012 01:35 PM
Steve from Inwood

Re: parking signs... a normal person would also read signs like "no standing" in a particular way... hence my first ticket when I moved to NYC.

Mar. 21 2012 01:32 PM
Jeremy from Harlem from Austin

Care to comment on the rise of the incorrect use of the conditional, as in "If I would have done (something)," rather than "If I had done (something), then x would have happened," etcetera?

Mar. 21 2012 01:28 PM

The phrase "one of the only" seems to be spreading like a plague. Doesn't "only" mean that there's just one? Either you mean "the only" or "one of the few."

I'm doomed to hear this forever, right?

Mar. 21 2012 01:27 PM
Maggie from Morristown

Because people--for a number of reason--may confess to a crime they did not commit, "alleged" is probably still preferable in such cases, even when everything points to the accused.

Mar. 21 2012 01:27 PM
JFreely from NYC

I am tiring of this very new trend where people answer a question with "So.." instead of "Well.." For example if Leonard Lopate asks a guest (not Patricia-- she doesn't do it) a question like "Is that a problem?" and the person responds with "So, when talking about that idea it's not a problem." Patricia and Leonard -- have you noticed this annoying new trend?!? I started hearing in with guests on WNYC.

Mar. 21 2012 01:27 PM
Bernard Kabak

I'm wondering about a locution taking the form of, "that would be X." Example: Teacher: Who made that noise? Student: That would be me.
Another example: Q. Who painted the Mona Lisa? A. That would be Leonardo.
I often hear this sort of thing among my teenage son and his friends.
Why not just say, in the first example, "I did," or, in the second example, "it was Leonardo?"
Do you have any insight into what this locution signifies, and do you agree that is becoming more prevelent?

Mar. 21 2012 01:25 PM
Richard from New York

well, to Barbara, there's Charles Osgood's somewhat annoying sign-off when he hosted CBS' "Sunday Morning" television show - "See you on the radio."

Mar. 21 2012 01:23 PM
William from Manhattan

Re: "alleged". What about the use of the word "perp" to describe a defendant? (As in "perp walk".) The usage bothers me, because it implies a presumption of guilt (perpetrator - as in "he did it"), no?

Mar. 21 2012 01:23 PM

"Alleged" is both a legal tool for avoiding liability and a political tool for denying that the truth of a matter has been settled.

Mar. 21 2012 01:21 PM
Virginia from Bergen County

One of my pet peeves is the use of "myself," as in "give it to myself," or if you have questions, talk to myself." Would you please explain the proper use of "myself"? Thanks.

Mar. 21 2012 01:19 PM
Barbara from Manhattan

I've always been (just a little) bothered by Leonard's sign-off: "See you tomorrow." He won't see us tomorrow, so why not say something like: 'Let's/we'll talk tomorrow' or 'Tune in tomorrow'? On a show that values precise language, I'd love to hear the sign-off reflect that.

Mar. 21 2012 01:17 PM

As a musician, this one drives me crazy: reached a crescendo. Crescendo means to gradually get louder, but the phrase is used to mean the loudest or most intense part. How did this happen?

Mar. 21 2012 01:12 PM
Cory from Earth

Exactly my point. Sevenish is not really seven. Obviously a fish is a fish, not a f.

Mar. 21 2012 12:48 PM
Richard from New York

Cory - it may be when someone asks one us what time we should meet for dinner, we answer - "sevenish".

Also, I can't imagine a kinish being merely a kin.

Mar. 21 2012 12:42 PM
Cory from Earth

How did Jews get to be Jewish in English? Christians are not Christianish. Muslims are not Muslimish. Britains are British, but Brit is just slang for a Britain. People from Eire are Irish, but an individual is not an Ir. Someone from Italy is not Italianish It's not that way in French. A Jew is simply un Juif.

Jewish sounds slighting like, that color is green, with a bluish tint. I.e., it's not the real full thing. Almost like Barry Goldwater was Episcopalian, but because his grandfather was a Jew, he was a little Jewish.

Mar. 21 2012 12:14 PM

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