Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner on Discombobulation

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner answers the question: What’s the opposite of “discombobulate”? (Yes there is one.) 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!

Comments [78]

shashi from NYC

The comment of "Jeff" about yesterday's show was taken down after being posted. Mine was never posted -- ostensibly because we dared to note Patricia T. O'Connor's lack of expertise on the English language. Both of us merely expressed an opinion; we were neither vitriolic nor mean-spirited. Or are our unappreciative opinions considered "off topic"? In any case, now we know: the liberal Lopate show endorses censorship. I will be sure to disseminate this fact on all my public forums.

Apr. 19 2012 11:46 AM
khadija from brooklyn

Nonchalant: OK! My comment is unfair, in that I heard the show at 2:00 pm; have had the time in the past few minutes to check my recollection of "chaland", in my trusted Nouveau Petit Larousse(ed.1968). :
n. m. (gr.byzantin "khelandion"); bateau non ponte, a fond plat, destine au transport des marchandises sur les rivieres et les canaux.
Perhaps Chalant is a "derivation" of Chaland.

Apr. 19 2012 01:51 AM
HAVANA CARBO/aka Gladys Carbo from Weehawken NJ

Pity Miss O'Connor was so dismissive about TEMBLOR simply because she is not familiar with the word. For her to say that temblor cannot be right because there aren't any earthquakes in England is like saying "leprosy" is wrong because we have no leper colonies in the US.
Sadly the English spoken in Europe is far more extensive than ours. Take for example the word penultimate. I knew and used it as a child, it comes from the Latin and means next to last. It's not hard to pronounce and it's shorter than the alternative but as a child who learned English abroad my use of 'PENULTIMATE" was never understood here. It was only when I lived in England I finally found average people who knew English better than my teachers in New York.
By the way, it's NOT all right to say "the reason is because" - Ms. O'Connor may wish to make her own rules but that doesn't make them right.

Apr. 18 2012 02:23 PM
sarah white from Manhattan

If "adept" is the opposite of "inept," what is the opposite of "inane"?

Apr. 18 2012 02:11 PM
Kerrie O'Gallagher from NY

Also - antidisestablishmentarianism disestablishmentarianism?

Apr. 18 2012 02:10 PM
Kerrie O'Gallagher from NY

Another one is uncouth - as far as I know, no 'couth'

Apr. 18 2012 01:57 PM

Temblor is the Spanish word for earthquake and is derived from the Spanish word temblar, which means to shake.

Apr. 18 2012 01:57 PM

Of course Leonard was wrong when he said all parkways lead to parks. The word refers to landscaped roads that typically have no cross streets. What is the likelihood he will acknowledge his mistake, despite a number of listeners pointing it out? This show would be so much better without him.

Apr. 18 2012 01:57 PM
oscar from ny

Im Latin so I alwsys tought that antichrist meant before the Christ..

Apr. 18 2012 01:55 PM
julia suits

Ben Zimmer did a column 3-4 months ago re temblor/trembler

Apr. 18 2012 01:54 PM
Jed from new york

i like this word.

Pecksniffian: hypocritically and unctuously affecting benevolence or high moral principles

Apr. 18 2012 01:54 PM
Hal Drellich from Brooklyn

This topic makes me discomfortable.

Apr. 18 2012 01:54 PM
Larry from Lawrenceville from Lawrenceville, NJ

I came to the show late. Do you have the example "ruthless," "ruthful," and "ruth." My understanding is that the adjective "ruthful" and the noun "ruth" exist but are archaic and hardly used at all in contemporary English. "Ruthful" on the other hand is quite in use.

Apr. 18 2012 01:53 PM
Christopher Shipp from Weatchester

How about Catywampus (or Catywompus??)

I love that word but don't know "from whence it came"....

Apr. 18 2012 01:53 PM
Rebecca from Greenpoint brooklyn

The opposite of "inept" is "adept"

Apr. 18 2012 01:53 PM
Jean-Marc Russ from Manhattan

And just a quick one... to settle a bet... I am from Australia and am constantly teased by my new countrymen on this issue... how to correctly pronounce alluminium or aluminum?
In Australia we say allumiinium... why is there a difference?
Is there an origin? Which one is correct??

thanks heaps for the great show today.

Apr. 18 2012 01:51 PM
Jeannette Rausch from Manhattan

Speaking of parkways...

"Only in America does one park in the driveway and drive on the parkway"

and the British civil engineers/road builders say "when in doubt, build a round-a-bout"

Sayings from a professor for a landscape architecture class many years ago.

from a listener who enjoys the show

Apr. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Edward from NJ

The "park" in parkway refers to the landscaping on the median or along side the road, not the destination.

Apr. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Rebecca from Greenpoint

The opposite of inept is adept!

Apr. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Jackie from Highland Park, NJ

I wish the media wouldn't use "shooting spree" or "execution style" - 1st one makes it sound fun, 2nd makes murder sound stylish - would be easy to use more neutral words.

Apr. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Eugene from Queens, NY

Temblor is a Spanish word (literally 'trembling') and it comes from the Latin tremulare. Temblor (seism) is a small earthquake, whereas "terremoto" (moving earth) is a big earthquake.

Apr. 18 2012 01:49 PM

Leonard is incorrect about parkways leading to parks. The term refers to a road with landscaping.

Apr. 18 2012 01:49 PM
stephen from Brooklyn Heights

'Nonchalant' has its origins in the french verb 'chaloir', which goes back to the Xth c. and means "to be warm for" in the sense of to be interested in something". 'Nonchalant' figuratively means not to be warmed by something or cool to it, so if one is not warmed by or interested in things in general, one is 'non-chalant.

Please ask Pat about renegged as in he renegged on a promise; wouldn't negg be sufficient? Doesn't re-negg suggest it's being taken back twice?

Apr. 18 2012 01:48 PM
Michal from UWS

I've heard people use the phrase "at the same time" when they mean to say "and," "but," or "however" with increasing frequency lately.

Have you noticed this? It's not incorrect, but I hear it so often that it's begun to make me wince.

Apr. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Ana from Summit, NJ

I come from an earthquake prone country and in spanish we differentiate between a weak and strong earthquake. Temblor (same as in english) is used for a weak movement with little or no damage or casulaties and earthquake is used for a strong movement with damage. The line is not well defined, a 6.0 can be an earthquake, a 5.5 can be both. A 9.0 is definitely an earthquake.

Apr. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Charlie from Westchester

Hutchinson River Parkway, Saw Mill River Parkway, Bronx River Parkway, Taconic State Parkway . . . what parks do they lead to!

Apr. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Dennis Moyes from Rutherford, NJ

Please tell me what park the Garden State Parkway goes to?

Apr. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Jeff Jacobs from Westport, CT

On an WNYC program, I heard a very articulate British speaker. He spoke about an organization that was not "benign." In fact, he described it as "malign." I always thought that the opposite of "benign" was "malignant." What's going on here?

Apr. 18 2012 01:47 PM

The other day I used "recombobulate" to mean the opposite of discombobulate.

Apr. 18 2012 01:46 PM
Tom Dolan from Denville, NJ

When writing about the past. Should I write,"I used to do it, or I use to do it"?

Apr. 18 2012 01:46 PM
L. Stewart


Apr. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Joan Adler from Brooklyn

When did VETERAN become VETRINE? I hear this all the time on WNYC & NPR Also VETERINARIAN is now VETRINARIAN.

Apr. 18 2012 01:44 PM
Jean-Marc Russ from Manhattan

Jean-Marc in Manhattan asks your guest if she could literally give us the
the real meaning and best use of the word literally... because I literally think that
a few people are unsure of how to literally use the world literally... like literally!

love the show.

Apr. 18 2012 01:42 PM

In southern Germany (i.e. Bavaria) one says... "Gern Geschehen" or "it happened gladly" instead of "Bitte" or "Bitte Sehr"

Apr. 18 2012 01:40 PM
Gabriel from Lodi

Why don't we use "Oi" in the States? It's such a great word to say and sounds a lot better than "hey" which as far as I'm concerned is something that horses eat (or at least that's what my 1st grade teacher always told me).

Apr. 18 2012 01:40 PM

seems to have a first blip of use about 1760.

Apr. 18 2012 01:39 PM
Vanessa from Brooklyn

My father, a lifelong anglophile,
always used to to say "Not at all" as a response to "Thank you"

Apr. 18 2012 01:39 PM
Patrick Corbin from Harlem

What about ert? There is inert?

Apr. 18 2012 01:38 PM
David C yates from nyc

Nonchalance comes from the french verb chailoir to matter; hence it does not matter

Apr. 18 2012 01:38 PM
Eugene from Queens, NY

Regarding the reply "your're welcome" in German, usually you say "Bitte sehr" ("Please, very much") and there's also "Nicht zu Danke" ("nothing to thank" or "don't mention it").

Apr. 18 2012 01:37 PM
Jack from Easton, PA

Do you like the use of the phrase-- went missing?

Apr. 18 2012 01:37 PM
John from the bronx

"couthe in soundry londes" Canterbury tales "Known in sundry lands." Couthe = Known in Middle english.

Apr. 18 2012 01:37 PM
Emily from Maplewood NJ

Is everyone familiar with the New Yorker mag end page, from 15 plus years ago, on this very topic? So good.

Apr. 18 2012 01:37 PM

The answer to German "danke" is "bitte" (please)
to which you answer "danke", respond "bitte" and so .....

Apr. 18 2012 01:36 PM
Judith from NYC

I have always assumed 'nonchalant' is based in French 'chaleur' is suggests that a person is cool, unflustered.

Apr. 18 2012 01:35 PM
James from Forest Hills

What does Ms. O'Conner think of speakers that are constantly sprinkling their comments with the (overused) phrases "kind of" and "sort of"? It seems to me that they lack confidence in what they are commenting on.

Apr. 18 2012 01:35 PM
Johnnjersey from NJ

Germans say Danke and bitte

Apr. 18 2012 01:35 PM
Lara from new York

French Canadians also use 'you're Welcome' literally. they do not say 'de rien' as they do in France, but in fact respond 'Bienvenue' to a 'merci' Beinvenue literally means welcome in French.

Apr. 18 2012 01:34 PM
Erika from Brooklyn

Most Germans just say “bitte” which is the same word as “Please”.

Apr. 18 2012 01:34 PM
Giuseppe from Manhattan

The Germans say "bitte" for "you are welcome"
Interestingly, in Mandarin you'd say
"no need to thank" (bu yong xie)
or "don't bee polite" (bu ke qi)

Apr. 18 2012 01:34 PM
John from toronto

root 'chaland', from 'chaloir', meaning 'interested', means customer who maintains preference for a particular merchant

Apr. 18 2012 01:34 PM
Jennali from South Bound Brook, NJ

Germans say: "bitte" same as "please", or "nichts zu danken", "nothing to thank".

Apr. 18 2012 01:34 PM
DAN from manhattan

In German, they use "bitte" (BIT-uh) or "please" as a response to Thank You.

Apr. 18 2012 01:33 PM
William from Manhattan

In Germany, it's colloquial good manners to reply to "Danke(schön)" by saying "Bitte(schön)".

Apr. 18 2012 01:33 PM
Dave from New Jersey

The German response to thanks is, bitte or bitteschoen. Bitte translates to please in English.

Apr. 18 2012 01:33 PM
Erin from Harlem

In German, the response to "Danke" is "Bitte," which is the same as please in English. It really sort of meanings biddings or tidings, but you wouldn't say "Willkommen" in response.

Apr. 18 2012 01:32 PM
laura from brooklyn

Can you comment on how many people (especially on TV and it's spreading) are now using words that should be adjectives and ending with "ly", like "i couldn't take her serious" or "she did it perfect"?

Apr. 18 2012 01:32 PM
emmanuel from westchester

two etymological questions!

The words:
disparage, what does it mean to parage? aggregate, why does the word begin with "agg" and why can't it just be regate?


Apr. 18 2012 01:32 PM
DAN from manhattan

In German, they use "bitte" (BIT-uh) or "please" as a response to Thank You.

Apr. 18 2012 01:32 PM
jonathan from brooklyn

in German it's Bitte ......"Please"

Apr. 18 2012 01:32 PM
Tamara Busch from NJ

Machts Nichts is the reply in German

Apr. 18 2012 01:32 PM
Phoebe from bushwick

"your welcome" is the same in Italian: "prego"

Apr. 18 2012 01:31 PM
john from office

Why is it not your welcomed??? with a d

Apr. 18 2012 01:31 PM
Brewster from the village

Disguised seems to be another one that the 'dis' is being used to amplify your guise.

Apr. 18 2012 01:30 PM

Why are people starting their sentences (usually a reply to a questio) with the word "so?"

Q- What's the recipe for this?
A- So....I used 2 eggs...


Apr. 18 2012 01:30 PM
William from Manhattan

I love "recombobulation areas" (the word and the concept)! Not only should every airport have one, but I think every neighborhood needs a good supply of them. Definitely a New Yorker cartoon in there.

Apr. 18 2012 01:29 PM
Ken Braun from Nutley, NJ

Robert Farris Thompson at Yale has traced the word "jazz" back to "jass," meaning semen in the Wolof language of Senegal (the ancestral home of many African-Americans).

Apr. 18 2012 01:28 PM
Mitch Nusbam from Brooklyn

Wonderful essay from the New Yorker with many words without non-negative usages, you have probably already seen it!
How I Met My Wife
by Jack Winter July 25, 1994
It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn't be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do. Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion. So I decided not to rush it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads or tails of. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings. Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory char- acter who was up to some good. She told me who she was. "What a perfect nomer," I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

Apr. 18 2012 01:27 PM
Stephen from Greenpoint

The word "tantrum" seems to have no origin. To me it seems highly likely that it's from the Sanskrit word, "tantra." Do you have any insight into this?

Apr. 18 2012 01:27 PM
john from office

The expression "Dis" as in to dis someone is a street expression that does not belong in the language.

Apr. 18 2012 01:26 PM
Sean from Manhattan

Question for Patricia: I've jokingly used the word "whelmed" to imply neutrality (e.g. "The show was okay, I was just whelmed.") - rather than overwhelmed or underwhelmed. To me this word implies a positive and a negative, but no neutral. Are there other words like this, what would you say to this?

Apr. 18 2012 01:25 PM
Peter K from Brooklyn

Can Patricia address the wide misuse of "to curate" to mean something like edit, aggregate and arrange. I see it (and "curator") everywhere, and I assumed it was being used properly. But when I looked it up, I was shocked to learn that it simply means to "act as a curator" -- and that a curator is simply "one who has the care or superintendence of something," especially one in charge of a zoo, museum or other exhibition space. Is that where the confusion arises? And can this misuse be stopped?

Apr. 18 2012 01:25 PM

Impeccable. Is peccable a word?

Apr. 18 2012 01:24 PM
David from Manhattan

What about the "overwhelmed?" There's no "whelmed" is there? Did "underwhelmed" started out as a joke word.

Apr. 18 2012 01:24 PM
Bob from Bronx

Along the lines of discombulate, how does one reconnoiter without having first connoitered? I've often wondered about that...

Apr. 18 2012 01:22 PM
Philip Potter from Valley Stream

What's the difference between a mondegreen and a egg corn?

Apr. 18 2012 01:20 PM
Tim from Brooklyn

I enjoy podcasting not only your show Leonard, but Soundcheck too-- and this may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but since I hear the same introductory message so often, I can't help but ask which of the two is correct: you say, "...available when you want to listen; and John says, "available when you want."

To me, yours sounds clearer, because it qualifies "want;" in John's, whenever I hear it I find myself asking, "want what?" I guess I'm wishing he'd at least say, "whenEVER you want."

Not pitting you against one of your co-hosts, mind you-- I am a fan of both of you, no matter what! But since we're talking about words here, and because I'm sure you have a growing audience of podcasters, I'm wondering if anyone else notices this.

Apr. 18 2012 01:19 PM
Joe from Bridgewater

I've noticed that very few people say "you're welcome" anymore. Rather they say some variation of "it's nothing" or "it's OK" or "thank YOU." Do you have a feel for why this is so? Also what is the etymology of "you're welcome?" In French or Spanish, variations of "it's nothing" are used. Is the eqivalent of "you're welcome" used in other languages?

Apr. 18 2012 01:00 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.