Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner Sends Smoke Signals

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Following the dramatic election of the pope, announced with a puff of white smoke from the Vatican, our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about the history of communicating through smoke signals. She’ll also answer questions about 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 [45]

Owen Walker

Could you explain why collective nouns seem to be disappearing from the language and are being overtaken by mindless use of the plural with 's'. For example, no one used to talk about 'behaviors,' because 'behavior' meant a type of conduct. ('Conducts' is probably next: "Your conducts this morning, Willie, were disgraceful") People now talk about surgeries and therapies, when previously surgery and therapy would have sufficed.

Mar. 24 2013 11:40 AM

The reference above was correct in attributing to Biden his frequent use of the word "literally"...however in the discussion on air it was said to be "virtually" at one point.

Mar. 22 2013 12:11 PM
Mike from Tribeca

My least favorite part of Ms. O'Conner's monthly segment is that it has to end. Always an informative and entertaining pleasure.

Mar. 20 2013 02:05 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

"Doug from West Village" asked why Pat is now heard every-/other/ month.

I wonder: Has the same change been made for the "Gurus of How-To"?

Where were they this month?

Mar. 20 2013 02:01 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

Anyone else notice, in writing, a lot of usages of "an" when "a" would be correct, and vice-versa?
Current caller mentioned "FAQ", pronouncing each letter separately.

I wonder, how many people pronounce it "fak"?

Same for "URL", how many people say, "earl"?

Mar. 20 2013 01:57 PM
jim from NY

Pope Francis FIRST
or just Pope Francis?

Mar. 20 2013 01:56 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Why do Americans pronounce buoys, as "boo-wees" as opposed to "boys" like the rest of the English speaking world. Yet, they will say "buoyancy"

Mar. 20 2013 01:56 PM
emmanuel from westchester

Should I always use commas to seperate ideas that may be apprehended as parallel?

Mar. 20 2013 01:56 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Wendy from Highland Park, NJ -- perhaps Brown or his publisher thought "The Leonardo Code" wasn't exciting enough? Nah, I'm gonna go with sloppiness. ;-)

Mar. 20 2013 01:55 PM
Isa Brito from bk

people always correct me when i say i feel melancholic. they say i should say I feel melancholy.

Mar. 20 2013 01:55 PM
Deirdre NYC from UES, Manhattan

" Different to" is the usual British usage and is correct within that sphere.

Mar. 20 2013 01:55 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

What is the origin of "spring cleaning"?

Might it have been the cleaning of anything related to "hametz" (leavened dough and related substances) that Jews traditionally do in preparation for Passover?
"Oliver from the Bronx" wrote,
"Pet peeve."

What is the origin of /that/ phrase?

Mar. 20 2013 01:54 PM
maggie from nj

"Different to" is commonly used in British & Irish English. I really don't know if it's the best British English. I've heard it used by a professor or two in Dublin.

Mar. 20 2013 01:53 PM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

It drives me nuts when people say "various different" things.

As oppossed to various the same things?!

Mar. 20 2013 01:52 PM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

It drives me nuts when people say "various different" things.

As oppossed to various the same things?!

Mar. 20 2013 01:52 PM
Stephanie from Colorado

I hear the Brits say 'different to' all the time on the BBC....

Mar. 20 2013 01:50 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

Widespread misuse of the word , "literally", has been discussed on previous shows with Ms. O'Connor.

(As in, "The world is literally her oyster now", "I literally fainted when I heard that", etc.)

But I wonder whether anyone noticed at least one example where the use of "literally" was /incorrectly/ claimed to be incorrect. Vice President Jospeph Biden, in his speech at this past summer's DNC convention, said, "The future is literally in your hands."

This was cited as an incorrect usage of "literally", yet, if Biden was referring-to /voting/.... voting is /literally/ done with the hands...

Mar. 20 2013 01:49 PM
Tony from Canarsie

A quick Google gleaning comes up with Leonardo's birth name having been Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci.

Mar. 20 2013 01:48 PM
Olivier from Bronx

Could the name we use for the artists be related to their signatures?

Mar. 20 2013 01:48 PM
Wendy from Highland Park, NJ

Tony from Canarsie (shall I call you Canarsie? :-) ), good point!

(It does always bug me a little bit each time I hear someone call him "Da Vinci".)

Mar. 20 2013 01:47 PM
Olivier from Bronx

Pet peeve. The way our otherwise eloquent president pronounces the word refinance. He flattens the i. Is it not derived from fi-nance, fi-nancial. Small thing and truth be known he is not my president yet as i am still a french citizen.

Mar. 20 2013 01:45 PM
Wendy from Highland Park, NJ

According to, "high on the hog" refers to where the choicest cuts of meat are on the animal, the ones only rich people could afford.

It also mentions the "sow's teats" theory, though I'd think they'd have called it "high on the sow" if that were the origin.

Mar. 20 2013 01:45 PM
Ed Hein from Brooklyn

Some news reports have referred to the new pope as Pope Francis the First. Pope Francis is sufficient until there is another Francis to distinguish him from. You have to go back exactly 1100 years (Pope Lando, 913-914) to find the last pope whose name did not have a Roman numeral after it, although there were many others before him.

Mar. 20 2013 01:44 PM
Er-nay from UWS

Da Vinci ... It's like Jenny Da Bronx

Mar. 20 2013 01:43 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Wendy from Highland Park, NJ -- Your point about da Vinci reminds me of why Dan Brown's book title "The Da Vinci Code" made as much (or little) sense as the book's content.

Mar. 20 2013 01:42 PM
Anne from New Jersey

Forgive me if this has been discussed in previous Word Maven segments, but I'm having a bit of trouble trying to decide where to use "as if" vs. "as though." Interchangeable, or not?

Mar. 20 2013 01:42 PM
Ben Yarmolinsky from New York

In fact, some Renaissance composers are known by their given names: Josquin Des Prez, Orlando di Lassus, Francesco da Milano

Mar. 20 2013 01:40 PM
antonio from baySIde

Please explain: Spend-thrift...Seems like an oxymoron...

Mar. 20 2013 01:39 PM
Olivier from Bronx

High on the Hog. It has something to do with the order on the mother or sow breasts, widely believed that higher in "the piping" yielded better, and faster growing piglet. Source is Pennsylvania County Fair's TV.

Mar. 20 2013 01:39 PM
Valerie from NYC

Oops! Just heard the Word Maven say "prearranged in advance". Isn't that repetitive? What gets prearranged afterward?

Mar. 20 2013 01:39 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

Also, blogger Rob McGee of and writes of himself,

"I'm a total homo with no apologies, but please don't call me /gay/, because it's a stupid word and an even stupider subculture."

Mar. 20 2013 01:39 PM
mark from brooklyn

A beautiful early literary reference to fire beacons: the first scene of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, where the watchman on the roof sees the beacon indicating the end of the Trojan War, passed from mountain top to mountain top from the coast of Turkey to Greece.

Mar. 20 2013 01:38 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

Please discuss:
a) the origin of the word "gay" to describe male homosexuality,and,
b) doesn't such a word enshrine a /stereotype/, of homosexual males being effeminate, acting silly, flamboyant, etc.?

Dissident homosexual Bill Weintraub condemns these qualities (along with buggery and promiscuity) while promoting frot (phallus-to-phallus) as a diginfied, masculine, far safer alternative. Yet, Weintraub describes himself as a (longtime) "gay activist". I find this somewhat paradoxical, though, it should be noted that Weintraub also makes a point of arguing against labels altogether.

(Weintraub's site can be found at Note that it contains graphic content of a sexual nature.)

Mar. 20 2013 01:35 PM
Wendy from Highland Park, NJ

I thought Pat was going to give us the answer ... I'm surprised she doesn't seem to know it. Leonardo da Vinci means "Leonardo of Vinci" - meaning he's from a place called Vinci. Da Vinci is not a last name, in the sense of a family name like we have today. It's just a locator.

If you were Leonard of New York and had no family name, we'd call you Leonard, of course, not "New York"!

Same with "della whoever" - "della" means "of the", so it's basically the same as with "da", "di", "de", "do", "del", etc.

Mar. 20 2013 01:33 PM
eve sheridan from ny

re Masaccio-
"accio" at the end of a word in Italian adds the meaning big and ugly. Italians use a lot of affectionate nicknames.

"The name Masaccio is a humorous version of Maso (short for Tommaso), meaning "clumsy" or "messy" Tom" (wiki)

Mar. 20 2013 01:32 PM
Emmanuel from westchester

My name is Emmanuel. Immanuel Kant spelt his name with an I; why is this ?

Mar. 20 2013 01:31 PM
Valerie from Long Island City

Regarding why we call Leonardo da Vinci "Leonardo" and Pierro della Francesca "Pierro," isn't it because "da Vinci" and "della Francesca" refer to where they are from, but are not technically last names? However, when we talk about an artist like Beethoven, "Beethoven" is his actual last name and hence we refer to him that way.

Mar. 20 2013 01:31 PM

PTO- During the Italian Renaissance and earlier individuals did not have formal last names.

Thus, Leonardo OF Vinci.

Mar. 20 2013 01:30 PM
Ed Hein from Brooklyn

Does the English language have a collective noun for aunts & uncles and for nieces & nephews?

Mar. 20 2013 01:17 PM
Joel from Westchester

Too often I hear people (some on NPR!) pronouncing the word "tenet" as "tenant." Where are our aural editorialists?

Mar. 20 2013 01:09 PM
Linda from Jersey

Today I said to my daughter that she seemed to be "at sixes and sevens". Can you tell us more about that phrase (more than wikipedia has to say)

Mar. 20 2013 01:07 PM
Jerry from Elmhurst

Could you discuss the expression "It amounts to........." and from where it originates
Eg. "The politician's speech amounts to treason".
Another way of saying this: "The politician's speech is tantamount to treason."
The question being if using "amount" as a verb derives as a corruption of the adjective "tantamount"

Mar. 20 2013 12:38 PM

In Britain (Canada, Australia...) they say "different to" - here we say "different from." Do you know who started this? there seem to be lots of little differences like this between British and US usage. (I grew up on the border, reading bilingual cereal boxes, etc.)

Mar. 20 2013 10:43 AM
Don Kortum from NJ

There is a television commercial for a denture adhesive that features a "dentist" making the assertion that dentures are "very different to enamel." There are at least three versions of this ad that all have the same words coming out of the dentist's mouth. This sounds so wrong to me. Shouldn't they say that dentures are very different FROM enamel?

Mar. 20 2013 10:27 AM
Doug from West Village

Leonard, can you tell us why Pat is now heard every-other-month?

Mar. 20 2013 09:08 AM

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