Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Word maven Patricia T. O’Conner answers your questions about the English language. Today she's focusing on office-speak - like "shoot me an e-mail" or "let's dialogue." Call us at 212-433-9692, or leave a comment below.

Weigh in: Give us some examples of office-speak you've come across in your workplace.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [66]

allison lander

this is more a question about a speech habit that has developed in our cultural, the overuse of the interjection "like" that people use when speaking or telling stories... My grandpa always makes fun of us for talking that way, and so I'm wondering, if this is a newer trend pertaining to our generation, do you have any theories about what could have brought about this compulsion ; any type of cultural shift that may have occurred in the individual's view of self, or perception of story telling that may have brought this about... or do you think there are any other similar meaningless interpolations used to stall time that previous generations utilizied?

Jan. 20 2011 01:53 AM
Tim Fisher from Valley Cottage, Ny

On Mr. Lopate's passing comment on the word "catholic".

It comes, of course, from the Greek "kata-olos" meaning literally "according to the whole". It does not mean "universal", as in "world-wide" in Greek. For that they would have used (in the Nicene Creed for example) "oikoumenikos". Thus in Orthodox Christianity it is a qualitative, not a quantitative term, referring to the the integral nature of the Church over time, not its geographical extent. This is very important for understanding a central aspect of the different conceptions of the Church between the Orthodox and Roman Christians. Unfortunately, in English this very important distinction has become lost, perhaps due to Roman Catholic influence on the language.

Feb. 28 2008 07:00 PM
Steve Kraye from New York City

I listened with shock and awe to the the dilemna debate! To be sure, I tuned in this morning to be sure I'd heard correctly! For, as did Mr. Lopate and many of those commenting, I learned the given spelling right here in a NYC public school about fifty years ago. The language grows and changes, no doubt; when, however, did this change occur?

Feb. 28 2008 07:18 AM
David Diskin from Washington DC

I wrote a whole blog post about this "dilemna". Just google "the dilemma dilemna" A commenter today lead me to this NPR program! I learned it as "dilemna" about 50 years ago in the midwest.

Feb. 27 2008 09:31 PM
John Beekman from Inwood

This can't be a coincidence: later in the day after this show, someone emailed Radical Reference asking about the origin of "it's a gas"

Feb. 27 2008 05:44 PM
Ulises Solano from Bronx, NY

The second issue has to do with the Venuezuelan government outlawing certain English words, such as mouse, meeting, etc... I am not sympathetic to the Chavez regime, but I couldn't feeling offended by the fact you would considered it weird for him to outlaw Anglosims in the Spanish language. Most of the words you mentioned already existed in the Spanish language prior to computer language and globalization. Words such as raton, reunion, contraseña etc.. all have existed in the Spanish language for a long time, and should be used in a Spanish speaking country. I think the point Mr Chavez is trying to make is a valid one. Language says a lot about our cultures and who we are. My opinion is that if for example the Germans or the Japanese invented technology for which we already have words to describe their product, would we like it if they imposed those words on us as Americans?

I was enjoying your program very much, but your opinions on this last matter showed clear American-centrism (if that is even a word) and it gave the impression that you have little understanding or even respect for foreign cultures and their sensibilities. There is a reason why many people in many countries resent Americans, and this is one of them; Insisting for example that everything in the world should be American-like from language, to food, to democracy, to government style.

-Ulises Solano

Feb. 27 2008 02:28 PM
Ulises Solano from Bronx, NY

I was just listening to your show and I had some thoughts. First of all let me say that I am a Spanish native speaker, I didn't learn English until later in life. The first issue is regarding the words denounce and reject: I don't know if there is a cultural difference in the meaning of these words, but the Spanish equivalent Denunciar and Rechazar respectively show a big difference in strength. Denunciar (denounce) means to call something out, such as when someone does something wrong, and you go to court or the police to report it. The second word, rechazar (rejectt) means to say no to an offer, as when someone offers you a dish that doesn't look appealing, you reject it. So in a way, to reject, in my mind seems stronger because it is the action of stopping something from the get go.

The next issue in on another comment


Feb. 27 2008 02:27 PM
Herb from Hastings-on-Hudson

The opposite of "reject" is
"accept" so unless Obama rejects Farrakan's support one assumes he accepts it. "denounce" doesn't cut it: "I hate what you say, I denounce it, but I will accept your support; my denounciation is not a rejection.

Feb. 27 2008 02:23 PM
H. from New York

Auto-antonym has Greek roots meaning a word that is the opposite of itself. They have variously been called contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words (after the two-faced Greek mythical figure, from which "January" also derives), and enantiodromes.

Auto-antonym has Greek roots meaning a word that is the opposite of itself. They have variously been called contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words (after the two-faced Greek mythical figure, from which "January" also derives), and enantiodromes.

Auto-antonym has Greek roots meaning a word that is the opposite of itself. They have variously been called contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words (after the two-faced Greek mythical figure, from which "January" also derives), and enantiodromes.

Feb. 27 2008 02:03 PM
James from New York

The paradox of language is that there are always usages which we all accept as correct or incorrect, and others which, because they arise from the unending creativity of language users/makers are less universally assented to. In time such usages do or don't persuade & thus do or don't become 'correct'. The natural 'state' of language is one of constant change, evolution & transformation. Languages come into being, thrive & eventually change so much that they can be said even to die away. Hence, these obsessions with the moment's 'correct' usages is a doomed attempt to make the ebb & flow cease - as little likely to succeed with languages as with rivers.

Feb. 27 2008 02:02 PM
Marcy Feller from Manhattan

Another good idiom is "the alarm went off", when actually it rang and therefore actualy went on.

Feb. 27 2008 01:58 PM
Nora from New Brunswick, NJ

I just checked in Microsoft office to see if dilemna comes up as an error...and it does not!

Feb. 27 2008 01:58 PM
Helen from Manhattan

While autopsy is used for human corpses,necropsy is used when refering to "autopsys" of animals, as in zoos.

Feb. 27 2008 01:57 PM
shaun randol from NYC

i was also taught to spell it "dilemna." i grew up in illinois and am the ripe age of 28. i only realized the spelling changed about a year ago!

Feb. 27 2008 01:57 PM
Justin from Sarasota, Florida

I also remember "dilemna", and I was born in 1978 - but I remember it from seeing it in printed material.

Feb. 27 2008 01:56 PM
Marcy Feller from Manhattan

Can you explain the origin of the expression "paint the town red".

Feb. 27 2008 01:56 PM
Ash in Manhattan from Manhattan

To Mike [14]:

While I love the "First Lady of Song" Ella Fitzgerald, as the number one fan of the late great Carmen McRae, the "Three Little Words" song that I heard during this show was sung by none other than Carmen, not Ella. She recorded it on the LP "Something to Swing About" (which I am holding in my hand) for the KAPP High Fidelity label. The ochestra was directed by Ernie Wilkins.

The Lopate Show responds:
We played both the Ella Fitzgerald version and the Carmen McRae version during today's segment.

Feb. 27 2008 01:55 PM
Nelson from NYC

Dilemma has been bothering me for years!

Feb. 27 2008 01:54 PM
x baczewska from nyc

'ravel' 'unravel'

Feb. 27 2008 01:54 PM

Patricia just referred to "cleave" as an "autonym," however, the word she was looking for is "contranym." A contranym is a word that means both one thing and its opposite.

Feb. 27 2008 01:53 PM
Sarah Gallogly from Brooklyn

What can we do to impress upon people in the workplace, on the radio, and everywhere else that it makes absolutely no sense to say "The question [or point, issue, thing, etc.] is, is that..." and is desperately annoying besides?

Feb. 27 2008 01:52 PM
tony from nyc

one that drives me crazy these days is people saying "i am not adverse to that." it should be "averse."

Feb. 27 2008 01:52 PM
Jean from Brooklyn, NY

Thank you Lex for your pointing out that the word necropsy is used for animals and autopsy for humans. Patricia????

Feb. 27 2008 01:52 PM
Emily from Brooklyn

ANTAGONYM! Not autonym!

Feb. 27 2008 01:52 PM
Marcy Feller from Manhattan

re office-speak = I cringe at increasing use of "out-of-pocket" to mean out of the office rather than referring to reimbursable expenses incurred while out of the office.

Feb. 27 2008 01:52 PM
Louis from Manhattan

Is it not "WAS graduated from college?"

I might be wrong, as I am not a college graduate either way.


Feb. 27 2008 01:52 PM
Eric Rosenberg from Mamaroneck, NY

I am an Obama supporter who does perceive a difference between "denouncing" Farrakhan's views and "rejecting" his support. Hillary was trying to pry black Obama supporters away from him, even if they would not go to her. She used as a comparison her rejection of the support of an additional line on the ballot from a political party she abhorred. He ultimately did make clear that he rejected Farrakhan’s support. Whether that also caused Farrakhan acolytes to decide not to vote for Obama, we will have to see.

Feb. 27 2008 01:50 PM
Marcy Feller from Manhattan

Oversight is another word with 2 opposite meanings.

Feb. 27 2008 01:50 PM
Chris from manhattan

What about how the word "data" gets used in sentences. As in, it technically is the plural form, yet, when placed in a sentence with a verb, the verb can be singular or plural?


Feb. 27 2008 01:49 PM
Marcy Feller from Manhattan

re Carrot and stick - my understanding is that both are prompts - like honey and vinegar - say to prompt a horse, either by whipping it or by extending a treat.

Feb. 27 2008 01:49 PM
Mike from NYC

"level-set" is not so much establishing the boundaries of a discussion, although that is included, but providing information so that everyone starts with the same level of knowledge. An instance of this would be having everyone concerned read a primer on the subject at hand so that a more advanced exploration of the topic can follow.

Feb. 27 2008 01:47 PM
Will from Oakland

"Escalate" is a good corporate one.

and "we can take that offline..."


Feb. 27 2008 01:47 PM
Chris from Manhattan

I notice a lot of people using "misnomer" when I believe they mean "error" or "mistake." In fact I heard it on the BBC this morning.

Doesn't "misnomer" refer specifically to a mistaken name? Is that meaning changing?

Feb. 27 2008 01:46 PM
Ken Campbell from Harlem

I love "sanction." Is there another word with multiple, opposite meanings?

Feb. 27 2008 01:46 PM
jawbone from Parsippany, NJ

T/U, James, for succinctly stateing what I was trying to say!

Feb. 27 2008 01:44 PM
Helen from Manhattan

Re the Clinton/Obama Debate and the Reject/Denounce Issue, I thought from the onset that Clinton was asking Obama to reject Farahkan's support of him, not just his stance on Jews, and that this got completely missed in the debate and the commentary. Am I the only one?

Feb. 27 2008 01:44 PM
hjs from 11211

bill buckley knew how to twist the language

Feb. 27 2008 01:43 PM
chestina (changed it) from Midtown

some people call the mail the mails

Feb. 27 2008 01:43 PM
James from New York

Politicians are the last people from whom we ought to expect clear & good usage - however, in defense of Hillary's urging Barack to reject as well as denounce Minister Farrakhan, I gathered from the context that she meant to say somehting like that Farrakhan's message of hate should be denounced and his political support rejected.

Feb. 27 2008 01:43 PM
jawbone from Parsippany, NJ

Re: Renounce/reject--my understanding is that Clinton was urging Obama to not only renounce Farrakhan's anti-semitic comments, but to also reject his endorsement. The question was about actually three separate things, including statements by Obama's minister, which he ignored in his answers, instead focusing on the anti-Semitic remarks. Russert forced to address the endorsement.

Obama seemed to take it the way caller did, that Hillary was only referring to the comments. However, her setup to her request was to the effect that to say I don't accept someone's words on one topic doesn't mean I don't accept the person's endorsement of me. It's a kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge response, which tells Farrakhan and his followers that he's not really against what they stand for, just a few silly comments.

I read a comment last night, which I can't find today, that Clinton was actually taking the long view and trying to prevent Obama from leaving a videotaped record that could be used against him in the general election by the Republicans. As in, see? He doesn't really reject Farrakhan's stands! The Republicans may try this anyway, but Clinton, according to this commenter, was trying to waylay that kind of future attack. She had to good of the party in mind, as well as making an immediate point.


Feb. 27 2008 01:42 PM
Guilherme from Brooklyn

Dear Patricia,

Chávez does definitely not hate you, he just needs to chill. And to have a diplomat by his side at all times.
All of Latin America has these objections to "Too much English"; in Brazil a law regarding that has been in the works for a while.
On another front: I always thought "short-lived" was pronounced as "to live", but now it sounds like "life". Why?
Thanks a lot!

Feb. 27 2008 01:42 PM
Debra from Morris County, NJ

About "dead in the water" - if your idea gets "shot down" because it "won't fly", it is, like that dead duck, "dead in the water"!

Feb. 27 2008 01:41 PM
Word-lover from Manhattan

denounce to me means an engagement in the opposition while reject is a more passive approach to not accepting.

Feb. 27 2008 01:40 PM
Al from Manhattan

I just discovered the many ways that "cotton" can be used as a verb.

Check it out at

Feb. 27 2008 01:39 PM
chestina (changed it) from Midtown

A question for Patricia. I spent a summer with the son of an English teacher who said his mother told him that you don't feel badly, you feel bad just like you feel glad not gladly - what about this!!!

Feb. 27 2008 01:39 PM
Joseph Bell from office NY

"level set" may have originated in the audio engineering world. It's actually probably a bit stale now. I always understood the term to mean establishing a factual basis, as well as establishing boundaries for further deliberation and discussion.

Feb. 27 2008 01:37 PM
Iris from Astoria

Back to Obama for a second....what is the difference between RENOUNCE and DENOUNCE?? Please enlighten me.

Feb. 27 2008 01:37 PM
mgdu from hell's kitchen

don't you see the beauty of many "of's", which highlight the case of the words?

would you want to change childhood's "all of a golden afternoon, full leisurely we glide. . ."?

Feb. 27 2008 01:37 PM
Rochelle from NJ

Macintosh promo
"Think Different."

why not diferently?

Oh, the poor -ly is always being dropped!

Feb. 27 2008 01:34 PM
chestina (changed it) from Midtown

email is couriel in france

the real language police are in quebec

Feb. 27 2008 01:34 PM
Andrea from Staten Island

Since the word "unique" means one of a kind, is it improper to say "very unique"?

Feb. 27 2008 01:33 PM
chestina (changed it) from Midtown

What are your "asks!" anoyed a British friend of mine who has no patience with our wont to make up words

Feb. 27 2008 01:33 PM
Mike from NYC

A bit off-topic, but who sings the theme song of this segment, "The Little Words"? And, if available, what orchestra is behind her?

The Lopate Show responds: Ella Fitzgerald sings that version of "Three Little Words."

Feb. 27 2008 01:33 PM
Ernesto from Tenafly, NJ

I've heard "level-set" in corporate settings before. I suspect it's shorthand for "let's set the level of expectation".

Feb. 27 2008 01:32 PM
Joann from New Jersey

I've often heard level-set used at the beginning of a discussion or meeting as a way of saying let's all be sure we have the same information or understanding or expectation.

Feb. 27 2008 01:32 PM
Celia from NYC

When did "let's do it" change to "let's do this"? It wasn't always the case...and rankles me each time I hear it!

Feb. 27 2008 01:31 PM
Joe from Englewood, NJ

Should it be:
"graduated from Harvard" or "graduated by Harvard"?

Feb. 27 2008 01:31 PM
Hal from Crown Heights

The subject makes me discomfortable.

Feb. 27 2008 01:31 PM
elle from brooklyn

I HATE when clients tell me to "circle back", which means "let's connect in X amount of days/weeks".

Feb. 27 2008 01:30 PM
Dan from NJ

Speaking of a redundancy:

She just said "a redundancy we don't need".


It's hard not to sometimes.


Feb. 27 2008 01:29 PM
Lia Aprile from Brooklyn, NY

Can you please please talk about the word "poetical"? I cringe every time I hear it! Shouldn't the usage be "poetic"? I'm dying to know...

Feb. 27 2008 01:29 PM
M. Banks from Brooklyn, NY

Every time my boss says "crack open that file..." I want to crack open their skull.

I guess it's all just in the name of trying to liven up a mundane task, but please -- spare me. Expressions such as these are like the paisley ties of Bill Lumbergh; an annoying bit of flamboyancy injected into a situation in which it utterly clashes with its surroundings, and ultimately serves to make the wearer appear even more pompous than usual.


Feb. 27 2008 01:11 PM
Regina Rodriguez from Manhattan

I was born into a Spanish-speaking family who moved to the US. In order for their children to quickly learn English, speaking it was highly encouraged at home despite having a mother who was learning along with us. This enabled four young children to learn and become fluent at an amazing speed that astonishes me even now (I remember being able to carry on full conversations and thoughts one month after moving here).

While our English improved to a level where no one would have guessed our native language, English became our main language; we gradually became less and less fluent in spoken Spanish.

It wasn't until we moved back to our native land, that we were thrown into the same 'sink or swim' position … reversed, that we picked up what was lacking in our Spanish.

This was as opposed to learning them both simultaneously because it allowed me to naturally learn one while still keeping the 'code' to the other in my head. When we first tired learning English, I had to put the not fully-developed 'code' for the first on the back burner while I learned and developed the second.

I think we only became completely bilingual when we were forced to use both individually but not simultaneously. I haven’t seen this happen with other friends and family who are 'bilingual' in that they tried learning both at the same time, so what they end up speaking is not a very articulate version of the language in what sometimes is also influenced by a bad accent.

Feb. 27 2008 12:48 PM
Steve from Baldwin, L.I.

Office speak I heard today:

"Let's level-set here".

"What's concerning me here...."

"Let's synch up".

Feb. 27 2008 12:36 PM
Debra from Morris County, NJ

Why, oh, why is "February" now usually pronounced without the first "r"? This practice is rampant, even, sadly, on NPR and WNYC. :-(

For the 'office speak' (or 'business-speak') segment: how about "dead in the water"?

Feb. 27 2008 12:19 PM
Lex Cohen from Lower East Side

It drives me mad that TV writers (awesome and amazing as they are) don't seem aware of the word necropsy. When an animal is examined postmortem to determine the cause of death it referred to as an autopsy. The auto in autopsy refers to 'self' I assume, the same as in autobiography right? so what the nec in necropsy history?

Maybe if you just use the word necropsy correctly a few times it will filter thought the ether into those hardworking writers heads.

I love listening to you two. Thank for so many hours of entertainment!

Feb. 27 2008 12:13 PM

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