Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Word maven Patricia T. O’Conner answers your questions on the English language! Give us a call at 212-433-9692 or leave a comment.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [38]

Phil from Seattle WA

Family relations...?

A question that came out of an ESL class.

John and Frank are brothers.
John is married to Jennifer.
Frank is married to Francine.

Are Jennifer and Francine Sisters-in-Law?

We thought yes. The ESL students said they are NOTsisters-in-law in other languages, in which they must be related by blood to be relatives, not just marriage.

Thanks, great show.

Sep. 17 2008 04:45 PM
Seth from Astoria

#15 Bob,
(our self maybe?)
But really, We adopt (not hijack) America as a shortend United States of America the Country. We are Americans. We are also North Americans, as are Canadians and Mexicans, etc., as being part of the Continent, North America. Easy concept to grasp as Chinese are also Asian, and French are alse European.

It's just a little easier to Identify as American, instead of being United-States-of-American-North-American.

Sep. 17 2008 02:14 PM
Erica from 10024

re: Jason #27

This from the "Think Different" company. It's a "grammassacre"!

Sep. 17 2008 02:06 PM
Erica from 10024

re: Jody #18

Such words are called "autoantonyms." Others are cleave and oversight (& overlook). I suspect that a web search for the term would yield at least a few more.

Sep. 17 2008 02:03 PM
Will from Oakland

"Hotelling" ...a great corporate one.

"let's do this"

Sep. 17 2008 01:57 PM
Geoff from West Orange, NJ

The idea of which preposition goes with which phrase is called a "subcategorization restriction" and is applied in lots of situations where certain words are put together for whatever reason. Bored "of" does not fit the subcategorization restriction for that phrase, but bored "with" is...

Sep. 17 2008 01:57 PM
Shelli from West Orange, New Jersey

I was thrilled to hear you mention the word " prepone" today. This word was invented by my husband,Dov Brosh about 20 years ago when he wanted to move a flight date up. As a new immigrant from Israel back then, he was always very creative with the English language and felt this was a word that was sorely lacking, especially in our fast paced, get things done yesterday culture.

Sep. 17 2008 01:57 PM
Demetri from brooklyn

how about "gay" Leonard?

Sep. 17 2008 01:56 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

The distinction between Renaissance and renaissance is the part of speech as well as the meaning. Renaissance (noun) -- cap R -- is the period in European history -- The Renaissance. renaissance (adj) -- lower case r -- is a descriptive word. Also Leonardo was a Renaissance man (man of The Renaissance) -- he lived during the period in European history known by that name. Leonardo was a renaissance man -- he was multi-faceted regardless of when he lived.

Sep. 17 2008 01:55 PM
Mark from Manhattan

Actually, the word hysteria comes from the Greek root "hystera" or womb. It's the same root in the word hysterectomy.

Sep. 17 2008 01:54 PM
G from Portland, OR (by way of Greenpoint)

Regarding the gender-unspecific pronoun, there is also a small movement in the QLGBT community to adopt "ze" in place of "he" and "she".

Sep. 17 2008 01:53 PM
Jason from New York

Good luck on the "funnest" issue. I hate it... but apple just used it in their iPod promotions:

"The funnest iPod ever."

Sep. 17 2008 01:53 PM
Robert from brooklyn

No, if Ron Paul was not appointed president he was literally not-appointed - Dis-appointed.

Sep. 17 2008 01:53 PM
Erica from 10024

Renaissance with a capital R refers to the specific time period, lowercase just denotes a rebirth (what the original French word means) of something. It's just like Holocaust/holocaust. As for the difference in pronunciation, one is more faithful to the original French, the other is a little more Anglicized and affected.

Sep. 17 2008 01:52 PM
Demetri from brooklyn

maybe we should change hysteria to hersteria due to it's origins.

Sep. 17 2008 01:50 PM
Mark from Manhattan

Regarding iron, if you really want to hear an interesting pronunciation, go to Pittsburgh where it's something equivalent to "ern."

Sep. 17 2008 01:50 PM
Mark from Manhattan

While on the subject of banks, it's interesting that bankruptcy comes from Italian "banca" bank and "rotta" broken. One of the above writers mentions the Venitian money traders. I had heard that if the traders were acting unfairly, the doge would send someone to "break the bench."

Sep. 17 2008 01:47 PM
Donald Macallan from NYC

Re: the "Democrat" candidate, democrat plan, etc.

Please comment on the recent, derisive use of this substantive form as an adjective.
- used purely for pejorative sounding purposes. ('Democratic candidate' doesn't sound mocking.)
- it's repeated constantly on certain talk radio.

Sep. 17 2008 01:46 PM
John from Woodside

Leonard:Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin has repeatedly used the phrase:"the pollsters and the pun-DINS"She repeatedly mis-pronounces the word as if it had an N rather than a T in it. It seems many make this mistake now,sometimes saying "pun-DINTS". Is it possible to re-establish this correct pronunciation in the media/culture, or has the word pundit been lost to the sloppy speakers like Palin, forever?

Sep. 17 2008 01:44 PM
Anne from Manhattan

Why do we use the word "up" in so many phrases?

"Something is made up"
"Can you come up with an answer"

Those types of idioms are very hard to teach and explain to non-English natives.


On a totally different note: Is it correct to say someone is standing "on line" when they're actually in line?

Sep. 17 2008 01:44 PM
jody Shipley from Brooklyn, NY

nonplussed. How can that word have 2 definitions that are exactly the opposite. Please enlighten me because I talk about this a lot and have my own theories. Thank you! Love the show.

Sep. 17 2008 01:44 PM
Brook from Queens

A brief clarification regarding "Investment Bank" is in order for your listeners.

You are seeing the language changing as a result of changes in the technical definition in law of the word.

The reason that "Investment Bank" does not appear in US English is the fact that the Glass-Steagal Act wasn't passed until 1933. The Glass-Steagal act legally bifurcated the banking functions of commercial banking (what you were calling "banks") and investment banking (firms which raised capital and created securitized debt).

However, in 1999 the Grahm-Leach-Bliley act eliminated the distinction. After 1999 "banks" could own investment banks and perform investment bank operations, and "investment banks" could lend money and hold accounts which were FDIC insured.

Sep. 17 2008 01:41 PM
a woman from manhattan

I'm still waiting for you to acknowledge the use of the indefinite article "a" in front of a word that starts with a vowel. Such as when a NYC cop says, "you need to take a uptown train at 59th street."

I have heard everyone from people on the subway to the president of the united states speak like this. Let's hear you acknowledge it exists. You dismissed it the first time I brought it up, saying you couldn't imagine anyone would pronounce it that way, it being so much harder to say.

But everyone does it. I mean, except me, because it sounds awful.

Sep. 17 2008 01:41 PM
Bob London from Hoboken, NJ

I have never understood why the United States has been able to hijack the use of calling are self America. We are in North America, sharing that with Canada, there is central america and south america. America should mean the whole continent not the small portion containing the USA

Sep. 17 2008 01:40 PM
harshad from new york

Prepone, is an often used word in India, where I was raised. Although, I don't think it is official. My boss once replied - "Prepone? really Harshad?" - when I emailed him to reschedule a meeting, this was a couple of years after I moved to New York from Mumbai.

Sep. 17 2008 01:39 PM
Seth from Astoria

No matter how hard I try not to say it, I love the use of the word boughten. AS in

"I like Hybrid Cars, though I haven't boughten one yet."

I'm sure that sentence holds a lot of errors grammatically anyway. But I just always say boughten.

Sep. 17 2008 01:39 PM

In general how much is our language shaped by capitalist/commercial motivations, beyond just the usage of trademarks?

Sep. 17 2008 01:32 PM
RadRepub from Upper Left Side

Words in finance that give the illusion of stability and safety:

- Securities
- Bonds
- Stock
- Trusts
- "Real" estate
- "Precious" metals

Think about it. They're so subtle, yet effective.

Sep. 17 2008 01:30 PM
john from Forest Hills

The use of, "try AND..." rather than "try TO..." drives me crazy. Am I right to be so offended?

Sep. 17 2008 01:29 PM

I heard bank came from the Italian word for bench, on which Venitian money traders and lenders sat on.

Sep. 17 2008 01:27 PM
Linda natanagara from ocean, NJ

Hi there,

Here in central NJ, it seems that much of the population has lost their sense of sarcasm. It has become very common for people to use quotation marks to empahsize rather than indicate sarcasm. What's up with that?

Is it futile to start a one woman crusade to fix the 'problem'?

Linda Natanagara

Sep. 17 2008 01:26 PM
Meg from Morristown, NJ

I was always taught that clothes are "hung" but people are "hanged". I cannot count the number of times and unexpected places where I see it misused. Have I been wrong all these years?

Sep. 17 2008 01:25 PM
Ro from SoHo

Re: Connie's Q. #3. I always assumed that 'fewer' was used regarding amounts and 'less' refers to quantity.

Sep. 17 2008 01:25 PM
Norman from Toronto


A question about contractions:

When someone asks us, "This is a wonderful dinner, isn't it?" why don't we respond, "It's"?

When someone asks us, "Have you eaten dinner yet?" why don't we respond, "I've"?

Would it be improper grammar to use contractions in that manner? Or just plain weird?


Sep. 17 2008 01:20 PM
Jil from Westchester

Why is IRON pronounced "eye-ern" and not "eye-ron" the way it's spelled ? ? ? ?

Sep. 17 2008 01:14 PM

Regarding the use of 'less' vs 'fewer': You would say 'less water' and 'fewer people', but which one would you use for units of time? 'Fewer days' sounds better than 'less days', but day is not a discrete unit, is it? (since you can have half of a day).

Sep. 17 2008 12:27 PM
Alison from Inwood

Hello! I've been wondering: how did the word "stool" come to have such drastically different meanings? Thanks.

Sep. 17 2008 12:04 PM
Marc Naimark from Paris, France


A wee question, just out of curiosity. I've been listening to the Evolution 101 podcast, and the host uses the term "evidences" when speaking of the facts indicating that evolution has occurred. I was surprised by this use, but I have since seen it used elsewhere, usually in reference to evolution (or Creationism). I was surprised, because I was familiar with "evidence" as a sort of collective singular, mainly in a legal context. Do you have any idea why facts would be described with a singular "evidence" in the legal context, and the plural in scientific contexts?

Sep. 17 2008 03:41 AM

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