Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Patricia T. O’Conner takes your calls on the English language. Today she focuses on the oddities of pairs – why we call it a “pair of eyeglasses” but not a “pair of brassieres.” Call us at 212-433-WNYC or leave a comment below.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [60]

Marc Naimark from Paris

Egoiste commercial:

Nov. 20 2008 04:58 AM
Amy from Manhattan

With Mayor Bloomberg, it's not just that he says "anyways." He seems to think that "ways" is the singular! Bugs the *hell* out of me. I remember him talking about some issue (congestion pricing?) & saying that mass transit was the best *ways* to get around the city. I almost worry that he'll change all the "ONE WAY" street signs to read "ONE WAYS"!

On a few other issues:

I've done both medical & computer editing. In the former, "data" is used as a plural; in the latter, it's usually treated as singular.

In American English, "aluminum" doesn't have a 2nd "i" & is pronounced accordingly. Not sure of how this difference originated.

I think "queue" ("tail" in French) came to mean a line of people because the line looks like a tail rather than because elephants line up nose to tail.

My understanding is that "schism" is pronounced "sism" in relation to splits in the Christian (maybe just Catholic?) Church & "skism" in other contexts.

The phrase "las artes plasticas" in Spanish always sounded strange to me too; same for neuroscientists saying the brain is "plastic." I think that it means flexible, adaptable, & that the substance plastic was named that because it has those characteristics.

And PJBeee, "eggo-EEST" is the French pronunciation of "Egoiste."

[Moderators: I was brief on each topic, if not overall!]

Nov. 20 2008 02:21 AM
Jim from Brooklyn

What is the difference, if any, between "toward" and "towards"? Is "towards" a word?

Nov. 19 2008 03:30 PM
Jim from Brooklyn

I think "ironical" is a backformation from the legitimate adverbial form of "ironic" which is "ironically".

Nov. 19 2008 03:29 PM
Jean-Pierre Jacquet from Paris & Connecticut

Speaking of "jeans": the word seems to have its origin in the fact that the coarse fabric used in the making of working blouses came from the city of Gênes (Genoa) in Italy; in its pronounciation by English speaking people, "Toile de Gênes" sounded phonetically like toile "dejeans". Eventually the "de" was dropped, leaving us with "jeans". Conversally, the blue style of the same kind of fabric originated in the town of Nîmes in France, and was known as "toile de Nimes": that locution was eventually contracted as "toile denim". Without the original "s" ending. Go figure.

Nov. 19 2008 02:20 PM
Lance from Manhattan

A queue is a tail in French.
(Think elephants marching in a line, each holding the one ahead's tail with its trunk).

Nov. 19 2008 02:01 PM
Arthur from Metuchen, NJ

My favorite singular/plural words are the singular, opus; and its plural form, opera.

Nov. 19 2008 02:01 PM
Alan from Upper West Side

Patricia and Leonard,

In the corporate world, people are being instructed to "reach out to" so-and-so dozens of times a day. To reach out has, in my lifetime, meant to go out of one's way to help a person in need. Now it is being used to mean simply to contact or to be in touch with.

Another corporatism that has crept into general usage is the phrase "going forward". It's always used in a sentence in which the future is implied; "going forward" adds nothing. In its absence, might someone think that the speaker is talking about the past--"going backward"?

I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Nov. 19 2008 01:58 PM
PJBeee from Ridgewood NJ

When they did those (annoying) commercials for "Egoiste", they pronounced it eggo-EEST.

Leonard, I always want to ask them if they also sold eggo-WEST.

Nov. 19 2008 01:58 PM
Omer from armonk NY

BTW my wife recently corrected me that "ambivelent" doesn't mean you don't care and are ok with either choice, but rather that it means you strongly feel for both choices and thus cannot choose! neat

Nov. 19 2008 01:57 PM
Lance from Manhattan

Use of the royal we.

Did anyone catch Sen. Ted Kennedy as he was returning to the Senate after a long medical leave the other day? He seemed to be using the modest form of the royal "we" rather than "I" in thanking all his wellwishers.

(Of course, it's also possible that the video clips I saw simply left out earlier mention of his staff and/or family in the interview, and he meant "we" to include them.)

Nov. 19 2008 01:56 PM
PJBeee from Ridgewood NJ

Re: melty

The old joke:

Q. "What's brown and sticky?"
A. "A Stick"

Nov. 19 2008 01:55 PM
Laura from NYC

"Plastic" when talking about art....It comes from the French. It means something like "real materials in 3 dimensions".........

Certificat d'Etudes d'Arts Plastique

It gives me a headache, too, trying to figure out what is meant in plain English.

------- More use of the word/concept:
"Victorian performance style known as "poses plastiques' mastered the art of manipulating the body into highly stylised and apparently motionless 'attitudes' to resemble so-called 'living statues'. "

Nov. 19 2008 01:55 PM
Lance from Manhattan

Tweezer, plier, and scissor have noun entries in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate 11th ed.
Could "tweezers" and "pliers" be derivatives of "the instrument of the person who tweezes/plies"? (So tweezers = the tweezer's tool.")

Scissor could be the noun for the instrument that scissors. (Q: What is that thing used for? A: It scissors.)

Nov. 19 2008 01:55 PM
stephen from east harlem

I was taught that an egoist is someone who is very self-centered, while an egotist is someone who talks about him or herself excessively. Hence the t for talk in egotist.

Nov. 19 2008 01:55 PM
Charles from Toronto

Yes, Egoiste was a cologne made by a philosopher. If you consider Chanel a philosopher!

(I don't know how to add the accents to "Egoiste")

Nov. 19 2008 01:54 PM
Janet from Manhattan

Question: Is the correct word "empathic" or "empathetic"??


Nov. 19 2008 01:54 PM
Donna de Soto from NYC

Why do people now say "the below list," instead of the list below. It makes me nuts!!!

Nov. 19 2008 01:54 PM
Omer from armonk NY

Could you adress why people are using the word "irregardless" instead of "regardless"?

Nov. 19 2008 01:54 PM
PJBeee from Ridgewood NJ

Upwards of means (to me, anyway) *that amount* or MORE, not less.

Nov. 19 2008 01:54 PM
jane from

Wondering about the common use of slow, tight and the like as in hold on tight, or go slow. I was taught it was tightly or slowly

Nov. 19 2008 01:53 PM
Ryan from Manhattan

Am I the only one that's EXTREMELY bothered by the word "melty", introduced into common use by Taco Bell to describe their products? Did this word exist before Taco Bell started using it?

Nov. 19 2008 01:52 PM
K. Kilgallen from N.J.

With regard to "It is I" spoken by a visitor, recall the line "It is I, Ensign Pulver!" spoken by Jack Lemmon in the film "Mr. Roberts."

Nov. 19 2008 01:51 PM
Moss DiFalco from Westchester

a (singular) scissor kick requires two legs???

Nov. 19 2008 01:51 PM
Vijay from Brooklyn

'School' has a 'ka' for the 'ch'
and so it is for schism', Scheme, scholastic...
What is the righ way to pronounce 'Schedule'

Nov. 19 2008 01:51 PM
Philipp Rothmaler from Queens

2 comments from the German.

Plurals: pants in German can be addressed to by both die Hose (singular) or die Hosen (plural), and the English speaker of course notices why the plural (two hoses).

I or me? No German speaker ever has problems with this grammatical relict from older Germanic, because it's still active with ALL nouns and pronouns in German, not just the pronoun I. (In German there are actually two "me"'s, mir and mich, because they have two objective cases.)

Nov. 19 2008 01:50 PM
Richard from manhattan

The French plural for a pair of scissors [une paire de ciseaux] is a true plural. The singluar, ciseau, means chisel.

It's not a back-formation.

Nov. 19 2008 01:50 PM
Matthew from Queens

And yes, while the rest of us stand "in line," New Yorkers stand "on line." I've lived here for 24 years and I still haven't gotten used to it.

Nov. 19 2008 01:50 PM
Matthew from Queens

Re Russian for "clock" in plural: I'm not sure what Philip's (#8) Russian teacher was up to, but the Russian for "clock" - "chasy" - is simply the plural of the word for "hour" - "chas". So a clock is "the hours."

Nov. 19 2008 01:48 PM
Dan from Kearny, NJ

Queue...where does this come from? How does it come to mean to line up?

Nov. 19 2008 01:48 PM
Jane from Brooklyn

Why don't Americans pronounce the last "i" in Aluminium?

Nov. 19 2008 01:47 PM
Eric from Brooklyn

I've notice in the baseball world some sportscasters have started to use the term RBI as both the singular and the plural (as in he had 3 RBI in the game, instead of 3 RBI's). It sounds strange to me. It seems to me that an RBI has become its own thing and therefore can have an "s" when making the plural.

Nov. 19 2008 01:47 PM
Nancy Sadler from Brooklyn

What is the origin of saying that one thing or another "informs" the work, as artists often say.
It kind of rankles me and seems hauty.

Nov. 19 2008 01:46 PM
Diane from Midtown

To answer the Levi's Question.
Levi Strauss & Co. has several different brands one of which is Levi's. This is the trade marked name for their denim division. Dockers is a different division of the Levi Strauss Company. So I think that the coupon restricts the purchase of both jeans and Dockers.

Nov. 19 2008 01:45 PM
Andrew from East Harlem

I know we are supposed to say "There are a lot of apples in this bag." But aren't we referring to a singular object "a lot", and therefore, shouldn't it be "There is a lot of apples in this bag." ?????

Nov. 19 2008 01:44 PM
George from Manhattan

Is it "on line" or "in line"???...

When I'm at the bank, at Duane Reade or any other place where I am waiting in a line of other people, it is my understanding that there is a line of people IN WHICH I am standing, as opposed to a line painted on the floor ON WHICH I am standing.

So when I hear "... next on line," I tend to cringe a bit.

Nov. 19 2008 01:42 PM
Julia Toos from Brooklyn

about "a whole nother": this phrase really means something different from "another whole." You'd have to say something like "a completely different" to get the same meaning as "a whole nother." After consideration I've decided to stick with "a whole nother" for casual conversation.

Nov. 19 2008 01:41 PM
Carly from Brooklyn, NY

Please help me solve this pressing issue! My family and I have been engaged in a years-long, extremely heated argument about the phrase "upwards of," as in "they raised upwards of $2,000." I maintain that because it includes the word "of" it refers to anything above the number mentioned. My parents maintain that it refers to anything below and leading up to the number in question. This needs to be resolved, or I fear my family may fall apart!

Nov. 19 2008 01:41 PM
Gardenia from Guadalajara, Mexico

Levi's is a brand name that has an apostrophe--the jeans are "Levi's" made by Levi Strauss & Co.

Dockers brand is known as Dockers, not Levi's Dockers.

Sounds to me like the coupon was missing a comma, and the apostrophe had nothing to do with it. I still think you should have gotten the discount though!

Nov. 19 2008 01:41 PM
Mike from Washington Heights

(12) claudia from new jersey...if your question is not taken, I can explain. It's the subjunctive mood, which isn't commonly taught but is in fact correct. "If I were..." is a conditional clause. It's taught more frequently in foreign languages; e.g., French.

Nov. 19 2008 01:41 PM
Lee from Rio de Janeiro

I know the language is changing but I don't think the use of it's for both it + is and for the possessive pronoun (of it) can be considered correct. What do you think?

Also, I too noticed Obama's misuse of the subject pronoun I. Hmm. Not good.

Nov. 19 2008 01:40 PM
Mike from Washington Heights

Patricia, Leonard:

Could you comment on the common usage these days of the possessive versus objective personal pronoun. Every day, I hear people say, for example, something to the effect: I went out to dinner with a friend of "his"...or with a friend of "Bill's." I learned that it is correct to use the objective pronoun following a preposition, in this case "with." I went out to dinner with a friend of Bill (or him).


Nov. 19 2008 01:39 PM
roland brown from new york

What are the rules for the use of the word "data"?
The word data is plural (the singular version is "datum"), and yet many people use the word "data" to describe a single bit of information.

Nov. 19 2008 01:39 PM
Bill from New York

Here's a nother for you: weren't aprons originally naprons? A napron, which was tied at the nape of the neck, lost its N to the article, which is not, however, a narticle.

Nov. 19 2008 01:38 PM
Kelley from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

I have been dying to ask someone this. I have lived all over the US in my 34 years of living. It wasn't until I moved to New York City that I heard people saying "I'm standing ON line"..or hearing a clerk shouting "next ON line, please!"

I have always referred to it as being IN line. I think of being ON line as being on the internet. I have asked native New York City-ers which version they tend to use, and it is always the "ON line" version. When I ask non native New Yorkers, they say IN line.

It's just something I noticed. Has anyone else noticed this?
: )

Nov. 19 2008 01:37 PM
Lou da Silva from Old Greenwich

On the "Levi's Dockers" issue. Shouldn't the matter really revolve around the presence of a comma? In other words the difference between "Levis, Dockers" which would be a list of excluded items including both Levis and Dockers where as "Levi's Dockers" would be more of a brand/sub-brand exclusion.

Nov. 19 2008 01:36 PM
Philip Kozloff from New York

I don't know about you, but I refer to the tool as a "pair of pliers" rather than just "pliers."

Nov. 19 2008 01:36 PM
PJBeee from Ridgewood NJ

"Levi's" is a brand name of Levi Strauss (including the apostrophe and the "s"). In any event, your caller does have a point.

Nov. 19 2008 01:35 PM
claudia from new jersey

"If I were" could you please explain why the first person future conditional uses the plural form of the verb to be. (he/she/it you singular as well)
"If I was" is commonly used, but is it correct?
thank you - love this segment

Nov. 19 2008 01:34 PM
Tom Smo from Brooklyn

in the case of something like tweezers is it a case of being plural or the tool used to execute a verb? the tweezers tweeze? or would the verb be derived from the tool itself?

Nov. 19 2008 01:34 PM
Laura from Manhattan

Eyeglasses in Dutch is "bril" which also means "toilet seat"....Really! Similar shape.

Brassiere in Dutch is also "busthouder" or "bust holder"..........

P.S. Love your show!

Nov. 19 2008 01:33 PM
Sarah from Brooklyn

Tangentially related...the German word for nipple translates to "breast wart."

Nov. 19 2008 01:32 PM
Philipp Rothmaler from Queens

In Russian, clock is plural (tchasy, stress on the y), because, as my teacher explained, it has many little wheels.

Nov. 19 2008 01:32 PM
Ika Sassaloon from manhattan

Among a growing number of folk our president elect Obama overcorrects his accusative. "This is a wonderful day for Michelle and I." Is there hope?

Nov. 19 2008 01:31 PM
Claire Crosby from New Paltz, NY

What does it appear to be nearly impossible to "refer to" anything anymore? I have noticed that increasingly, rather than "referring to" something, commentators on television, radio, and in print, prefer to "reference" something. It sounds wrong to me! Is it wrong? Is there a difference between the two usages?
I love this segment with Ms. O'Connor!
Thank you!

Nov. 19 2008 01:24 PM
Robots Need 2 Party from Brooklyn

I work in fashion and I am totally annoyed when other designers refer to a pair of jeans or shorts or pants in the singular. This is now the more common usage. I feel it is done out of laziness and to lessen any confusion that might arise regarding quantity. When you here pant you know its meant as a single garment and not the entire stock of pants. It still annoys me but Marc Naimark from Paris has enlightened me to the French way of saying these garments. Because of the connection that fashion has to Paris I will begrudgingly accept this singular pronunciation. It sounds wrong to me in English but so does "an" before words that begin with H.

Nov. 19 2008 01:13 PM
Ash in Manhattan from Manhattan

Ann From Manhattan,

What about "admiration" or "inspiration" for being happy for another's good fortune while wishing for something similar for one's self (oneself?)?

Nov. 19 2008 01:07 PM
Ann from Manhattan

Here's one for Ms. O’Conner, please, if she'd be so kind:

A pair of scientists in one of Leonard's recent--characteristically fascinating--shows distinguished between "jealousy" and "envy." The former requires a triad (a la jealous lovers) and the latter requires that one begrudge another's good fortune (said the scientists).

So then is there a word for being happy for another's good fortune while wishing for something similar for oneself? Is there a word for envy without the sour grapes, if you will?

I used to use "jealousy" for this. Now I'm kind of stuck.

Nov. 19 2008 12:18 PM
Laura from Manhattan

Thanks for great shows!!

I'm guessing that a pair of glasses vs. a monocle.

And brassiere in French is "soutien-gorge" or throat supporter.

Dictionary snippets:
glasses. A pair of lenses mounted in a light frame, used to correct faulty vision or protect the eyes. b. Often glasses . A binocular or field glass. c. A device, such as a monocle or spyglass, containing a lens or lenses and used as an aid to vision.
brassiere (bre-zîr´) noun
A woman's undergarment worn to support and give contour to the breasts.

[French, child's jacket with sleeves, brassiere : Old French bras, arm (from Latin brâcchium, from Greek brakhion, upper arm) + -iere, one associated with.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.

Nov. 19 2008 12:10 PM
Marc Naimark from Paris

Hello Leonard, Hello Patricia,

I smiled at the brassiere comment. I have to think that it has to do with embarrassment at noting the dual nature of the contents of a brassiere. In French, a strange thing happens to those plural garments: they get singularized. A pair of jeans becomes "un jean", a pair of shorts becomes "un short", etc.

Nov. 19 2008 06:37 AM

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