Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Word maven Patricia T. O’Conner answers your questions about the English language! Call us at 212-433-WNYC (212-433-9692) or leave a comment below.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [57]

Anthony Drago from Jackson Heights, NY

I believe Ms.O'Conner mixed a simile during her last visit (the one before 8/18) when she said, "It's as easy as shooting ducks in a barrel." What would ducks be doing in a barrel anyway? Sounds like a conflation of "shooting fish in a barrel" and "shooting ducks in a row"?

Aug. 18 2010 02:08 PM
Beth from union,NJ

When I hear something that sounds unbelievable, I say "like fun and like fishcakes" Nobody knows this saying and I can't find it anywhere. I would like to know from whence it came. I grew up in NY.
Thank you,

Jun. 08 2009 06:10 PM
William Fried from Bronx, New York

Perhaps the preference for Yankee over Yankees fan is motivated by the easier spoken transition from the vowel ending to a consonant. Commentator is to commenter as empathetic is to empathic or fantasize to fantasy. Satirizing rigid adherence to the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition, Churchill was credited with saying, "That is a requirement up with which I will not put." Have you been alerted to the logical contradiction of the oft used "Centered around," instead of "Centered on"?

May. 21 2009 11:35 AM
Ed from Lawrence, NY

Lately I hear the word "shrank" instead of "shrunk",is that correct?

Dec. 23 2008 11:26 PM
Lakshmi from West Orange, NJ

Reg., "the whole nine yards".
My grandma wore nine yard saree, which was everyday attire in Southern parts of India, for women.
The saree is a piece of fabric (in this case, a whole nine yards) that has to be adorned by pleating, tucking-in etc.
Could that be of any influence in that phrase?

Dec. 18 2008 05:31 PM
Keith from Red Bank NJ

The phrase "the whole nine yards" was initially used by navy pilots fighting in the pacific theater during WWII. American pilots who flew sorties (unsure whether the P47 or corsair) had a full load-out of ammunition (on two machine-gun type belts) of 27 feet or 9 yards. If, while on the mission, they fired all of their ammunition at one target, they gave it "the whole nine yards. Hence the first print usage in the 60s and the astronaut reference, as many of these pilots when on into the space program.

Dec. 17 2008 03:08 PM
pauline feingold from manhattan

one of the nine colloquial uses of SCRATCH given in the 1959 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary follows: "The Line from which contestants start in a race; hence, figuratively. nothing' as, circulation rose from SCRATCH to 50,000. Pg. 759.

The use appears in the NOUN section; there are also usage sections for v.t., v.i, n. & adj. & lots more info about this one word. Well worth the look.

Only death will cause me to give up this 1174 page education.

Dec. 17 2008 02:40 PM
Sarah from Manhattan

The word "unique" cannot be qualified.

Dec. 17 2008 02:25 PM
Marybeth from Long Island, NY

Which is correct; "All of a sudden" or "All of the sudden"? I always thought the former was correct, but I've been hearing a lot of the latter lately and it makes me crazy!

Dec. 17 2008 02:10 PM
Matt from West Village, New York City

I often hear broadcasters speak the phrase "very unique". If something is unique defined as one-of-a-kind, how can it be qualified as "very one-of-a-kind"? Can "very unique" be grammatcally correct? Can the word unique be qualified?

Dec. 17 2008 02:09 PM
Pat from nyc

Nine yards was the original length of what is now referred to as a "Kilt". The tartan fabric was wrapped around and around the body, ending in a sash over the shoulder.

The contemporary kilt was invented by the British Royal family, who vacationed in Scotland. They thought that the local "Scot's Plaid" was quaint, and started wearing it as skirts, for men and women. The fabic was so long that it was decided to fold it into pleats. A kilt designed from the original length was made with the "whole nine yards".

Dec. 17 2008 02:05 PM
Mr. O'Connor from brooklyn

I was once informed by a surly Irishman, a good a source as any, that the name O'Connor has but one spelling and that is with an 'o,r'.

The 'er' was said to have come from emigration and mis-spelling on entry forms.

If this is true it reveals one of life's little ironies that our trusted linguist on wnyc is in fact perpetuating a typo every time she signs her name.


Dec. 17 2008 02:01 PM
Patrick Plain from NYC

I was once told that "Whole Nine Yards" originated as the amount of material required to construct a man's suit.

Dec. 17 2008 02:01 PM
Yves Leroux from New Rochelle, NY

Re origin of "make from scratch", see first hit of a google search

Dec. 17 2008 02:01 PM
al oof from brooklyn

yasmeen, there is no 'correct' grammar. what you think of as correct is simply a system of standardization put in place a few hundred years ago that was based specifically on the dialect of upper class white folks, which of course ended up benefiting those people (and their descendants), making it seem that they were 'correct' and all other dialects were 'wrong' and creating yet another way to discriminate, a way that has been terribly successful.

so my advice is let it go. look up some socio-linguistic information about descriptivism vs. prescriptivism.

Dec. 17 2008 02:00 PM
Leonore from Stuyvesant Town

under the bus derivation
In an interview with NEWSWEEK, William Safire, the author of "Safire's Political Dictionary," traced the popularization of the phrase back to Cyndi Lauper, who jauntily tossed her critics "under the bus" after the release of her debut album "She's So Unusual" in 1983, says Safire. But he suspects that the phrase has deeper roots in minor-league baseball, where players are almost always bused to away games. In fact, its original meaning could be have been quite literal: be on time for the bus, or you will be thrown underneath it, into the storage bays. He says the metaphor has also been used as a way to say "get with it, or get lost," as in "you're either on the bus, or you're under it." He isn't quite sure when the meaning of the phrase crystallized into the act of "summarily and decisively rejecting someone."

Dec. 17 2008 01:57 PM
Bob Kerfuffle from New Jersey

Is there not a simpler explanation for, "The exception proves the rule", namely that "proves" is related to the "proof" in "The proof of the pudding is in the tasting", namely, both refer to testing. Thus, "The exception tests the rule" and "The test of the pudding is in the tasting."

Dec. 17 2008 01:56 PM
Mark from Manhattan

Why does the New Yorker spell coordinate with an umlat?

Dec. 17 2008 01:56 PM

Begging the Question =
Assuming that which you are trying to prove.

It's that simple and strightforward. (And by the way, the guest did not give an example of an argument when she said 'A+B=C'. An argument is a set of premises (sentences, claims) that are intended to support or give reason to believe the truth of a conclusion.)

Dec. 17 2008 01:55 PM
Eric from Park Slope

Most people these days seem to drop the "not" from "I could not care less" and say instead "I could care less" which changes the meaning entirely.

Dec. 17 2008 01:55 PM
Bruce Bonin from Newark

Always love this segment and always think of my pet peeve. I can't take it was someone says "He gave it 110%". Even worse when someone tries to top it by saying "I gave it 1000%"

You can't give move than 100% just like you can't give "more than your all".

Not sure if it's a English peeve or a math peeve but it always reflects poorly on the speaker.

Dec. 17 2008 01:55 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

From Scratch -- PT O'Conner was right -- to start from nothing; no particular advantage

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

Scratch -- colloquial sporting uses:

1. when a horse or other entrant in a race or sporting event is wirthdrawn -- said to be scratched.

2. a competitor starting from scratch in a sporting event is starting from the usual spot (i.e. the line marked -- originally scratched out); whereas other competitors would be starting ahead with handicaps awarded. In golf the term par is used instead of scratch.

To Start from Scratch -- in general usage means to start from nothing or without particular advantage.

Dec. 17 2008 01:53 PM
Catherine from Rockville Centre

I understood that "orientate" and pronouncing the "d" in Wednesday are both proper in British English. At least, I always hear proper Brits saying those things those ways.

Dec. 17 2008 01:53 PM
John from Midtown

Brits DO say Wed'n-sday
& OrienTATE

They are all very commonly used by journalists and well educated folk.

Dec. 17 2008 01:53 PM
Martin Gross from Manhattan

The Bronx comes from The Bronx River.
It is customary to name a piece of laznd or territory from the River that runs through it. Hence we get "The Army of the Tennessee" etec.
The Bronx River was originally "The Bronck's River" -- the River belonging to Jonas Bronck.

Dec. 17 2008 01:52 PM
peter joseph from brooklyn

I just read another origin of the phrase the "the exception proves the rule" that makes more sense than Ms O'Conners's. It revolves around the old sense of the word proof. The expression is quite old and "prove" meant "to test" as opposed to the modern sense of verify.
This sense of proof still exists in the baking term, bench proof.

Dec. 17 2008 01:51 PM
Peter from Crown Heights

I'm curious if Mrs. O'Conner feels that many of these quirks, and misuses of the language are all part of the slippery marvel of the English Language?

I remember from a time I was in Brazil, how folks spoke about Brazilian Portuguese is very fluid and flexible because it is full of myriad sources. I love this about US English too...including the strange mistakes that become codified in the language.

Dec. 17 2008 01:50 PM
chandra Mettapalli from Forest Hills, NY``

How did the word TELLER come in the banks. Why did they not change it as the job changed?
Thank you

Dec. 17 2008 01:49 PM
PL Hayes from Aberystwyth

Yep, michael from new york has it right according to my Chambers dictionary and the online ones Emacs' dictionary uses.

Dec. 17 2008 01:49 PM
Noah from Brooklyn

Why do we say reiterate instead of iterate? Is it a matter of emphasis?

Dec. 17 2008 01:49 PM
Martin Gross from Manhattan


In a race, starting from scratch is starting from the usual starting point -- the line marked, originally scratched out. The other runners would be starting ahead of him with handicaps awardeded according to their respective merits.
Thus to start from scratch is to start from nothing or without particular advantages.

Dec. 17 2008 01:48 PM
Suzanne from Brooklyn

I recently had to give a deposition and stumbled over the words: the car who's... which, ah ah ah of which the door hit me.

How would one say this?



Dec. 17 2008 01:47 PM
Trevor from Winnipeg, Manitoba

As a Canadian listening to American talk radio all day, one thing I notice on NPR is that Americans use the word "absolutely" way too much.
Its like whenever anyone is trying to convince you of something being true they haul out this word "absolutely" and honestly I take that as a sign that the person doesn't really believe what they are saying.

Dec. 17 2008 01:46 PM
Nancy Crumley from Brooklyn

It is utterly absurd for a dictionary to limit the number of words in it and not include words such as duchess, porpoise or sycamore.

It would be better to NOT publish the book (yes, I know that's a split infinitive -- !).

These decisions render the book more or less useless; and it is almost certain the child who doesn't find the word he/she is seeking will cease to use this reference book.

Dec. 17 2008 01:46 PM
Steven B. from New York, NY

I've always been interested in those compound nouns where a noun is modified by an adjective AFTER the noun. I'm thinking of locutions such as "attorney general" or "court martial." The plural is created by changing the noun, such as "attorneys general" but the possessive is made by modifying the adjective, such as "the attorney general's office." Hmmm. Any insights?

Dec. 17 2008 01:44 PM
al oof from brooklyn

mike conway - my understanding was that bronx was the plural of bronck (it's dutch).

Dec. 17 2008 01:43 PM
Josh Shaddock from Brooklyn

The caller complaining about the imprecision of "New York votes" used a word that always bothers me... "prerecorded"... a tautology if there ever was one.

Dec. 17 2008 01:43 PM
Yasmeen Ahmed Pattie from Port Washington NY

I'm rather a stickler for correct grammar and usage; what, if anything, do you do when you hear someone make a mistake? Do you ignore it, in order to be polite (and demonstrate that you're listening to the substance of what they're saying)? Do you correct them, in order that they don't make the same mistake elsewhere and to improve the world's speaking habits as a whole? Please advise!! Thanks.

Dec. 17 2008 01:42 PM
Jay from Brooklyn

I was told, once upon a time, that 'from scratch' derived from the line (or scratch) drawn in the dirt at the beginning of a foot race. So, someone starting 'from scratch' begins at the beginning.

Dec. 17 2008 01:42 PM
Martin Gross from Manhattan


In a race, a person starting from scratch starts from the usual starting point (that is, the line marked-- originally scratched out), whereas the other competitors would be starting ahead of him with handicaps awarded according to their respective merits.
Hence TO START FROM SCRATCH means to start froom nothing or without particular advantage.

Dec. 17 2008 01:42 PM
John from Midtown

In the play of CATCH-22, the word ZIP! was used as if to mean "get out", or "scram".
Is this a WWWII era slang you've heard of?

Dec. 17 2008 01:42 PM
michael from new york

'Start from scratch' is an expression which has altered slightly in meaning since it was first coined. It is now usually used to mean 'start again from the beginning' - where an initial attempt has failed and a new attempt is made with nothing of value carried forward from the first attempt (as opposed to 'made from scratch' which means 'made from basic ingredients').

In the late 1800s, when 'start from scratch' began to be used it simply meant 'start with no advantage'. 'Scratch' has been used since the 18th century as a sporting term for a boundary or starting point which was scratched on the ground. The first such scratch was the crease which is a boundary line for batsmen in cricket.

John Nyren's Young Cricketer's Tutor, 1833 records this line from a 1778 work by Cotton:

"Ye strikers... Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright."

It is the world of boxing that has given us the concept of 'starting from scratch'. The scratched line there specified the positions of boxers who faced each other at the beginning of a bout. This is also the source of 'up to scratch', i.e. meet the required standard, as pugilists would have had to do when offering themselves for a match.

Scratch later came to be used as the name of any starting point for a race. The term came to be used in 'handicap' races where weaker entrants were given a head start. For example, in cycling those who were given no advantage had the handicap of 'starting from scratch', while others started ahead of the line. Other sports, notably golf, have taken up the figurative use of scratch as the term for 'with no advantage - starting from nothing'.

The Fort Wayne Gazette, April 1887, contains the earliest reference to 'starting from scratch' that I can find, in a report of a 'no-handicap' cycling race:

"It was no handicap. Every man was qualified to and did start from scratch."

Dec. 17 2008 01:41 PM
Enrique from Elizabeth, NJ

...what about the word NUCLEAR?
I hear -mainly- politicians say: "NUCuLAR".

Dec. 17 2008 01:41 PM
Stephen from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Just curious about the word we hear so much about these days, "monetizing." When did this come on the scene and is it, in fact a word? Is it a new word along the lines of that 80s favorite, "impacting?"

Dec. 17 2008 01:34 PM
Tom from Williamsburg

Can you explain where the American Accent/Dialect originated from?

Dec. 17 2008 01:32 PM
al oof from brooklyn

we do stand on line. in line is no more correct.

Dec. 17 2008 01:31 PM

Are things done "by accident" or "on accident"? I always say the former but have head others use the latter.

Dec. 17 2008 01:31 PM
Mike Conway from Riverdale

Jacob Bronck and his family owned farmland. His friends would say "we're going to the Bronck's". Over time the spelling changed to Bronx.

Dec. 17 2008 01:20 PM
Rhonda from Upper East Side

For the last few years during campaigns I've been hearing elec-TORAL, rather than ELEC-toral. This strikes me an affectation created by reporters who want to sound more erudite than the average voter.

Also, on commercials there is no longer a difference in the word, finance. It's always pronounced FY-nance, no matter what context.

Dec. 17 2008 01:10 PM
Rosely Himmelstein from Upper West Side, Manhattan

Where does the expression 'I'm at 6's and 7's' come from?

Dec. 17 2008 01:08 PM
Alan from Greenwich Village

What is the meaning and etymology of the expression "dead giveaway"? Is the "dead" the same as the dead in "dead certain"? What is the connection between death and positive confirmation?

Dec. 17 2008 12:06 PM
rylee from nyc

OK finally I get to vent NEW YORK you are not standing "on line" you are "in line" Chicago--why Pop? --not soda water,or just plain soda?

Dec. 17 2008 12:05 PM
Michael from Brooklyn

During the past presidential election season and during the weeks since, I keep hearing news commentators using the expression, "thrown under the bus." Where did this come from? Why a bus? Do you have any insight to this recent form of political speak?

Dec. 17 2008 11:36 AM
Rob from The Bronx

To Stu in NYC,

I once heard that there was an actual family with the surname Bronx, so people would say: we are going to visit the Bronx (family).

Dec. 17 2008 10:35 AM
stu in nyc

To Marc Naimark from Paris:

Why "the Bronx" and not "the Brooklyn" or "the Staten Island"?

Dec. 17 2008 10:25 AM
Marc Naimark from Paris

When you submit a comment here, a message appears, which reads:
"Thank you for your comment. It will appear on the website momentarily. To see it, wait a minute and then refresh this page."

Does Patricia have any problem with that use of "momentarily"? Doesn't that mean "for a moment"? If it does, it this distinction a lost cause?

Dec. 17 2008 08:33 AM
Marc Naimark from Paris

My filler question of the month (I may have already asked this myself... but I am trying to defend my own position, which is the incorrect one for most people):

I know that most people write "the Internet", using the definite article and a capital I. I tend to say "internet", without an article and with a lower-case I. Am I wrong?

For me, "internet" is more like TV: "I read a great article on internet." I would, however, probably say: "Grammarphobia is one of the finest blogs on the internet".

Similarly for "the Web". I know that this comes from "the World-Wide Web", hence the "www" in most URLs. But at what point do those capital letters disappear?

"Blog" is short for "Web log", but no-one capitalizes the B in "blog". What gives?

And why should it be "on the radio", "on the Internet", but "on television*"? And "in the newspaper", "in the magazine", "in the film"...?

*The difference between "on television" and "on the television" was the dramatic device used in one of the first stories I ever read, in a Dick and Jane reader. The younger child ran outside to where the other children were playing and excitedly told them that the cat was "on television". In fact, it turned out that said feline was sleeping on the television set. I must have been either totally disgusted by this cheap trick, or entranced by its cleverness, since I remember more than 40 years later.

Dec. 17 2008 08:31 AM

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