Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our word maven, Patricia T. O’Conner, answers questions about the English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book Woe is I has recently been published. Call us at 212-433-9692 or leave a question below.

Visit Patricia T. O'Conner's Website.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [60]

buffalo coin gold from

This is really a great stuff for sharing. Keep it up .Thanks for sharing.

Jan. 17 2010 07:30 AM
Beth F. from Bergen Co., NY

You can probably blame the Rolling Stones for introducing the "off of" phrase:

"HEY! YOU! Get off of my cloud..."

Memorable, if not literate.

Beth F.

Dec. 16 2009 03:24 PM
Ro from SoHo

Re: Rick # 44. 'Less' refers to volume; 'fewer' refers to quantity.

e.g. I have less soup in my bowl than my brother but he has fewer carrots with his roast beef.

Dec. 16 2009 02:57 PM
Michael from Brooklyn

The subway doors have always said (or at least did when I was a kid, and I would stare at the way there were three words on each door):

Please Keep Hands Off The Doors"

No "of" in there.

Dec. 16 2009 01:59 PM
Lynn Ledda from los altos, ca

Chicago "toddler" compared to NYC!!

Dec. 16 2009 01:57 PM
Daniel Fiege from Beacon, NY

What are the roots of the phrase, "like," instead of "um?"

Dec. 16 2009 01:56 PM
mgduke from hell's kitchen

are you folks actually unaware of the book “Going Rouge” or that pronouncing "schism" as “siz’m” is one of the most moronic pseudo-pedantries (a fossilized false pronunciation)?

Dec. 16 2009 01:56 PM
Josh Neufeld from Brooklyn

My understanding of the Sarah Palin book title is that it is an ironic reference to an event during the '08 campaign. Supposedly, when Palin was galvanizing the GOP base and going off-script, certain McCain aides referred to her as "going rogue." So she took that pejorative term and claimed it as her own.

Dec. 16 2009 01:55 PM
Joan from garrison

tod·dle (tdl)
intr.v. tod·dled, tod·dling, tod·dles
1. To walk with short, unsteady steps.

this makes sense:
2. To walk leisurely; stroll.

Dec. 16 2009 01:54 PM
Bob Kern from Avon

"Hinky" has become common by being used on cop shows and movies.

Dec. 16 2009 01:54 PM
Tom from UWS

Billy Sunday was a professional baseball player before he became an evangelist.
So there!

Dec. 16 2009 01:54 PM

Saint Nicholas was a Turkish Bishop in the 4th Century or somesuch. He helped three orphan virgins with their doweries, and became known as a gift giver. Saint Nicholas became Sinter Klaus in Dutch, and then Santa Claus in English. Hey, I thought everyone knew that.

Dec. 16 2009 01:53 PM
navva from tel aviv, israel

As an Israeli, I can confirm and correct the caller -- Israelis use "Sylvestre" to refer to the first day of the Gregorian calendar, or New Year's Day. NOT Christmas.

Dec. 16 2009 01:52 PM
Nolan from Manhattan

Going Rouge: Sarah Palin An American Nightmare.
is a separate publication published by OR Books.

Dec. 16 2009 01:52 PM
Mitch from NY city

Most people seem to use "very" and "much" interchangeably. My main question is in the phrase "that's much different" which seems wrong, should be "that's very different".
Which is correct?

Dec. 16 2009 01:52 PM
CJ from NY

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος , Agios ["saint"] Nikolaos ["victory of the people"]) (270 - 7 December 346) is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as is common for early Christian saints.[3] In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as, Nicholas of Bari.

For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.

Dec. 16 2009 01:52 PM
Rick Bruner from Morningside Heights

Less vs. Fewer was a major peeve of my dad, a writer, growing up. He'd lecture people are at the checkout line about 10 items or less. I notice, however, Whole Foods has it as "fewer."

Dec. 16 2009 01:51 PM
CJ from NY

According to Wikipedia Santa Claus is the English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas

Dec. 16 2009 01:50 PM

In Poland, Sylvester is the term for New Year's - it is the Sylvester is the saint's day for New Year's eve.

Dec. 16 2009 01:49 PM
Hal from Crown Heights

Silvester (also spelled sylvester or sylwester) is used in some countries, including Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia, as a name for New Year's Eve. The origin of the name is that 31 December is Saint Sylvester's Day, named for Pope Sylvester I,[1] who died on that day in 335.

The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 moved the last day of the year from 24 December to the current date

Dec. 16 2009 01:49 PM
Karl Johnson from Washington Heights

Hello --

On the caller who said that Israelis refer to Christmas as "Sylvester" -- Actually, Israelis refer to New Year's Eve as Sylvester, which I think comes from Saint Sylvester in the Catholic Church. Israelis call Christmas "Chag Ha Mulad" -- the holiday of the birth.

Have a great holiday and keep up the great shows.

Dec. 16 2009 01:49 PM

I'm amazed that you folks don't know this. Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey in the 4th Century (I believe). He was famous for helping three orphaned virgins with doweries. Saint Nicholas became Sinter Claus in Dutch,and Saint Nicholas in English.

Dec. 16 2009 01:49 PM
John from Manhattan

I understand that "Going Rogue" is code for practicing unprotected anal sex amongst those in the London homosexual community.

Dec. 16 2009 01:48 PM
Molly from Chicago

In Germany everyone calls New Year's Eve Sylvester, so I doubt that it's Christmas-specific.

Dec. 16 2009 01:48 PM
Donna Evans from at work in Manhattan

Perhaps the erudite Sarah Palin really wanted to use "maverick" -a much more appropriate word- but it had already been taken by her erstwhile running mate.

Dec. 16 2009 01:48 PM
Håkan Westergren from Brooklyn

St. Sylvester's saint's day is December 31. In Germany (and Israel too, apparently) New Year's is referred to as simply Sylvester.

Dec. 16 2009 01:47 PM
Pliny from nyc

"La Festa di San Silvestro is celebrated December 31 on New Year's Eve. As with most Italian festivals, food plays a major role. Families and friends get together for a huge feast..."

Dec. 16 2009 01:47 PM
Joachim from across from macys

Sylvester is New Years in german. not sure why Sylvester would refer to Xmas in Isreal unless it was just a cultural mix up for winter holidays in Europe

Dec. 16 2009 01:46 PM
Håkan Westergren from Brooklyn

Hello, St. Sylvester's saint's day is December 31. Thus, Germans refer to New Year's Eve as "Sylvester". Not really Christmas related, but close enough.

As for the Israelis, Sylvester also made living in Jerusalem illegal for Jews - I'm not sure why they want to commemorate him.

Dec. 16 2009 01:46 PM
Barney Lehrer from Brooklyn

the question about Sylvester probably refers to New Year's Eve. In French it is La Saint-Sylvestre, in German it is Silvester, etc.

Dec. 16 2009 01:45 PM
jennifer from Hoboken, NJ

The Israeli term for New Year’s night celebrations, “Sylvester,” was the name of the “Saint” and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic “Saints” are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day – hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.

Dec. 16 2009 01:45 PM
Eva from NJ

Sylvester is not Christmas; it is New Year's. Sylwester, w pronounced like a v, is a Polish word.

Dec. 16 2009 01:44 PM
pete from brooklyn

The Fete de St. Sylvestre is celebration of New Yrs Eve in France

Dec. 16 2009 01:44 PM
Rebekah from Harlem

"Digital" comes from your fingers: digits. you can count on your fingers only whole number, they aren't analog.

Dec. 16 2009 01:44 PM
Carmel from Brooklyn

In reply to a caller- Israelis call new years eve Sylvester. Maybe that day is associated with Saint Sylvester?
Christmas is called Christmas in Israel.

Dec. 16 2009 01:44 PM
Anon from Staten Island

"Sylvester" is New Year's Eve (St. Sylvester's celebration day).

Dec. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Diana from NYC

I would like to know why and when "American" became the name of the inhabitants of the US and America a short name for the country when it is the name of a whole continent, including Canada, Mexico and all the countries down to Argentina. "Americanos" was used in 19th century documents -at least in Spanish -to refer to the inhabitants of Hispanic America (for instance Jose Marti and Bolivar used to talk about the "americanos" and they were not talking about the US).
Is it connected at all with any imperialistic move/worldview?

Dec. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Joan from garrison

sylv = woods ester = fat (man)

sylvester = santa claus

makes sense!

Dec. 16 2009 01:43 PM
MarcWingate from Wesley Hills, NY

Glad to hear that we are really Germanic and that we don't have to stick to Latin rules of grammar!
For years we were told not to split our infinitives, a vestige of the Latin use of two words to express the infinitive. Finally a few years ago the OED told us (I am English) that it was OK to split infinitives in certain circumstances, so it was now okay for Capt. Kirk "to boldly go."

Dec. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Dasee Berkowitz from Manhattan

Sylvester is the word used for New Year's not Christmas. FYI.

Dec. 16 2009 01:42 PM
Vanessa from Prospect Heights, BK

Sylvester is what they call New Year's Eve in Germany I think. And it's an occasion for masquerade costumes etc.

Dec. 16 2009 01:42 PM
hjs from 11211

happy holidays!! or happy solstice

Dec. 16 2009 01:42 PM
Rick Bruner from Morningside Heights

I lived in Hungary for five years and my wife is Hungarian. They refer to New Year's Eve as Szilveszter (aka Sylvester), not Christmas, as the previous caller said. I think it's a reference a saint, but I'm not sure about that.

Dec. 16 2009 01:42 PM
Pliny from nyc

i think San Silvestro is New Years no?

Dec. 16 2009 01:42 PM
Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner from Lower Eastside

Sylvester :
In Austria we call the last day of the year
Sylvester Day - because it is also the Feast of St. Sylvester. It may be that Jews of Austrian or German origin have continued calling the festive season that way. What do you think?

Dec. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Rebekah from Harlem

"sylvester" is the name day for either january 1st or december 31st. In europe, everyone calls new year's ever sylvester.

Dec. 16 2009 01:41 PM
hjs from 11211

odin became santa claus

st nick is from turkey, another being

Dec. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Tim from brooklyn

It seems the word rouge is being used to mean something more, well maybe just different in Sarah Palins case, from the dictionary definition. Would your guest comment on how word use redefines a words definition?

Dec. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Mel from Upper West Side

Where on *earth* does the saying "Dear Me!" come from? I've always wondered. Was someone writing a letter to his/herself?

Dec. 16 2009 01:40 PM
Daniel Fiege from Beacon, NY

Where does the word "digital" come from?

Dec. 16 2009 01:40 PM
Connie from NJ

I say 'Happy Holidays' precisely in order to be generic. I'm an atheist, and I acknowledge the diversity of religious belief and lack thereof.

Dec. 16 2009 01:40 PM
Tom from Upper West Side

Isn't Finnish more closely related to Turkish than any Western European language?

Dec. 16 2009 01:38 PM
listen from manhattan

for God's sake, Leonard, ask the logical question: why did the pronounciation change from short-i "Krist" to long-i "Christ" in the 12th century!?!?

Dec. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Cory from Planet Earth

I'm no Palin fan, but her title is self-deprecating and historical. That's what McCain's handlers said about her: "She's going rogue." She's using that as a badge of honor on her planet.

Dec. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Patrick from Brooklyn, NY

I asked this question last month. What is the proper way to address two doctors of the same last name (husband and wife, brothers etc.)in a letter? Should it be Dear Drs. O'Connor?

Dec. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Bryan Marx from Downtown

"The whole nine yards" was the lenght of the canvas belts feeding bullets to the rear gunner on a British [Lancaster}?

When an enemy fighter got too close they gave him the "Whole nine yards. . ."

Dec. 16 2009 01:34 PM
lynn from nyc

why do people say Geranimo in old movies when they jump off a cliff or something?
In Spanish it is a man's name. (sorry not a christmas comment)

Dec. 16 2009 01:31 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

I've noticed FI-nance is now always used by anchors, reporters, and talent on radio and television. They don't seem to know when the word should be pronounced fih-NANCE.

Dec. 16 2009 01:31 PM
Janet from Manhattan

Can we discuss "inevitable" vs. "invariable" - I find frequent misuse.

Also, people THAT! is rampant and irks me to no end

One more: "have proven" vs. "have proved"

Thank you!

Dec. 16 2009 01:29 PM
Tobi from Merrick

Which is correct?

Dennis is a "rebel rouser."


Dennis is a "rabble rouser."

If it *is* rabble rouser, where does that saying come from? Thanks!

Dec. 16 2009 12:08 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.