Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

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 [75]


My favorite Mark Twain quote - "My memory is so good, I remember things that never happened"

Dec. 19 2012 01:48 PM
brenda Thweatt from Bronx

Dear Mr. Lopate and Ms. O'Connor,
About two weeks ago I called in to pose a question about the rapidly ( and rabidly) decreasing use of the Long vowel preceding the short one: e.g, the object (pronounced thUH object rather than thEE object). I got tongue tied and was suddenly unable to convey my thought coherently, so when your producer snapped "What , exactly, is your question?", I failed to produce. Vowing to get my complaint understood, I began documenting every phrase of this nature to be heard on radio or television, assuming that public speakers could NOT break such a beloved rule (after all, they've got Feb(!)UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUary to kick around now!). Oh how wrong I was; even NPR is an offender. Here is my list:

1. A report on Sudan:...share in THUH oil wealth...

2. An Olympics report: Gabby Douglas captured THUH all around Olympic..something...

3. Todd Zwillic ponders something from THUH eighties...

4. An art critic discussing a sculpture of a cancerous tumor: THUH object...

5. The History Channel on temperence: THUH evils of alcohol... Okay, I realize "evils" has a long E, but come on, folks, do we HAVE to sound OZARKIAN?

6. Commercial for Chilis restaurant: Try sharing THUH appetizer....

7. Michael Longo discussing THUH ice age!......

8. A filmaker talking about her new movie "Somewhere Between" about female Chinese adoptees and THUH Orphanage, and lacking THUH answers....

9. Ms. Patricia T. O'Connor herself: THUH Eiffel Tower.....

I believe I can produce a proper question,now, and here it is: WHY?

Brenda in the Bronx

Aug. 24 2012 02:44 PM
gladys from nj

Patricia shouldn't sound off on other languages; the Spanish for 'no problem' is NO HAY PROBLEMA - or perhaps, Sin problema alguno, but never ever 'no problema' - not even a 2-year old would say that. Better to admit she doesn't know than to invent. There were a couple of other things but this one really got to me.

Nov. 17 2010 02:10 PM
Brigitte Barkley from Manhattan, Upper West Side

Dear Lopate team:
I don’t understand why you have someone on your show who doesn’t know what she is talking about. I refer to Ms. O’Connor’s strange attempt yesterday to wrestle with the German language, especially the word “Schadenfreude“. Apart from the fact that you do have a good English word for it, namely gloating, she also didn’ take the word apart correctly and thus came up with the weirdest non-sensical additional word creations like Freudenschade or Frankenfreude, Frankenschade or Frankenschmerz. Schadenfreude, like gloating, means joy (Freude) over someone’s misfortune, literally joy at the damage (Schaden) done to another. “Schade”, by contrast, means “what a pity”. So what is “Freudenschade” supposed to mean – what a pity - this joy? If she just misspoke and meant “Freudeschaden”, if it existed in German, which it doesn’t, this would mean damage to someone’s joy. (??) And when she mentioned Frankenfreude and Frankenschmerz, did she mean joy over Franken’s election or pain over Franken’s election? well, that may go. And, by the way, you also have a good English word for “pain at another’s good fortune”, namely jealousy or envy which are clearly painful to the one who experiences them.

Feb. 18 2010 11:16 AM
ammiel schwartz from brewster, ny

In the course of discussing writers who were not english speakers primarily you and your guest agreed on a very good movie. I was in the car and have forgotten the title. Would you please give me the name.

Feb. 18 2010 02:43 AM
Jennifer Seligman from Fair Lawn, NJ

Although it is true that words like "disinterested" and "enervate" are losing usage and meaning in modern english, they're still on the GRE, and more importantly, in great literature such as Jane Austen novels, so we should still know them.

Feb. 17 2010 09:12 PM
Nicki from Long Island, NY

re: "passing the buck" and the "buck stops here" - during the 1960's I was a civilian employee of the US Army. Interoffice memos were sent on green paper that was the color of money and they were called "bucks". Distributing memos was called "passing the buck"; supposedly this was common usage in the rest of the government, including the White House, and thus Harry Truman's statement, "the buck stops here".

Feb. 17 2010 07:49 PM

I was a little shocked by the negative comments about Pat's performance today, but think I know where the animosity is coming from. And it has nothing to do with grammar. Pat got off to a slightly disturbing start by stating that the disruptive snow in D.C. provoked Schadenfreude for her. Leonard gently questioned this, asking if perhaps what she felt was "relief" that NY was spared. Listeners may have felt that maybe Pat's dissection of improper usage caused her the same joy in others' suffering, or in others' ignorance. From this suspicion, it is easy to make the leap to, What is she doing there? She keeps saying "I don't know".

Feb. 17 2010 06:52 PM
tout tout.... from fleetwood

Pat is present to make Leonard look good. Leonard, you're not slowing down after 25 years are you?

Feb. 17 2010 02:16 PM
Me, myself, & I from fleetwood

thank you Estelle from Austin for provind something useful for this segment

Feb. 17 2010 02:05 PM
Karen Vaughan from Brooklyn

It was "inervate" not "enervate" that the massage therapist and acupuncturist were saying when referring to stimulation of the muscle.

Feb. 17 2010 02:01 PM
Me, myself, & I from fleetwood

...we are befuddled but this woman's continued "appearance" on the show. Most of the time, her answers are often "oh...that's interesting...I didnt know that", to be followed some personal opinion. I thought she's suppose to be a expert of words??

Feb. 17 2010 02:00 PM
Estelle from Austin

1. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Physiology) to supply nerves to (a bodily organ or part)
2. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Physiology) to stimulate (a bodily organ or part) with nerve impulses

Function: adjective
Date: 1603
: lacking physical, mental, or moral vigor : enervated

Feb. 17 2010 01:58 PM
Sammy from Red Hook

I recently got a job where I get updates about people quitting or getting fired.

The subject on them is "upcoming terminations."

And I get to hear "he/she was terminated" a lot.

When did people start thinking talking about anybody like that was acceptable?

Feb. 17 2010 01:58 PM
Lance from Miami

I think you are confusing enervate and innervate. (Not to be confused with innovate.)

Feb. 17 2010 01:58 PM
Edith Alston from Upper West side

About the buck My dictionary says lenny is right:

The buck is something dropped into the pot in a poker game to remind the next dealer of some obligation when his turn comes.

Feb. 17 2010 01:57 PM
Christine from Brooklyn

Someone is always borrowing my Truman biography (by David McCullough) so I don't now the exact details. According to the bio "The Buck Stops Here" was given to him by his long time driver and assistant and remained on Truman's desk for just a day.

Feb. 17 2010 01:57 PM
olivier Marcon from brooklyn

As a native french speaker i have manage to "grow" a second tongue and became bilingual.(albeit there are french vowels i have a problem with nowadays... tOUt for example,

Another note I thing I know there is a word for schadenfreuden in english.
It came back to me.... Wnyc's very own Radiolab has the answer.

Feb. 17 2010 01:56 PM
Tamara Bart from Lower East Side - Manhattan

Harry Truman also had a sign in the oval office that had the phrase "Buck stops here". He is belived to have gotten it from a prison guard who also played poker.

Feb. 17 2010 01:56 PM
Leah from Manhattan

I agree with al oof; "right" and "wrong" are judgments that have no place in linguistics. The very English you are speaking right now is the result of centuries of "bad" German and "bad" French--which is in itself "bad" Latin--etc. Grammar functions as a tool to communicate meaning; the only "bad grammar" is that which fails to accomplish this essential task. See Louis Menand's "Bad Comma" from the New Yorker online.

Feb. 17 2010 01:56 PM
Max from Brooklyn

My favorite German who's made creative work in the English Language is hands down Werner Herzog...hey may not consider himself a poet, but I certainly do.

Feb. 17 2010 01:56 PM
rob from Chelsea NYC

Between you and I drives me NUTZ please comment! xoxo thanks

Feb. 17 2010 01:55 PM
Joseph from Franklin Square

I am a business professional and I find it very hard to believe that people us double negatives in professional coversation. "I don't know nothing about that" ia one of the many double negative phrases that I hear constantly. You would think that people, especially college graduate business professionals, would have a little more sense on how to speak grammatically correct

Feb. 17 2010 01:55 PM
R from New York City

A new annoyance: people are using "Excuse me" to mean "How dare you!".

Sometimes, I'm say "excuse me" on the subway and I get sneered at.

Feb. 17 2010 01:54 PM
J. SMythe. from bk


Usage notes: In the card game poker, the buck is an object passed to the person who wins in order to remind them that they must be the first person to give money for the prize in the next game.

(not sure how authoritative this source actually is)

Feb. 17 2010 01:53 PM
Worries from Kingsbridge

Can she say where "No worries" came from? It's like corporate lingo these days that's spilled out into the social sphere.

Can't stand it.

Feb. 17 2010 01:51 PM
dj from NJ

Sorry - I tuned in late - did I miss it?
The pronunciation of the current month - FebRUary - many on-air media people forget to pronounce that first "R" this another case of "...if most people think that the wrong is right, the wrong BECOMES right"?
Love it when Patricia T. is on - thanks!

Feb. 17 2010 01:50 PM
Suki from Williamsburg

Did Leonard just say "foward"?

Also - I disagree with you, Arun. I think Leonard's knowledge of grammar is more general and unfocused. I adore Ms. O.

Feb. 17 2010 01:50 PM
Miriam Winocour from Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Pass the buck
Evade responsibility by passing it on to someone else.
...'buck: an article used in a game of poker' - and that's the buck that was first passed.

buck Poker became very popular in America during the second half of the 19th century. Players were highly suspicious of cheating or any form of bias and there's considerable folklore depicting gunslingers in shoot-outs based on accusations of dirty dealing. In order to avoid unfairness the deal changed hands during sessions. The person who was next in line to deal would be given a marker. This was often a knife, and knives often had handles made of buck's horn - hence the marker becoming known as a buck. When the dealer's turn was done he 'passed the buck'.

Feb. 17 2010 01:49 PM

Yes, I was shocked about the buying dictionary caller too. (I'm about to drop all mine off at the Strand). I can see, if you have lots of room, a Webster's Second for historical interest, and other specialized needs, but the internet has settled all my basic needs for years.

How ARE dictionary sales going, anyway?

Feb. 17 2010 01:49 PM
Margie from NYC

Th phrase "to gild the lily" is based on a misquote of Shakespeare's King John, in which he said, "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,....Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Feb. 17 2010 01:49 PM
Arun Luthra from Astoria

Why, oh WHY, do you keep having Patricia on your show?!!!! You know so much more about language, literature, the arts, and culture in general than she does! What's the point of having her there if, when a caller asks a question, you have a more informative answer and so much more knowledge at your fingertips?

Patricia's answer to a caller's question: "I don't know", then Leonard goes on to give a wonderful, informed, and insightful answer.

What's Patricia doing on the show?!!!

Feb. 17 2010 01:48 PM
Michael from new york

term describing an improvement that makes things worse: the MTA.

Feb. 17 2010 01:48 PM
james from Brooklyn

SCRABBLE DICTIONARY! It's awesome lady. One to three word definitions.

Feb. 17 2010 01:47 PM
Halley S from Boston, MA

Maybe Patricia was thinking of the word 'malimprovement' for our English version????

Feb. 17 2010 01:47 PM
pamela from manhattan

A phrase that means improving something and it gets worse might be "gilding the lily." Or, as the Germans might put it - gildingthelily

Feb. 17 2010 01:45 PM
Suki from Williamsburg

You're going to *buy* a dictionary? Are you kidding?

Feb. 17 2010 01:45 PM

my fave german compound:

vor = front
kurz = short
hinter = back
lang = long

their word for mullet!

Feb. 17 2010 01:45 PM
Yoichi Hariguchi from Sunnyvale, CA

Buck is an object (chip now) at Poker to indicate who the dealer is. If you want to avoid becoming a dealer (responsibility), pass "the buck".

Why buck? In the age of wild west, a knife with a buck handle (cattle bone) was used for the chip to show who the dealer.

Feb. 17 2010 01:44 PM
Mike from Atlanta, GA

Why do we have curse words? They are the most illogical words. Aren’t we intelligent enough to move past these irrational superstitious words?

Feb. 17 2010 01:43 PM

Not just TV stations. LOTS of newspaper headlines now trumpet

"Less Headline Writers Literate"

Feb. 17 2010 01:42 PM
betsy from nyc

Ha Jin writes poetry in English & he did not come to the language until he was 23.

He also writes amazing novels in English & won a Pulitzer for Waiting.

Feb. 17 2010 01:42 PM
Roseann from NJ

The Question:
Could you tell me the origin of the phrase, "passing the buck?"
The Answer:
"Passing the buck" originated from a ritual practiced during card games. Card players used to place a marker, called a "buck," in front of the person who was the dealer. That marker was passed to the next player along with the responsibility of dealing. Eventually "passing the buck" became synonymous with passing on responsibility.

—The Editors

Feb. 17 2010 01:41 PM
mgdu from hell's kitchen

‘passing the buck’ is from poker, which HST played and was referencing.

and ‘closure’ has meant ‘closing’ for centuries; my old OED gives examples going back to 1600.

Feb. 17 2010 01:41 PM
Jane from manhattan

Regarding Vladimir Nabokov's excellent English, I believe I read that English was actually his first language, literally.

Feb. 17 2010 01:41 PM
Ruth Steinberg from Manhattan

I was taught that the word "none" comes from "not one" and takes the singular. (e.g.: None of them is going to the store.) I hear and read "none" with the plural--"None of them are going to the store." Is this now acceptable?

Feb. 17 2010 01:40 PM
Joan Zoll from Garrison, NY

Bronx Howard-- oops. I hear phrase "going forward" no FEWER than two/three times per day....

Feb. 17 2010 01:40 PM
Jane from Brooklyn

Nabokov started speaking in English, actually.
he had a British governess.
However when he arrived in the States he forbade himself writing in Russian at all, so he arrived at his beautiful English through lots of hard work

Feb. 17 2010 01:40 PM
Jim Marshall from Brooklyn

My pet peeve: The apparent complete abandonment of pronoun rules -- e.g., the agreement of pronoun with antecedent ("when a customer comes in, show them the goods") and the use of active/passive case ("he gave it to my brother and I") This started as clumsy political correctness re gender, but sems to have spread well beyond that. Should we just forget about it?

Feb. 17 2010 01:39 PM
Jeb from Greenpoint

cobble (v.)
"to mend clumsily," 1496, probably from cob, perhaps via a notion of lumps.

Feb. 17 2010 01:38 PM
Alvin from Manhattan

Re your critcism of the word "coned": Con Edison's website is The site name was chosen to stand for "Con Ed", but it's an unintentional play on words.

Feb. 17 2010 01:37 PM
Peter from New York City

Leonard/Patricia: Kurt Weill!

Feb. 17 2010 01:37 PM
Ulrika from Summit

"Skadeglädje" is a common Swedish word combining the words hurt and joy - getting pleasure from someone's misfortune.

Feb. 17 2010 01:37 PM
al oof from brooklyn

can you stop saying 'right' and 'wrong'? it's so judgemental.

anyway, how do you determine between new definitions and neologisms and 'mistakes'?

"to podium" is a logical extension of a noun into a verb that has already happened with lots of words.

Feb. 17 2010 01:34 PM
david j from montclair, nj

I want to coin a compound word and i don't know how to make it official so here goes. I have gotten much support from all who here's this:
There is no word for when you walk down a hall or sidewalk and come face to face with another, swerve to avoid them only to have them swerve in the same direction, and it continues another time or two before you smile and finally walk by. Here it comes... the new word shall be...

Feb. 17 2010 01:34 PM
Howard from Bronx

The misuse of less for fewer is driving me nuts. TV stations do it constantly

Feb. 17 2010 01:34 PM
Kimberly from NYC

This is less frequent in New York weather forecasts, but why do "meteorologists" say that the weather is "unseasonably cold" in January and February? Is it really so terrible to say "unusually cold"?

Feb. 17 2010 01:34 PM
Roseann from NJ

How about Jeff Probst saying "I'll go tally the votes" when I think he means 'I'll go get the votes and then we'll tally them."

Feb. 17 2010 01:33 PM
Anne Mendelson from North Bergen

My favorite German compound word is Schlimmbesserung, and it means an improvement that makes things WORSE.

Feb. 17 2010 01:33 PM
Johnny S from Cranford, NJ

Safe deposit box or safety deposit box?

Feb. 17 2010 01:33 PM
Miriam Holmes from Teaneck, NJ

Another compound German word I like is :
treppengedanke, which are thoughts on the the stairs, or afterthoughts.

A question:

predominantly or predominately?


Feb. 17 2010 01:32 PM
Kate from Brooklyn

I have a six-month old daughter and I've been thinking there should be a compound German word that means "the sadness of being cold after being so warm" (for after bathtime) and "the sadness that comes before sleeping" (for evening meltdowns).

Feb. 17 2010 01:31 PM
Eric Singer from Pittsburgh, PA

"All of our agents are busy SERVICING other customers..."

Feb. 17 2010 01:31 PM
Joan Zoll from Garrison, NY

Since the presidential election, I hear the phrase "going forward" no less than two-three times per day on radio, tv. Do you think it will go away or is it here to stay?

Feb. 17 2010 01:31 PM
vladi from jersey

well we can always use the urban way of feeling envy by saying i'm hating on someone or he is a hater or player hater...

Feb. 17 2010 01:30 PM
Whynot Jansveld

My friend, the guitarist Cameron Greider, came up with 'Erfolgschmertz' as a complement to Schadenfreude, meaning pain at another's success.

Feb. 17 2010 01:30 PM
Margie from NYC

Lately I have noticed many people using the phrase 'out of pocket' to describe themsslves as unavailable (i.e. "I'll be out of pocket for the next couple of hours.") Does anyone have info about when and why this particular usage began creeping into the language?

Feb. 17 2010 01:27 PM
Janet from Wantagh, Long Island

I always thought, when referring to a pair of things, that it was a "couple OF"...but now only hear it without the "of".

Also, I don't remember my conjugations, but is it "have gotten" or "have got"...I always hear the latter now, and it doesn't sound right to my ear.

Feb. 17 2010 01:27 PM
Derek from Oyster Bay,New york

Is there an origine for the phrase ( 6 to 1 half dozen the other ).. Is it a cooking term? Thanks

Feb. 17 2010 01:26 PM
CBrown from Brooklyn

Recently I read a comment on a message board in which the poster used the phrase, "for all intensive purposes." I, of course, knew the correct phrase to be "for all intents and purposes," but I googled it anyway and was surprised to find several sites that seemed to suggest that "for intensive purposes" was an acceptable alternative since it is so commonly used. Can improper usage of a word or phrase become accepted just because it is widely used, even though it is wrong wrong wrong and nonsensical?

Feb. 17 2010 01:26 PM
Mike from Inwood

What is the version of "Three Little Words" that you're thinking of retiring? Who is the vocalist?

Feb. 17 2010 01:23 PM
Brian from Bushwick

What's the etymology of cobble-words, like cobbler and cobblestone?

Feb. 17 2010 01:23 PM
Rhoda from Upper East Side

On radio and television you now hear only one pronunication of finance. It's always FI-nance. A WNYC newscaster referred to Bernie Madoff as a FI-nancier. I'm surprised well-educated people don't know to use the other pronunciation.

Feb. 17 2010 01:19 PM
Doug from Manhattan

Have you noticed the incorrect spelling of Presidents' Day on television, print ads, and the web?

Some businesses including Macy's, dropped the apostrophe. The New York Public Library's home page used apostrophe 's'.

Feb. 17 2010 01:12 PM
chris Van Dyke from bed-stuy

When did English loose a distinct second person plural? Modern English is largely an amalgam of French and Old English, both of which had the form, but apart from "y'all," it is absent from modern English.

And my grammatical pet-peeve -- people "literally" using literally incorrectly all the time. I almost died laughing when a news report recently had a commentator saying that Gleb Beck was "literally turning his followers into Zombies."

Feb. 17 2010 12:27 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.