Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Patricia T. O'Conner answers questions about language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of O’Conner’s book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

Leave your questions about language and grammar!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [22]

W. A. Robison from Natchitoches, LA

Sorry for the late comment as I'm getting a chance to listen to the podcast on Sundary. The discussion about "pulling one's leg" brought back some happy memories from when I was teaching about 30 years ago. I had an exchange student from Spain who did very well with most technical aspects of English, but idioms often confused him. He finally determined that "pulling one's leg" was equivalent to "pulling one's hair" in his area of Spain. Finally, as a class, we decided that a crompromise was in order; so for the remainder of the year, all our students used the phrase "You're pulling the hair on my leg!" They sometimes got strange looks, but they loved the inside joke.

Jun. 02 2014 12:57 AM
Tom O'Hara from Malverne

The term "try" in rugby, which refers to when a player scores by crossing the opposition's goal line and touching the ball down inside the try zone (like football's end zone), survives from the sport's early days.

Nowadays, a try is worth 5 points and, like football's touchdown, earns the scoring team an opportunity to attempt to kick the ball through the goal posts for an additional 2 points (compared to football's 1-point PAT kick).

Back in rugby's very early days, however, a try was worth NO points and only earned a team the right to attempt ("try") a kick through the the uprights for points. You could run the ball over your opponent's goal line all day long but if your team did not have a good kicker, you were in trouble.

The term try survives today, even though it is worth points no matter whether the kick attempt succeeds or not. Interestingly, to score a try in rugby, you must not only cross the goal line, you must physically touch the ball down on the ground. In American football, you score when you cross the goal line. You don't have to physically touch the ball down, and yet we continue to refer to this method of scoring as a "touchdown". American football comes from rugby, so it is not hard to figure out where that term comes from.

May. 28 2014 02:17 PM
CLC from Brooklyn

Rugby could not be named "Eton" or "Winchester" as it is the specific form of ball played at Rugby. Other schools have their own games. At Winchester it is WinCoFo (Winchester College Football) which, if I remember my son's description accurately, includes lining the younger students along the sides and bouncing the ball off of them.

May. 28 2014 02:04 PM

@L Hanauer "Principessa" means princess in Italian. Hope this clears things up.

May. 28 2014 01:58 PM
Amy from Manhattan

"Drippings on toast"? Drippings of what? (I'm guessing gravy?)

May. 28 2014 01:57 PM

Pulling your leg:
Is short for pulling your third leg or jwing you off

May. 28 2014 01:56 PM
Ron from Amherst, MA

I don't know if it is the first usage, but Richard in Shakespeare's Richard III uses the phrase "heart on my sleeve". He says that he won't wear his "heart on my sleeve for daws to peck at." Daws are a kind of bird, like crows.

May. 28 2014 01:55 PM
Tom O'Hara from Malverne

The phrase "a bridge too far" comes from the Allied operation (codenamed Market Garden) in World War II to seize a series of bridges in Holland, the last of which, the bridge at Arnhem, spanned the Rhine River. The plan was for U.S. and British paratroopers to seize the bridges and hold them until a British armored column could fight their way through German lines and relieve them. The British tanks were stopped short of Arnhem and the British paratroopers at Arnhem were eventually forced to surrender. The British general (Browning) in charge of Market Garden excused himself afterward by saying, "Well, as you know, I always thought we were attempting to go a bridge too far."

May. 28 2014 01:55 PM
L Hanauer from west orange, nj

On a recent trip to Sicily, our tour group was taken to a "pricipessa's" house for dinner. Principessa does not appear in any english dictionary that I can find and gets underlined in red on e-mail..

May. 28 2014 01:49 PM
James Naveira

Before it was a book or movie, it was an actual battle that took place in September 1944. The Allies were trying to capture the series of bridges in Holland (not blow them up as the caller suggested) and then proceed into Germany. It was a fiasco. When it was all over, General Browning, a senior British commander who was more or less in charge of the operation, summed up the failure as trying to go "a bridge too far."

May. 28 2014 01:48 PM
Bo from Granville, NY

Pulling my leg: To "pull one's leg", as a saying, does seem to have the etymology you describe; every source I can find states that it dates back to the mid-1800s in England, and refers to physically tripping up another person, which puts him off balance, possibly makes him collide with others in awkward ways, and generally makes him look foolish. It quickly evolved to mean achieving that result - making a person look foolish - regardless of the specific means used. The most popular means to do so is to tell a deliberate plausible non-truth which, if believed, would lead the person react foolishly.

May. 28 2014 01:48 PM
Rachel from Brooklyn

Is the English term "chaise LOUNGE" from the French just because someone was dyslexic and misread the French "chaise-longue?"

May. 28 2014 01:46 PM

Perhaps Ms. O'Conner can discuss the phrase/question "how are you?" and why it so aggravates Mr. Lopate that he uses up more time responding snarkily than he would with a fast "fine, thanks".

May. 28 2014 01:46 PM
Amy from Manhattan

We don't use the word "bedder" anymore, but we do have "dormer." Not the same exact meaning, bur a similar structure.

May. 28 2014 01:43 PM
Bernardo Pace from NYC


The Italian word for football or soccer is "calico," derived from the verb "calciare," which means to kick. We move from compound noun "football" to a flash of verb calciare.


May. 28 2014 01:40 PM
Jenna from UES

Can you guest speak some on the language of Maya Angelou?

May. 28 2014 01:38 PM
Tom O'Hara from Malverne

Many Brits refer to American football as "gridiron football" or, simply, "gridiron". I write an e-newsletter for the rugby and football alumni from Xavier High School here in NYC (We've played football since 1882 and rugby since 1976.), and I refer to rugby players as "ruggers" (the term everyone uses)and football players as "gridironmen" (a term I made up but that I like the sound of!).

In rugby, we like to say that "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."

May. 28 2014 01:38 PM
khadija Boyd from Brooklyn

Except in our USA, worldwide, "Foot" prevails. btw, in my humble opinion, USA team may make it to at least the quarter finals in Brazil. k

May. 28 2014 01:37 PM
Paul Barnes from New York

Would somebody please tell Brian Lehrer that "You can all join Dave and I at the Greene Space" is WRONG!

May. 28 2014 01:36 PM
Alice B. from Williamsburg

You probably have discussed this before but when did we stop saying "there are," when we refer to something in the plural. What seems to have become common usage is the contraction "there's"…. a lot of something, as in, for example "there's many seats in the auditorium" or there's a lot of words in the English language…" Should I be upset or just grin and accept it??

May. 28 2014 01:33 PM
Kim from East Meadow, NY

Hi! My question is about an unusual use of the word 'woman.' Dress Barn lists WOMAN as a department on the exterior of their stores. The only other store I have ever encountered this in was JCPenney. After they remodeled, the Women's Department became Woman. The Men's Department is still the Men's Department. I find it quite bizarre. What do you make of it?

Similarly, I heard a guest on a recent WNYC program use the word 'woman' as a collective noun. She said "woman think this. Not a specific woman, but woman in general." It struck me as odd. Have you come across this before?

Love the show! Thanks!

May. 28 2014 01:31 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

When did the word fi-NANCE disappear? Today we hear FI-nance, FI-nancial, and from a WNYC newscaster, FI-nancier to describe Bernie Madoff.

May. 28 2014 12:57 PM

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