A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer. In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which … Read more

Words and Expressions from Poker

Perhaps the quintessential American card game, poker gained its first popularity on the riverboats and in the saloons of the 19th century West. Based on a European card game that involved betting and bluffing, the game was called poque in French. “To place a stake or bet” was poquer. Words and phrases associated with the … Read more

Conjuring and Cancelling with Cancel Culture

Like the term political correctness, cancel culture has become an incantation to conjure with. conjure: To invoke by supernatural power, to effect by magic or jugglery. From Latin conjurare: to swear together, to band, combine, or make a compact by oath, to conspire. Before cancel culture, there was cancelling, in the sense of rejecting or … Read more

Two Literary Syndromes—AWS and OHS

Several fictional characters are so memorable that their names have been attached to physical and psychological maladies. Some of the so-called syndromes can be found in medical sources. Others, like “Bambi Syndrome” and “Peter Pan Syndrome,” are found only in pop culture—at least for the present. Some psychologists suggest that Peter Pan Syndrome may deserve … Read more

Shakespeare—for All Time

According to T. S. Eliot, April was :the cruellest month.” For me, April is Shakespeare’s month, a time to reread some of the plays and perhaps watch some of the film versions. Like his character Cassius in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare died on his birthday: William Shakespeare 23 April 1564—23 April 1616. His contemporary and fellow … Read more

Calques: Linguistic Immigrants in English

English vocabulary includes thousands of words that originated in languages other than Old English. Some of these linguistic immigrants never quite acculturate. They continue to sound foreign, but some English-speakers find them useful in particular contexts. Schadenfreude (German) taking delight in the misfortune of others. bon vivant (French) a person fond of good living; a … Read more

“To Cow” and “To Kow-tow”

Although the idiom to be cowed has nothing to do with Elsie the Cow, the use of corralled in a review of The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov in the Washington Post suggests a connection: The culturati who would, could or should challenge it are cowed and corralled. The transitive verb cow, meaning “‘To depress … Read more

Do You Mean Limbo or Purgatory?

A while back, I made a note of a radio announcer’s comment that Edward Snowden, who had been granted asylum in Russia, “has been in purgatory” in the Moscow airport. Considering that Snowden was simply existing in the airport until such time as he could enter a country, I thought that the more appropriate word … Read more

List of Halloween Words

A reader asks, Could you comment on Halloween words such as jack-o’-lantern vs jack o’ lantern and Trick-or-treat vs Trick or treat? I’ll add the word Halloween to the list. If all that is wanted is a guide to spelling and hyphenation, here’s how the words are handled in my two main dictionary references: Oxford … Read more

Cognition and Cognitive Offshoots

Before my use of Facebook, I imagined that, apart from insignificant personal differences, most people I know agreed on matters of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. No more. Now, I never fail to be astounded by how differently my friends and relatives and I may react to the same morning headlines. … Read more

Musings on Five Collocations

Speech and writing are made up of single words, but most words we use are grouped as phrases. Many of these groupings occur again and again in specific patterns. Linguists call these predictable patterns collocations: collocation: The habitual juxtaposition or association, in the sentences of a language, of a particular word with other particular words; … Read more

Wringer or Ringer?

The other day I read an essay in the Washington Post in which a woman describes herself as having been “put through the ringer” with a difficult birth. I’m always surprised to find an error of this kind in a major publication because I imagine that their owners still employ copy readers. The idiom intended … Read more