Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know

For a language originally spoken only by Eastern European Jews, Yiddish has certainly found its way into common English. My wife was raised in a farming region in the American Midwest and never knew any Jewish people as a child, so she was surprised when I informed her that she uses Yiddish words all the … Read more

Better Use “Redneck” with Care

A man speaking in a city board meeting in my town this week got into trouble for using the word “redneck.” He was arguing that shrinking city funds would be better spent on maintaining the local cable access channel than on Christmas lights in the town square. He stirred up a storm of protest when … Read more

Skin And Bones

There are a lot of idiomatic expressions in English relating to skin and bones. Here are a few examples. Bone idle – lazy. (Example: He never does anything; he’s just bone idle.) Bone up – study. (Example: I need to bone up on history before the final exam.) By the skin of your teeth – … Read more

“Black Friday”: An Unfortunate Expression

As Thanksgiving approaches every year, we see and hear the commercial expression “Black Friday.” This johnny-come-lately expression still bothers me when I hear it mentioned on the radio or see it spread across the newspaper in big letters. It bothers me because in more traditional usage, dating at least from Roman times, “black” in front … Read more

Gods and Ducks – Get It Right

Deus ex machina: from Mod.L. translation of Gk. theos ek mekhanes, lit. “the god from the machina,” the device by which “gods” were suspended over the stage in Gk. theater–Online Etymology Dictionary. I heard an NPR reporter use this expression to refer to a character in the 2001 cult movie Donnie Darko. (Spoiler alert: stop … Read more

Dear Sir

Daniel recently asked me, “Is it correct to address someone by Sir even in informal contexts such as Instant Messaging or on a blog comment?” The word sir serves a very useful purpose in English, even in those cultures that cherish democratic ideals to the extreme. Sir has been used as a respectful form of … Read more

Is it Libel, or is it Slander?

Apparently it hasn’t been a good month for sports figures. Chris Chelios is being sued for libel: According to a report by TSN of Canada on Tuesday, Meehan’s lawyers have issued notices of libel against Chelios and several media outlets for statements the Detroit Red Wings defenseman made last week. and the president of the … Read more

Numerical Expressions

There are many expressions in English which reflect our need to classify and put a value on items. Here are a few: First water This is most often heard in the phrase ‘a diamond of the first water’. The expression means the best quality. The best diamonds are nearly as clear as water, and this … Read more

Hang, Hung, Hanged

Hang derives from Old English and means to be attached from above without support below. This is one of the core meanings, as shown in the sentence: The picture hangs on the wall. However, there are several other related uses, for example: To let droop or fall – hang your head in shame. To fall … Read more

Don’t Be Vexed by Vexillology

There is historical proof that Jeanne d’Arc had three ensigns… Two were for military use: her Battle Standard, which was large in size and her Pennon which was small. The third was a religious banner made for the priests and men of the army to assemble around for morning and evening prayers. This excerpt contains … Read more

“Pushing Up Daisies” and Other Euphemisms for Death

A new television drama with the title Pushing Daisies put me in mind of all the euphemisms English has for naming the act of dying or the state of being dead. Some are solemn, but many are humorous and not intended for the ears of a newly grieving person. “Pushing up daisies” conjures up a … Read more

No More Used Cars

Time was, a car that no longer belonged to its original owner was a “used car.” Clothing that had changed hands was “second-hand clothing” or, in a family, “hand me downs.” Not anymore. Apparently, in our consumer society, thrift is still practiced, but admitting to it is not cool. Old clothes are now sold in … Read more