Thursday, February 25, 2016

Word Confusion

Sandy Tritt


How’s your vocabulary feeling these days? Want to give it a quick exam?

Jessica, our amazing intern, recently livened up our Inspiration for Writers group email by asking our editors and writers to share common errors they find in manuscripts. She planned to gather them into a blog article. And, man, did our editors respond. The list of common errors grew long. In fact, it grew so long, we had to break the responses into multiple articles. So, this article will be first in a series of two (or three, or who knows?). And, to make things fun, we’ll make this one a quiz. So, put on your rubber gloves and see how you do. Don’t worry—answers will be given at the end.      


1.      I pulled my car into the media/median/medium and stopped.

2.      For all my intensive purposes/intents and purposes, I still didn’t make it to the meeting on time.

3.      She took it for granite/granted that we’d be here waiting for her.

4.      If it's any constellation/consolation, I missed five questions.

5.      Irregardless/regardless, someone has to tell her she’s dragging toilet paper.

6.      Anyone up for an expresso/espresso?

7.      All accept/except for Janie, no one had a perfect score.

8.      She brought over olive oil and a crucifix to exercise/exorcise the evil spirit.

9.      See how far you can press the gas peddle/pedal.

10.  As far as I’m concerned, it's a mute/moot point.

11.  The doc said my leg pain is due to a congenial/congenital defect.

12.  In the passed/past, she would simply run faster as she passed/past the house.

13.  Can you insure/ensure me this package is ensured/insured?

14.  The chapel evoked/invoked memories of the day I had evoked/invoked the Madonna’s help.

15.  Does it look like the altar/alter cloth has been altared/altered?

16.  I always loose/lose my loose/lose change.

17.  When I told him to breath/breathe, I didn’t expect to feel his breath/breathe on my neck.

18.  It really peeks/piques/peaks my interest to peak/peek/pique at the mountain pique/peak/peek.

19.  If I could just find a place to lay/lie my bag and lay/lie down, I’d be happy.

20.  She laid/lay/lie the book on the table and laid/lay/lie down.

21.  Between/among the three of us, Jackie is the tallest.

22.  Between you and me/I, it’s getting colder in here.

23.  Is it all right/allright/alright with you if I sit in the back for awhile/a while?

24.  Who gave heroin/heroine to the heroin/heroine?

25.  How much further/farther is it?

Think you got them all right? Let’s find out. Here are the answers:  

1.      I pulled my car into the median and stopped.

2.      For all my intents and purposes, I still didn’t make it to the meeting on time.

3.      She took it for granted that we’d be here waiting for her.

4.      If it's any consolation, I missed five questions.

5.      Regardless, someone has to tell her she’s dragging toilet paper.

6.      Anyone up for an espresso? (The editor who submitted this one commented that “expresso” is “espresso on steroids.”)

7.      All except for Janie, no one had a perfect score.

8.      Howard brought over olive oil and a crucifix to exorcise the evil spirit. (Unless, as the submitting editor suggested, the evil spirit was overweight and Howard was his personal trainer.)

9.      See how far you can press the gas pedal.

10.  As far as I’m concerned, it's a moot point. (The contributing editor stated she wished some points were mute.)

11.  The doc said my leg pain is due to a congenital defect.

12.  In the past, she would simply run faster as she passed the house.

13.  Can you ensure me this package is insured?

14.  The chapel evoked memories of the day I had invoked the Madonna’s help.

15.  Does it look like the altar cloth has been altered?

16.  I always lose my loose change.

17.  When I told him to breathe, I didn’t expect to feel his breath on my neck.

18.  It really piques my interest to peek at the mountain peak.

19.  If I could just find a place to lay my bag and lie down, I’d be happy. (This sentence is in present tense. “Lay” means to set or place. “Lie” means to recline.)

20.  She laid the book on the table and lay down. (This sentence is in past tense. Just a little confusing—especially since the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Confusion between “lay” and “lie” and their conjugations is perhaps the most common error we see. Is it any wonder?)

21.  Among the three of us, Jackie is the tallest. (“Between” is used when referring to two people; “among” is used when referring to more than two. Likewise, “each other” is generally used to refer to the involvement of two people, and “one another” usually refers to the involvement of more than two people, although the lines on this one can blur in actual usage.)

22.  Between you and me, it’s getting colder in here.

23.  Is it all right with you if I sit in the back for a while? (Okay, this was a trick question. The only correct spelling—ever—in any situation—is all right and a while. I promise!)

24.  Who gave heroin to the heroine?

25.  How much farther is it? (Farther measures distance. Further refers to ideas. Example: Nothing could be further from the truth.)

We actually had over 50 contributions for this list. Here’s a bonus comment from one of our editors:  “My personal favorites are manger instead of manager; that makes me giggle. And then there's public without the ‘L,’ which makes my eyeballs roll.”

We had fun compiling this list of confusing words, and I hope you had equal fun taking our little quiz. Many times, even though we know the right word, our fingers take on a life of their own and type in the wrong word. Worse, our brain knows what we meant, so it doesn’t throw up any flags to tell us we’ve erred. This is why even professional editors have another editor review their work. And we’re always here to review yours (see for more information).

If you have any questions about any of these usages, please just leave a comment and we’ll be happy to clarify. And, finally, what words do you confuse? Let us know in a comment below.

Happy writing!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Word Origins (Part Two)

Jessica Nelson

Last week, I posted a blog on the origins of a variety of words and phrases. This week, I’m continuing that article, because I’m total word nerd.

Just for fun, I’m going to list some common phrases—at least ones I’m most familiar with—and their origins, based on the findings of Robert Crum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran as written in their book, The Story of English, and filling in the blanks with information from the uber-useful OED (Oxford English Dictionary) online ( This is part two of a two part blog.

From African languages:

For this first set, the book does not explain origins other than to say they came from African languages. A little research in the OED gives us more information, however.

·         voodoo – from the Dahomey word vodu. (A type of religious practice by blacks in Haiti, the West Indies, and southern America). New Orleans voodoo is similar but has different origins.

·         banjo – a corruption of the African word bandore. (An instrument similar to a guitar)

·         bad-mouth – originated as an African American colloquialism and is now fairly common. (To talk badly about someone)

·         high five – OED doesn’t have much to say about this one. (To slap palms with someone else, generally in celebration)

·         jam session – Again, OED doesn’t have much to say about this one, either, other than that it emerged from the jazz age. (An informal meeting of musicians to play music generally after a formal show ended)

·         nitty gritty – OED says they are uncertain of the origins of this one, but it was an African American colloquialism. (Used in the phrase “getting down to the nitty gritty,” meaning to get down to the essentials or the hard work)

This next set still does not have a particular etymology in The Story of English other than that the words and phrases developed and were appropriated from Black English over the years. (“Black English” is Crum’s, McNeill’s, and Cran’s terminology. By my best approximation, it refers to the English that developed out of African/English creoles in places where English was/is the dominant language, such as the United States and England. This is different from an “African English” which would encompass the variations in an English spoken as a second or third language in African countries.) According to the OED, for most of these entries, the individual words themselves have an etymology outside of African languages, but the way/context in which we use these words/phrases developed out of Black (generally American) English. The OED isn’t positive where or when exactly these phrases originated; it only gives conjectures.

·         rock’n’roll (a type of music)

·         jazz (a type of music)

·         blues (a type of music)

·         the spiritual (a type of music)

·         ragtime (a type of music)

·         jive (a type of music)

·         rhythm and blues (a type of music)

·         cakewalk (originally a dance, now used to describe something that is easy to do.)

·         jitterbug (a type of dance)

·         break dancing (a type of dance)

·         cool (use in slang to mean something is “awesome”)

·         “doing your own thing” (this one is self-explanatory)

·         flappers (used to describe the white “downtown” women who would come to Harlem to listen to the jazz musicians)

·         beat (meaning “exhausted”)

·         chick (meaning “girl”)

·         “have a ball” (to enjoy yourself)

·         hype (“persuasive talk,” now meaning to talk something up)

·         “in the groove” (doing something without deviation)

·         “latch on” (take hold of something)

·         mellow (“all right” or “fine”)

·         sharp (as in “looking sharp,” meaning to look neat or smart)

·         fierce (a way to mean “good”)

Now we get into words and phrases that developed out of technological innovations. As new inventions in transportation became widespread, the vocabulary that went with them diffused into the everyday language.

 From steamboats:

·         “letting off steam” – originally referred to literally letting steam off (or out) of the boilers so they wouldn’t explode. Now we use it to refer to doing an activity that releases excess energy or pent up emotions.

·         riffraff – originally referred to people who floated down the rivers on rafts they steered with oars (called riffs). Now it means people of a lower social class, synonymous with rabble. According to the OED, this term has its origins in, or is at least closely related to, the French rifraf or the Danish ripsraps.

·         high falutin’ – referred to people wealthy enough to travel on steamboats, and came from the fact steamboats had tall, flute-shaped stacks that kept smoke and cinders away from the passengers. Now it is used slightly condescendingly to refer to someone who is bombastic or pretentious (OED).

·         hogwash – originally referred to the water left after washing pigs before they boarded boats. According to the OED, this word is related to pigswill, but only in the context in which hogwash means “kitchen scraps or refuse.” In another context, it means a drink that is really bad, like nasty beer. As an American colloquialism, it means “worthless nonsense.”

From poker (which traveled up and down the Mississippi on the steamboats):

·         “you bet” or “ bet you” – originally American slang; was a standard affirmative phrase and still is. “Bet you” is used to informally mean, in one case, that you believe you are right and someone else is wrong (or some other situation that involves believing one thing over something else but not being sure which is really correct/true).

·         “put up or shut up” – an American colloquialism, it’s an admonition to “take action.”

·         bluffing – while the word “bluff” itself has a much longer etymology, to bluff—or to pretend like something is one way when it’s not in order to trick someone else—is wholly American.

·         “call [your] bluff” – an Americanism meaning to call someone out for bluffing or to state they were bluffing and thereby reveal the “truth” (“truth” being a relative term).

·         “passing the buck” – originally, “buck” in this phrase referred to a buckhorn-handled knife placed in front of the dealer that players in poker passed along if they did not want to deal the next hand. It now means to pass the blame to someone else.

·         poker face – used generally to mean a passive expression that hides a person’s true emotions

·         “cards stacked against you” – means the odds of the game are not in your favor. Generally, though, it means that things aren’t going your way or in your favor.

·         “an ace up one’s sleeve” – means to have an advantage that you’ve managed to keep hidden.

·         “hit the jackpot”  a “jackpot” is “in draw-poker, a pot or pool that has to accumulate until one of the players can open the betting with a pair of jacks or better” (from the OED). Now, to “hit the jackpot” means to have a great stroke of luck or to win a big prize (the “pot”).

·         “follow suit” – originally, “to play a card of the same suit as the leading card” from which we get its current meaning “to do the same thing as somebody or something else” (from the OED).

·        “wild card” – “Of a playing card: having any rank chosen by the player holding it” (as called by the dealer) (OED), which has evolved to refer to something that one is not sure about or that lies outside normal circumstances.

From the railroads:

·         railroaded – in its very first incarnation, “railroaded” was extremely similar to the first definition of “right of way,” which was the railroad company’s right to build tracks through private land as part of eminent domain. So to be “railroaded” was to have the railroad literally built across your land with no consideration to you. Not long after, it came to mean to falsely convict someone, but now the term commonly means to coerce someone.

·         sidetracked – according to the OED, in train-related jargon, this originally meant to move a train into the side track so another train could pass, but by the 1890s this word meant to divert attention or lose focus.

·         streamlining – this term now means to slim down or make something more efficient (OED).

·         gravy train – this term was coined during the presidential race of 1948 between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey (during which they visited cities using trains as their primary transportation). Now we use it to mean easily gained financial success.

·         to make the grade – originally meant “to keep the track level”; now this phrase means to reach the standard or to be successful (OED).

·         to have the right of way – this phrase originally meant (and still can mean) “the right to build and operate a railway line, road, or public utility on land belonging to another, esp. the state.” Now, we’re more likely to use this phrase to mean “the right or ability to travel along a given thoroughfare in the face of the claims of other road users; spec. the legal right of a pedestrian, rider, or driver to proceed with precedence over other road users at a specific point or in a particular situation.” (OED)

·         to backtrack – originally referred to train tracks “lying or leading towards the rear” (OED), but now we use it to mean to retrace our steps or retreat.

·         to go off the rails – originally referred to “derailing,” or when a train somehow ended up off its tracks; now it’s a colloquialism that means to lose one’s ability to understand or cope.

All the words and phrases from steamboats, poker, and railroads are all noted in the OED as Americanisms. Even though the words themselves likely have other etymologies, the way in which we use them did not exist until these innovations in technology came into being. And our language evolved to encompass these new inventions.

It still astounds me the way language is constantly in flux—eternally changing. Every day old words take on new meanings, and new words seem to miraculously pop into existence. Words like “selfie” didn’t exist a decade ago. Does anyone remember when “apple” referred to the fruit and not an electronics brand?

Some call this the corruption or devolution of language, but I believe it’s natural for language to change. If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking like Shakespeare!

Are there any word evolutions that surprised you? Are there any you know that didn’t appear on this list? Tell us in the comments.