Word for the month – October 2009

By: Gerald Waite

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but from time to time in this column, I make a mistake. And because I can rejoice in many acute readers, I generally seem to be caught at it.
Two columns this past summer concerned names of geographical sites like towns and rivers. Several readers were quick to correct my translation of Pointe Aux Chenes, which projects into Lake Michigan just west of the Big Mac. Relying on my schoolboy French, I said it meant “point of the dogs.” However, the word for dog is chiens, while chene in fact means oak. I’m chastised, but grateful.
I’ve been pleased to hear from many readers over the years, via e-mails, conversations and letters. They’ve offered suggestions for columns, clippings and advice from other publications, funny tales and poems about language and Web sites about words. The love letters also were welcome. This month’s column will offer just a few of the comments of readers.
Several column ideas have come from readers. A message from a woman six years ago complained about the overuse of guy, especially to refer to a woman. That sparked a column in April 2004 about unusual etymologies, especially from names. I pointed out guy’s origin in the seventeenth century as a term of derision, derived from Guy Fawkes, accused in a plot against England’s James I.
A punctuation I have yet to find a way to incorporate into a column was offered by neighbors who stroll by regularly. The term, interrobang, was new to me, and my keyboard lacks the key to type the interrobang symbol, which combines the question and exclamation marks. Author Norman C. Hebel writes, “It’s like asking why and saying yes in the same breath” and “expresses the incredibility of life today.”
One reader, responding to a column on subject-verb agreement, posed this query: “Enjoy your column, and the last one in the MM sparked this question as my wife and I played cribbage…I counted ‘fifteen-2, fifteen-4, fifteen-6, and two are 8.’ She said it should have been fifteen-2, fifteen-4, fifteen-6, and two is 8.’” While chary of intervening in marital quibbles, I guessed that each statement should be understood as a truncated clause. Thus, a count of fifteen (e.g., a 7 and an 8) is 2, or a run of three is 3, while two (Jacks) are 7.
In March 2004, I tried to distinguish between near synonyms like lend and loan, or leave and let. I offered this on bring and take, which always have confused me: “You bring it toward something, and you take it away.” Two learned readers offered a refinement, with this example: “Bring with, take to,” with the former being used for a future action, the latter with past and present. I’m still working on that puzzle.
After a column on word origins mentioned the title Ms., a reader informed me that the business education textbook she used in the ’60s listed that new abbreviation as an option when unsure of a woman’s marital status. This predated Ms. magazine, which I had credited with popularizing the term. Another savvy reader questioned my Gaelic etymology for England, which he had learned meant “land of the Angles,” which of course is English.
We’ve room for one more note. A number of columns have concerned abuses in usage. One reader took me up on two words, verbal and presently. My columns had asserted that the first, which we tend to use as a synonym for spoken, really meant either spoken or written, being derived from the word for word. This indeed is a traditional sense. Likewise, presently long has meant soon and was not a synonym for now. This reader did impressive homework to argue that the more common current meanings—spoken meaning verbal and now for presently—do indeed have good authority.
I still cannot use the words this way, but then, conservatism in usage is not a vice in an editor, even though he might be losing the battle. An editor of the old New York Sun way back in 1922 offered this portrait: “The excellent tribe of grammarians, the precisians and all others who strive to be correct and correctors, have as much power to prohibit a single word or phrase as a gray squirrel has to put out Orion with a flicker of its tail.”
As the fella said, “Keep those cards and letters coming.”

Chary (as in CHAIR-ee), an adjective used in the Doomsday Book in the year 1000. Today it means cautious, wary, careful. Sir Walter Scott tells of a character who was “chary of mixing in causeless strife.”
—Gerald Waite

Editor’s Note: Questions or comments are welcome by writing MM or at marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.com

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