Words you might be using incorrectly

If you want to communicate effectively, and especially if you want to have credibility whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s important to use words correctly. Yet I hear certain words misused all the time, even by otherwise well-educated people. Note that I’m not talking about often mangled phrases, like “for all intensive purposes” instead of the proper “for all intents and purposes,” or mixing up words like “affect” and “effect.” These are single words that are frequently used improperly.

Cliché

We probably all know that “cliché” means something that has been used in art or literature so often that it has become bland and predictable, and so should be avoided. Movies are full of them — the horror movie villain who isn’t really dead after they seem to have been killed, the henchmen who are terrible shots, the witty comment as the hero dispatches a goon.

We also get these in live theater, though. The so-called “11 o’clock number” comes from the world of Broadway musicals, when the shows used to start at 8:30. This was the “knock ‘em dead before the finale” show-stopper of a song that usually highlighted the vocal talents of the lead, manipulated emotions, and was catchy as hell. Think Memory from Cats, the titular Cabaret, or Rose’s Turn from Gypsy. Also note that nowadays, it’s more likely to be the 10 o’clock number.

Of course, in the latter case, the cliché isn’t so much a specific thing as it is a stylistic conceit.

In literature, clichés can refer to either hackneyed turns of phrase — “I need that like a hole in the head” — or plot elements that have been pounded to death. Young adult literature in particular, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games via Twilight and Maze Runner abound with them, although, to be fair, they’re more forgivable in YA only because their audience may not have met them yet.

All that said, then, how does the word “cliché” itself get misused? Simple. It’s a noun, and never an adjective. So you’re safe if you say “that’s a cliché.” Not so much if you try to describe something as “that’s so cliché.” In that case, you want the word “clichéd.”

Comprise

This is a word that tends to get used backwards. Hint: If you follow it with a preposition and a list, then you’re using it wrong. Nothing is ever “comprised of” anything else. In that case, you’d be looking for “composed of.”

The “mp” combination in English is interesting because it is one of the ways in which the language has a lot in common with Spanish, and it comes from compound words that would otherwise create the consonant combination “np.” Hell, it even shows up in “compound!” A good Spanish example of this is the word “compartir,” which is very common in social media, because it means “to share.” The constituent words are “con” and “partir.” The former is a preposition that means “with.” The latter is a verb that means “to split.” So, when you share, you split something with someone else: con + partir, but that “np” isn’t liked, to we get “compartir.”

Now to get to the meaning of “comprise,” we have to go back to Middle English via Middle French, where the word “prise” meant to hold or grasp, so the combo basically means “to hold with.” Your preposition is in the phrase, so all you need to add are the nouns.

So… The U.S. comprises fifty states or the U.S. is composed of fifty states.

Further

This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple mnemonic to remember the difference, making this a very short entry. “Further” is metaphorical, while “farther” is literal. The latter refers only to physical distance, while the former refers to abstract difference.

“Dallas is farther from Boston than Chicago.”

“He managed to walk farther than his brothers that day.”

“She ran farther in the competition than any other runner.”

Those are the literal versions. As for the abstract or figurative:

“He could extend the metaphor no further.”

“They wouldn’t accept any further questions.”

“Their research proved they had no further to go.”

The way to remember it is this: To create physical distance, you have to go away, and farther has an “a” in it. Yeah, simple and cheesy, but it works.

Ironic

Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song is. Irony is not some weird coincidence that happens. For example, slamming the keyboard lid on your hand and breaking it right before your big piano recital is not ironic. Neither is someone saying something during that whole “speak now or forever hold your piece” moment at the wedding.

There are three forms of Irony. First is when what you say is the opposite of what you mean. For example, someone gives you rollerblades for your birthday but you have no legs. That part isn’t ironic, but if you open the gift and announce, “Oh boy, just what I wanted,” then you’re being ironic.

Situational irony is when the intended results of something turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. For example, a husband surprises his wife with an anniversary trip to Paris because she’s always talking about the city, but the real reason she’s seemed so obsessed is because she’s always hated the place, so he’s given her the worst gift ever.

The third form is dramatic irony, and if you’ve ever heard of O. Henry, particularly his short story The Gift of The Magi, then you know this one. A man sells his expensive watch to buy some combs for his wife’s hair. Meanwhile, she cuts off her hair and sells it to by a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.

Less

If you’re a grammar nerd like me, then every time you see that “15 items or less” sign in the store, your butt probably clenches and you have to resist the urge to tell the blameless clerk why it’s wrong. The difference between “less” and “fewer” is really simple.

“Fewer” refers only to countable nouns, while “less” refers to uncountable nouns. And if that seems all super-grammar unintelligible, it’s not, because the words mean what they say. Countable nouns are objects that can actually be counted: one apple, two oranges, three ducks, etc. Uncountable nouns are those that can’t be counted: sugar, coffee, tea, etc.

Note, though, that uncountables can become countable when they are quantized: a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, a glass of tea, and so on.

But here’s the rule. If you can count them, then you want to say “fewer.” If you can’t, then it’s “less.” “I want fewer apples.” “I want less sugar.”

I don’t have a great mnemonic for this one, although maybe remembering that the “F” in fewer is in “First,” a counting number, might do the trick. And the great compounder to this one is that the term “more” refers to both countable and uncountable nouns: More apples, more tea.

Yeah, I never said that English made any sense.

Whom

This one is not as hard as it might seem, and in order to get it right all you have to do is rephrase the sentence in your head. For example: “To ??? should I send the gift?” Make it not a question, and it becomes “I send the gift to him/her/them.” And the clue comes in the masculine and plural pronouns. They ends in “m” and so does “whom,” so if the rephrase would use him or them, then the other way around would use “whom.”

Most of the time, you’ll use “whom” after a preposition, although not always. For example, a question involving verbs without prepositions get tricky. If someone asked you which person you believed, would it be “who” or “whom?”

Turn it around and you get, “I believe them,” ergo, “Whom do you believe?”

Of course, this also puts the lie to the lyrics of several songs. But no one ever said that lyricists have to be grammarians. Poet do get to slide a bit, after all, no matter the language they write in.

 

Four expressions that are older than you think

One of the things I do when I edit and fact-check other people’s books and scripts is to check for anachronisms, which are things that are out of their proper time. For example, let’s say that a major plot element in a thriller is a stolen thumb drive with the names of every undercover agent on it. That’s a great MacGuffin… unless you set your script before 2000, when USB thumb drives were not commercially available. (At a stretch, I’d give you 1999, since we’d be dealing with governmental agencies and all that.)

A very common one that I’ve seen so many times that it’s one of my first searches on period pieces is use of the term “Ms.” Well, not all period pieces, since any story set before 2009 is now considered a period piece, but definitely those that are set before about 1972, which is when the term started to become part of mainstream vernacular. Oddly enough, though, it was first proposed as a neutral alternative to Mrs. and Miss as early as 1901, although it was used as a written abbreviation of “mistress” only as far back as the 17th century. Keep in mind, though, that this usage had nothing to do with treating women as equals and everything to do with male scribes figuring out how to spare themselves writing six letters by hand every time they recorded a record about a single female.

But this brings up an interesting point. Technically, yes the term “Ms.” is a lot older than you’d think. On the other hand, its usage in its modern sense pretty much began as noted above, in the early 1970s. There are other expressions, though, that really are a lot older than you think, so in the spirit of my story about inventions that are older than you think, here we go.

Robot

We haven’t quite perfected the fully autonomous humanoid robot, although Honda’s ASIMO has come close. Keep in mind, though, that they’ve been working on it for over thirty years now. And, surprisingly, while there’s a certain resemblance to the name of a famous science fiction author, the name ASIMO really refers to “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.”

The author in question, Isaac Asimov, is famous for writing a lot of both science fiction and science fact, but one of his series, I, Robot, is famous for establishing the Laws of Robotics. However, while they’ve always been popular with science fiction fans, they really didn’t explode onto the scene until a kind of lame 2004 film adaptation, although if you’ve ever owned a Roomba, Scooba, Braava, or Mirra, then you’ve done business with the iRobot. But either of these would probably make you think that robots are a fairly recent invention.

Of course, if you owned any kind of modem between the 1970s and mid-1990s, it might have come from the company US Robotics. Guess where they got their name… That’s right. Also Asimov.

But if you’re only a film fan and not a tech or science fiction nerd, you might think that robots were created in the 1950s, with the appearance of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Never mind that, at least in literature, Asimov got to robots by 1940, because that’s still too early.

The actual origin of the word “robot” is in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. He adapted that word from an old Church Slavonic term rabota, which meant slave or serf. And if you’d like to, you can listen to a reading of the play itself.

To do someone

If someone were to say to you, “Hey, do me,” you’d probably take it in a sexual sense, right? And that also seems like a really modern usage of the phrase. Just thinking back through pop culture, I have it my head that Austin Powers said something like, “Oh, do me, baby” (he didn’t,”) but the slang must have begun with the Beatles in 1968 on the White Album, with the song “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

I really couldn’t find any clear sources for “do it” or “to do” in a sexual sense back from 1968, but I did find one from 1588, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which reads as follows:

                                   DEMETRIUS
     Villain, what hast thou done?

                                     AARON
     That which thou canst not undo.

                                    CHIRON
     Thou hast undone our mother.

                                     AARON
     Villain, I have done thy mother.

If you doubt this reading, then just take a look at this scene from Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation, and you’ll see that it’s exactly how Willie Shakes intended it to read.

Motherfucker

You might think that this one was invented by Samuel L. Jackson, who uses it so eloquently, or maybe it was a product of the 1960s. While the movie M*A*S*H infamously was the first major motion picture to use the back half of the word, it was Myra Breckinridge that turned things on its head by using the word in full, but bleeping “mother” instead of “fucker.”

Prior to the 1960s, this term is alleged to have been used by slaves in America before the Civil War to describe owners who would rape the slaves’ mothers as a psychological breaking tactic, but this probably isn’t true. The earliest attestations come from a court case in 1889, so its origin probably dates back a bit earlier than that, although in the case documents it’s an adjective, motherfucking, instead of the noun, motherfucker. The noun form didn’t pop up until 1917, when a black soldier referred to the draft board as “low-down motherfuckers.”

Seeing pink elephants

This is an old expression to indicate either that someone was habitually drunk or they were an alcoholic experiencing DTs due to lack of booze. Nowadays, the expression has mostly fallen out of use with the understanding that alcoholism is a disease, and nothing to joke about, although it’s still a part of pop culture because of Disney’s original 1941 version of Dumbo, but that isn’t the origin of the expression or the idea. And while it is frequently attributed to Jack London in his 1913 novel John Barleycorn, it actually goes back a bit farther than that, to sometime between 1883 and 1903, ten years before that book came out. It had a lot to do with the disappointment of audiences who were expecting to see a rare white elephant — white because of its albinism — but the beasts actually turned out to be closer to pink. In case you haven’t seen it, the scene in Dumbo is an incredible bit of animated surrealism called “Pink Elephants on Parade” — and I swear that the animators hid one of those infamous Disney toon penises at about the 2:40 mark. Watch the elephant’s trunk.

What’s your favorite slang expression that’s a lot older than people think?

Bye bye bunny

You’ve probably heard of Coney Island, which is a beachfront amusement park located on Long Island, New York, in the borough of Brooklyn. If you’re from Southern California, it’s somewhat analogous to the Santa Monica Pier, and the now defunct Ocean Park, which closed in 1967. But… have you ever wondered how Coney Island got its name?

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that it was named after a member of the Coney family. After all, a lot of places are. The name New York itself refers back to the famous Yorks of England. Perhaps Coney Island was named after the famous Nathan Coney, who founded Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, a world-renowned place. Oh… except that it was founded by Nathan Handwerker in 1916, long after Coney Island had been named. And, to be fair, “Handwerker” is a really great name for somebody who makes their living crafting foodstuffs by hand.

When was Coney Island named, exactly? Well, most likely when the place had been settled by the Dutch and what we now call New York was known as New Amsterdam. They decided to name this stretch of Long Island Konijn Eiland.  You don’t really need to speak Dutch to realize that those words sound a lot like the final name. In fact, Konine Eyelant is pretty much it. So where did the Konijn/Coney come from?

Let’s jump back just a moment to my childhood, when we used to visit my paternal grandmother, who lived in a town called Atascadero, up the end of a street called Conejo Road. And what does Conejo mean? Well, if you grow up in a place with a big Spanish influence, like Southern California, you’ll learn very quickly that “conejo” means “hare.” So grandma lived on Hare Road. And that’s exactly how Coney Island wound up with the name. The Dutch knew it and later settlers just followed…

The place was hare island, originally because it was covered by them, later from linguistic inertia. But, at the same time, it was a misnomer to name the entire place “Hare Island,” because they weren’t everywhere, just in certain places. Like where later New Yorkers built their amusement park.

Note that I’m not using the word rabbit, because there is still no agreement on how this word wound up in English. It may have come from generic Franco-Germanic terms for “little animal,” but who knows? Ultimately, the sounds that led to the name for this creature are most likely Germanic.

As for bunny, again, no one knows. It may have come from a term for a squirrel or a tail, or could have somehow been derived from “cunny,” a diminutive for the aforementioned coney, although with rather unfortunate connotations in the modern era, at least in English.

Then there’s hare, which gives root to “harrier,” either dogs made for running down rabbits, aka hares, or the description of military airplanes that can jump and shoot the shit out of other planes.

None of which would have flown over Coney Island. And the real answer to all of this, may I abandon my linguistic purist roots, is this: In the great long run — as in centuries away from now — folk etymologies are as good as reality. If I say now that Coney Island was named that because the Dutch thought the place was overrun with hares, then so be it… the Dutch win. If, however, my version — or the version in my links wins — and someday the place is renamed Bunny Brooklyn, or whatever… that will be our future history. And that’s just the thing. History is fleeting and, while I like to try to teach what I can learn from what we know now, I also know that in a century or two or three everything we think we know now will be proven wrong.

All I can really say for now is that my grandma lived in a place named for lots of rabbits, and they were definitely there. An amusement park in Long Island was named for the same, although what they called rabbits probably were not. As a kid, I owned and took care of a lot of bunnies, and they were amazing. As an adult, I do improv, a lot of which involves a game called “Bunny, Bunny.” But forget bunnies and rabbits. If you’re really keeping track, it’s coneys and hares.

Same thing as bunnies and rabbits, except not as cute and more durable, and with different words. Really…

British and American words that mean different things

In 1887 in the book The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” He was speaking from the point of view of an Irishman living in Britain, but he was more correct than not. Like Spanish in Latin America vs. Spanish in Spain, there are some big differences between the American and British versions. Let’s leave aside spelling and terms that are mutually unknown (oven vs. cooker, for example), and just look at the words that, while they look the same in both countries, mean something very different depending upon which side of the Atlantic (aka “The Pond”) you’re on.

Clothing and Accessories

  1. Jumper — In the UK, this is a piece of outerwear, frequently knit, and designed to be worn over a shirt or blouse. In the U.S., we call it a sweater. To us, a jumper is someone who commits suicide by diving off of a high place.
  2. Fancy dress — In the UK, this is costume party, akin to what Americans would have for Halloween. In the U.S., this refers to a very formal occasion, usually with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. The Oscar ceremony is American fancy dress.
  3. Trainers — In the UK, these are shoes, generally of the type Americans would call tennis shoes or sneakers. In the U.S., a trainer is a person who screams at you in a gym in order to motivate you to work out.
  4. Pants — In the UK, you wear your pants under your trousers, which we call underwear. In the U.S., pants are your trousers.
  5. Braces — In the UK, braces keep your pants up and we call them suspenders, In the U.S., braces are something to straighten your teeth.
  6. Vest — In the UK, this is a sleeveless T-shirt meant as an undergarment, something Americans might call an A-front or (very disturbingly) a “wife-beater.” In the U.S., a vest is part of a three-piece suit, worn under the jacket.
  7. Purse — In the UK, this is a wallet kept in a handbag. In the U.S. it’s a bag to keep your wallet in.
  8. Boob tube — In the UK, this is a garment with no sleeves that is basically held up by friction, hope, and boobs. In the U.S., it is an old slang word for television.

Food

  1. Chips — In the UK, these are French fries; in the U.S. they are thin, crunchy salty snacks made from fried potatoes. American chips are British crisps.
  2. Biscuit — In the UK, a sweet treat made of baked dough, and you might find chocolate chips or jam in it. In the U.S., a biscuit is a dense chunk of buttery dough, generally not sweet, and frequently associated with Southern cooking, as in biscuits and gravy.
  3. Banger — In the UK, a banger is a sausage. In the U.S., it’s a gang member.

Things

  1. Solicitor — This is a type of lawyer in the UK, and probably useful. In the U.S., it’s anybody who goes door-to-door to try to sell you something, and is considered very annoying. The category includes salespeople and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other pests.
  2. Boot — In the UK, this is the storage space in the back of your car. In the U.S., it’s a type of shoe that goes on your foot and usually extends at least to your ankle if not higher.
  3. Bonnet — In the UK, this is the thing that covers the engine of your car. In the U.S., it covers your head, but only if you’re a baby or a rather quaint woman.
  4. Trolley — UK version, this is what you put your purchases into while you’re at Tesco (that’s a grocery store); in the U.S., this is a form of public transit that frequently but not always runs on rails down city streets. San Francisco is famous for its trolley cars.
  5. Coach — In the UK, you’ll take this to transport a bunch of people from one place to another, although it won’t be called Greyhound. In the U.S., this is the person in charge of whipping a sports team into shape.
  6. Fag — In the UK, it’s a cigarette. In the U.S., it’s very derogatory term for a homosexual male and should be avoided. (Although in a lot of parts of the U.S., smoking has also become very verboten, which is a good thing.)
  7. Dummy — Use this to keep your UK baby quiet and happy as they suck on it. In the U.S., use it in a store to model clothes or as a general human-shaped object for whatever purpose.
  8. Comforter — Another word in the UK for a dummy. In the U.S., it’s a duvet, as in a big, stuffed fluffy blanket that goes on top of your sheets.
  9. Bomb — In UK theater and media, a huge hit. In U.S. theater and media, a huge failure. Note, though, that “the bomb” (or “da bomb”) in the U.S. also refers to a huge hit. Nuance matters here.
  10. Flannel — In the UK, a piece of cloth you use for washing up your face or hands. In the U.S., a type of material, usually plaid, and most often used to make shirts or blankets.
  11. Hamper — Absolutely necessary for carrying your food around for a picnic in Britain; absolutely necessary for carrying around your dirty laundry in the U.S.
  12. Casket — In the UK, this is a small box for jewelry. In the U.S., it’s a big box for a dead body.

Places

  1. First floor — In the UK, one story up above the ground. In the U.S., the story that’s on the ground
  2. A&E — In the UK, where you go for urgent care of an injury (“accident and emergency”), what’s called the ER in the U.S. In the U.S., A&E is a cable network showing Arts and Entertainment

Unfortunate Confusions

  1. Rubber — In the UK, the thing, usually on the back of a pencil, used to rub out mistakes. In the U.S., the thing you put on your dong before sex in order to avoid mistakes.
  2. Hoo-ha — In the UK, this is an argument or disagreement. In the U.S., it’s slang for a vagina
  3. Pissed — In the UK, you’re drunk. In the U.S., you’re angry.
  4. Blow off — A very British fart. A very American way to skip a commitment or appointment without making any excuses or giving warning.

And there you have it. Can you think of any other examples? Share them in the comments!

Going, gone, went…

When it comes to verb conjugations, English can be a little weird. Some verbs seem to barely change. For example, a regular verb like “to look” uses the present form look for I, you, we, and they. The only one that changes is third person singular — he/she/it looks. The past participle is looked for all persons, and so forth.

But then we get the irregular verbs, which can be even more irregular than they are in other languages: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are. But one of the stranger ones, which I hear misused a lot by both English learners and native speakers, is the compound past tense of “to go.” (Note: for some reason, to be and to go seem to be totally irregular in every language, which is strange considering how common they are.)

The present of “to go” is regular — go or goes, the same as to look, above. But there are two forms we can use in the past: gone and went. You’d never say “I goed away.” It’s “I went,” and the form is went for all persons as well. This is great right up until you combine it with an auxiliary verb. Logic might seem to be that “I had went” would be correct, but it isn’t. This is where the other version comes in. The correct phrasing is “I had gone.” And, by the way, it’s also “had” for any person: You had gone, she had gone, etc.

The difference is that went is the past tense, while gone is the past participle. Again, this is one of those areas where sometimes English words change a little and sometimes they change a lot. For “to look,” for example, the past tense and participle are both the same: looked. The difference is that the participle always needs another verb before it while the past does not. So if the word before is not a verb, the word you want is went. Otherwise, it’s gone.

To add to the confusion: Gone can also be an adjective but went cannot, so we can have a sentence like “They will be gone for the month of November,” but not “They will be went for the month of November.” Even though gone in the first sentence follows a verb, it’s functioning as an adjective there, describing the state they will be in for November.

On a related note, I also hear the present continuous conjugation of “to stand” formed incorrectly a lot. Present continuous is the tense that combines the verb “to be” with the present participle of another verb, which is the –ing tense in English. For example, “We are looking for a few good men.” That one is pretty straightforward, so it would seem obvious that the correct form is “He is standing in the street.”

It might seem obvious, and yet I hear abominations like “He is stood in the street” all the time. Okay, that form of to stand doesn’t have the obvious –ed ending of a lot of English past participles, but at least it does have a D. On top of that, I never hear anyone say something like “You are looked for Waldo.” That just makes no sense.

So yeah, a sentence like “We had went outside and now are stood on the corner” would make my skin crawl. Oddly enough, the same thing can happen with the verb to sit, as in the incorrect “She is sat at the table” versus the proper “She is sitting at the table.” The former is non-standard English and should be avoided.

The article I linked in the previous paragraph has some useful examples of irregular verbs that do make the error obvious if you test them: I was ran down the road, and he is flown to New York. Even though they don’t follow the usual –ed construction of the participle, the incorrectness should be pretty obvious to native speakers. Ironically, though “he was flown” can be a proper construction if the verb becomes transitive. That is, “he” becomes the direct object of the sentence: He was flown to New York by the contest sponsors.

Isn’t language just so much fun?

The one thing I will say about the mongrel beast that is my native language English: It can put up with a lot of mangling and still make perfect sense, or at least be understandable. A lot of other languages cannot handle that. Misplace a pronoun or adjective or derp up a verb, and the entire sentence becomes gibberish.

One of the most classic examples of this, which long ago achieved meme status, is the entire opening dialogue from a 1989 video game called Zero Wing. I encourage you to click that opening dialogue link and read the “Official Translation” column, because it a glowing example of machine translation gone wrong. Nothing is right in how the words went from Japanese to English, and yet it still makes sense. This is the source of several famous internet memes, including “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “All your base are belong to us.”

And for an example that intentionally aims for gibberish and yet still makes sense, you can’t beat Lewis Carrol’s classic poem “Jabberwocky.” The man was weird, but he was a genius all the same. (Just check out “The Hunting of the Snark,” for example.)

Then again, English is also absolutely capable of sentences that make complete sense semantically, and yet still mean nothing. Try to wrap your head around “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” for example. It’s a noun adjective combo that can verb in an adverbial way, and yet…

Don’t think about it too hard, or else you may find that you have went mad and aren’t sure where you’re now stood.

That hurt to write.

Slanguage

One of the interesting things about idiomatic expressions in any languages is that, while the words in them may each make complete sense, stringing them all together may seem to make no sense, at least to someone who isn’t a native speaker or, if they do make sense, the literal meaning is far different than the idiomatic meaning.

A good example of the latter in English is the expression “a piece of cake.” Literally, it’s just a bit of dessert. Nothing odd about that. But, of course, English speakers know the other meaning. A “piece of cake” is something that is done or achieved very easily: “Passing that test was a piece of cake.” Why does a fluffy, iced treat mean this? Who knows.

By the way, the Spanish equivalent of the expression is “pan comido,” which literally means “eaten bread.” Again, it’s a food metaphor, but why it would indicate that something is easy is still a mystery. Maybe, because after you’ve eaten that bread, no one can take it back? So maybe it makes an ounce more sense than its English counterpart. Maybe not.

When it comes to all the words together making no sense, though, we come to an English expression like “cold turkey.” If you didn’t know what it meant, you might assume it refers to a really lousy Thanksgiving dinner. However, what it really refers to is quitting a habit instantly — for example, quitting smoking by just stopping. And yes, the habit is usually something addictive, like smoking, drugs, or alcohol. There’s no clear source for the phrase, although it may have come from come from an alteration of the phrase “to talk turkey,” meaning to speak honestly and plainly, modified with “cold” as in “cold, hard facts” — to deliver something without emotion.

Another fun expression that is more British than American English is “taking the piss,” a short version of “taking the piss out of.” You could be forgiven if you thought this referred to urologist’s daily routine, and don’t confuse it with “taking a piss,” which is somehow both literal and backwards at the same time. I mean, really — doesn’t one “leave a piss” rather than take it?

This expression has nothing at all to do with urine. Rather, it means basically mocking someone or joking at their expense, although how this came to mean that is still unclear. It may have come from Cockney rhyming slang, and the fact that it’s popular in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland, but not in Canada attest to this, although one really wild and unfounded theory refers to the use of urine to tan leather — take this one with a big fat grain of salt. One other possible etymology links it in to another slang term, piss proud, which relates to that quaint phenomenon most men are familiar with called morning wood.

Now back to the top and an interesting idiomatic expression from Spanish in which each word makes sense but all of them together don’t add up to the idiomatic meaning: de par en par. Literally, it’s “of pair in pair.” I’ll give you a moment to take a wild guess as to its actual meaning.

This paragraph provided as a think break before the spoiler. Here’s a really weird idiomatic expression from Swedish: “Att glida in på en räkmacka.” Literally, it means to slide in on a shrimp sandwich. What it really refers to is somebody who didn’t have to work to get to where they are. An American version might be “born on third base” or “born with a silver spoon in their mouth.” Okay, enough of a break. Any ideas on what “de par en par” means?

Okay, here we go. For some reason that I haven’t yet been able to determine, it means “wide open.” And you can put all kinds of open things in front of it: “una puerta de par en par,” a wide open door; “con brazos de par en par,” with open arms; “un corazón de par en par,” an open heart, and so on. (Interestingly, negating the expression by changing it to “sin par en par” does not mean “shut.” Rather, it means unparalleled. Weird, eh?)

If anybody does happen to know why this expression means what it does, please share in the comments. For that matter, if you know the whys of any of the English slang phrases I’ve mentioned, do likewise.

The French shooter

Sometimes, the differences in word origins between two languages is very telling. For example, what we call “a sniper” in English is referred to in other languages, particularly Spanish, Danish, and Swiss, as a “French shooter.” In Spanish, this is quite literal: un francotirador, with the “franco” part quite obviously meaning French, attached to the word “tirador,” which means shooter, derived from the verb “tirar,” to throw, the implication being that a shooter “throws” bullets.

So how did we wind up with such different and unrelated words between the continent and the British Isles? Simple: War and hunting.

Basically, French soldiers were very good at shooting things from very far away, and wound up using these skills to help other countries. Perhaps the earliest example comes from the Northern Seven Years’ War between Denmark and Sweden from 1563 to 1570, although interestingly enough they each had two words for it: friskytte/friskytt or snaphane/snaphan. Although neither is in the modern form of the language, the connections to “French shooter” and “sniper” should be obvious.

Francotirador landed in Spanish via the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, during which the Prussians referred to the French soldiers picking them off from a distance as franc-tireurs and, other than the spelling and punctuation, it should be pretty obvious that this is pretty much the same thing as “French shooter.” From there, and especially in modern times, this old term has come to be used in Spanish-language media to refer to any kind of sniper.

And, as for the word snipe, it comes from Old English of the 13th or 14th century, and originally referred to people who were good at shooting down snipes, which were very fast-moving birds. And the word snipe itself comes from Old Norse — thank you Vikings! — meaning that the connection to the Danish and Swedish words is pretty much explicit.

All of this just puts a highlight on one unfortunate aspect of human history and linguistics: so many of the old words we still use can ultimately be traced back to war or hunting. Although, for some reason, the English language has also borrowed “French” as a descriptor for a lot of things, most of them involving sex: you’ve probably heard “French kiss” and “French tickler,” but there’s also “French letter” which, once upon a time, was a euphemism for condom, and “French postcards,” which were the kind of porn your great grandfathers used to look at.

You want French fries with that?