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Bottoms Up from the Top Down


I was astonished to learn today that “Pilsner” is not a brand of beer, but a category. First I thought, what on Earth does “Pilsner” mean? Then I thought, wait, do I really know what “ale” or “lager” means, either? Help me out, Language Nerd. Where do our beer words come from? Henry B. *** […]

Poisoning Patients (On Purpose)


Hey, Biology Nerd! I’ve heard that a lot of medicines that doctors give people are actually poisons. Why is my doctor trying to kill me? –Sybil C. *** I wouldn’t go so far as to say that doctors are “trying” to kill you, Sybil. Killing off clients wouldn’t be very beneficial to our business model, […]

All Abuzz


You people got a word for two-dollar words that suddenly appear everywhere, like a fad? Want to coin one? And does anybody track these things? Delphine Sultzer *** Sure. We’ve got several words, actually. But most of them have to do with how a new word is formed, rather than that sense that the word […]

The Heartbeat Goes On


How is the rhythm of heart contractions maintained? Aretha *** Aretha, such a wonderful question! The heart’s rhythm is so important to life.  The heart has four chambers which pump blood along two completely different pathways, and they need to work together.  If the different chambers pump out of unison (called dysrhythmia), then they won’t […]

The Conundra Conundrum


What is the plural of conundrum? Conundra or conundrums? Phil *** Dear Phil, So first we are going to talk about loanword integration. Then we’ll hit up Latin in particular. And then, then, there will be a SHOCKING TWIST ENDING. Everybody ready? Let’s roll. The English language is chock-a-block with loanwords, which might as well […]

Catch(y) as Catch(y) Can

Catch(y) as Catch(y) Can

Do we use “catchy” for anything other than “tunes”? Me *** Dear You, Not often.  “Catchy” used to have a wider meaning, for anything that caught or stuck in the mind. Songs, sure, but also regular prose words, like all those clever quotes that get misattributed to Oscar Wilde. Or even tricky questions, since they […]

How Drugs Get Their Names


Hey Language Nerd, I’ve been seeing a commercial lately for a toenail-fungus remover called, in all seriousness, “Jublia.” WTF? “Jublia”?? How do medicines get these ridiculous names? JRN *** Dear JRN, I’m guessing they went with “Jublia” in hopes that their customers would make the cognitive leap to “jubilant” and “jubilee.” Because nothing brings out […]

Silent (But Deadly) E

Silent (But Deadly) E

Our son Anthony is in First grade and has spelling tests on Fridays from his weekly list. I’m mostly a musician but love to help him with his spelling by telling him the history of the letter K for example. Our question is this: Why do we not pronounce all the written syllables in the […]

Everything You Know About Grammar is Bullsh%^t, Part 2


Last post I mostly just groused about how little grammar most people know. Today, in an attempt at a more useful follow-up, I’ll go over the basic categories of words in English, which you may have learned as the “parts of speech.” I’m drawing from and drastically simplifying Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum’s A Student’s […]

Everything You Know About Grammar is BullSh%$t, Part 1

Everything You Know About Grammar is BullSh%$t, Part 1

Everybody knows that a noun’s a person, place, or thing. But in a sentence like “That the man was overwhelmed was obvious,” is “man” the subject? Or is the whole phrase “that the man was obvious” one big noun? MLP *** Dear Mulp, You are mixing two things here: subjects and nouns. Noun is a […]

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