Olive branch

To extend an olive branch is to make an offer of peace or to approach a foe in the spirit of conciliation. The idiom is Biblical in origin, deriving from the story of Noah, where a dove delivers Noah an olive branch as a sign that the floods are receding. But while this is the source of modern usage of the term, olive branches were symbolic of peace (as well as victory) in pre-Biblical Greece and Rome. The ancient origins of the symbolism are unknown. Examples Mattel issued its statement late … [Read more...]

Burgle vs. burglarize

In American English, the verb burgle, meaning to rob, is regarded as a humorous backformation from burglar, and burglarize is the preferred term in serious contexts. In British English, it's the other way around. Burgle is a legitimate verb, used even in sober news reports, and burglarize (or burglarise, as it would probably be spelled if it were an accepted word in British English) is virtually nonexistent in serious contexts. Some Britons view burglarize as an American barbarism. Irish, … [Read more...]

Knit vs. knitted

The verb knit is traditionally uninflected in the past tense and as a past participle. Knitted is now well accepted, though; it appears about as often as the uninflected form in 21st-century texts from throughout the English-speaking world.  Knitted is safest as a participial adjective (e.g., a knitted scarf), but it also works as a verb (e.g., she knitted all morning). Knit also works in these uses (e.g., a knit scarf, she knit all morning), but it's falling out of favor. Examples Knit A … [Read more...]

Envelop vs. envelope

Envelop is a verb. Envelope is a noun. Both words come from the Old French envoluper, but they came to English separately and have never been interchangeable. Even so, due to their obvious similarity ,the two words are often used in place of each other. Examples The shimmering zinc scales that envelop it echo the greasy grey skies above and the silver stretch of now quiet water. [Financial Times] Her envelope had hearts where the o's in my name should have been and I tore it open and read … [Read more...]

Midrift (midriff)

Midriff is the standard form of the noun referring to the middle part of the human body, especially the portion between the bust and waist. It comes from Old English, where the prefix mid- meant the same as it does today, and hrif meant belly. Midrift is a misspelling. It is common, but it tends to give way to midriff in edited writing. Example Two-piece styles that cover all but a sliver of your lower midriff are another option. [Wall Street Journal] The corpse of one of Gaddafi's men was … [Read more...]


Derring-do is the standard spelling of the noun meaning daring deeds or heroic daring (used especially in reference to swashbuckling heroes). The phrase originated in a late 14th-century Geoffrey Chaucer poem, and it has taken many forms over the years---including durring don (in Chaucer, literally meaning daring to do), dorryng do, derring doe, and derrynge do. And given the term's meaning and history, it is often understandably spelled daring-do. But as far as most English reference books are … [Read more...]

Cleanup vs. clean up

When you need a term meaning (1) to make clean or orderly, or (2) to make oneself clean, use clean up---two words. In American and Canadian English, the one-word cleanup is a noun referring to (1) a thorough cleaning or (2) the act or process of cleaning. It may also function as an adjective in phrases like cleanup crew and cleanup hitter. British writers typically use the hyphenated form---clean-up---instead. Australian and New Zealand publications are inconsistent on the matter. Example For … [Read more...]

Mediator vs. moderator

A mediator is an impartial person who helps reconcile a dispute between two or more parties. A moderator is someone who presides over a discussion. Some dictionaries list the words as variants of each other in a few senses, but the words are generally confined to their separate uses in edited writing. Both have corresponding verbs---mediate and moderate. To mediate is to help resolve a dispute, and to moderate is to guide a discussion. Examples Germany acted as a mediator between Israel and … [Read more...]

Vice versa

Vice versa, meaning (1) in reverse order from that stated, (2) or conversely, is two words, with no hyphen. The adverbial phrase was introduced to English from Latin roots in the late 16th century, and it has proved useful ever since. Like other established Latinisms, it does not need to be italicized in normal usage. Examples Vice versa indicates that a statement is equally true when its subject and object are switched---for example: America is popular in Australia, and vice versa. [The … [Read more...]

Bloc vs. block

Bloc means a group of nations or people united by common interest. This is its primary definition, but it is occasionally used in a variety of other senses that make it roughly synonymous with group or alliance. The much broader block has a variety of definitions, but a group working together is not one of them. Though the words are different in modern English, they share a common origin in the French bloc. Block came to English many centuries earlier, however, first appearing around the 13th … [Read more...]

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