Red herring

In its figurative senses, a red herring is either (1) a piece of information meant to mislead investigators, (2) a lead that turns out to be false (not necessarily based on an intentionally misleading piece of information), or (3) something that diverts attention from the main issue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term comes from an old hunting practice involving exercising horses by creating a false trail, literally of red herring, for the hounds and in turn the horses to … [Read more...]

Kick off vs. kickoff (vs. kick-off)

In American and Canadian publications, kickoff is a noun and an adjective, and kick off is its corresponding phrasal verb. For instance, it is one word in "the kickoff time is noon" and "you missed the kickoff" because it is an adjective in the first example and a noun in the second. And it is two words in "the kicker is ready to kick off" because here it functions as a verb. The same distinction applies outside North America, but the noun/adjective is usually hyphenated---kick-off. … [Read more...]

Licorice vs. liquorice

For the distinctively flavored Mediterranean plant, its root, and candies and confections made from the root, licorice is the preferred spelling in the U.S. and Canada. In Ireland and the U.K., liquorice is preferred. Both spellings are common in Australia and New Zealand. Besides the spelling, there is no difference between the words. The word goes back to Middle English (and its immediate roots before entering English were in Anglo-Norman and Old French), and it has taken many spellings … [Read more...]

Raison d’etre

Raison d'etre is French for reason of being. In English, we use it to mean a reason for the existence of a person or thing. In reference to people, it often describes one's driving passion. For example, if you feel the reason you get up in the morning is to work in your garden, then gardening is your raison d'etre. You may sometimes see the circumflex (the pointy-hat accent mark) above the first e---raison d'être. The mark is proper in French, but English isn't kind to these accent marks, … [Read more...]

Whiny, whiney, whinny, Whinney

Whiny is an adjective meaning habitually complaining or of or like a whine. Whiney is the same as whiny, but it appears about a fourth as often (whiny is preferred in all main varieties of English). Whinny is the sound horses make. It's synonymous with neigh. Whinney is (1) a surname, (2) an unusual spelling of the female first name usually spelled Winnie, and (3) part of a few place names (e.g., Whinney Hill, Whinney Banks). Examples Rather than dismiss Gen Y as entitled or whiny … [Read more...]

Gymnasia vs. gymnasiums

Gymnasium is a Latin word (with origins in Greek), and its plural in Latin is gymnasia. But gymnasium is also an English word---one that has been in the language for centuries---and English speakers are allowed to treat it as one. In any case, the issue of gymnasium's plural was settled long ago; gymnasiums outnumbers gymnasia by a ratio of about 100 to one in 21st-century English-language texts that are searchable online. The ratio is roughly consistent throughout the English-speaking world. … [Read more...]

Modus operandi (m.o, MO)

Modus operandi, often abbreviated m.o. or MO, is Latin for way of working. In English, the loanword is usually used to refer to a way in which someone routinely does something, but it can also be used more generally to refer to mode of operation. The word is well established in English---the earliest examples are from the 17th century---so there is no need to italicize it in normal use. Examples The modus operandi, which persists even now, was to buy a company or business mostly with debt … [Read more...]

Hoover vs. vacuum

For the electrical appliance that cleans surfaces through suction, North Americans tend to use vacuum cleaner, or just vacuum, and Britons tend to use hoover. Both words also function as verbs, inflected vacuumed, vacuuming, hoovered, and hoovering. By metaphorical extension, hoover also means to consume completely. It's usually followed by the preposition up. When you are very hungry, for example, you might hoover up your dinner. Vacuum isn't commonly used this way. Hoover also appears … [Read more...]

Object lesson

Dictionaries define an object lesson as something that serves as a real-world example of an abstract idea or principle. The term comes from the educational practice of using a material object to help illustrate the abstract ideas of a lesson. But in actual use, the phrase's definition is often closer to a concrete example of why something should or should not be done a certain way. Below, we'll include a few examples of object lesson used both ways. The term is occasionally rendered abject … [Read more...]

Lasagna vs. lasagne

For the flat, wide pasta and the dish made from such pasta, North American English speakers use lasagna. English speakers from outside North America usually use lasagne. The word comes from Italian, of course. In that language, lasagna is the singular noun and lasagne is the plural, but this does not carry over into the words' treatment in English. Both the plural and the singular forms are usually treated as mass nouns, taking singular verbs. The word first appeared in English in the 19th … [Read more...]

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