Retch vs. wretch

A wretch is an unhappy or unfortunate person, especially one in the depths of misery of some sort. The word has several senses extending from this one; it sometimes refers to a person who is despicable or contemptible but not necessarily unfortunate, and it's sometimes used for animals. It's also the source of the adjective wretched, meaning miserable, unfortunate, or (describing nonhuman things) very bad. To retch is (1) to vomit; (2) to try, voluntarily or involuntarily, to vomit; or (3) … [Read more...]

Murderers’ row

Murderers' Row (Murderers' is originally plural and possessive) was coined in 1918 to describe an especially intimidating section of the New York Yankees' batting lineup, and it was reprised in the late 1920s to describe the lineup that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Today, murderers' row is sometimes used for any exceptionally intimidating group of people or things. When the phrase refers to the classic Yankees' team, the M and R are usually capitalized. Elsewhere, they are uncapitalized … [Read more...]

Barbecue vs. barbeque

In today's English, barbecue is the usual spelling of the word with several senses related to the cooking of food over open fire. It's the spelling that tends to appear in edited writing, and it's the one that dictionaries note first, for what that's worth (and some don't note any other spellings). Barbeque is a secondary spelling that appears especially often in the names of restaurants and products. It has steadily gained ground over the last few decades, but it is still far less common than … [Read more...]

Litmus test

Litmus is a substance, made of lichen-based dyes, that is absorbed in paper and used to test acidity. Blue litmus turns red when exposed to acidic materials, and red litmus turns blue when exposed to nonacidic materials. This is the origin of litmus test in its figurative sense---i.e., a test that draws broad conclusions based on a single factor. By extension, it also refers to a single factor that is useful for drawing a broad conclusion.  For instance, if experience shows that you get along … [Read more...]

Phial vs. vial (vs. vile)

Phial and vial are different forms of what is essentially the same word, referring to a small container for holding liquids. Both came to English in the 14th century from the same source---the French fiole, which in turn has roots in Latin---and both have appeared regularly ever since.1 Some people differentiate them in various ways---for instance, that phials are larger than vials, or that vials are for medical liquids and phials for other things---but these are not consistently borne out in … [Read more...]


To eighty-six something is to cancel it, reject it, or prevent it from coming to fruition, and to eighty-six a person is to eject them, especially from a business premises, or to remove them from a role. For example, a picnic might be eighty-sixed because of rain, an injured player might be eighty-sixed from tomorrow's game, and a misbehaving child might have her TV time eighty-sixed. Meanwhile, the verb still appears in its two older senses, which come from mid-20th-century restaurant lingo: … [Read more...]

Sank vs. sunk

 Sank is the past tense (e.g., the ship sank to the bottom of the sea). Sunk is the past participle, so it's used in the perfect tenses (e.g., the ship has sunk to the bottom of the sea) and as an adjective (the sunk ship is at the bottom of the sea). … [Read more...]

Timpanum, timpani, tympanum, tympani

People familiar with music terms use timpanum for a single kettledrum, and timpani (the Latin plural of timpanum) for multiple drums. For all senses of the word unrelated to music (mainly in biology, zoology, and architecture), tympanum and tympani are the preferred spellings. Anyone not comfortable with these Latin-derived terms might understandably use English plural forms instead of the traditional Latin ones. Timpani, for instance, often appears in reference to a single drum, but … [Read more...]

Depository vs. repository

In its oldest English sense, dating from the 15th century,1 a repository is a place where things are stored, usually for safe keeping. Depository, which entered English a couple of centuries later,2 bears the same meaning (though, considered etymologically, a depository is a place where things are deposited, whereas a repository is one where things rest), and indeed both words are widely used to refer to places where things are stored. In uses outside that general sense, though, there are … [Read more...]


Nimrod was an ancient Babylonian king known in part for his tyrannical rule and for his skill and might as a hunter. From this we can deduce the traditional definitions of the word nimrod: (1) a tyrannical ruler, and (2) a skilled hunter. In late-20th-century American usage, however, the word gained a newer, much different sense: a bumbling or stupid person. The exact origins of this newer nimrod have not been definitely established. It's been suggested that it developed from earlier, ironic … [Read more...]

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