Slam dunk

In basketball, a slam dunk is what happens when a player holding the basketball leaps into the air and forces the ball downward through the net. Among all types of scoring shots in basketball, the slam dunk is the only one that is virtually unmissable (barring some rare blunder). From this derives the metaphorical sense of slam dunk---that is, a maneuver or plan certain to succeed. The original term for a slam dunk is dunk shot. Slam dunk was coined by LA Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick … [Read more...]

Careen vs. career

One definition of career is to move at full speed, especially with an uncontrolled or unsteady motion. Careen used to mean (1) to turn (a ship) on its side for cleaning or repairs, and (2) to lurch or sway, especially when in motion. But in modern usage, careen has come to mean to move fast, especially in an uncontrolled way, making it synonymous with career. Searching the web, we find much opposition to this change, and the supposed misuse of careen seems to peeve many people. But it’s a … [Read more...]

Make hay

The expression make hay has a few definitions. First, it’s short for the proverb make hay while the sun shines. Hay is difficult to prepare in wet weather, so the proverb points to the wisdom of taking advantage of opportunities while they’re available. Second, make hay means to turn [something] to one’s advantage. This newer sense derives from the first one, perhaps originally out of confusion over the meaning of the metaphor, and it involves making hay out of something specified. In the … [Read more...]

Plateaus vs. plateaux

Though plateau comes from French, the word has been in English for several centuries, and it is now an English word when English speakers use it, so we are free to pluralize it in the English manner---making plateaus. The French plural, plateaux isn’t incorrect, and some people like it, but its use is unnecessary in contexts where the word’s French origins are unimportant. The matter is especially well settled in American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English, where plateaux appears … [Read more...]


A brouhaha is a fuss or a commotion, especially one over something of exaggerated importance.1 The word came to English from French in the late 19th century, and it is used throughout the English-speaking world. The earliest known instance of the word in English is from the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1891 book Over the Teacups: "Yes," he answered, modestly, "I enjoy the brouhaha, if you choose to consider it such, of all this quarrelsome menagerie of noise-making machines, brought … [Read more...]

Fulfil vs. fulfill

Fulfill is the American spelling of the verb meaning to accomplish or to satisfy. Fulfil is the preferred spelling outside North America. Both forms are common in Canadian writing. The spelling preferences extend to fulfilment and fulfillment, but not to fulfilled, fulfilling, and fulfiller, which have two l’s everywhere. Examples U.S. The question is, how do we fulfill that vision? [Wall Street Journal] But he was forced to battle his insurance company of more than 50 years when it … [Read more...]

Bête noire

In English, the French loanword bête noire refers to someone or something that is very troubling to someone.1 It might be something that is insufferable or contemptible, an endless source of torment, or just a pet peeve. A bête noire is almost always spoken of in relation to the person or thing it torments. So while it is a bête noire makes sense, you’re more likely to hear it is my bête noire. Bête noire is French for black beast. We’re including the French circumflex over the first e, but … [Read more...]

Wither vs. whither

Wither is a verb meaning (1) to shrivel or (2) to cause to shrivel. It’s often used metaphorically, especially in the participial adjective withering, which means devastating or overwhelming. It’s also used in the phrasal verb wither away, which is more emphatic than wither, connoting death or disappearance. Whither is an adverb and conjunction meaning to what place. Though the word has an archaic ring, it’s often used in phrases such as Whither capitalism? and Whither the Hippocratic Oath?, … [Read more...]

Cacti vs. cactuses

Cacti is the Latin plural of cactus, and some writers use it in English. Cactuses is the English plural. Dictionaries list both, and neither is right or wrong. Also, like many names of plants, the uninflected cactus is sometimes treated as plural. The prevalence of the Latin cacti can be attributed to the influence of Latin on biological nomenclature. These Latin plurals are not considered out of place in botany and other scientific fields, and some make their way into broader usage, but … [Read more...]


Hoosegow, a Western U.S. slang term meaning prison, comes from the Spanish juzgado, a word for court or tribunal. The OED lists one early instance of the phrase from 1911, and historical Google News searches show that the word was widespread by the ‘20s. An ngram graphing occurrence of the word in the 20th century suggests it had peaked by midcentury. Today, writers still use hoosegow for its old-timey, colloquial ring, and it tends to appear in fiction and as a quirky affectation in other … [Read more...]

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