Meta

As a prefix, meta- has several traditional meanings, including after, along with, beyond, and among. Those are its Greek senses, anyway. In postmodern philosophy and literary criticism, meta, as both a prefix and a standalone adjective, often means about itself. For example, metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, a meta-emotion is a feeling about a feeling, and a book about its own writing or a film about its own making could be described as meta. This last, adjectival use of the word … [Read more...]

Coliseum vs. colosseum

colosseum-coliseum-british-english-1908-2008

Coliseum and colosseum are both common spellings of the word referring to (1) the famous Roman amphitheater built in the first century A.D., and (2) any large amphitheater used for sports or other public events. Neither spelling is considered wrong in either use, but while the forms are often used interchangeably, the famous structure in Rome is now usually spelled Colosseum, and coliseum is generally reserved for other uses. Exceptions are easily found, however, and there is no consensus … [Read more...]

Off the cuff

Something that is off the cuff is unplanned or done on the spur of the moment. The phrase usually relates to impromptu speech, but it can also relate to anything else that is improvised or done on short notice. The phrase usually functions adverbially, in which case it does not need to be hyphenated. But when it's an adjective preceding the noun it modifies (e.g., off-the-cuff remarks), it is hyphenated (according to the conventions for phrasal adjectives). The first example listed in the … [Read more...]

Beggar belief

In British English, beggar is a verb meaning (1) to exceed the limits of, or (2) to impoverish. The first sense is what's meant in the verb phrase beggar belief, which is used to describe something that exceeds the limits of belief. The less common beggar description indicates that something is difficult to put into words. This sense of beggar does appear outside British English, though not very often. In American English, beggar is almost exclusively a noun (meaning, of course, someone who … [Read more...]

Disc vs. disk

There is no consensus on the difference between disc and disk, and in many contexts the two are used interchangeably. Disk is the standard spelling for computer-related terms such as hard disk and floppy disk. Disc is the standard spelling for phonograph records, albums (in the figurative sense---a group of songs presented in sequence), and components of plows and brake systems. But both spellings are commonly used for (1) CDs, DVDs, and other compact optical disks; (2) flat, plate-like bones; … [Read more...]

Gobsmacked

Gobsmacked, a British colloquialism, means (1) surprised, (2) dumbfounded, or (3) awestruck. In parts of Britain, gob is slang for mouth, and to be gobsmacked (one word) is to be figuratively smacked in the mouth---that is, struck dumb by something. Although gobsmacked takes the form of a participial adjective, there is no commonly used corresponding verb. Gobsmacked is most common in British and Australian speech and writing. It appears occasionally in Canadian and U.S. publications, but it … [Read more...]

Empathetic vs. empathic

empathetic-empathic-english-1900-2000

Empathic is usually just a variant of empathetic, which means characterized by empathy. Some dictionaries, especially American ones, list empathic as the standard word and empathetic as the variant, but while the shorter word is indeed the original, empathetic has prevailed---probably due to analogy with sympathetic, with which it is often closely associated---and is now about five times as common as empathic in newswriting, blogs, and mainstream books from throughout the English-speaking … [Read more...]

Divers vs. diverse

The archaic adjective divers means various or many. Diverse means having great variety. For instance, a group of three can be called diverse if all three elements differ from one another, but we wouldn't call the group divers because three are not many. Still, divers (usually pronounced DIE-verz) has given way to diverse in the sense meaning various, and in the many sense it gives way to other synonyms. The word has not been widely used in over a century, and even in the 19th century it was … [Read more...]

Hairbrained vs. harebrained

Hares are known for their jumpiness, and they're also not the smartest creatures on Earth. This is how we get the adjective harebrained, which refers to these perceived qualities of the hare and usually means flighty, reckless, or badly thought out. Some writers hyphenate it---hare-brained---but the one-word form is noted in dictionaries, for what that's worth, and is more common. Most authorities on these things regard hairbrained as a misspelling. It has been a common one for centuries, … [Read more...]

Heighth

Heighth is a colloquial variant of height formed by analogy with similar measurement terms such as length, breadth, width, and depth, which end in th. Heighth might be considered incorrect in formal writing, and no dictionaries that we know of list it as a living word. Its use is a common peeve among people who consider themselves careful users of English. But those who are peeved by heighth should go easier on it. It is not just a new colloquialism. It was in fact the Old and Middle English … [Read more...]

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