Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler were an English sister and brother who prepared and published an 1807 edition of Shakespeare's works that was meant to be appropriate for women and children and for families to read together. To accomplish this, they removed or changed many words, phrases, and passages they believed to be racy or offensive. This is the origin of the verb bowdlerize, which means to remove elements considered offensive (from a literary work or other work of art). Bowdlerization is … [Read more...]

Inexplicable vs. unexplainable

Inexplicable and unexplainable are mostly interchangeable---both describe things that can't be explained---and using one in place of the other is never a serious error. They have differentiated slightly in modern use, though. Inexplicable tends to describe things that are seemingly without logic, especially human actions, feelings, and creations, but also other things that one can't explain in rational terms. Unexplainable tends to describe nonhuman things, especially natural and supernatural … [Read more...]

Pecking order

In groups of hens there is a hierarchical social system in which each bird is ranked in order of dominance. The top bird is permitted to peck all lower birds, while the second highest bird is allowed to peck all the birds below her, and so on. Almost immediately after this phenomenon was documented in the 1920s (first by Norwegian zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe), the phrase pecking order entered the English lexicon as a metaphor for any such hierarchical system. In business, for … [Read more...]

Conches vs. conchs

There are two ways to pronounce the noun conch---which refers to a variety of sea mollusks and their large shells---and how you pronounce it determines its plural. The more common pronunciation is with a hard k sound at the end, so that the word rhymes with honk. For this pronunciation, the plural is conchs. The other pronunciation is with a ch sound at the end, so that it rhymes with launch (in U.S. pronunciation, at least). The plural for this pronunciation is conches. The word exists in … [Read more...]

Gofer vs. gopher

Gophers are several species of burrowing rodents native to North America. A gofer is an employee who performs menial tasks and runs errands. Gofer is a new word, having arisen in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, and it derives from the phrase go for, as in go for coffee or go for lunch. Gofers are people who go for things. The word was sometimes spelled gopher in early use, but gofer is now standard. Examples From spring to autumn a gopher makes short vertical holes, crops … [Read more...]

Sword of Damocles

In Classical legend, Damocles is an attendant to the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse. When Damocles comments that Dionysius must be very happy to hold so much power, Dionysius offers to switch places with him. When Damocles accepts, Dionysius arranges to have a sword suspended by a hair over the throne so that Damocles might experience the constant sense of danger powerful people must endure. Damocles, who had initially enjoyed the magnificence of the role, finds he cannot be happy with that … [Read more...]

Pet vs. petted

The verb pet is usually inflected petted in the past tense and as a past participle. This has been the case for as long as the word has been a verb (about 500 years). The uninflected form (e.g., he pet the cat) is fairly common in informal contexts, especially in the U.S., but it usually gives way to petted in edited writing. Pet is gaining ground, though, and there is some precedent for it in the uninflected verbs let, set, and bet, so it may someday gain broader acceptance. For now, petted … [Read more...]

Cut to the chase

To cut to the chase is to get to point or to skip to the important part of something without wasting time on boring or unimportant details. In writing, people often use the phrase as a way to get to the point quickly or to prepare readers for a bold statement. It occasionally appears as a hyphenated phrasal adjective---e.g., a cut-to-the-chase speaking style---meaning direct and to the point. The prevailing theory about the expression's origin is that it comes from film, where to cut to the … [Read more...]

Misinformed vs. uninformed

Something that is misinformed is based on bad information. Something that is uninformed is based on no information or inadequate information. For example, a webpage on the difference between misinformed and uninformed would be uninformed if it were based on no research or experience, and it would be misinformed if it were based on research drawn from misleading or speculative commentary. The words are often extended to describe people. A misinformed person is one who has bad information, and … [Read more...]

Appal vs. appall

For the verb meaning, primarily, to dismay or shock, appal is the standard spelling outside North America. Appall is standard in the U.S. and Canada. This has been the case since the late 1800s, though the old double-l variant---which was the prevalent form everywhere until around 1800---had long been gaining ground. Appal continued to appear often through much of the 20th century but has almost completely disappeared over the last few decades. Outside North America, meanwhile, the spelling with … [Read more...]

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