In the phrasal adjective star-crossed, cross carries the relatively rare sense to betray or thwart, and star refers to the astrological belief that stars guide people's destinies. So star-crossed means opposed by fate or destined to misfortune. The phrase apparently comes from a line in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life. As far as we know, there are no recorded instances of star-crossed from before … [Read more...]

Caliber vs. calibre

Caliber and calibre are different spellings of the same word, referring to (1) the internal diameter of a gun, or (2), figuratively, the quality or capacity of a person or thing. Caliber is the preferred spelling in the U.S., and calibre is standard in all other main varieties of English. The word came to English in the 16th century from the French calibre.1 Caliber, though now mainly American, predates the United States and was a common variant even in British writing until the modern … [Read more...]

Home in vs. hone in

Home in means to direct on a target. The phrasal verb derives from the 19th-century use of homing pigeons, but it resurged in the 20th century to refer to missiles that home in on their targets. It's also commonly used metaphorically, where to home in on something is to focus on and make progress toward it. Hone in began as an alteration of home in, and many people regard it as an error. It is a very common, though, especially in the U.S. and Canada---so common that many dictionaries now list … [Read more...]

Frankenstein’s monster

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Doctor Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that turns against him. The monster itself is never named. It's described variously as "it," "monster," "fiend," and so on. So, strictly speaking, Frankenstein denotes the creator of the monster, and the monster itself should be called Frankenstein's monster, Frankenstein monster, or some equivalent. But the use of Frankenstein for the monster has been so common for so long that it is now rarely … [Read more...]

Chili vs. chilly

Chili is (1) a hot pepper, and (2) (short for chili con carne) a Mexican stew usually made with beans and meat and often containing the pepper. Chilly is an adjective meaning cool enough to cause chill. … [Read more...]

Wintery vs wintry

In modern English, wintry is the preferred spelling of the adjective meaning of, like, or relating to winter. Wintery has a long history in English, but it has never been the preferred form, and it has no meanings of its own. In 21st-century books, it appears once for approximately every 20 instances of wintry. It is a little more common on the web and in newswriting, though still much rarer than wintry. There is no evidence that wintery is becoming more common, but the spelling does … [Read more...]

Hurdle vs. hurtle

To hurtle is (1) to move with great speed, or (2) to fling with great force. The second definition makes it a synonym of hurl. Hurtle is never a noun. To hurdle is to leap over something or to overcome an obstacle. As a noun, hurdle refers to the barriers that hurdlers and horses leap in races. The noun is also used metaphorically to refer to any obstacle one must overcome. These homophones are easy to confuse because both words are somewhat rare yet broadly useful. Plus, it doesn't help … [Read more...]

Different from, different than, different to

Short answer: Different to and different than are perfectly fine, but some people consider them wrong, so different from is the safest choice. Some careful English speakers consider different to and different than problematic. The argument is that things differ from each other, and they don't differ to or differ than each other, so different from is the only logical construction. But there are problems with the arguments against different to and different than, and the old prejudice … [Read more...]

Breastfeeding, breastfed, breastfeed, etc.

Breastfeed, breastfed, breastfeeding, etc. are sometimes spelled as two words (breast feed, etc.) or hyphenated (breast-feed, etc.), but they are increasingly spelled as one, unhyphenated word, especially outside the U.S. Some publications will continue to resist the trend (new compounds always face resistance for a while), but the one-word forms will likely prevail in the long run. Exactly how new are the one-word forms? According to the ngram below, which graphs the use of breastfeeding, … [Read more...]

Pale in comparison

To pale in comparison is to look weak, small, meager, or inferior compared to something else. Pale here takes the little-used sense to become smaller. It's the same pale used in the common phrase (less common in the U.S.) pale into insignificance, whose meaning is obvious. Unlike pale, which has many definitions, pail is mostly confined to one primary sense---i.e., a bucket. The word doesn't function as a verb, so there is no context in which pail in comparison might make sense. This … [Read more...]

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