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Achilles’ heel

In ancient Greek literature (most notably in Homer's Iliad), Achilles is a powerful warrior whose only weak spot is his heel. This is the origin of the modern phrase Achilles' heel, which refers to the lone point of vulnerability in an otherwise powerful or self-assured person or thing. The heel in the expression belongs to Achilles, so Achilles is possessive. We usually make ancient names ending in s possessive by adding only an apostrophe (instead of adding 's). And Achilles is of course a … [Read more...]

Corollary vs. correlation

In modern English, a corollary is an obvious deduction, a natural consequence, or a proposition that follows with little or no proof from one already proven. The word usually takes the preposition to, though of and from also work. A correlation is a complementary or parallel relationship between two things, not necessarily involving causation or a direct relationship. It usually takes the preposition between. So a corollary involves one thing springing from another, while a correlation involves … [Read more...]

‘L’, L, el (Chicago trains)

The official abbreviated name of the Chicago elevated train system is the 'L'---two single quotation marks around a capital L. By official we mean that this is how the Chicago Transit Authority writes it in all official public documents. In Chicago news publications, it is variously written 'L', "L", and L but never El, and this is generally the case in other publications writing about the Chicago trains. Though there are other cities with elevated trains, Chicago is the only city where the … [Read more...]

Afterward vs. afterwards

There is no difference between afterward and afterwards. Neither is more correct or incorrect than the other, and both appear throughout the English-speaking world. North American writers tend to favor afterward, while English speakers from outside the U.S. and Canada tend to favor afterwards. But this is not a rule, and exceptions are easily found. Every word ending in the directional suffix -ward has a parallel -wards form,1 and afterward and afterwards are just one of many of these … [Read more...]

Gesundheit

Gesundheit is an interjection used to wish good health to someone who has just sneezed. It comes from German, where it means, literally, health, and in German it is used as the equivalent of the English God bless you or bless you. It came to English around the start of the 20th century via German and Jewish communities in the United States.1 It was common in the U.S. by the 1920s and has stayed fairly common there,2 but it remains rare elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Examples My … [Read more...]

Funner, funnest

Some English traditionalists claim that the only correct comparative form of the adjective fun is more fun, that the only superlative is most fun, and that funner and funnest are only appropriate in the most informal contexts. This rule might once have been justifiable, but today it is obsolete, and it lives on only because not enough people have dared break it. This is beginning to change, as the one-word forms have gained ground in recent decades and have even worked their way into edited … [Read more...]

Faze vs. phase

As a verb, phase means to plan or carry out systematically. It's usually followed by in or out. For example, when you implement a plan little by little, you phase it in. When you abandon a plan little by little, you phase it out. Faze means to disrupt the composure of. If you are not bothered by something, you are unfazed. Etymology Faze derives from the now-obsolete feeze,1 which had several meanings, including (1) to drive away, and (2) to frighten.2 The word developed from this source in … [Read more...]

Balmy vs. barmy

Balmy is an adjective describing something, especially weather, that is mild and pleasant. It relates to balm in the sense a healing ointment. Something that is balmy is thought to be healing. The word also bears the sense weak-minded or idiotic, but in this sense it usually gives way to barmy, the original form. Barmy is fairly common in the U.K. and elsewhere outside North America, but it's rare in the U.S. and Canada. Balmy everywhere is usually used in the mild and pleasant … [Read more...]

Authorise vs. authorize

For the verb meaning to grant authority or to give permission, authorize is the standard spelling in American and Canadian English. Authorise is standard in all main varieties of English outside North America. The distinction extends to all derivative words. North Americans use authorized, authorizing, authorizes, and authorization, while English speakers from outside the U.S. and Canada use authorised, authorising, authorises, and authorisation. Authorize is the older form, and it was … [Read more...]

Canard

Canard is French for duck, but even in French it has another rare sense: an extravagant or absurd story used to take advantage of someone. This is the meaning canard takes in English, and it's sometimes extended to mean, simply, an unfounded or false story or a groundless rumor. In political writing, it is often used to summarily dismiss a widely held view that the writer considers false (see the examples below). This sense of canard comes from a mysterious French phrase translating to "to … [Read more...]

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