Coral vs. corral

Coral refers to (1) rocklike organic deposits occurring in warm-water seas and sometimes accumulating into large reefs, and (2) the marine animals whose secretions produce the reefs. Corral is (1) a noun referring to an enclosure for confining livestock, and (2) a verb with several meanings, including to hold in a corral and to take control of. Examples Coral reefs are on course to become the first ecosystem that human activity will eliminate entirely from the Earth. [Canberra Times] A pack … [Read more...]

Sneaked vs. snuck

Sneaked is the traditional past tense and past participle of sneak. Snuck is new, originating in the U.S. in the early 20th century, but it has become remarkably common across all main English varieties. People seem to like it, and it appears in even the most editorially scrupulous publications, so at this stage there is no basis for saying snuck is incorrect. It's just new. English has many irregular verb forms, and adding one more won't cause harm.  In American news publications, sneaked is … [Read more...]


The portmanteau bankster---a fusion of banker and gangster, from which we can infer the definition---has been growing in prevalence since the late-2000s financial crisis began, and it's received a boost from the recent demonstrations against financial-industry abuses. A Google News archive search uncovers a few scattered instances of bankster going back to the 1930s, but the word never gained widespread use until late 2008. Since then it's only grown, albeit mostly in internet comment sections … [Read more...]


In a recent BBC article, Matthew Engel decried the noun ouster as one of many "ugly and pointless" Americanisms infecting British English. While it's true that ouster has been especially common in American publications over the last few years, the word is actually several centuries old and British in origin. For the sense of ouster meaning ejection or dispossession, the Oxford English Dictionary lists British examples from more than two centuries before the United States was founded. And for … [Read more...]


The adjective eponymous traditionally describes someone for whom something, especially a work of art, is named. So, for example, the novel Jane Eyre's eponymous character is Jane Eyre, and the eponymous hero of the film Spartacus is Spartacus. In recent usage, however, the word is more often used to describe the work that is named after someone. For example, we might describe the album titled The Beatles as the Beatles' eponymous album. Neither sense is more right or wrong. The older sense is … [Read more...]

Counselor vs. counsellor

Counselor is the American spelling of the noun referring to (1) a person who gives counsel, (2) an attorney, and (3) a person who supervises young people at a youth camp. Counsellor is the preferred spelling everywhere outside the U.S. Similar distinctions apply to related words such as counseled/counselled and counseling/counselling; the single-l spellings are used in American English, and the double-l spellings are preferred outside the U.S. Examples American publications use the single-l … [Read more...]


Epicenter (or epicentre, as it's spelled outside the U.S.) originally referred to the point of the earth's surface above the center of an earthquake. Extending from this definition, the word has also come to refer to the center of any negative or dangerous event. This newer sense of epicenter is useful, as there are few alternatives that carry the same meaning. Related Ground zero But the word is perhaps overextended when writers do away with the negative connotations and use epicenter … [Read more...]


Lowlife---(1) a noun referring to a coarse or no-good person, and (2) an adjective meaning coarse or disreputable---has been in English for over two centuries. A few dictionaries still list the hyphenated low-life as the primary spelling, and as of late 2011, lowlife and low-life are neck and neck in current news publications. But the word will likely follow the trajectory of most English compounds and completely lose the hyphen sooner or later. With or without a hyphen, lowlife is usually … [Read more...]

Math vs. maths

Math and maths are equally acceptable abbreviations of mathematics. The only difference is that math is preferred in the U.S. and Canada, and maths is preferred in the U.K., Australia, and most other English-speaking areas of the world. Neither abbreviation is correct or incorrect. You may hear arguments for one being superior to the other, and there are logical cases for both sides. One could argue maths is better because mathematics ends in s, and one could argue math is better because … [Read more...]


In its traditional sense, momentarily means for a moment, so momentarily would be synonymous with briefly, not with soon. But the word is often used to mean in a moment---synonymous with soon or shortly. This newer sense of momentarily is often derided by protectors of traditional English, but it is well established, especially in North America. Even there, however, the word is still usually used in its older sense. Examples It's scary when a speeding puck strikes your neck, momentarily making … [Read more...]

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