Category Archives: Language

Who is the Fat Lady, and Why is It Over When She Sings?


Charlie K. asks: Where did the expression “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” come from? You might think the expression, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” derives from some stereotypical “fat lady” singing to close out operas. In particular, some have theorized that the expression in question derives from the last part of Richard Wagner’s […]

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Almost Everyone Pronounces “Ye” as in “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” Incorrectly


Today I found out the “ye” as in “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” should be pronounced “the”. The “Ye” here is not the “ye” as in “Judge not, that ye (you) be not judged”, but is rather a remnant of the letter “thorn” or “þorn” (Þ, þ). The letter thorn was used in Old Norse, Old English-Middle English, Gothic, and Icelandic […]

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Why Do Many Countries’ Names End in “-stan,” and Home Country Designations Often End with “–an” as in “American”?


Chris G. asks: Why are there so many countries that have a name that ends in stan? I was also wondering why we call people from many countries the name of their country ended with an, like Canada and Canadian? Denoting that it is a piece of the earth associated with a particular group of people, the suffix -stan simply […]

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Has a Major English Dictionary Ever Spelled An Entry Name Incorrectly?


Jon A. asks: Has there ever been an example of a word being spelled incorrectly in the dictionary and did that then become the new accepted spelling? Despite my sincerest efforts, I could find no documented instance of a misspelled entry name (the word being defined) ever found in a widely circulated, non-user generated English dictionary. (I’m still skeptical it’s […]

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Did English Speakers Really Not Use Contractions in the 19th Century as Depicted in True Grit?


Karl A. asks: In the movie True Grit, they don’t use contractions. Is it true that people back then didn’t use them? Won’t, don’t, wouldn’t, isn’t and even ain’t- where would we be without our contractions? Prevalent in spoken English and increasingly accepted in written pieces, contractions enable brevity and make written works more accessible and friendly. Contractions in some […]

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Elvis Has Left the Building


The year was 1954. A 19-year-old singer named Elvis Presley was just starting out, often singing on the then famous Louisiana Hayride radio program. He was a young, good-looking singer, but mostly minus the wriggling, shaking, and sneering that were to naturally develop over time. But it didn’t take long before teenage girls began to take notice of the budding […]

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The Rare Language of Boontling


At the turn of the 20th century in the isolated little town of Boonville, California, local residents became so enamored with creating and using their unique slang that they essentially developed an entire language. Called Boontling after the town, due to the way the language was formed, it is relatively incomprehensible to all except the initiated. About 50 miles southeast […]

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The Vandals and Vandalism


The English word vandalism derives from the French word, vandalisme, and was first seen in print in 1794 when the Bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire, included the term in a report of the mayhem, and in particular the destruction of art, that occurred during the French Revolution. Vandalism itself was a modification of vandal, a word that in English dates […]

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How ‘Gay’ Came to Mean ‘Homosexual’


Today I found out how ‘gay’ came to mean ‘homosexual’. The word “gay” seems to have its origins around the 12th century in England, derived from the Old French word ‘gai’, which in turn was probably derived from a Germanic word, though that isn’t completely known. The word’s original meaning meant something to the effect of “joyful”, “carefree”, “full of […]

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Dollars to Doughnuts


Kerrey23 asks: Where did the expression “dollars to donuts” come from? The word “doughnut” is American in origin and traces its roots to the early 19th century. It is presumed to have been a combination of the words dough and nut. It first appeared in print in Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York Sometimes the table was graced […]

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