The Exception Proves the Rule Again


I present a correction for one of the first entries ever on for the derivation of “The exception proves the rule.” I’ll not rehash the error, but give the true etymology as follows.

The confusion comes from the word exception, rather than the word prove as I had it before. Exception can mean ‘something unusual, not following a rule.’ What it means in the case of the phrase is omitting or ignoring. As in, “I’ll make an exception in this case.”

So, if we come across some sign reading, “Closed Sunday”, we can infer the rule, “Open Monday through Saturday.” The exception on Sunday demonstrates, or proves, the rule for every other day exists even though the every day rule isn’t stated.

This derives from a legal maxim established in English law in the early 17th century. Written, as customary then, in Latin: Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis. In English that’s “Exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted.”

So now you really know. We Regret the Error. All the same, you can assume I think the rest of the site is okay. The exception proves the rule.

Filed 11/18/13

What is Eke Without Out?


Another word that seems to only exist in conjunction with another word, or as part of a phrase is eke. Does any­body say eke without adding out? As in, “eke out a living.”

Eke comes from an old verb mean­ing to add, supplement, or grow. The word is pretty much gone except when we eke out a living, victory or what­ever. Which doesn’t so much mean add as barely make it by the skin of your teeth.

Eke does live on elsewhere incog­nito, as it were. Folks in days gone by were sometimes called by something other than their given name, which they called an eke-name, an additional name. Over time the N in the article got switched to the noun. So an eke-name became a neke-name, or as we say today, a nickname.

Filed 11/17/13

Taking Umbrage and Sleight of Hand


Some words seem to only exist as part of a phrase. The word sleight comes up in “sleight of hand” if it comes up at all. What exactly the umbrage is one takes when one “takes umbrage” is something of a mystery. And now… the r-r-rest of the story.

Sleight – Not to be confused with slight (no E), sleight is from Middle English meaning cunning or trickery. As height is to high, sleight is to sly. Thus sleight of hand means slyness of hand. The word slyness has supplanted sleight these days. On the other hand, we haven’t replaced height with highness. Nor does anyone refer to Queen Elizabeth as Her Royal Height.

Another term for sleight of hand is legerdemain, from the French léger de main, literally, “light of hand.” This implies deftness more than trickiness. While light touch smacks of slight touch there’s no connection since slight of hand is nothing but a mis­spelling.

Umbrage – The Old French ombrage (shade, shadow) was once used to talk about actual shade from the sun. The word took on various figurative mean­ings about doubt and suspicion. Think of “a shadow of a doubt.” It also had figurative meanings of giving and taking offense. Think of how some comment might cast a shadow on someone’s character.

These days people are rarely said to give umbrage, but folks often take umbrage. Maybe folks seem to be more easily offended now-a-days, they take umbrage at the slightest slight. In which case Her Royal Height might say, “We are not amused.”

Filed 11/12/13

Why Authors Wright Plays Instead of Writing Them


Some words aren’t spelled as we might expect because the derivation isn’t what we might expect. Here’s a couple:


The strait in straitjacket doesn’t come from meaning something flat without curves or bends. Strait, no GH, is an old word nobody uses any more meaning tight, snug, restricting. So a straitjacket is a tight, restricting jacket, and not an flat, non-curved jacket.

This explains the spelling of “on the strait and narrow,” and straitlaced. As is why a narrow waterway between two larger bodies of water is called a strait and not a straight. A strait doesn’t have to be straight.

A screenwriter writes for the screen, movies or TV. The spelling reflects that, screen + writer. However it’s not a playwriter, or even a playwrite, but a playwright, play + wright with a GH and no E at the end. What gives?

Wright has nothing to do with write. Wright means builder or maker. As in boatwright, a boat builder; cartwright a cart maker; wainwright, a wagon maker. So a playwright is a play builder or maker. That’s right, a playwright both wrights and writes a play. Still, a lot of what happens on stage isn’t written but is done by the director and actors. Though within the framework built by the playwright.

To add a little confusion, we have copywriter and copyright which are two different things altogether, though related. You can copyright a play, but you can’t playright it. Past tense of copyright is copyrighted, not copy­written. So get it straight, alright?

Filed 10/25/13

Who Needs a Ghostwriter?


“Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.”
— Christopher Hitchens

“I don’t think anyone should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.”  — Samuel Goldwyn (maybe)

And on a slightly related note…

“The news racket ought to be, and was, a trade of honest drunks…. Now reporters are New Age, prissy, and censorious. The men wear lingerie and the women don’t know what it is. You can just tell that if you left them in a fern bar, they would nest, talk about multiculturalism, and lay eggs.” 
— Fred Reed

Filed 9/12/13

Where Wend Went


As you wend your way through the English language you’ll run across many an irregular verb. Some of them very irregular. But we don’t think about it much because they’re usually very common words and we’re used to them. Still, in many cases you can spot how they have the same root. For instance: write, wrote, written. On the other hand, “be” might be the most irregular verb of all: be, am, is, are, was, were, been. Hard to see a linguistic connection there.

None of this is news to you, I’m sure. Just a way to get to go. That is: go, goes, gone, went. One can easily see the connection among the first three which all start with g-o. Then we come to went. Huh? Where’d that come from? That’s what I’m here to answer.

Old English speakers had two words for go. Go, of course, and wend. We still use go all the time, but wend turns up rarely. And usually with a way added. Just like in the first sentence of this bit, “As you wend your way through the English language…”

Back in the day the past tense of “go” was “gaed”. The past tense of “wend” was “went”. Some time around the 15th century “go” became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where “went” replaced “gaed”, leaving us with the cross-bred irregular verb we use today.

Now-a-days wend is used to mean wander more than simply go. Plus, the past tense of wend isn’t went any more. On the rare times it’s used, people now employ wended. But they invariably add the way. As in, “I wended my way through the article and I decided I’d had enough.” I guess that means it’s time to wend.

Filed 7/18/13

Phrases from the Grand Old Game


Pop quiz. What sport do the following two phrases come from?

For keeps
Knuckle down

Why, from the grand old sport of… marbles? Okay, maybe marbles ain’t exactly a sport, but it certainly is old. We’re talking a couple thousand years old at least. Marbles have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.

If you’ve ever played marbles you understand the meaning of for keeps, or play for keeps or for keepsies. Which means, as the phrase suggests, you get to keep whatever marbles you won during the game. It’s gambling for kids, the high stakes of marbles. Outside marbles, for keeps means getting serious, it counts, for real, no backsies. When a contest is winner-take-all you’re playing for all the marbles.


Knuckle down is a lot easier to explain with a picture than with verbiage. Look at the proper hand position for shooting marbles. The marble is cradled on the curled under index finger behind the thumb ready to be flicked. The knuckles are down. So when a player is bearing down for a shot they knuckle down.

Still, why are marbles called marbles when they’re made of glass? That’s another story.

Filed 4/25/13

Talking Horse Sense


Most folks don’t deal with horses all that much these days. Still, many sayings related to horses remain in the language. Hold your horses, the cart before the horse, horse of a different color, you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink. These make intuitive sense even now. Then there’s some that are, well, weird. See a man about a horse.

I want to explore a few old horse sayings. Two weird ones, and two that might not seem to be about horses but are.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Straight from the horse’s mouth
Long in the tooth
Dead ringer

So we might ask, how does long in the tooth mean old. As we’re on horse sayings, you might guess older horses have longer teeth. Or rather their teeth look longer. What actually happens is their gums recede with age exposing more of the tooth. Hence, long in the tooth.

If you’ve put two and two together you might now imagine why someone would look a horse in the mouth. To tell how old it is. Looking a gift horse in the mouth is akin to asking what a gift cost. Kind-of rude. In any event, beggars can’t be choosers. Or maybe, since we’re talking about teeth, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Dead ringer goes back to American horse racing at the end of the 19th century. A ringer was a horse raced under the name of a look-alike horse to cheat the betting odds. Dead in this case means exact. As in dead center, dead on, dead even. So a dead ringer is an exact or extremely close look-alike.

Straight from the horse’s mouth also comes from racing. Bettors love inside tips on races. What source is more inside than the horse itself? Straight from the horse’s mouth is a joking way to say you have inside information without revealing the actual source. “A little birdie told me, nod, nod, wink, wink.” And a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

With all this talk about horses and mouths, we finish up with a talking horse, Mr. Ed. Did you know Mr. Ed had a stand-in stable mate? A look-alike named Pumpkin. Yep, a dead ringer for Mr. Ed.

Filed 4/6/13

Joss Paper –Money to Burn


What’s the difference between fiat money, counterfeit money, Monopoly money, and Joss paper? Well, I’m assuming you know what the first three are. But what is Joss paper, you might ask. In some cultures people send money to dead relatives in the after­world, not by Western Union but by burning it. They cremate the money, as it were. How they direct who in the afterlife gets this money, I couldn’t say.

As you can imagine burning money has a big drawback. Which is, of course, you’re burning money. So folks came up with a workaround, they burn fake money, money that looks similar to real money but isn’t. This is called Joss paper. This way a person can buy a million dollars worth of money to send to the afterworld for about ten dollars. This solves the drawback mentioned earlier.

Apparently dead people can’t tell real money from fake money. Or at least living people think so or they wouldn’t be burning Joss paper. Though come to think of it, once it’s burned up to ashes it’s hard to tell real money from fake money in the here and now. Maybe that explains it.

You might know the US Treasury replaces old worn-out, beat-up, grungy dollars with crisp new dollars. When they do, they burn the old bills. One wonders who gets all that money. Does it go to an afterworld central bank? Maybe Yoram Bauman knows. He knows all about…

Hyperinflation in Hell

Filed 2/27/13

Okie Dokie


“Everybody with half a brain is coming to California”

—Governor Jerry Brown

Well, where are the people with whole brains going? And did the half-brained folks really intend to go to California? Just asking. Of course, the gov is not the only person in govern­ment to say something unintentionally funny. Take Michael O’Hanlon on the nomination of Porter Goss as director of the CIA:

“He’s the right man for the job. We just don’t know what the job is.”

Filed 2/16/13

Here There Ain’t no Repetitious Redundancies Repeated Here


Extra Additional Word Text

  1. pooled together
  2. merged together
  3. grouped together
  4. unfilled vacancy
  5. absolutely necessary
  6. freezing cold
  7. pair of twins
  8. future plans
  9. surrounded on all sides

Numbers one through three are all kind-of the same and so could be pooled, merged, or grouped togeth… I won’t say it.

Necessary is absolute in and of itself. It’s like being dead or alive. You can’t be sort-of dead where absolutely dead is different than just plain dead. On the other hand there is the idiomatic expression of being half dead. But that’s not absolutely necessarily to be taken literally.

Any plan is for the future, you can’t plan the past. And you can’t plan the present because then it’s not a plan it’s what’s happening. According to plan or not. Then again, if you plan to make plans maybe that would be future plans.

Filed 2/1/13

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