I didn’t catch that: Idiomatic speech

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“He’s all washed up.”

“That’s straight from the horse’s mouth.”

At least two of those statements are always idiomatic in nature. That is, their meaning is not readily understood by the words composing them. Cats and dogs are not falling from the sky. Horses don’t speak human speech, and nothing I care much about comes directly from a horse’s mouth. (Horse saliva? Thanks, I got mine already.)

But what about “He’s all washed up” as an idiom? He could be ready to eat, and has washed his hands and face prior to coming to the table; he’s all washed up. There, it’s more of a regional speech than an idiom. The words mean (almost) what they look like they’d mean.

Now, what if he’s been given a task to complete on pain of losing his position in something (the workplace, a sports team, the HOA landscaping committee), and he’s failed to do so? We could say “he’s all washed up,” meaning “he failed,” “he’s done for” (an idiom in itself), “he’s finished” (ditto, especially if he’s washed up because he didn’t finish!).

And “I didn’t catch that” means “I didn’t hear you,” usually. Nothing’s been literally thrown, so it can’t be literally caught.

G-string, but g-force

In the category of “things editors need to fact-check,” today we have “G-string.”

First, a bit of culture. Please enjoy this video of “Air on the G-string” by J. S. Bach, played on original instruments. I suspect that means “on instruments originally specified by the composer” as opposed to “instruments the original composer used in his own lifetime,” but I could be wrong. It happens.

When we write about strippers (see why I shared some classical culture first?), we probably write about what they wear. Those little bits of fabric that keep the dancers just on the proper side of the law (except where total nudity is legal, that is) are called “G-strings” with a capital G. According to Chambers, the original spelling was “gee-string” (1878), but by 1891 it had changed to “G-string.” It’s very possible that the term’s related to the string of a violin tuned to G. They’re both about the same width. ::cough:: I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point. Or the picture. Whatever. Also according to Chambers, the first recorded use of the term to refer to something a stripper wears dates to 1936, in Big Money by John Dos Passos.

By comparison, “g-force” is styled with a lower-case g because that’s how gravity is referenced in physics equations. It’s not an arbitrary editorial decision. We need to be aware of why terms are styled the way they are.

And now, I have to get back to this project with the G-string. Something about a demon dancer in a strip club. No Bach, I’m sure.

Superannuated Syntax: “Hard by”

“The house sat hard by a small stream.”

It did what? Did it fall from the sky, like Dorothy’s farmhouse, and “sit hard” on someone?

Nothing nearly so exciting, I fear. This phrase means simply “near.” My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles tells me that this usage of “hard” (with “by”) is archaic and dates to 1526. The meaning of “hard” is “close, of time or place,” but the sense of “of time” is no longer used. Continue reading

Definitely indefinite, or “Which article should I use?”

I knew I’d written about this before. Here’s the proof. However, I’ll write about it again because it keeps coming back.

The issue at hand is whether one uses a or an before a given abbreviation. I’m sure that you were drilled on this in school (I sure was) by a teacher who insisted that you use a before a consonant and an before a vowel.

That’s partly correct. Continue reading

“For N o’clock” or “by N o’clock?”

When you have an appointment, do you say you need to be there “for” or “by” the scheduled time?

I have always said “by.” I need to be at the office by nine o’clock.

My husband, however, has always said “for.” He needs to be at the office for eight o’clock.

The first time I heard it, I mentally stopped, stock still. “For?” Surely you mean “by,” right? I didn’t ask, though. I just made a note and kept listening. Sure enough, that’s the phrasing he always uses. He was born in MA and grew up in RI. He’s not British, which this usage would seem to suggest (it’s “exclusively” BrE, according to Algeo’s British or American English?”: A handbook of word and grammar patterns).

I’ll suggest it may be less “exclusive” than his research led him to report. He states “0 iptmw in CIC texts” for AmE. In English (AmE, precisely), that means zero instances per ten million words in the Cambridge International Corpus. I can swear to the existence of three American English native speakers (my husband and his two daughters) who use “for” where I use “by” in this particular construction. Is it a spoken AmE thing, but not a written AmE thing?

I’d love to hear from linguists who have experience with this wording. Is it as “exclusive” as Algeo says? Or are there other AmE speakers (perhaps from New England, or perhaps only in that little bit of MA and RI) who use this? I’m a corn-fed Midwestern gal of Frisian extraction. This British thing . . . I didn’t grow up with this.

Ginger Page? No thanks.

Pursuant to a discussion with Google+ user Fiber Babble about proofreaders and grammar checkers, I looked into Ginger Page, a free grammar and spelling checker (and supposedly much more) that I heard about on Twitter.

What follows is an edited version of a series of posts I made at G+ earlier this morning. You can read the original here. Continue reading

I assure you, insurance will ensure your peace of mind.

I just wrote a quick usage post over on G+ in my “GUMmy Stuff” collection. Rather than reproduce it here, how about a link? Here you go.

You want me to use WHAT?

Substitute or replace?

A few years ago I’d have wondered why this is even a question. At the time (let’s say, ten years ago or thereabouts) I had yet to see them used the way I do now, with what is to me alarming regularity.

I even checked Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd Edition) to see if there was an entry with a language-change index rating. There is not.

Then I pulled out my dog-eared Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (copyright 1989, a full 20 years earlier than Garner’s 3rd), and lo. An entry. At the time I purchased this book, I had never encountered the usage discussed.

And I should probably tell you what that usage is, shouldn’t I. I get so discombobulated when I see it, I have trouble being clear. It makes me verklempt, I tell you. Continue reading

Superannuated Syntax: For Such Fell Purpose

“Fell” needs to be resurrected in the adjectival sense, for my money. It’s a wonderful word used in that manner. I’ll wager you know the phrase “one fell swoop,” meaning “a swift and deadly stroke” (and if you don’t know it, you can read about it here). Unsurprisingly, that phrase comes from Shakespeare. Macbeth, actually. But I digress. Continue reading

Superannuated Syntax: Bradford, Edwards, and Holmes

What do those three men have in common?

One is fictional. Two were ministers. The phrase “There but for the grace of God goes [name]” is associated with all three.

“But for the grace of God”? What does “but for” mean in that phrase? I’ll wager you’ve heard it often, and perhaps even said it, but what does it mean? Continue reading