Last time on Word Routes, we looked at a spelling error that's common enough to show up frequently in edited text: using acclimation when you mean acclamation. That's a case of battling homophones: the two words sound the same, but they have different meanings. The problem crops up with other sound-alikes, such as imminent vs. immanent, compliment vs. complement, principle vs. principal, and of course affect vs. effect. (We talked about that last pair recently in our interview with Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.) These mix-ups are particularly insidious because your spellchecker won't bail you out — unless, perhaps, you are using a contextual spellchecker like the one that has been developed for Microsoft Office.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist and lexicographer who loves collecting fanciful words, old and new. His book Yada, Yada, Doh! entertainingly chronicles words and phrases that made the leap from television to everyday speech, and his blog Wordlustitude celebrates bizarre online coinages like trouserwad, dumbitudinous, and toaster whisperer. Mark also collects euphemisms, those circumlocutions we use to soften the harsh realities of life. We asked Mark to tell us about some of the more intriguing under-the-radar euphemisms he's come across. Continue reading...

Yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was acclamation, a timely word now that the Democratic National Convention has begun. Of course, the news out of Denver is that Barack Obama will not be nominated by acclamation ("a voting method in which shouts or applause, rather than ballots, determine the winner"). Instead, there will be a state-by-state roll call for the nomination on Wednesday night, with some votes going to Obama's erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton, followed by some sort of a unanimous consent for Obama after the first ballot. Columnists Dick Morris and Eileen McGann wrote last week that Obama should have "blocked a roll call by allowing a voice vote to nominate by acclimation." Whoops! Continue reading...

Welcome to Mailbag Friday, where we answer your burning questions about the origins of words and phrases. Ivete L. of New York, NY asks: "You can be overwhelmed, and I suppose you can even be underwhelmed. But why can't you be just plain whelmed?"

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Yesterday the always entertaining "Editorial Emergency!" team of Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner contributed a column on the misuse of the word literally. I keep tabs on people's pet peeves about English usage, and this is certainly one of the most widespread complaints currently in circulation. There's even a blog entirely devoted to "tracking abuse" of literally. I agree with Simon and Julia that using literally as an intensifier can often "strain credulity" when it's emphasizing a figurative expression like "a handful of Jewish members." But allow me to play devil's advocate for the much-maligned hyperbolic extension of literally. Like many usage bugaboos, it gets a bad rap while other similar perpetrators get off scot-free. Continue reading...
In parts one and two of our interview with Oxford English Dictionary editor at large Jesse Sheidlower, we talked about how the the OED is being transformed by new electronic research methods and the creation of a continually updated online edition. In our final installment, Jesse explains how OED editors are taking a fresh approach to revisions for the dictionary's Third Edition, focusing on particularly interesting entries from across the alphabet. Continue reading...
It's happened again: Los Angeles Times readers are up in arms over vocabulary. Last time it was a contretemps over a letter to the editor complaining about tough words like, um, contretemps. This time it's commenters on the LA Times movie blog, "The Big Picture," who are slamming a post about the title of a forthcoming movie, Synecdoche, New York. Continue reading...
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