Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.


john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

Wack v. whack, and choosing enthusing

October 15, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ looks briefly at these similar (and sometimes overlapping) words with many meanings in informal usage:

Whack meaning ‘hit’, as a noun and verb, is centuries old but remains informal compared to such synonyms as strike, blow, and knock. It may be onomatopoeic in origin, which is why it’s used as a sound effect in comic books and the old Batman TV show. It also has the related meaning ‘kill’, for example in criminal slang.

Wack emerged more recently as a back-formation from wacky. Initially it was a noun used to refer to a crazy or eccentric person – He’s a real wack – with wacko and whacko emerging as slangy offshoots. This was followed by adjectival wack meaning bad, unfashionable, stupid or of low quality, as in the anti-drugs slogan Crack is wack.

I go on to describe some of the ways the two words are used, and the possible limits of their interchangeability.


Enthusing about freedom of usage considers (and defends) the much-maligned back-formation enthuse:

Lots of words and usages are criticised or considered ‘incorrect’ when really they’re just colloquial, relatively new, or unsuited to formal use. As Michael Rundell wrote recently, ‘what might be inappropriate in a very formal setting may be perfectly acceptable in a conversation between friends’. . . .

What one generation finds ignorant or ridiculous, the next might adopt without fuss. Enthuse retains a semblance of impropriety, and is still frowned on by conservative writers and readers. Others, myself included, may have nothing against it but prefer periphrastic alternatives like ‘show enthusiasm’ or ‘be enthusiastic’.

The post details some of the criticism and commentary enthuse has received, and summarises its status in different varieties of English.

Older posts are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

A prison pun

April 4, 2013

Horatio Bottomley (British politician and co-founder of the Financial Times) was in prison for fraud in the 1920s. On one occasion, so the story goes, he was visited by a chaplain who saw him sewing mailbags and said: “Ah, Bottomley. Sewing, I see.”

To which Bottomley replied, “No, sir. Reaping.”

(Adapted from J. P. Bean, Verbals: The Book of Criminal Quotations, and other sources. For anyone unsure of the pun, it’s a play on sew/sow homophony and the saying “You reap what you sow.”)

A funny kind’ve spelling

January 21, 2013

Earlier this month I wrote about the military acronym strac, which I came across in Robert Crais’s novel L. A. Requiem (1999). Something else I noticed in that book was this curious spelling:

“That was kind’ve goofy, wasn’t it […]?”

Obviously a nonstandard rendition of kind of; I made a note of it and kept reading. Being on a winter binge of detective fiction, I read Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (1995) soon after that and saw the same strange form, this time repeatedly:

“I’m kind’ve freelancing on an old case, Leroy.”

“We just kind’ve sparred around for a few minutes but then I left him something.”

“It’s kind’ve like the more they push one way, the more I push the other.”

“Kind’ve an undercover thing.”

“Well, it was kind’ve like one of those Catch-22 situations.”

So we see its use isn’t limited syntactically: it can modify adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc. – but always in dialogue, at least from the two authors I’ve seen use it so far.

Kind’ve for kind of presumably arises because of the phonetic equivalence of unstressed of and ’ve in speech – the /əv/ sound is misanalysed when put on the page, perhaps deliberately to convey a character’s earthiness or unsophistication. It’s a sort of inverse of the would havewould of variation I wrote about last year (and have since updated with additional literary examples).*

A quick online search shows that kind’ve is not uncommon in informal language. A couple of people at Yahoo! Answers call it an acceptable colloquialism, but the majority don’t. (Another option, kinda, drops the v sound, so it wouldn’t necessarily be an accurate transcription.)

Kind’ve and company are an understandable development, but an unsound one in my view – despite appearing in edited books by well-known writers. My advice is to avoid kind’ve: there are other ways to convey informality, and it’s more likely readers will be confused, annoyed, or distracted by this kind of orthographic meddling.

What do you think?


* Speaking of which, an Urban Dictionary definition says sort’ve is “the new would of!” and notes sarcastically that it “serves to demonstrate that “have” and “of” are now completely interchangeable”.

How to avoid confusing ‘pore’ and ‘pour’

June 5, 2012

The homophones pour and pore are sometimes confused: typically pour replaces pore in some form of the phrase pore over. For readers who notice the error – and many do – it can conjure up surreal images of liquid people flowing over the material at hand.

The mistake is usually limited to casual contexts, but it occasionally slips through into edited prose, such as this Irish Independent story from last week:

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says this mistaken use of pour “seems to be growing more common in less attentively edited publications”. Yet the words are not difficult to distinguish. Here are brief explanations, along with mnemonics – if you need them – to help remember the appropriate spellings.

Pore as a verb is usually followed by over, less often (but increasingly) by through, and sometimes – in the sense ‘to ponder’ – by on. Pore over means to read or study attentively; to scrutinise: you might pore over a text or a map. Think of the re common to pore and read.

Pour normally has to do with flowing or causing to flow: decanting a liquid or granular substance out of a container. You might pour tea from a pot, or sand from a bucket. Notice that the u in pour conveniently resembles a container.

Why people replace pore with pour is unclear to me; maybe the familiar spelling of pour comes more readily to mind, or perhaps pore is thought of only as a noun (referring to small holes in skin, rocks, or plants). But the words are easily kept distinct with the mnemonics I’ve set out above. If you have a different trick, do let me know.


The mistake appears in Steven Bach’s otherwise well-proofread Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate. From my Faber & Faber edition, 1986:

Steven Bach - final cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - pore pour

And in Jenny Diski’s Like Mother, Vintage edition, 1990:

Like Mother - pore pour confused

Keeping ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ discreetly discrete

August 29, 2011

Wordnik’s recent collection of commonly confused words reminded me that it’s been a while since I wrote a post of this sort.* Time for another.

Discreet and discrete are often mixed up. It’s easily done: not only are they homophones with near-identical spelling, they’re also doublets, meaning they diverged from the same original word. In modern English, their spellings and meanings are distinct. Below are mnemonics to help you remember which adjective is which.

Discreet is probably the more familiar word, and is usually used to refer to people, especially their speech, appearance, or behaviour. It means unobtrusive, circumspect and prudent, careful not to attract attention or cause embarrassment, able to keep a secret. Discretion is the noun form. You could think of the adjacent e’s in discreet discreetly sharing a secret: they couldn’t do this with a t in the way.

She promised to be discreet with any sensitive information.
As the meeting began, he yawned discreetly.

Discrete generally means separate, non-continuous, individually distinct; it also has technical usages relating to possible parts or values. Discreteness is the related noun. To remember this spelling, think of the t separating the e’s and keeping them distinct from one another.

A sentence is composed of discrete words.
We divided the work into discrete sections.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has more about the words’ overlapping histories, and shows that they are quite often misspelled even in reputable publications – unless these instances indicate that the words’ spellings are gradually becoming interchangeable again.

But even if that were the case – I’m sceptical – it doesn’t get you off the hook. Careful readers will notice what is, in current usage, a mistake, and may judge your writing accordingly. If you have trouble distinguishing discreet from discrete, use the mnemonics above; or if you have a different trick, do let me know in a comment.
* If you browse my spelling tag, you’ll find (among other things) posts about its and it’s, minuscule, ad nauseam, climatic and climactic, stationary and stationery, peddle and pedal, principal and principle, affect and effect, forego and forgo.

Affect and effect

September 23, 2008

These words are often confused because of their similar pronunciation, because of a slight overlap in meaning, because both words act as verbs and nouns, and for reasons unknown.

Affect is usually a verb, commonly meaning to have an effect on something. This effect can be vague or indirect (Pollution affects everyone), or more immediate and emotional (The documentary affected us strongly). It can also mean to pretend or simulate (For visitors she affected an air of immense job satisfaction), and to wear or do something in an attempt to win admiration (He began to affect a silk cravat and an upper-class accent).

Affect as a noun is a technical term in psychology that basically means emotion. It is pronounced with a stress on the first syllable.

Effect is usually a noun meaning result, influence or consequence (The effects of video gaming on brain function). It can also mean a general impression (The cobwebs added to the spooky effect). It can mean a force or phenomenon in science or economics (Casimir effect, Doppler effect and so on). It can mean something being in force or in operation (The policy will come into effect next year; This medicine takes effect quickly). In the theatrical arts it can mean the smoke and mirrors part of production (inventive special effects), and in the plural it can mean one’s possessions or movable goods, generally in a formal context (Before evacuation they were instructed to gather their personal effects).

Effect as a verb has limited application, but you are likely to come across it occasionally. It means to bring about or to cause to happen, and it is often paired with change (The new board planned to effect significant changes in how the organisation operated). This usage is quite often erroneously encroached upon by affect, so it’s one to watch out for.

Most of these usages are quite familiar, though dictionaries differ over which to include and where definitions overlap. Some reference books include more obscure meanings or idiomatic definitions. The important distinction for most people to remember is that if A affects B, A has an effect on B. This local newspaper got it wrong:

Stan Carey - affect effect

And again:

And again:

galway independent - editorial - effect affect confusion

So did The Guardian:

and the BBC:


and this book on the Alexander Technique, by Sarah Barker:

And this edition of Generation X by Douglas Coupland:

generation x - affected effected

Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston: