Here in New York City, the phrases next-to-last and second-to-last appear to be used synonymously.  That is, I seem to hear “second-to-lastinstead of “next-to-last“.  That’s not what I learned, growing up in Virginia.  To my understanding, next-to-last and second-to-last mean different things:  in the sequence, “A, B, C, D”, the last item is D, the next-to-last is C, and the second-to-last (or second-from-last) is B.  In other words, C is one item away from the last, and B is two items away (i.e., the second item) from last.

I can see a certain logic in the other usage:  Counting from the last item, D is first, and C is second.  But that doesn’t seem idiomatic to me.  Obviously, however, it is in New York City.  Does it vary regionally?  A quick search of the Internet shows both usages, but doesn’t indicate any basis for the variation.  What do you think, Dear Reader?





Christian Science Monitor,
Corey Fedde, “US Justice Department loses patience with Ferguson City Council”, 11 February 2016:

Members of the Ferguson City Council have said that financial obstacles prevent them from accepting the Department of Justices’ suggested reforms whole-cloth.

The sub-headline of this story contains a strange use of the metaphor “whole cloth”, one that I have not encountered before.

We’re all familiar with the expression, “made up out of whole cloth” (with many variants), meaning, “entirely fabricated, without any basis in fact”.  The metaphor it contains is dead—nobody who hears it thinks of its literal meaning, or even knows for sure what its literal meaning ever was—and probably has been dead for generations.

There is plenty of speculation out there about its original meaning, having to do with the idea that a suit “made of whole cloth” was made of material cut from a single bolt, not pieced together from scraps and remainders, and therefore was of superior quality.  One can imagine an analogy between facts compiled into a story, and scraps stitched together into a suit; though why an inferior sort of suit should suggest a superior sort of story (or vice-versa) is not clear to me.  In a 1998 “On Language” column in the New York Times, William Safire pretty much confesses that he has no idea where the expression comes from or how it got its present, unfavorable, meaning.

I suspect that at one time the phrase “made from whole cloth” was widely familiar with reference to garments, and that some wit applied it to a story he deemed utterly false, without really reflecting on the precise reference of the metaphor; and, the image being vivid and amusing, it just caught on.  (Nobody really knows the literal meaning of “by the skin of my teeth,” either, but it’s a great expression nonetheless.)

At any rate, the writer for the Christian Science Monitor is thinking of none of this when she or he writes of accepting reforms “whole-cloth”.  Here, the phrase seems to mean,  “as a whole”.  The phrase itself is a noun phrase in the form, adjective + noun; but the hyphen linking the two words makes them a unit, which functions as an adverb, modifying the verb (or gerund), accepting.  I’ve tried to think of an analogous expression, but I don’t think I’ve succeeded.

The nearest I can come is backhand, as in, “A sore elbow prevented him from hitting the ball backhand,” backhand, of course, being two words stuck together, but maybe not adjective + noun.  (What part of speech is back, in that expression?)  Another possibility is whole-hog, as in, “She attacked her new task whole-hog;” but I’m not sure that’s really idiomatic.  Help me out, Dear Reader.

At any rate, can this new use of whole-cloth represent a new life-in-death for the old metaphor?  Let’s just hope it’s only a chance solecism by some sleep-deprived copy editor in Boston, who really knew better.


Wired Magazine,
Brian Barrett, “New Bill Aims to Stop State-Level Decryption Before It Starts”, 10 February 2016:

If ENCRYPT does pass, it will alleviate concerns over the logistical nightmare that state-sponsored anti-encryption laws would create.

Mr. Barrett means, “State anti-encryption laws”.  He’s talking about laws adopted by States, not sponsored by them (which would imply that they were proposed by States for adoption by some other authority, such as the federal Congress).  The excessively common expression, “state-sponsored terrorism”, has leaked, in Mr. Barrett’s consciousness, and is sticking to the concept, state.

It’s a bit ironic, by the way, that “state-sponsored terrorism” should have become such a popular phrase.  (Just search the Web for the phrase “state-sponsored”, and you’ll see just how popular.)  Terrorism has always been a tool of statecraft.  In its modern form, it was invented by the state—specifically, the French state—and it remains a favorite resource of states for keeping the rabble in line.  One might almost as well talk about “state-sponsored taxation”, or “state-sponsored diplomacy”, except that, of course, there is also quite a bit of non-state-sponsored terrorism about these days.

And a quibble:

This post has been slightly edited to clarify comments from Andrew Crocker

We all use to edit this way, but let’s reflect:  to edit means to prepare for publication.  Ultimately (through mysterious channels) the word derives from Latin editus, past participle of edo ,“to give out, put forth, bring forth”.  I’m quite willing to believe that any publication these days has been “slightly edited”, if, indeed, it’s been edited at all; but I think the word our editor wants here is revised.





How often, nowadays, one hears a question answered with “Absolutely!” when all the speaker really means is, “Yes.”

Absolutely means, without qualification or limit, fundamentally, to every extent, and in every degree. How many things that we might affirm are absolutely true?  I suggest, almost none.

People who say, “Absolutely,” when they mean, “Yes,” apparently want to add emphasis or intensity to their agreement with the proposition they’re affirming; but absolutely doesn’t mean “Emphatically so!” or “Very much so!”  It’s not merely an intensive version of yes.

Here is another example of word-inflation:  the use of a dramatic word where only a plain one is called for.  And absolutely will doubtless suffer the impact effect:  its commonplace sense as a mere affirmation will supplant its more useful and interesting sense.

As the man said,

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

How the English are Ruining Our Language



Part of what will probably be a very long series.

On the BBC World Service Newshour this morning, a reporter interviewed a Turkish official about the condition of Syrian refugees in Turkey.  “Are they being cared?” he asked.

I had already seen the recent British monstrosity, “carer”, which has apparently replaced the almost-as-silly “caregiver” in Blighty; but one could still imagine that a “carer” would care about or for somebody—refugees, or disabled people, or the elderly, or what have you.  One didn’t expect to hear that he or she just cared them.

Of course, this is consistent with modern British treatment of the formerly-intransitive verb, agree.  I fully expect to learn, any day now, that Britishers can belong one another, that they reply one another’s e-mail, that British children depend their parents, that BBC reporters inquire Turkish officials.  Who needs prepositions, anyway?




These days, we usually hear the word concerted as part of the phrase, concerted effort, and it seems to be used generally to mean intensive, or vigorous.  Properly (or, at any rate, historically, for all you anti-prescriptionists out there), concerted means done in concert; co-operative; mutually contrived, undertaken, or performed.

American labor law preserves this meaning in the phrase, concerted action, meaning common action by workers for their mutual benefit or protection.  In order for a worker to be protected (supposedly) against reprisal by the employer, his or her action must be concerted:  it must be performed in concert with other workers, not by one worker alone.

Of course, in concert these days most often means, in “live” performance (as opposed to being recorded in the studio), so that we get stand-up comedians performing “in concert” by themselves.

I won’t go so far as to say that it’s wrong to use concert (or, for that matter, concerted) that way; but I do say that it’s best to keep words comfortably close to their historical meanings.  Language evolves, and all that; but in an age in which millions of paid praters generate verbiage for hire, and innovation is valued for its own sake, the accelerated metamorphosis of the language may take on the character of metastasis, and become a thing to be resisted.  (When that’s the case and when it’s not is a topic for another day.)

As things stand, concerted is in danger of becoming what I’ll call an eke-wordi.e., a word like eke, which has lost all contact with its historical meaning.  Eke, once upon a time, meant to augment, to supplement.  The phrase, to eke out a living, meant to supplement one’s income by some collateral activity, as in,

The poor curate eked out a living with a monthly column on gardening in the local newspaper.

In other words, the curate made a living—from being a curate—and he supplemented that—he eked it out—with what he received for writing for the paper.

Today, however, almost nobody uses eke to mean augment.  (By the way, eke and the aug- in augment both probably come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, aug-, meaning, to increase.  Compare German auch, Dutch ook, both meaning also.)  These days, eke means something like to squeezeto extract with difficulty, as in, “Carolina eked out a win over U.Va.”  Maybe it’s because eke sounds like squeak, I don’t know.

What I do know is that eke is never going back to meaning supplement in ordinary speech:  it’s almost completely detached from its historical meaning, and only language nerds like me even remember what its historical meaning was.  Concerted seems to be headed the same way, but maybe there’s time to save it.  Anybody want to save it?

Modern Memos


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E-mail message circulated at a big New York law firm recently:

Good morning –
Tonight we are hosting a semi-annual morale event for the paralegals.  The event will take place from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm and is a great way for the firm to show its appreciation to the paralegals for all of their hard work.
As such, please do your best to relieve your paralegals from their overtime projects this evening.  .  .  .
Thank you.

(Emphasis supplied.)

Three observations:

1.  A nice party for the staff, it seems, is now a morale event.  Could HR possibly get more impersonal?

2.  The writer seems to think that <as such> means something to the effect of, “that being the case”.

Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary defines <such> as an adjective meaning,

1 a : of a kind or character to be indicated or suggested <a bag such as a doctor carries>
b : having a quality to a degree to be indicated <his excitement was such that he shouted>
2 : of the character, quality, or extent previously indicated or implied <in the past few years many such women have shifted to full-time jobs>
3 : of so extreme a degree or quality <never heard such a hubbub>
4 : of the same class, type, or sort <other such clinics throughout the state>
5 : not specified [e.g., I gather, <got it from such and such a person>];

and as a pronoun meaning,

1 : such a person or thing
2 : someone or something stated, implied, or exemplified <such was the result>
3 : someone or something similar : similar persons or things <tin and glass and such>.

In connection with which it gives this helpful illustration:

as such
: intrinsically considered : in itself <as such the gift was worth little>

3.  Doesn’t it seem a bit presumptuous to put a request and thanks in the same memo?  The writer doesn’t even say, “Thank you in advance,” as a way of expressing confidence that the recipient will cheerfully comply with the request.  The fact, though, is that Americans have reduced “Thank you” in this context to a meaningless cordiality like “Yours truly”.  The writer isn’t thanking anybody at all:  he’s merely signing off in a manner that vaguely indicates good will towards the reader.