Issue 200, page 4

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From Bruce Boettcher:

Just discovered this site today and hope to visit it often.  I haven't researched this deeply, but I would respectfully question your use of usages. Am I correct that the English language has slowly been converting -age words from collective nouns to objective ones? We now use garage, message and package as individual objects. Weren't they originally collections or distributions of gar (covering, as in garment), mess (things sent, as in missive and mission) and packs?

I suppose the change is inevitable, but when I hear of fruitages rather than fruits and usages rather than uses, something stirs uncomfortably inside. If farmers put hay in two barns, do they have forages or do two passenger ships have steerages? I may be wrong, but I think not.

This observer would like to see a slowing of the trend. Who agrees or disagrees? I am eager to hear more.

First, let us suggest that any readers who would like to discuss this further consider going to and posting your comments to the new Take Our Word For It blog.  You'll see our (TOWFI staff's) entries, including an entry regarding this issue of the webzine (Issue 200).  Any discussion regarding this issue, including regarding this particular letter, can be posted there.  Of course, you may also write us via e-mail and see if we post your reply in next issue's Sez You column.  In the future you may access the blog from the table of contents in our home page.

Now to Bruce Boettcher's letter.  The word usage as a noun dates back to the 14th century, and our sense is recorded in the late 17th century.  The plural form dates from 1473.  We do agree that one should be careful in using the plural form, however.

Fruitages dates from the 17th century.  So the practice has been around for a while.  As for other -age endings, especially the ones you cite (garage, message), the ending was attached in French or other Romance languages, not English. Package is the exception and was formed in English from pack + -age, though it dates from the 16th century. Garage and message were never collective nouns, per se.  Garages and messages have always been correct.  Package, on the other hand, was originally the name of a privilege of the City of London, and in that sense it was not pluralized, but when the word came to refer to the items that were the subject of the privilege (packages of cloth and other goods), the plural form arose.  Also, it is not formed from the noun pack but from the verb.

As an aside, the gar- in garment does not come from the same root as the gar- in garage.  But we'll save that discussion for another time.

We're pleased that you enjoy the site!

From Zayd Abdulla:

Some more good news, in case none of the Beeb-watching TOWFI subscribers
have drawn your attention to it, yet:

Yes, do check out the BBC's site about their Word Hunt.  We intend to submit our ideas on a few words.

From Sandy Staat:

I have a thought on the butterfly word... The monarch butterflies need to make their cocoons on the milkweed plant, which is quite abundant in the [American] Midwest. The sap of this plant is a sticky, thick white substance. It is a staple of the Monarch caterpillar's diet. Milk = butter, thus perhaps butterfly?

As tidy as that sounds, it is unfortunately not the source of the insect's name.  The word butterfly has been around since Old English was spoken, but the milkweed is a New World plant, and, as recent genetic research shows, the monarch butterfly evolved in the New World, too and only spread to other parts of the world after the European entry into North America and the spread of milkweed out of the New World.

From Camille (not Kamille):

A problem which afflicts me with more pain than a thousand festering boils is the constant misuse of the letters K, Z, and X. Increasingly, I am seeing K , especially on signs, where there should be a C. One example is the "Konfident Kids" establishment near my neighborhood. Every time I drive by, I mean to look at the sign to see what, exactly, the nature of the work done there is. Every time I drive by, I get so angry about that misplaced K that I don't look at the rest of the sign. I'm pretty sure that it is some pediatric practice, as there is a large stethoscope around the words "Konfident Kids." Don't you think that if one can't spell confident correctly, there is no way that you could get into medical school? There are many other examples I could give, and the connection between them is that they are all supposed to be rather "cutesy" things for the kiddies, or are denoting that your "krab" is imitation. I foresee that in the near future K will replace C entirely, and the poor people named Kharles or Kheryl will have to explain that the odd pronunciation of their name is rather like the sound in the pedantic, old-school way spelling of whikh.

As we move on to the next letter of interest, Z, I would like to point out that this is most often misused either in teenager's e-mail or in a product that is supposed to look "kool," such as Kidz Bop.(Notice the lack of apostrophe as well.) This usage probably arose from the pronunciation of the pluralizing S in many words. It also looks, to me, incredibly incredibly ugly. S is one of the most elegant-looking letters in the English language. If the participants in this butchery of plurals were involved in some kind of radical phonetic spelling reform I would not mind, but I fear, alas, that they are not.

Another example of this mangled pluralization error is X in the place of -ks, -kes, -cs, etc. I almost understand this error; it makes sense in the twisted way that the misused Z does. It is still inexcusable. I cringe every time I see it. I correct the perpetrator of this spelling crime every chance I get. Still it persists!

Mike and Melanie, thank you for creating Take Our Word For It, which is a truly brilliant magazine. I enjoy reading the Words to the Wise section, the ever-humorous Laughing stock, and most especially, the Curmudgeons' Corner.

Well, in the "Konfident Kids" example, clearly the idea is to provide some visual alliteration, though that doesn't make it any cuter.  We agree that this is an overused advertising device.  The Z and X usages are also annoying, we agree, but we can only hope they are both simply fads, much like purposefully misspelling words was a fad in the mid-19th century.

From Bill Clark:

I am distressed that people are adding able to words that heretofore would have been phrased "ability to [do something]," for example, reachable, is that a word? Or is this an example of our language evolving? Doable, do-able?

Well, doable dates from 1449 in the written record, believe it or not!  Reachable turns up in 1633.  As we mentioned in this week's Curmudgeon's Corner, it is human nature to, perhaps on the spur of the moment, create a word using a pattern that exists in other words.  We know that adding -able to the end of the word will create a new word that, though perhaps clumsy, will get our point across more quickly and efficiently than searching for an existing word.  Yes, as curmudgeons we don't always like that, but such is life!

From M. Lamb:

Re: your illustration for a Bazooka at

This is a US Army M79 grenade launcher (first issued in 1961), an anti-personnel weapon generally called a bloop gun or blooper during the war in Vietnam - not the bazooka of WWII and Korean War, which was the slang term for the rocket launcher, M1A1 and its later variants (

Apparently there continues to be some use of bazooka to describe other shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons such as the LAW (Light anti-tank weapon) and various RPGs - as per "Bazooka used in Paris jailbreak" (,11882,912903,00.html)

Thanks for the clarification.  Someone else pointed that out (and his letter is posted in Issue 185) but he did not provide links as you did!

From Lynn Case:

My son has become a vegetarian so I have started to read up on it. I find it really odd that the Vegetarian Society could be so wrong about the origin of the name of the org and you (I don't have time to check out your credentials) could be so right. What gives? 

We don't really have a response to that except that you might be amazed what people and organizations don't know about themselves.  Do you know where your surname comes from?  We know what some of the possibilities are: that it is English and was the name for a box maker or chest maker (from case "container"); that it is Provençal and related to the Spanish/Italian surname Casa "house,"  thought to have applied to those living in the best house in the village (the English surname House is said to have arisen in the same manner*); or that it is the Italian name for a cheese maker or seller.

As for vegetarian, we researched and attempted to find the earliest occurrence of the word and analyze its context.  We found that the word first turns up in 1839 in the U.S. (while the Vegetarian Society was founded in England).  We do not know what the Vegetarian Society did to come up with its explanation of the word's origin, but they clearly did not go back beyond 1847, which is the date they claim they invented the word.  However, we will not argue with the assertion (though not made by you) that the Vegetarian Society popularized the word.

*as in Dr. Gregory House of the U.S. television series House starring English actor Hugh Laurie (he does a superb American accent!).

From Michael Sousa:

A note about one of your articles:

When discussing the history of English, linguists speak of three major periods. Old English is the language of the Anglo-Saxons which was spoken between 600 and 1100. It was entirely Germanic, had inflected endings (like Latin) and had five genders.

English did not have five genders. English did have (and continues to have) three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. I believe that you were thinking of "declensions" rather than "genders."

No we weren't. When we said "genders" we meant "genders". If you would like to investigate Old English in more depth, the University of Calgary offers an excellent course online. If you just want to read up on the five genders (weak feminine, strong feminine, weak masculine, strong masculine and neuter), you could skip to the relevant lesson.


Or read the last issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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Last Updated 01/30/06 07:27 PM