Picking nits

Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Illustration by John Tenniel

While that may have worked for Humpty, it didn’t go well for Alice. English is a confusing language, coming from many roots. That makes it a good language for spelling bees and etymologists (not to be confused with entomologists) and not so good for adults learning a second language.

Language becomes more confusing when there are a lot of words with similar sounds but dissimilar meanings, and lots of words with similar meanings but different connotations. Toss in a few idiomatic phrases and we find ourselves repeating what we thought we heard, or trying to impress people but making the opposite impression from what we hoped for.

What follows is a compendium of stuff that, to some, will be like fingernails on a chalkboard. To others, it will be picking nits. (We’ll start there. “Nits” are the eggs of lice. To “pick nits” is to remove these tiny eggs from the hair. It is tedious and time-consuming. To “nitpick” is to criticize excessively. “Nitpicking” is to “picking nits” as “haircombing” is to “combing hair”.)

DavidDennisPhotos.com The New Yorker (cartoon above)

Spoken/written Mondegreens

Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle has made a career, of sorts, chronicling mis-heard song lyrics. They are called “mondegreens” from one of the first noted, a Scottish ballad, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray”. Someone mis-heard the couplet “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray/An’ Laid him on the green” as “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray/And Lady Mondegreen”. You might notice that this totally changes the meaning of the sentence. Either they killed a man and laid his body on the village green, or they killed a man and a woman, which might make us wonder about the relationship between the Earl and the Lady.

In reading a lot, I find that it is not just song lyrics, but English phrases that people mis-hear. They type what they heard without thinking about the meaning. If the formatting works, I have lined out the incorrect usages so as not to confuse further. (“Farther” refers always to distance. “Further” means more. “Furthur” is the name of a bus to take you on a magical mystery tour.)

  • “Next store”, as in “next store neighbor”: which is actually “next door”, as in the person who lives at the next door down the street.
  • “Bicep”, as in “I tore my bicep“: which is actually “biceps” (meaning “two heads” and referring to an arm muscle that has two heads with different attachment points). “Biceps” is not a plural. You have one “biceps” muscle in each arm. For that matter, you have one in each leg as well, which is why they are called “biceps brachii” and “biceps femoris”. We usually call the biceps femoris “hamstring” (which actually refers to multiple muscles).
  • “I could care less”, which actually means I care: what people mean is “I couldn’t care less”, which means I don’t care at all. There is no way I could care less than I do.
  • “Defuse” for “diffuse”, as in “I have many defuse interests”: “Defuse” means to render harmless, as in defusing a bomb. “Diffuse” means spread widely.
    Or the opposite: “He really helped to diffuse the situation” – no, he “defused” the situation by rendering a dangerous situation harmless.
  • “expresso” for “espresso”.
  • “exasperate” (to annoy) for “exacerbate” (to make worse) (one comes from the Latin “asper”-“to roughen”, the other from “acer” – “sharp” or “bitter”.) You may find this entire post exasperating and it may exacerbate your feelings about the blogger.
  • Tow the line”, as in, “you’d better tow the line or you’ll be cruisin’ for a bruisin”: The phrase is “toe the line”, meaning to do what you’re told, as when told to line up with your toes on the line in the military.
  • “Flaunt” as in “I flaunted the law”: The word here is “flout” (to scorn). “Flaunt” is to display ostentatiously.
  • “Flack” for “flak”, as in “I caught flack for what I said in the meeting”: “Flak” is military slang for anti-aircraft fire. “Flack” is a huckster or promoter.
  • “Jive” for “jibe”, as in “That doesn’t jive with what I knew”: This one can be confusing. “Gibe” means “to taunt”, “jibe” means to agree with (but also refers to turning across the wind when sailing downwind – so you have to duck lest you be hit by the boom), “jive” means to talk nonsense or to deceive.
  • “Greatful” for “grateful”, as in “I’m greatful that you’re helping me”: “grateful” is filled with gratitude. “Greatful” is not a word in English. If it were one, it would mean “full of greatness”, but it doesn’t mean that.
  • “Grinds” for “grounds, as in “I put the coffee grinds in the compost bin”: The word here is “grounds”. Adjusting your coffee grinder to a coarse grind setting would produce coarse grounds.
  • “Hair-brained” for “hare-brained”, as in “That was a hair-brained idea”: The term is “hare-brained” meaning “no smarter than a rabbit”.
  • “heal” for “heel”, as in “That was my Achilles’ heal“, or “I taught my dog to heal“: Unless you taught your dog to cure illness, you probably taught it to walk by your heel. If, like Achilles, your mom held you by the back of the foot when she dipped you in the River Styx, your weak spot is your heel.
  • “Hand and glove” for “hand in glove”, as in “They worked together hand in glove”: “Hand in glove” means tightly or well-fitting, “Hand in hand” means as if holding hands; essentially the same thing.
  • Heighth” for “height”: Only one of these is a word in English. (The second one.)
  • “Breaks”, as in, “I applied the breaks so I wouldn’t crash into the tree”: which is actually “brakes”, though if you don’t apply the brakes you might break something.
  • “Hit and miss” for “Hit or miss”, as in “He did it in a hit and miss fashion”: The phrase means haphazardly, without care for the outcome, as though he didn’t care whether he hit (the ball) or missed it.
  • “Humus” for “hummus”: “Humus” is the decayed organic matter that produces rich soil. “Hummus” is a dip made from garbanzo beans. I would not want to dip my pita in humus.
  • “Hypocritical ” for “hypercritical”: The former means pretending to have virtues which one lacks, putting on an act (which is the Greek root). The latter means overly critical, picking nits, finding fault excessively.
  • “Hoi polloi” for “hoity-toity”: The first means “the common people”. People often misuse it as meaning “upper class”, perhaps because it sounds like “hoity-toity”, meaning pretentious.
  • “Happy belated birthday” for “Belated happy birthday”: It isn’t the birthday that is late, it is the wishing of happiness that is late.
  • Hone in” for “home in”: to “hone” is to sharpen. To “home in” is to aim for.
  • “Imply” vs “”infer”: “Imply” is what I do when I hint at something without saying it openly. “Infer” is what I do when I hear you say something and I draw a conclusion that you didn’t state. (Two could have a conversation in which one says, “What are you implying?” and the other says “What did you infer?” Neither has yet revealed their true meaning.)
  • “Incidence” for “incidents”: “Incidence” refers to the rate of occurrence. An “incident” is an occurrence. The plural is “incidents”. One could get really confusing by referring to the incidence of these incidents. The plural of “incidence” is rarely used accurately. When people use it, they usually mean “instances” (examples).
  • “Interment” and “internment”: The first refers to burial, the second to imprisonment.
  • Intensive purposes” for “intents and purposes”, as in “For all intensive purposes”: The phrase means in every way imaginable; “For all intents and purposes, the action was a declaration of war.”
  • Jutebox” for “jukebox”: A ‘juke joint” was a roadhouse, particularly one with a place for dancing. A “jukebox” was a coin-operated record player to provide music. “Jute” is a tough fiber used for twine and sacks.
  • “Light year” to mean a long time. “It has been light years since I saw Jake.”: “Light year” is the distance that light travels in a year. It is a long distance, not a long time. If you want to express that you haven’t seen Jake lately, you might want to try my toddler son’s phrase “a couple of whiles”. He knew that “a while” meant an unspecified (but not too long) length of time and wanted to say it was more than that but not “forever” (which is clearly not meant literally), so he coined “a couple of whiles”.
  • This brings us to my least favorite: “Literally” to mean “figuratively”. “Literal” means “to the letter” or exactly. It would be impossible to say “I literally died of embarrassment”, because you’d be too dead to say that. Worse, the incorrect usage is so common that you will now find it in many dictionaries with the definition “figurative”. This bring us to the whole argument as to whether a dictionary should be prescriptive or descriptive. Does it tell us how to use words, or how they are used? To that, I answer “yes”, but within reason. When two words are essentially antonyms it make no sense to redefine one to make them synonyms.
  • Wet your appetite” for “whet”: “Whet” means to sharpen (Like you do with a whetstone). An aperitif is a cocktail drunk before dinner to stimulate (sharpen) the appetite.
  • “Feee reign” for “free rein”: this is from riding horses. If you loosen your grip on the reins and give the horse its head, you are giving it “free rein”, in essence putting the horse in control (“rein” is from Latin, meaning “to hold back”). It has nothing to do with “reign” (from Latin, meaning “realm”).
  • “Cite”, “site”, and “sight”: The first is the verb form of “citation” and means to refer to or quote. The second refers to a location: a building site. As a verb it means “to place”. The third refers to vision. As a verb you could “sight a ship out in the ocean”. You saw it there, you didn’t put it there. Or you could cite a different person who sighted the ship because you didn’t.
  • “Pedal” is what I place my foot on to propel my bike. It is also the action of propelling my bike. “Peddle” is to sell something. I used to pedal my bike to peddle newspapers.
  • “e.g.” means “for example” (from the Latin “exempli gratia”). “i.e.” means “in other words” (Literally “that is” from the Latin “id est”).
  • “Reek” for “wreak”: To reek is to smell strongly. To wreak is to execute or to carry out. I might wreak havoc while reeking of onions.
  • Wreckless” for “reckless”. The root is the German “reck”, meaning “care”. A “reckless” driver is one who drives heedless of the consequences. A “wreckless” driver (if that were a word) would be one who never crashes.
  • “Shimmy” for “shinny”: You shinny up a tree. (This is actually derived from an earlier verb that was simply “shin”.) You shimmy on the dance floor.
  • “Lie” vs “lay”: I lie down on the bed. I lay my cards on the table.
  • “Squash” vs “quash”: You squash a bug and quash a rebellion.
  • “Steak” vs “stake”: The first is a cut of meat. The second is pretty much everything else. I can stake a claim by driving a stake in the ground to mark it. I can watch for something on a stakeout. I have a lot at stake if I risk everything.
  • “Straight” vs “strait”. The first is without bends. The second is a tight space. So it’s the Strait of Magellan, a strait-jacket, and to be in dire straits. If you misuse these, you may go straight to hell.
  • “Supposedly” vs “supposably”. “Supposed” means “assumed”, so “supposedly” is what we say when we refer to what everyone thinks. “Supposable” means “conceivable”, or “possible”, so “supposably” means it is possible (able to be supposed). Both are real words, but most people who use “supposably” mean “supposedly”.
  • “Tongue and cheek” for “tongue-in-cheek”: From the sense of biting one’s tongue to keep from laughing. To say something “tongue-in-cheek” is to be jokingly insincere, whimsically exaggerating, or ironic.
  • “He’s a real trooper” for “he’s a real trouper”: The origin is from a theatre troupe and is related to the notion that “the show must go on”. A trouper is one who perseveres through hardships.
  • “It takes two to tangle” for “it takes two to tango”: This arises from the 1952 song by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning. It refers to anything that can’t be done solo.
  • “Wherefore” means “why”. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” doesn’t mean “Hey Romeo, where the heck are you?!” It means “Why did you have to be born into the family that mine is feuding with? Why did I have to fall in love with someone I can never be with?” (Okay, that should be “with whom I can never be” so as not to end the sentence with a preposition – not to be confused with a proposition – but let’s not pick nits.)
  • “forego” vs “forgo”: “Forego” means “to go before”. “Forgo” means “to go without”.
  • baited breath” for “bated breath”: You haven’t placed bait on your breath in order to catch something, you are holding or restraining your breath as you eagerly await something. Bated is from the same root as abated.
  • “Barter” for “bargain”: To barter is to exchange goods (without money involved). To bargain is to negotiate or haggle.
  • “Taking a different tact.”: This one seems to be a confusion of the words “tactic” and “tack.” Tacking is a sailing term. To tack is to turn your boat across the wind while sailing upwind (via a zig-zagging course and not directly into the wind, cf. “jibe” above [cf. is for the Latin “confer” meaning “compare”]). In the non-nautical sense it means a change in focus or direction. A tactic is a means to an end (and is derived from a Greek military term), so tacking is a tactic to sail upwind. Tact is another matter entirely. That is skill or grace in dealing with others. So it may require tact to take a different tack (in the business or non-nautical sense) and you may have to change your tactics to reach your objective.


Another category are words from other languages that we use in English without realizing that they are plurals and we use them as though they were singular. A few examples. The plural is listed first.

  • data/datum
  • criteria/criterion
  • biscotti/biscotto
  • panini/panino
  • media/medium
  • phenomena/phenomenon
  • Another plural phenomenon comes with titles. An “attorney general” is an attorney, not a general. Two of them are attorneys general. It would be easier with a comma in there: “attorney, general”, but that’s not how we do it. If an army private is promoted, he becomes a private first class. Two of them are privates first class.


  • PIN number
  • ATM machine
  • Please RSVP
  • Hot water heater
  • Chai tea
  • Close proximity
  • General consensus
  • End result
  • HIV virus
  • knots per hour
  • LCD or LED display
  • Sierra Nevada mountains
  • RBIs, WMDs, POWs, MREs, RPMs, ADLs
  • Rio Grande River
  • Very unique

Annoying in general

Almost any jargon. Business jargon from the latest best-seller is the worst. For a while everyone was saying “at the end of the day”. Before that it was “circle back”. Later it was “lean in”. When we refer to a relationship between teacher and pupil, the words are “mentor” and “protégé”. This usually refers to a 1:1 relationship. I’m not sure why, but someone felt the need to create the word “mentee” to mean “protégé”. Maybe we need to coin the term “protéger” (or would it be “protégor”?). By the way, “protégé”, “prodigy”, and “progeny” are three different words and are not interchangeable. It is possible that my progeny is a prodigy and is someone’s protégé.

Jargon has the effect of telling others “I’m part of the in crowd”. Sometimes it is useful when standard English is ambivalent and the jargon is specific. That is sometimes the case with medical terms. Other times it is just a way to say “I’m smarter than you are.”

Big words used in place of smaller words that are more accurate. Note that in most cases, both are words. In some cases the usage varies between the US and the UK. “Methodology” for “method”. “Functionality” for “function”. “Orientate” for “orient”. “Notate” for “note”. “Interpretate” for “interpret”. “Exponentially”, “order of magnitude”, “quantum leap” for a big change. Each of those terms has a particular meaning. We seem to like superlatives so we try to make everything bigger. This is an expansion of the misuse of “literal”.

I’m sure I left a few (or more than a few) out. Do you have a bone to pick with anything in here? Do you have some pet peeve(s) to add? That’s what the comments section is for.

Too late for a midlife crisis

Like joining the Procrastinator’s Club, I never got around to having a midlife crisis. I always was a late bloomer.

Now I’m old, so it’s too late…but I can combine a midlife crisis with an old age crisis – so I’m making some big changes today.

Out go all of my bikes, to be replaced with a Lamborghini. Granted, it’s a 1967 Lamborghini Miura, the car I wanted as a teen, so it’s older than any of the bikes. That makes it okay.

Out go the canoe and the kayak – too much work for an old guy. I’m replacing them with a Chris Craft, the boat that my father taught me to covet in my youth. Again, it’s older than the boats it’s replacing, so it’s still okay. All of that beautiful mahogany…

The espresso machine will go, to be replaced by a giant coffee urn, so I can brew that horrible church basement coffee where the water keeps circulating through the grounds until it takes like burnt mud. I’ll drink many cups every day in my old English bone china cups. (Now, bone china, that’s another story. See my friend Roy’s blog “About Bone” for that. Actually, I guess it’s in one of his books, as I didn’t find it in a blog search. Suffice to say it is made with real bones. You can read Roy’s blog anyway.)

The kids are grown so the minivan will be replaced by a Morgan Plus Four. The Morgan is hand-built on an oak subframe. The retro bikers say, “Steel is real.” I say “Wood is good.”

Of course my wife has to go. Since the theme here is “Out with the old, in with the older”, I don’t plan to take up with a Hollywood starlet as so many old men do. I can’t afford to be a sugar daddy. I’m now dating Helen Mirren. She can afford to keep me better than vice versa.

I’ve been reading a lot about micro-dosing. Psychedelics scare me, so I’m going with Rogaine. What do you think so far? Maybe Grecian Formula next? Or Carter’s Little Liver Pills? Geritol? Possibly Serutan. (“Remember, ‘Serutan’ spelled backward spells ‘Natures’.”)

It may be time to turn in the smart phone. I’m not sure what’s next. Possibly a rotary phone, though in this digital world I can only receive, not make, calls; and no one calls me except telemarketers. I thought about a tin can telephone with branches to connect the homes of all of the stalwarts of the half-fast cycling club. A telegraph key might do the trick. I can brush up on my Morse Code and the signal will travel lightning fast over fiber optics.

Father William

  “You are old, father William,” the young man said,
    “And your hair has become very white;
  And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
    Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

  “In my youth,” father William replied to his son,
    “I feared it would injure the brain;
  But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
    Why, I do it again and again.”

  “You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
    And have grown most uncommonly fat;
  Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —
    Pray, what is the reason of that?”

  “In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
    “I kept all my limbs very supple
  By the use of this ointment — one shilling the box —
    Allow me to sell you a couple.”

  “You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
    For anything tougher than suet;
  Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —
    Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

  “In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
    And argued each case with my wife;
  And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
    Has lasted the rest of my life.”

  “You are old,” said the youth; one would hardly suppose
    That your eye was as steady as ever;
  Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —
    What made you so awfully clever?”

  “I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
    Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
  Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
    Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

“That is not said right,” said the Caterpillar. 
“Not quite right, I’m afraid,” said Alice timidly;
“some of the words have got altered.”
“It is wrong from beginning to end,”
said the Caterpillar decidedly, and
there was silence for some minutes.
Lewis Carroll

“Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

And so the Red Queen announced the sentence, “Off with her head!” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I thought this was absurdity or satire, not news, when I read it.

Illustration by John Tenniel

The news is at least as absurd. On Tuesday night, our only president announced his victory in the election before the votes were counted. He tweeted “Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed” – not that anyone was trying to cast ballots after the polls had closed, but they were attempting to count ballots after the polls are closed – that’s sorta the way it works. It appears that he considers counting the votes to be STEALing the election. He announced that his leads were “magically” disappearing as “surprise ballot dumps were counted”; which appears to mean that he didn’t want the absentee ballots to be counted, or maybe there were just certain counties whose ballots he didn’t want counted.

I’ve never really understood election results watching as a spectator sport. It seems like watching a sporting event in which all you can see is the scoreboard. The excitement, such as it is, is to watch the numbers change, not to watch the athletes at work. Co-workers stayed up late, or woke up in the middle of the night due to anxiety, turning on the TV to see what was happening.

As this is being written, the score is either 248-214 or 253-214, depending on which scoreboard you’re looking at. (One of them just changed – during proofreading – to 264-214; the other is still at 248-214.) It appears to be the ninth inning, the 4th quarter, or the third period if you’re a hockey fan. The trouble with this sport is that after the game is over the score could still change. Points could be transferred from one to the other because the final score isn’t really final for over a month, even though we all want to wake up to a final score on Wednesday morning, or stay up to see it Tuesday night. We could go into overtime, only to have the Supreme Court suddenly declare Game Over. The way it looks right now, if each wins all of the states in which he is considered to be leading, it is a Biden victory 270-268. The trouble with that is that Biden’s leads are slim and Trump’s leads (particularly in PA, the biggest prize remaining) are larger. Not to mention that there will certainly be demands for a recount, especially if Mr. Trump loses – he is already demanding recounts and hasn’t lost yet.

I see three possible scenarios: 1) Trump wins and we have 4 more years of this madness; 2) Trump loses and has almost 12 weeks in which to metaphorically torch everything on his way out (or, for another metaphor, the Trump administration is like a rock band that has already been paid and trashes the hotel suite on the last night); or 3) the Supreme Court hands him the election in a replay of 2000. I’m not really sure which is worst.

My fantasy is that he loses and refuses to abdicate. Biden is sworn in and the Secret Service forcefully evicts the former president on January 21. Maybe the sheriff could toss his belongings to the curb. Maybe we could see a perp walk to a waiting squad car, hands cuffed behind his back. The charges? Criminal trespass, impersonating the President. (18 U.S. Code § 912)

Then the indictments begin. The RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act seems ideally suited for this. Then we have tax evasion (like Al Capone), fraud charges for the funds he diverted from his charitable organization, the Emoluments Clause, and various state charges. Who gets to extradite him first? Or can we pronounce the “sentence first – verdict later”?

As spectator sports go, I gotta admit I’m enjoying the NBC Extended Highlights of La Vuelta a España much more than this presidential race. They don’t go online until late afternoon but they’re worth waiting for.

Call and response

is not new in the musical world. It has been around in many types of music for centuries. (Without call and response, jazz and gospel would not be what they are.) Typically it involves a call from a soloist and a response from the chorus. What I’m thinking of today is a call from one artist and another answering in a later recording. The first example I remember hearing was Hank Thompson and Kitty Wells. (Both songs are in the same YouTube video below.)

The great Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell did their call and response in the same song. They were mostly love songs. Otis Redding and Carla Thomas turned that on its ear in a way that I have to include even if it doesn’t exactly fit:

Merle Haggard put out his call to arms with “Okie from Muskogee” (though his smirk in this video makes you wonder if he still believed it) and The Youngbloods answered with “Hippie from Olema #5”, with a nod to Haggard in the last run of the chorus:

Neil Young challenged southern racism with “Southern Man”. Lynyrd Skynyrd seemed to take it personally and answered with “Sweet Home Alabama”, calling out Young by name:

Lynyrd Skynyrd appears to have used the Confederate flag in its marketing as recently as 2018, though more recent iconography appears to emphasize the US flag.

A different sort of example… Paul Desmond wrote “Take Five” (a way of saying “take a break”, but in this case also a reference to being written in 5/4 time) for the Dave Brubeck Quartet . Quicksilver Messenger Service took the motif (and some acid) and changed the time signature to create “Acapulco Gold and Silver” (changed to “Gold and Silver” by the record company).

Who else released pairs of songs like these? Post links in the comments.


Epic Systems announced that they would require staff to return to work on site despite a county emergency order indicating that workers should work remotely if possible. Epic stated that they were “facilitating remote work by requiring staff to work in the office, but allowing them to work alone in their office”. County Executive Joe Parisi had this to say about Epic’s definition of “remote”:

The forced return has been postponed.

I’m going for a bike ride after my day of working remotely. By “remote” I mean in patient’s hospital rooms instead of in the office that I share with a bunch of people.

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll – “Alice in Wonderland”)