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Why did I delete your answer?

2015-11-13 by Matt Ellen. 3 comments

Imagine someone has a question about physics, say “How can I figure out the acceleration due to gravity?”

A physicist answers with “You can throw a bowling ball from various floors of a multistorey building.” The physicist knows in their head the experiment they would perform. It’s so obvious to them that they skim over the details and say what they see to be the key points, and assume that the person asking will figure the rest out.

The problem with this is that a non-physicist has asked the question, and they don’t know the details that the physicist skimmed over. If they did, they maybe wouldn’t have to ask the question. Thus, the person asking the question is little better off than they were before asking.

Now imagine this is a single word request:

Word for staring wide-eyed at a TV

I saw my son staring wide-eyed at the television. His face looked so comical to me. Is there a word to describe such wide-eyed staring?

I’d like to use it like “My son was staring at the TV last night, it was so funny to see.”, but I don’t like staring because it doesn’t emphasise his wide-eyed-ness.

Is there a word that would better describe what I mean?

And then there is the answer:

I think you’re looking for goggling.

Now you and I know that is a good word for the situation, but is it a helpful answer?

If you’re wondering, then let me tell you: it’s not. The Stack Exchange system itself will parse it and flag it as “low quality” and it will garner a comment from a moderator or other concerned member and then, if no improvements are made after a week or so, it will be deleted.

Yes, the asker now has a word to fill their gap, but the answer does not explain why goggling is fit for the purpose. The asker has no context to decide if this answer is the best fit, and no way to generalize the word to fit other situations.

Why is that important? The thing to remember is that the person who came here looking for an answer is unlikely to already know the answer. You don’t get many people who go around wondering “how many people know the word goggling?” (And I suspect most of those who do are crossword designers.)

If someone doesn’t already know the answer, then the details are important. When you suggest a word for a given context, you need to explain why it fits the context so that when they try and use it in the future they have a grasp on how the word works and what its connotations are.

I know many of you might complain that they should look it up in a dictionary. We’re a site for serious English language enthusiasts, after all.

That is irrelevant. An answer needs to be complete.

However, to entertain that idea for a moment. Most of our users are not serious enthusiasts. Most people come here looking for an answer and leave with one, without ever posting anything. That is the beauty of Stack Exchange.

That is why it is so important to leave a complete answer. With only half an answer, people will only half understand how to use a word.

So what does a better answer look like?

I think you’re looking for goggling. It’s from the verb *to goggle*, which means to stare at something with your eyes wide open and an amazed look on your face.

Instantly this answer is a lot more helpful. By adding a definition the answer now gives a clear explanation why the word is suitable. Also note that the definition isn’t from a reference. When giving the explanation a reference can be useful, but if you have your own way to articulate the meaning, then that is fine, too.

If you do use a reference it is essential to cite your source. If you copy and paste without citing your source the answer will be deleted as plagiarism. With a reference the answer would be:

I think you’re looking for goggling. From ODO, to goggle means:
Look with wide open eyes, typically in amazement

The important points to remember:

  • You are writing an answer for someone who doesn’t know anything about the word you’re suggesting.
  • An answer needs to explain the word in order for it to be useful.
  • If you are copy/pasting a definition you must cite where you got it from.

Where Did ‘Blizzard’ Come From? The ‘Too Long; Did Not Read’ Version

2015-02-20 by Sven Yargs. 0 comments

A question on EL&U “On the origin of ‘blizzard’” asked about the origin of the word blizzard. The history of usage of the word during the period between when it first appears in print in the United Sates (1834) and when it is first used in the sense of “a fierce snowstorm” is fascinating (to me)—but even a less than exhaustive account of that history of usage too long to serve as an appropriate EL&U answer. Consequently, I’m putting it here.

PART I. Dictionary and Scholarly Analyses of ‘Blizzard’

One weakness in some modern analyses of blizzard involves a failure to acknowledge the wide (and widening) extent of usage of the word prior to 1870, acting instead as though blizzard as Davy Crockett understood the word in 1834 and blizzard as used by Iowa farmers in 1870 had nothing in common but a coincidental spelling. A look at the actual history of U.S. usage of the word strongly suggests to me that the 1830s usages (of which there were more than one) almost certainly are ancestral to the 1870 usage. Unfortunately, attempting to substantiate this hypothesis entails reviewing a considerable number of examples from the period 1835 to 1870. Let’s start by looking at some early U.S. assessments of the word blizzard.

Nineteenth-century U.S. analyses

The entry for blizzard in J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1890) is interesting, in part, because it reports on the word as a recently popularized term:

blizzard subs. (popular). — A poser [defined elsewhere in the dictionary as “an unanswerable question or argument”] ; a stunning blow ; an unanswerable argument, etc., etc.This word, brought into prominent notice as the name by which sudden and exceptionally severe snow storms are known in the Western States of America, is one the etymology of which is dubious. Some authorities derive it from the German blitz—lightning, but a correspondent of N[otes] & Q[ueries] claims it as of English nationality, asserting that the word has been known in the Midland Counties in its present form, or nearly so, for over thirty years ; further stating that ‘may I be blizzered’ is a common oath there. Assuming that the expression is a variation of the more generally familiar ‘May God strike me blind’ (that is, presumably by lightning), there is nothing antagonistic between the two theories of its genesis, and a further light is perhaps thrown upon the subject, tending to support its German origin, by the fact that, in Pennsylvania, it has been familiar, according to a correspondent of the New York Sun, for more than half a century, its use and meaning being akin to the instances above mentioned. It appears that in the central counties of the State in question, the word was always used to include the idea of the ‘poser,’ and even of force, violence, spitefulness, or vindictiveness. If one dealt another a hostile blow, he ‘gave him a BLIZZARD on the nose,’ ‘on the jaw,’ ‘between the eyes,’ etc. If a magistrate lectured a litigant severely he ‘gave him a BLIZZARD.’ If in debate one dealt mercilessly in ridicule he ‘gave his opponent a BLIZZARD.’ If one man swore at or cursed another he ‘gave him a BLIZZARD.’ If a man’s wife scolded him she ‘gave him a BLIZZARD.’ When it is remembered that Pennsylvania is the State in which the Dutch or German element most largely predominates, it does not seem far fetched to attribute its origin to a Teutonic source, more especially as there is nothing in the English usage to preclude such a derivation. However this may be, the word invariably seems to imply suddenness combined with violence ; and, at any rate, it apparently disposes of the supposition that the word is of Western origin, or a coinage of so recent a date as is frequently supposed. Like most words of its class, which have largely struck the popular taste, it has been generally adopted in an idiomatic sense to signify a stunning blow ; an overwhelming argument, or a cool reception. [First example:] 1834 [David] Crockett, Tour Down East, 16. A gentleman at dinner asked me for a toast ; and supposing that he meant to have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead and give him and his likes a BLIZZARD.

A fuller version of the Davy Crockett quotation appears in Crockett, An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-four, tenth edition (1837):

When dinner was ready [on a steamboat running from Delaware City to Philadelphia], I sat down with the rest of the passengers ; among them was the Reverend O. B. Brown, of the Post Office Department, who sat near me. During dinner the parson called for a bottle of wine, and called on me for a toast. Not knowing whether he intended to compliment me, or abash me among so many strangers, or have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead and give him and his likes a blizzard. So our glasses being filled, the word went round, “a toast from Colonel Crockett.” I gave it as follows: “Here’s wishing the bones of tyrant kings may answer in hell, in place of gridirons, to roast the souls of Tories on.” At this the parson appeared as if he was stump’t. I said, “Never heed ; it was meant for where it belonged.” He did not repeat his invitation, and I eat my dinner quietly.

John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) uses the truncated version of the Crockett quotation as the only example of blizzard in that dictionary. Here is Bartlett’s entry for the word:

BLIZZARD. A poser. This word is not known in the Eastern States. [Example omitted.]

Maximilian Schele De Vere, Americanisms; the English of the New World (1872) has this to say about blizzard:

Blizzard, a term referred back to the German Blitz, means in the West a stunning blow or an overwhelming argument. [Bartlett’s version of the Crockett quotation omitted.]

Like Farmer & Henley’s treatment, the coverage of blizzard in Charles Norton, Political Americanisms: A Glossary of Terms and Phrases Current at Different (1890) shows that the snowstorm meaning had become dominant:

Blizzard.—A political party is said to have been struck by a blizzard when it has suffered overwhelming and unexpected defeat at the polls. The etymology of the word is doubtful, but it is said to have been long in use in Midland England and among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Its specific American meaning is a violent and destructive snow-storm peculiar to the Northwest.

Albert Barrere & Charles Leland, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume 1 (1897) finds a different instance of blizzard in Davy Crockett’s oeuvre, this one from 1836:

Blizzard (American), a word of many meanings. In one of the early Crockett almanacs about 1836 it appears as distinctly meaning a shot from a rifle.
“The elder boys when they went to school carried their rifles to get a
blizzard at anything they might meet on the road.” It has been conjectured that in this sense it was derived from blaze, or from the (Canadian) French blesser, to wound or hit. It was also applied to lightning at an early date. At present the tremendous wind-storms like the typhoon which sweep over the West are called blizzards. It possibly owes this later meaning to the German blitz.
With reference to the word blizzard, a Western correspondent sends the following:—The word was first used in Marshall, Minn., some thirteen years ago. Some friends were enjoying themselves at a public-house, when a storm of wind and snow arose, and one of the number, looking up quickly, uttered a German expression (our correspondent has forgotten the words) which sounded very much like blizzard. His friends took it up and have since called a storm of wind accompanied by now a blizzard. Some years ago the origin of the word was sought and it was said to be Indian, and that an Indian used the expression (or one similar in sound) upon seeing some white men coming out off a severe snowstorm.—
Detroit Free Press. The German expression here referred to is “blitzen!”

The Detroit Free Press story sounds highly unreliable to me; the Crockett reference is interesting, though Google Books doesn’t find any other nineteenth-century citation of it, or the original itself.

Early British analyses

The reference to Notes and Queries in Slang & Its Analogues appears to be to two comments in the periodical. First, from the February 11, 1888 edition, this item from W. E. Buckley:

BLIZZARD.—The American correspondence of the Times, Jan. 16 to 19, of this year, has contained details of a terrific blizzard, which had been raging in several of the N. and N.W. states. In the ‘New Engl. Dict.,’ Dr. Murray says that it is a modern word, and in the sense of a “snow-squall” became general in the severe winter of 1880–81, although it had been so applied about 1860 to 1870. It seems to have been adopted by English journalists since 1880, from the Americans. The earliest example quoted is in 1834, from Col. Crockett’s ‘Tour down East,’ in the sense of a “poser,” as if a blast they could not stand. The snowstorm of Jan. 18, 1881, in this country was no feeble instance of a blizzard, as it blew up and about the
poudre, or dry snow, in all directions.

And second, from Thomas Ratcliffe of Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in the March 17, 1888, edition:

BLIZZARD (7th S. v. 106).—The word
blizzard is well known through the Midlands, and its cognates are fairly numerous. I have known the word and its kin fully thirty years. Country folk use the word to denote blazing, blasting, blinding, dazzling, or stifling. One who has had to face a severe storm of snow, hail, rain, dust, or wind, would say on reaching shelter that he has “faced a blizzer,” or that the storm was “a regular blizzard.” A blinding flash of lightning would call forth the exclamation, “My! that wor a blizzomer!” or “That wor a blizzer!” “Put towthry sticks on th’ fire, an let’s have a blizzer”—a blaze. “A good blizzom” = a good blaze. “That tree is blizzared” = blasted, withered. As an oath the word is often used, and “May I be blizzerded” will be readily understood.

A check of some of the Midlands regional glossaries printed in the 1800s finds nothing for blizzard, blizzer, or blizzom, but several have entries for blizzy. First, from Anne Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854):

BLIZZY. A blaze. “Blow the fire, and let’s have a nice
blizzy.” This, though now considered a vulgarism, is a retention of the original A.-Sax. blysa, a blaze.

And Mrs. Parker, A Glossary of Words Used in Oxfordshire (1876):

Blizzy, a flaring fire produced by putting on small sticks. Ex. ‘Let’s ‘a a bit of a
blizzy afore us goes to bed.’

And from Arthur Evans & Sebastian Evans, Leicestershire Words, Phrases, and Proverbs (1881):

sb. a blaze. ‘When the squoire, a coom anoigh, they joomped o’ the blizzy an’ douted it.’

And from Barzillai Lowsley, A Glossary of Berkshire Words and Phrases (1888):

BLIZZY.— A blaze. The fire is said to be all of a “blizzy” when pieces of wood have been inserted amongst the coal to make it burn cheerfully.

And from G. F. Northall, A Warwickshire Word-book (1896):

sb. A blaze, a blast, a flare of fire. A.-Sax. blysa, a blaze. Common.

So on the one hand, the British glossaries do not corroborate Thomas Ratcliffe’s assertions about multiple cognates and variants of blizzard in common use in the Midlands, but on the other hand they do suggest that blizzy survived from the ancient word blysa in numerous localities and might well share a root with the U.S. blizzard.

In this regard, it is regrettable that the English Dialect Society, which produced such fine work in other counties of England during the nineteenth century, seems not to have published a full-scale glossary of Nottinghamshire words. In his English Dialect Dictionary (1898), Joseph Wright lists three undated ms collections of Nottinghamshire words, by three different authors, but I don’t know whether any of these ever saw publication. Part of the problem may have been that such a glossary (by a fourth compiler) was widely anticipated to be well on the way toward completion. In January 1875, in a section of the Second Report for the Year 1874 titled “Work in Course of Preparation,” the society had written this:

Notts. A Glossary has been promised us by Mr R. White.

And two years later, according to the society’s A Bibliographical List (1877):

Mr ROBERT WHITE, of Worksop, has a copious Nottinghamshire Glossary in MS.

Worksop is also the town from which Ratcliffe sent his communication to Notes and Queries in 1888. But as far as I can tell, the White manuscript was never published. If some of Ratcliffe’s claims about the Midlands use of blizzard were true locally in Nottinghamshire, we might have found that fact corroborated in White’s glossary. Instead, as S.O. Addy, remarked at the end of a speech to the English Dialect Society on October 13, 1906, that county remained oddly neglected:

And there are districts which have been little worked. I might mention, for instance, Nottinghamshire, and the east and south of Derbyshire.

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary follows Ratcliffe in listing blizzarded (“Used imprecatively”), blizzer (“A blaze, flash ; a blinding flash of lightning”), and blizzom (“A blaze, a flash”) as being “in gen. use in the midl. counties”—but the only source he supplies for each of these terms is Ratcliffe’s comment in Notes & Queries. The array of ten counties that Wright lists individually as using blizzy provides a rather sharp contrast to the thinness of the support for the previous three terms.

Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) has this for blizzard:

blizzard. Came into gen. use in US & E. in the hard winter of 1880–1. Earlier (US. 1834) in sense of hard blow. Probabilities point to its being an E. dial. word ult. cogn. with
blaze [in the sense of “To proclaim , as with a trumpet”].

More-recent analyses

Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1967) has this brief account of blizzard:

blizzard is a suffix –
ard derivative and sense-adaptation of blizz a storm, itself app a thinning of blaze, a bright flame, the hiss of rain being likened to to that of a blazing fire.

In its very lengthy treatment of blizzard, Webster’s Word Histories (1989) gives considerable play to the word’s connection to a major snowstorm in Iowa in 1870:

blizzard There is a tradition of sorts in Iowa that the word

blizzard for severe snowstorm with high winds originated there. Allen Walker Read went to Iowa in 1926 to look into the tradition, and his findings, published in 1928, show that there is considerable evidence in its favor. The earliest printed citation for the use that is so far known appeared in the Estherville, Iowa, Northern Vindicator on 23 April 1870. It was spelled blizards, and was cautiously enclosed in quotation marks. One week later, in the 30 April edition, it appears again, with the now familiar double -z spelling, but still in quotation marks. In June of 1870 the local baseball team adopted the name Blizzards—it must have been a memorably hard winter.

The relatively rapid spread of an unusual word has naturally excited some speculation about its origin, and a number of explanations have been offered for it. Since many of these appeared a long time after blizzard became common, it is impossible to verify them. Some claim credit for one locality or another, giving the speculations an air of home-town rivalry. The Dictionary of Americanisms has citations dated 1859 and 1861 from a diary published in the Kansas Historical Quarterly in 1932. The diary was kept by an army captain at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It turns out, however, that the diarist revised or enlarged or rewrote the diary about 1905, when blizzard was a common word, and we do not know whether he unconsciously used it in his revision, or if he had used it in the original, which was unfortunately thrown away. No printed evidence, however, has yet been found that antedates the Northern Vindicator.

The (possibly adulterated) 1859 diary example from the 1932 Kansas Historical Quarterly reads as follows:

Sure it would freeze the horn of a brass monkey, remarked Kelly, (an old veteran), and I thought it might do it, for a blizzard had come upon us about midnight and I thought it a howling success. No breakfast, formed line, shot 7 horses that were so chilled could not get up, started out by twos from the right, trot march for Cottonwood creek. Seven of us got there in formed line, the balance strung back along the trail, some not getting in until after dark, a frozen set.

Adopting the standard that Webster’s Word Histories uses, anyone who (like me) doesn’t have access to the original memorandum and account books on which he wrote his journal can’t say with confidence that Granville Stuart, Forty Years on the Frontier (1925) didn’t introduce the word blizzard after the fact to these entries dated January 1 and January 3, 1862, describing a winter spent in Montana:

January 1, 1862. Snowed in the forenoon. Very cold in afternoon. Everybody went to grand ball given by John Grant at Grantsville and a severe blizzard blew up and raged all night. We danced all night, no outside storm could dampen the festivities.

January 2. Still blowing a gale this morning. Forty below zero and the air filled with driving, drifting snow. …

January 3. The blizzard ceased about daylight, but it was very cold with about fourteen inches of snow badly drifted in places and the ground bare in spots.

Craig Carver, A History of English in Its Own Words (1991) recounts the toast episode in Davy Crockett’s book, and then notes another usage of blizzard by Crockett [combined snippets:

Earlier he [Crockett] used
blizzard in the sense of “a shot or volley of gun shots” (“I saw two more bucks, very large fellows, too. I took a blizzard at one of them and up he tumbled,” 1834. The Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee). Crockett’s uses are obsolete extensions of the earliest sense of blizzard, “a sharp blow,” which is also obsolete. Blizzard (a violent snowstorm) may be an extension of the earlier sense (a volley of shots) or may have originated in England. A blizzard of etymologies have been offered for this puzzling word. The earliest known citation (1829) is also the earliest attempt to explain its origin by appealing to German Blitz (lightning). Another version suggests French blesser (to wound), but neither this nor the German can be substantiated. Yet another claims that blizzard derives from English dialect blizzer, meaning “a blaze” or “flash” (“Put towthry sticks on th’ fire, an’ let’s have a blizzer,” English Dialect Dictionary) or from blazer (something that blazes or blasts), which gave the early sense “a volley of firing guns,” that is, a general “blazing away.”

Note that this is the third example from Crockett to be cited among the earliest uses of the term. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang finds two additional ones from 1834 and 1835. From Davy Crockett’s Almanack for ’35 (1834):

I will take them out on coon hunt, show ’em how to tree a catamount, and take a blizzard at a bear.

And from Meine & Owens, Crockett Alm[anack]s (1835):

He … gets hold on the painter’s [panther’s] tail with one hand, and with the other he got a blizzard with his pistol.

From Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997):

blizzard In its meaning of a severe snowstorm blizzard seems to be an Americanism dating back to about 1835. Its direct ancestor is probably the English dialect word
blisser, meaning the same, but could be the German blitz, “lightning flash.” Before blizzard meant a storm in America, it meant a violent blow of the fist or a crushing remark.

From Glynnis Chantrell, The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (1997):

blizzard [early 19th century] A US word originally, a
blizzard was ‘a violent blow’, but the origin is unknown. It is probably onomatopoeic; suggestive words with possible influence are blow, blast, blister, and bluster. The word was applied to a snowy squall in the American press in reports of the severe winter of 1880–81, but apparently it was used colloquially in the West considerably earlier.

From Graeme Donald, Fighting Talk (2008):

Violent snowstorm. An Americanism from the early English blisser, “a violent and injurious blow,” which itself derived from the French blesser, “to injure or wound.” “Blizzard,” in the sense of a violent blow, seems to have been an early 19th-century Kentuckyism promoted to national usage through Davy Crockett’s highly romanticized autobiography of 1834, in which he used the term for a well-aimed musket shot. By the 1840s it was widely understood to mean a cannon shot, and during the American Civil War (1861–65) both sides were using “blizzard” to mean a withering volley of musket or cannon fire. As for meteorological applications, “blizzard” was used in the 1850s for a sudden and violent drop in temperature. It was first used to describe a snowstorm in 1870 when O.C. Bates, neologistic editor of The Northern Vindicator of Estherville, Iowa, used it for the terrific snowstorms that socked in the state that spring. He claimed he had picked up the term from a local character called Lightning Ellis but, either way, he made such frequent use of it that everyone, other newspapers included, started talking of “The Great Blizzard,” which forever changed the accepted meaning of the word.

From Julia Cresswell, The Insect That Stole Butter? Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, second edition (2009):

In the early 19th century a blizzard was ‘a sharp blow or knock’ or ‘a shot’ in the USA, and probably arose as an imitation of the sound of a blow. The sense of ‘a severe snowstorm’ followed in the 1850s.

Of all the preceding discussions of the word blizzard, Graeme Donald’s seems to provide the most accurate match to the search results that I obtained for the period from 1834 to 1870. Let’s take a closer look at some of those search results now.

PART II. Instances of ‘Blizzard’ Before the Snowstorm Meaning Caught On

Now let’s look at examples of how the word blizzard was being used in the United States during the period from 1835 to 1870.

Instances of ‘blizzard’ in the Library of Congress’s newspaper database or from Google Books, 1870 and earlier

In addition to the five instances of blizzard in the works of Davy Crockett (cited in the first part of my answer) from 1834, 1835, and 1836, I found a number of instances of the word in publications from 1870 and before. The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database of U.S. newspapers goes back to 1836—two years after the original publication date of Davy Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East. Following are significant occurrences of blizzard in that database or from Google Books search results, arranged chronologically.

From Joseph Jones, Major Jones’s Scenes from Georgia (1843):

”But you must shake hands and make it all up with him before he dies, and then you’ll feel better. Besides, major, you know you killed him in an honorable way.”

”D——n the honorable way!—it all counts the same—and the devil will make a blizzard of my soul for it.”

As the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes, the meaning of blizzard here is something like “a great fire.”

From “The Bombardment of Fort Brown (May 13, 1846), credited to the New Orleans Picayune, in the [Baltimore, Maryland] American Republican and Baltimore Daily Clipper (May 30, 1846):

At 1 o’clock we heard Gen. [Zachary] Taylor open again, and from that till 4 o’clock the battle raged with fury, and coming closer almost every shot. The General was driving them [the Mexican army] before him in the chapparal at the point of the bayonet. About half a mile in our rear we saw their cavalry retreating for the ferry, to recross the river [the Rio Grande] to Matamoras, and they were in utter confusion; we turned one of our 18 pounders to bear on the mass and gave them a “blizzard” to help them along.

From “From the Camp,” dated September 4, 1846, in the [Brattleboro] Vermont Phœnix (October 15, 1846):

A thousand and one reports are in circulation as regards the state of the defences of Monterey and Saltillo ; in all of which I place no reliance. That their [the Mexican army’s] means were greatly curtailed by the recent losses of the battles of the 9th, and the evacuation of the several towns cannot be doubted ; and if they did reserve resources at Monterey, I will then give them more credit than I am willing at present to admit be their due.

We must have another blizzard at them, I think. Saltillo will be the Rubicon …

From “Treason to Party, Treason to Country,” in the [Fayette, Missouri] Boon’s Lick Times (September 30, 1848):

The Platte Argus took his [Thomas Birch’s] election very much to heart, and has taken the trouble to list the democrats, who voted for him, as well as those who did not vote, and gives them the following blizzard:—

“We cannot forego the assertion that democrats, who fold their arms in tranquility, and permit the enemy to gain a victory over their friends and their principles, are guilty of moral treason to friends, principles and country.

Let the mark of Cain rest upon them. Let them go where they belong—to the place provided for arrant traitors and political charlatans, to be cursed by those whom they have betrayed, scoffed at by those who have merely used them as pliant tools to subserve a bad cause—whose sun lately went down in Philadelphia, there to remain forever.”

From “Diabolical Outrage,” in the [New Lisbon, Ohio] Anti-slavery Bugle (August 1849):

A riot occurred at Morrow [Ohio] on Saturday evening, which will probably give some trouble to the parties engaged in it. A theft was committed by a colored man named Henry Watkins—a convict formerly in the Penitentiary—who was immediately arrested and committed to jail. This aroused the indignation of sundry persons in the village, who met on Friday and resolved that every negro should leave the place in one week thereafter. Notice was accordingly given, and on Saturday, as we understand, all had left with the exception of two, Charles Casey and his wife, who had been assured that they would be suffered to remain. The ardor of the mob—for so we must characterize every body of men who set the laws of the country at defiance and meditate and commit violence on the persons and property of others—was quickened by their wrath, and on Saturday night they changed the time of the exodus of the Casey family an demanded that they should gird up their loins, put on their sandals and march forthwith. Casey refused to obey. At ten o’clock they approached the dwelling of the latter, and commenced an assault with stones and clubs.—Casey took a position at the door, armed with an axe, and his wife guarded the window, club in hand. Soon the window was smashed in and a breach made through the door by the missiles of the assailants. An entry was then attempted by one of the mob, but the moment his head protruded through the door, Casey tapped him with the back of the axe, and he fell senseless to the ground. Instantly another mob-head was poked in and met a similar blizzard. These repeated and effectual rebuffs brought the mob to a parley.

From “Whig Candidate for Floater! To Your Tents, Oh! Israel!” in the Fayetteville [Tennessee] Observer (July 29, 1851):

We stop the Press to announce that we have been creditably informed, that the Whigs have succeeded in bringing out Jackson, of Giles, for Floater [“A candidate representing several counties and therefore not considered directly responsible to any one of them”—Slang and Its Analogues], as we predicted they would, in another column. This information, we trust, will be sufficient to arouse every Democrat within the district to come out and do his whole duty. Yes, fellow Democrats, come out and vote for the man who is most likely to beat the Whig Missionary of Giles; it is enough to know, without saying a word about the importance of next Legislature, that this man Jackson is not only Whig of the deepest dye, but is the man who undertook to blackguard the people of Lincoln [County, Tennessee] by contributing money to send a Missionary up here to enlighten us. Think of that, Democrats of old Lincoln, and come out and give him blizzards on the 7th of August.

From George Harris, “A Sleep-Walking Incident,” in Polly Peablossom’s Wedding an Other Tales (1851):

Spang! Whiz-phit! The ball had sped, and it had missed! I saw it tear the bark from a hickory, a few yards ahead. Oh, how fresh and warm the blood rushed back around my heart! I felt safe, mischievous, and glad, and began to rein up my horse. When I succeeded in doing so, I wheeled him in the road to reconnoiter. There stood the old Tiger, leaning on the muzzle of his gun, as if in a brown study ; so I resolved to give him a parting “blizzard.” I shouted, “Hello, old cock; you have good victuals and a fine family, your galls in particular; but I would not give a button for your gun or your temper! You can’t shoot for sour owl bait! Tell the girls ‘good-bye,’ and the same to you, you old scatter-gun!”

He began to re-load furiously, so I whistled to my horse and left those parts—for ever, I hope.

From “A Pocket Book Found,” in the [Morgantown, Virginia] Monongalia Mirror (November 5, 1853):

’Blue blizzards! Dad, there goes the bell, we must be off, if we are going. What shall I do with this blasted thing, I don’t want it?’

’Give it to this young man, he looks honest, and when the owner advertises, he can get the reward.’

From the Sacramento [California] City Item [1856, but no specific date given], reported in Richard Thornton, An American Glossary (1912):

And then, behold, King Henry, very dead/Lies stiff and cold upon his gory bed,/When some true archer, from the upper tier,/Gave him a “blizzard” on the nearest ear.

From the [St. Clairsville, Ohio] Belmont Chronicle (July 23, 1857):

Jabe—Zounds and blizzards! What shall I do! Another campaign on the track, and every hoss broke down!

From “[That Pistol]” in the Bedford [Pennsylvania] Gazette (November 20, 1857):

An Irishman, driven to desperation by the stringency of the money market, and the high price of provisions, procured a pistol and took to the road. Meeting a traveler, he stopped him with “Your money or your life.”

Seeing that Pat was green, he said: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll give you all my money for that pistol.”

”Agreed,” said Pat. Pat received the money and handed over the pistol.

”Now,” said the traveler, “hand back the money, or I’ll blow your brains out!”

blizzard away, my hearty!” said Pat, “divil the drap of powther there’s in it, sure.”

From “Coming to the Rescue,” in the White Cloud Kansas Chief (May 10, 1860):

Two weeks ago, it pleased us to give a few Oregon [Missouri, a town less than 10 miles from White Cloud, but in a state where slavery was approved by law] items, containing some truths unpleasant to certain parties. Among others, we touched upon an individual who has been making himself conspicuous as a Pro-Slavery mouther…. That person has no acquaintance with us, and we certainly had never done anything, directly or indirectly, to injure or offend him ; yet during two years past he has seized upon every possible occasion, in crowds and on the streets, to bemean and abuse the Chief, and ourself personally. These things, as a matter of course, came to our ears, through friends, of whom, we are happy to say, we have many in Oregon. We let the fellow pas, but treasured up his favors ; and when he laid himself open in a matter of public concern we gave him a blizzard. There are others over there of the same stripe who will be remembered at a fitting opportunity.

From “End for End,” in the White Cloud Kansas Chief (June 28, 1860):

In the Baltimore Convention, Hon. William Montgomery, a member of Congress from Western Pennsylvania, got into a dispute with Josiah Randall, a renegade Whig, of Philadelphia, during which hard words passed. A son of Randall afterwards met Montgomery on the street, wiped his smeller with his fist, and made the gravy come. In turn, Montgomery gave Randall a blizzard at the butt of the ear, placing him in a favorable position for crawling, and then applied his boot to that portion of his body which is used in sitting down—and for other purposes!

From “Life in Egypt,” in the [Millersburg, Ohio] Holmes County Republican (November 15, 1860), from a story that originally appeared in the New York Tribune:

”Did they read him [Bill Thompson] out [of the Democratic party] too?”

”No they didn’t by a long shot. He rode out. He was ridin’ by a grocery in Frog [Island], one night, when jus’ for fun he hollered for Lincoln, and the fellers run out, and one said ef he hollered for Lincoln again he shoot; and Bill hollered—an’ sure enough the chaps gave him a blizzard with both barrels. He was shot, an’ his hoss shot ; so his hos run three miles an’ tumbled Bill into a swamp. The hoss was nigh upon ruined an’ the Doctor picked forty shot out of Bill’s back, An’ now he goes for Old Abe.”

The term “Egypt” refers to “the twenty counties known as Egypt in Southern Illinois; no doubt the name is related to the city of Cairo, situated near the southernmost tip of the state.

From “Night Session,” October 16, 1861, in Proceedings of the Missouri State Convention, Held at the City of St. Louis, October, 1861 (1861):

Mr. WRIGHT. I never call a man to order, and I am very happy that this warfare has been made upon me. I do not care how many of these gentlemen fall upon me. All I ask is, that when they get through you will allow me to reply with a “blizard.’ …

Mr. ONN. So far as “blizards” are concerned, he is the gentleman who commenced this warfare. He commenced on me by holding me up to ridicule. So far as his “blizards” are concerned, I fear them as little as any man he ever saw.

From the [Ebensburg, Pennsylvania] Alleghanian (October 24, 1861):

With his corpus on the ground/He can’t hear a single sound,/Nor can he strike a “blizzard;”—/Then stop and shed a tear,/And take some good small beer,/In memory of Dizzard.

From “The Great Battle in Kentucky” in the [Dowagiac, Michigan] Cass County Republican (February 1, 1862):

The enemy formed in those two fields, attacking the Indiana troops both in front and upon their left flank. A section of Captain Standart’s battery had been brought up, and was stationed on the road. The attack here was made about seven o’clock in the morning. Col. Manson coming up to the position, just after the attack began, seeing that his men must be overpowered before the other regiments could come up, ordered his men to fall back, which they did in good order, fighting as they went. Capt. Standart reluctantly gave up the privilege of “giving the enemy one good blizzard” from that point and retired too.

From “Great Battle of Stones’ River, Tennessee,” in the Nashville [Tennessee] Daily Union (January 15, 1863):

Inquiring who held the extreme left, the General was answered Col. Wagner’s brigade. “Tell Wagner to hold his position at all hazards.” Soon after Col. Wagner replied, laconically, “Say to the General I will!” Down at the toll-gate, on the Pike, we got another “blizzard,” with an interlude of Minnies, which whistled about with an admonitory slit.

From “Letter From Vicksburg” in the Memphis [Tennessee] Daily Appeal (March 24, 1863):

Gen. [William] Loring is called “Old blizzard” throughout the whole camp, from the following circumstance: The day before the enemy came down, it was determined to remove a heavy gun from the right wing of the works to the left. It was brought over, but the mud was so deep that the gun stuck fast about twenty steps from the platform upon which it was to be placed. General Loring came up in person and assisted in getting it out of its perilous position. He urged the men to renewed labor, telling them the smoke of the gunboats was not more than twelve hundred yards distant. A desperate attempt was made and the gun was got into position just as the boat got in sight. He jumped up on a cotton bale upon the parapet, took off his hat and waved it, shouting—“Now, boys, give them a blizzard!” The connical messsenger was sped, and we had the satisfaction of seeing it strike the gunboat in the bow.

From “Slightly Curious” in the White Cloud Kansas Chief (July 30, 1863):

We do not believe we ever publish a word about any person, that said person didn’t find it out in the shortest possible time afterward. No matter whom we may see porper to favor with a little notice, be he prominent or obscure, far or near, some kind friend takes particular pains to send him a copy, marked. Six years ago a daily mail was secured for this place. Some enemy of the town sent to Washington a copy of the Chief containing something not very complimentary to old [James] Buchanan’s Administration, and forthwith White Cloud was reduced to tri-weekly service. If we should speak disrespectfully of the King of the Feejee Islands, within three weeks afterwards he would manage to send us word that he knew all about it. Were we to give the man in the moon a blizzard, we verily believe, that in passing that planet, on our way to Heaven, old Crusoe, or whatsoever name the solitary inhabitant is known by, would hail us concerning the article we published about him!

From Rosecrans’ Campaign with the Fourteenth Army Corps, or the Army of the Cumberland (1863):

A regiment was lying down upon the field before him, waiting to be called into action. Shot and shell were whizzing furiously over them. The Chief [General Rosecranz] dashed up to the line and addressed them: ”Men, do you wish to know how to be safe? Shoot low. Give them a blizzard at their shins! But do you wish to know how to be safest of all? I’ll tell you. Give them a blizzard right at their shins at short range, and then let them have the bayonet. Give them a blizzard, and then charge with cold steel! Forward now, and show what you are made of!”

From “Forty Rounds and a blizzard,” in the [Plymouth, Indiana] Marshall County Republican (October 12, 1865):

C. Van Tyne, having been nominated by the Democracy of Erie county, for County Recorder, declines in a card wherein he says:

I hereby declare, and request my friends—if they bear me any love—to make it known that the proceedings of said convention as regards my name, are wholly repudiated by me. On what ground their expectation of my acceptance of the nomination was founded, I am at a loss to conjecture.

From “Too Much Whisky Aboard,” in the Wheeling [West Virginia] Intelligencer (October 10, 1866):

On Monday evening, Jacob Bradley was possessed of a veritable devil, which caused him, figuratively speaking, to run violently down a steep hill into the sea. On his way, he entered the ale and beer bottling establishment of Mr. Hartley, on Fourth Street, below Quincy, and requested that gentleman to supply him with malt liquor. His request was not complied with, whereupon he indulged in phrases having special application to Mr. H. but altogether unfit for ears polite. A Mr. Ray, who happened to be present, endeavored to appease the mightiness of his wrath, but without success. Mr. H. then intimated to his would be customer that he had better step outside of his threshold, and for his pains got a “blizzard” on the side of his knowledge box, which caused him to fall helplessly over a stand full of bottles.

From “Coop That Chicken” in the Wheeling [West Virginia] Intelligencer (November 5, 1866):

Empty craw and bursted gizzard,/Tail and wings completely scissored,/Felled at one decisive blizzard—/Routed—skinned from A to izzard—/O, poor cock-a-doodle-doo!

From Rebecca Davis, “Waiting for the Verdict” in The Galaxy (July 1867):

>He [Hugh] could not see that she [Meg] did not answer his smile. “Yes, I know, Hugh,” cheerfully helping him off with his cravat. “Good-night. I’ll have work enough for you to-morrow. You must help me pack the books, and there’s call-meeting at night.”

“That’s true, that’s true! I’ll give Brother Berkett a parting blizzard on that idee of his, that’ll settle him, I reckon!”

From “Radicalism Responsible for all the Evils that Curse the Land,” in the [Alexandria] Louisiana Democrat (July 22, 1868):

Gen. Morgan, (Dem) from Ohio, who was lately voted ont of his seat in Congress by a lawless Rump majority, made a speech, and gave the Rads a “blizzard” before he left:

He declared that the Republican party was responsible for all the evils that curse the land ; that half of the national debt was the result of robbery and speculation, and that the aggregate debt of the country was $6,5000,000,000—nearly one-half of the estimated property of the country.

From the Winchester [Indiana] Journal (June 9, 1870):

The Louisville Commercial says: “It’s always safe for a Democratic editor to abuse Governor Morton. In no other way can he better emphasize his devotion to his creed. In no other manner can he more highly commend himself to the leaders of his party. By no other device can he more certainly dispel any doubts as to his continued and eternal fidelity to the lost cause. Does the Democratic heart grow weary and faint, pitch into Morton. Does the Democratic spirit flag and falter, denounce Morton. Do signs of demoralization and death forbode the dissolution of the Democratic party, damn Morton. Are news scarce, topics few, politics dull, newspapers tame, Democrats disgusted, give Morton a blizzard.

From the [Troy, Missouri] Lincoln County Herald (July 28, 1870):

The Winchester (Indiana) Journal, speaking of the defalcation of eighteen thousand dollars by the treasurer of Jay county, says: “Unfortunately he is a Republican. If he was a Democrat wouldn’t we ‘blizzard’ him though.” Better “blizzard” him a little any how.—Cincinnati Commercial.

From the [Clearfield, Pennsylvania] Raftsman’s Journal (September 21, 1870):

The candidate nominated in the Second Congressional District, Tennessee, by the Democrats and conservatives, to run against Hon. Horace Maynard, Republican, owns the euphonious cognomen of A. Blizzard. He will have to treat the whisky drinkers of the Second district to many a “blizzard” and swallow not a few himself before he beats Horace—we fancy.

Summary of the cited examples

The cited uses of blizzard above break out into the following senses, with years of occurrence following):

  • Blast with a firearm or cannon (whether one or multiple bullets or pellets uncertain): 1834, 1834, 1836, 1846, 1846, 1862

  • Verbal blast: 1835, 1848, 1851, 1860, 1861, 1863, 1865, 1868

  • Blast with a firearm or cannon (single ball or bullet): 1835, 1857, 1863

  • Blazing fire: 1843

  • Heavy or painful physical blow (not involving a firearm): 1849, 1856, 1860, 1861, 1866, 1870, 1870

  • Literal or figurative attack: 1851, 1866, 1867

  • Exclamation (like “the blazes” or “blue blazes”): 1853, 1857

  • Blast with multiple firearms or with a firearm loaded with multiple pellets): 1860, 1863, 1863

  • Shot of liquor: 1870

Several things are noteworthy about these results. First, within thirteen years of the first confirmed use of blizzard in the sense of “snowstorm,” the word was being used in at least five other distinct senses (firearm blast, verbal blast, physical blow, exclamation, and shot of liquor). Second, the usage doesn’t seem as geographically narrow as we might have expected from the contemporaneous identification of blizzard as a “Western” word: Stories using the word appeared in newspapers located in California, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Third, in the 1860s use of the term in its various meanings seems to have been on the increase. Fourth, we see the emergence around 1860 of the use of blizzard in the sense of a volley or fusillade or flurry of pellets or bullets. The conceptual distance between such a flurry of missiles and a snowstorm is far less than the distance between a single bullet and a snowstorm.

In view of these considerations, I think it is highly likely that blizzard in the sense of snowstorm emerged not independently of the other meanings or directly from a Midlands English dialectal usage, but from one of the several U.S. slang meanings of the word that were then current. As for whether those words arose out of Anglo-Saxon blysa, French blesser, German Blitz, or onomatopoeic blizzzz-urd remains a matter for speculation.

Good things from 2014

2015-01-02 by Matt Ellen. 2 comments

Now that hat season is in full swing, we thought it would be nice to have a look at some of the good bits of 2014 at English Language & Usage.

First of all, some congratulations to members who hit 20K reputation this year:*

Job well done.

On a similar note, some of the more interesting gold badges earned this year:


Unsung Hero


Three questions from this year that caught our attention (in a good way)

Thanks to all our members for helping make EL&U the thriving community that it is. Thanks for an enjoyable 2014 and have a happy 2015!

*Thanks to the SE team for compiling the list. Since this was done in the middle of December more folks may have passed the line.

Chat vs Comment

2013-07-11 by Matt Ellen. 4 comments

Hello my friend! How are you doing? It is good to see you around these parts, the Stack Exchange network is a lovely part of the Internet where we can all help each other to learn.

Of course, though, there are rules by which we should abide if we want to keep this place friendly and free of noise. Hey, now, do not look like that. It is true there are many rules, but they are normally quite useful.

Today I want to tell you about how to communicate with your fellow Stack Exchange users. For example: you have seen something someone has written and you disagree. You are a polite person, so you do not think you should just downvote and leave. I admire your style. Communication is good. At Stack Exchange we are allowed to make comments on people’s posts to ask for clarification and to point out mistakes. Obviously we do this in as friendly a way as possible.

Oh? You cannot comment? I see, I see. Do not be troubled. Comments are a privilege, which is earned by attaining 50 reputation points on this site. It is a mere trifle. You will find that by contributing good quality answers and questions you will be there in a few days, maybe even less.

It is important to note that comments are not permanent parts of the site and they get deleted when they outlive their usefulness. Ideally the useful information in a comment will be integrated into the post the comment is on, thus making the comment redundant.

Also, you should understand that the main site is not for discussion. Comments should not be used to discuss a topic at length.

Yes, you are quite right. Sometimes discussion is useful, or necessary. For that there is another place! It is a wonderful place, really. There is much adventure to be had. We call this place chat. The ability to chat is also a privilege, but it has a lower bar. Only 20 reputation points are required.

Chat is used for discussion, yes, but the discussion can roam from being purely about topics on the main site. Many times people wander in with simple questions, questions that might not be suitable for the main site, and ask them in the chat room. This is fine, encouraged even. There is of course a lot of other discussion going on there too, it can get quite frenetic, but do not be afraid to jump in. Be courteous and not pushy and you will be fine.

One excellent trick you can do with chat is to take a discussion in comments and move it to a chat room. This is useful if you think the discussion will become long. Also, if you would like to chat with someone, but they and you are finding the main room too difficult, you can create your own room. The new room will be public, but people generally do not stray from the main room unless they are invited.

Well, my friend, I hope you stay a while. There is a lot you can learn, and maybe a lot you can teach! We will be glad to hear from you.

You Could Look It Up

2012-12-17 by StoneyB. 4 comments

Your question has been “Closed as General Reference”. That raises more questions: What does that mean? Why was it closed? What should you do about it?

What Does It Mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “Your question is worthless. Don’t bother us.” It certainly doesn’t mean “You are an illiterate cretin. Go away” — although some people take it that way.

Closed means “Closed for repairs”.  And General Reference means “You could look it up.”

Why Was it Closed?

That’s very easy to answer: we believe that your question (as it stands) can be answered by consulting a standard online reference work.

It makes a lot more sense for you to do that than us. If you look it up you will find not only the answer to the question you asked but also the answers to many other questions you might have intended to ask that we don’t know about.

You will also get your answer faster, since you won’t have to wait for one (or more) of us to perform the lookup and incorporate the results in a Witty and Incisive Response. (Wit and Incisiveness are hard to achieve, and a good Response can take a long time to compose.)

And: you may also learn something about what online resources are available to you, and what they offer which might satisfy future needs.

What Should You Do?

Depends.  Very often people will have posted an answer to your question, or will have posted what amounts to an answer in the comments. If all you’re interested in is the answer, you’ve got it: you’re done.

If you didn’t get a satisfactory answer this way, do what the Closed banner tells you:

Look it up.

Again, people will often post a link directing you to an appropriate online reference. If not, a lot of useful references are listed here and here. These lists are particularly valuable for the comments which accompany them. The works fall mostly into four broad categories:

  • Dictionaries provide far more than just definitions: etymologies, examples, citations, and often brief notes on “standard” usage (debate rages over what exactly that means, but that’s instructive, too). Don’t consult just one: Dictionaries vary greatly not just in overall quality but in the value of individual entries.
  • Thesauruses (or thesauri, or even more piquantly thesauroi) are useful for recalling words you can’t quite remember, but they don’t usually tell you much about which synonym you should use where. But they can be fun.
  • Corpora provide many more examples of actual use of a word or phrase than dictionaries, and can be particularly valuable guides to when and how synonyms differ.
  • Style guides are the best source for prescriptive rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and documentation. They all differ in many details, however; select the one that is recommended by your school or discipline or (if you are so fortunate as to have one) your publisher.

A hint:  OneLook is a very useful tool: input a word or phrase and it returns you links to many dictionaries and other references conveniently listed on one page.

But what if these references don’t provide you what you need? — no reference work can answer all questions. In that case, come back to ELU and

Fix your question.

Click edit immediately beneath your post and rewrite it.

  • Tell us what you’ve found out, and focus our attention on what your research leaves unanswered.
  • If anybody left useful comments, address those.
  • Give us as much context as you can. What is it you’re trying to understand (or say)? Who said it (or to whom do you want to say it), where and when? What register are you concerned with? — formal, colloquial, vulgar?
  • Don’t forget to change your title Question to fit the new content.

The more you can tell us, the better we can answer.

If you’ve got at least 20 rep, you can pop over to Chat (the link’s at the top of the ELU page) for help. There’s usually somebody around to hold your hand. And if you fix it all by yourself, come by Chat when you’re done and report it. It takes a moderator or five high-rep users to get your question reopened, so you want to draw their attention to the work you’ve done.

Trust me. That’s how you get a Witty and Incisive Response—or several. That’s how you get Upvotes and Reputation. That’s how you learn to use resources you never knew about. That’s how you Make Friends and Influence People.

You could look it up.


Writing Good ‘Meaning’ Questions

2012-09-03 by mahnax. 1 comments

On any Stack Exchange site, a question must be tagged. Here at EL&U, our most popular tag is the meaning tag, with over 2700 questions filed as such. Unfortunately, this tag is often misused, and many questions bearing this tag are closed, with some being subsequently deleted. Luckily, the EL&U blog is here to save the day.

Here is a set of criteria for good meaning questions:

Good meaning questions…

  1. are not General Reference
  2. are applicable to a wide audience, not just the OP (not Too Localized)
  3. ask about…
    • words or phrases that do not make sense when interpreted literally
    • words or phrases that are ambiguous
    • potentially archaic words or phrases
    • words or phrases that have different meanings in different dialects
    • other things that are generally deeper than a simple definition

1. Not General Reference General Reference questions are questions that can be fully answered with a single link to a place that is specifically designed to provide the information in the question.  These sources include online dictionaries or etymology sites.

To put it more simply, a General Reference question is too basic for EL&U. In my experience, General Reference is the most common reason for question closure. The meaning tag is more likely to be used on a General Reference question because the name and description of the tag are slightly deceptive, especially to those who don’t speak English well; it’s deceptive because meaning sounds a lot simpler than the questions should be.

Almost all definitions are easily found by using search engines or by checking dictionaries directly. In most circumstances, asking for a simple definition is too basic.

2. Not Too Localized Questions that get closed as Too Localized are unlikely to help anyone in the future, meaning that the question at hand simply does not apply to many people. These questions can stem from a user finding an unfamiliar word or phrase somewhere else on the Internet, a news article, etc. EL&U and the meaning tag seem like prime places to ask about the meanings of these unfamiliar words or phrases, but if that word/phrase has been made up and used among just a handful of people, then it likely has no established meaning, and thus cannot be explained.

More simply, they don’t mean anything to anyone other than the few who use it. Asking about the meanings of these types of phrases is not likely to be accepted, either with the meaning tag, or without.

3. So what can I ask about? Well, if your question isn’t ruled out by criterion #1 or #2, it stands a good chance of being acceptable. There are a few final things to be concerned about, but these apply to all questions—make sure it’s legible, sensible, and well-written. Be certain to clearly state the exact question you have at some point, and include research that you’ve done yourself. The list of good question criteria is a good place to start, and don’t hesitate to pop into chat to ask about your question if you’re not sure it’ll do well. Here are two examples of good meaning questions: Which day does “next Tuesday” refer to? What does “information porn” mean?

Thanks for reading, and good luck with all of your future meaning questions.

Getting into the spirit

2011-12-20 by martha. 0 comments

… the Holiday spirit, that is. Here’s a selection of Christmas and other end-of-year holiday questions that you may find interesting.

Determining Which Good Sentiment to Wish at Each Holiday – If you have ever wondered why we don’t say “Merry New Year”, or why “Happy Christmas” is perfectly fine in Britain but exceedingly odd in America, you’re not alone. If you know some of the history behind these set phrases, here’s your opportunity to post a good answer.

How many articles should go in “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”? and How should Merry Christmas and Happy New Year be capitalized? – These questions might come in handy if you haven’t written your Christmas cards yet.

What preposition should I use before “Christmas”? – Yes, this is Yet Another Question About Prepositions, but like many other commonplace expressions, Christmas does have its idiosyncrasies, so the answers might be worth a read if English isn’t your native language, or if you’re puzzled by the usage on the opposite side of the pond. Another similar question is Prepositions for “Wednesday night” and “the night of Christmas Eve.”

What method of counting puts Twelfth Night on January 6? – OK, full disclosure, this is my question, but I still think it’s a good one. And my traditional year-end gripe bears repeating, too: however you count them, the twelve days of Christmas come after Christmas. If you’re taking down your decorations on the 26th, you’re doing it wrong.

And finally, why do some words have “X” as a substitute? – This is worth reading just for the comment by mgkrebbs, which (in my opinion) quite effectively debunks the notion that writing “Xmas” is a nefarious new plot to remove Christ from Christmas.

Themed Questions: Wars

2011-11-11 by waiwai933. 2 comments

On 11 November 1918, at 11 AM Paris time, the armistice that ended fighting between the Triple Entente and Germany in the First World War came into effect, and to this day, nations around the world hold memorial days on November 11th, no matter what they are called—Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Memorial Day, or Veterans Day.

For better or for worse, wars are no small part of human history, and that is evident in the questions the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site receives. Let’s take a look at a few:

How do I say WWI out loud?

As most countries observe November 11th in honor of those who died in WWI, let’s start with a question about that conflict. How do we expand the acronym?

Our members provide several suggestions: the First World War and World War One seem to be among the names most commonly used.

Are the allies always good guys?

Another fascinating question of terminology. The OP perhaps explains the question best:

[T]he side described as “allies” is nearly always reserved to the side to which the speaker has sympathy. Although technically the word means somebody in alliance, I virtually never seen the word applied to a supposedly bad side even if that side has an alliance of their own.

Word for opposing sides in a war

Let’s say we’d like to sidestep the issue of naming each side and just use a more general term for the two sides fighting in a war. What are our options?

Centigonal provides us with our most popular suggestion, belligerents, but Mitch and mickeyf trail close behind, with opponents, combatants, and adversaries as alternatives.

When referring to a specific war (or other named event), should the word “war” be capitalized when it appears alone?

Here’s a broader question. If we’re referring to, say, the Cold War, and we use the word war by itself, should it be capitalized?

Jim opines that both can be valid, but both he and Barrie England seem to prefer that war not be capitalized.

“Decimate”: has it been used in the “classic” sense in modern writing?

On a related note, decimate is a word commonly criticized that many people believe should mean to kill one in every ten, but very rarely do we see it used to mean the execution of a proportion that is anywhere near one-tenth. How often is the “correct” meaning used?

Very rarely, it seems—the answerers only seem to have been able to source it a few times. But ShreevatsaR provides us with an interesting glimpse of why what many people perceive to be the correct meaning is in fact not grounded in historical fact. Fascinating reading.

No matter where you live, November 11 marks an important anniversary for the human race—WWI is called a world war for a reason. Even as we enjoy the remarkable uniqueness of the date (i.e. 11-11-11), we should also take a moment to remember the tragedies of the World Wars.

Grammar Girl Interview

2011-10-19 by Mr. Shiny & New. 8 comments

As someone who is interested in the English language and word history, I don’t just participate in English Language & Usage, I also read other blogs. Grammar Girl, from Quick and Dirty Tips, is a good blog to read for English advice. She recently agreed to do an interview for us. I polled the community and we sent her these questions. Here are her responses.

  1. How did you choose the name Grammar Girl?
    It just popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration. In retrospect, I think it works especially well because “girl” is a very nonthreatening word, and a lot of people are anxious about grammar, so Grammar Girl seems approachable and friendly. Grammar Girl is someone who will answer your questions without making you feel stupid or embarrassed.
  2. How do you come up with ideas for podcasts/posts?
    In the early days, I tackled what I knew were the most common questions (e.g., who versus whom) or things I struggled with myself (overusing of). Then I went through a phase during which I answered a lot of listener questions–the show often actually began with a recorded listener question. Then, when I started writing more books, I had a lot of guest writers contributing to the show, and they would suggest topics. Today, it’s still a mix of all those things. I mix reruns of the shows that cover the most common problems with listener questions, ideas from guest writers, and topics that appear in the news.
  3. What grammar-related question(s) do you get most frequently from your listeners?
    The most common question is how to know when to use affect and effect. There are exceptions, but most of the time, affect is a verb and effect is a noun.
  4. What’s the most interesting, thought-provoking, or fun topic you’ve tackled lately? On the other hand, what question are you sick of hearing?
    I’ve been doing small research projects lately. They’ve been popular, and I enjoy doing them. For example, I polled my Facebook followers to find out where people say “The car needs washed” instead of “The car needs to be washed.” It turns out dropping the to be is a regionalism, and that led to a lot of other interesting discussions about other regionalisms such as spendy (which is popular in Minnesota and Oregon) and bow up (which is mostly heard in the South). The studies aren’t scientifically rigorous, because the sample is just people who respond to my Facebook questions, but the results are still interesting. Frankly, I’ve answered all the common questions (affect/effect, who/whom, which/that) hundreds–probably thousands–of times, so I’m a little sick of all of them.
  5. It seems like many common grammar rules have exceptions. Are there any hard and fast grammar rules you believe in firmly, that don’t have exceptions?
    Yes! A lot is always two words.
  6. From EL&U moderator nohat: In your article about the word class of than, you explain the prescriptivist objections to using “than” as a preposition, but also provide some arguments in its favor. In contrast, I answered a related question on our site using two different corpora to show that than-as-a-preposition is in fact more common than than-as-a-conjunction. Have you considered using corpus-based approaches to answering questions of grammar? Corpus-based approaches have the benefit of bringing cold, hard facts to the table using logic and appeals to authority, but the authority of these facts might be hard to sell to your readership. The argument that “just because everyone says it that way doesn’t make it correct”, though specious, is, sadly, quite common.
    Great question! I’ve started doing more corpus-based research since I discovered the Google Books Corpus (Ngram), which then led me to investigate other corpora. For example, I did a Google Ngram search to track the rise of schadenfreude, which showed some interesting spikes that may correlate with a mention on the TV show The Simpsons and the popularity of the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which includes a song “Schadenfreude.” You’re right that many people don’t like the “it’s correct because everyone writes it that way” argument, but like it or not, that is one way language changes, and I’ve been looking through corpora and making that argument more and more lately. This isn’t a corpora-based argument, but on a related note, I recently decided to give up the fight for the traditional logic meaning of begs the question. I searched extremely hard to try to find a correct use in newspapers, magazines, and websites, but the “improper” use (using begs the question to mean “raises the question”) vastly outnumbered the proper uses. I literally searched through hundreds of articles and not one of them used it in the traditional way. When common usage swings that far in the “wrong” direction, it’s a lost cause.
  7. From user Robusto: Is it ever worth the time and effort to correct someone else’s grating grammatical mistakes? In my experience, even when I phrase my suggestion in the gentlest possible way it never works well and I almost always wind up feeling pedantic, priggish, or even alienated.What’s the general opinion here? Is it best to just let these things slide or to take up the fight?
    I think it has a lot more to do with your personality and relationship with the other person than anything else. It’s always going to be fine to correct your children or your students if you’re a teacher, for example. But you start to get on thin ice when it’s a coworker or your boss or a stranger. I almost never correct people unless they’ve asked for help because in most instances it seems rude to me. On the other hand, I know a lot of people do want to correct others, so I’ve actually invited a guest writer who does regularly correct people to write a Grammar Girl podcast on the topic and give advice on how to do it as politely as possible.
  8. From user TRiG: What do you think of gender-neutral pronouns? I prefer the zie/zir set, but when I used them on our Christianity site, all kinds of unpleasantness broke out! Do you think these pronouns are offensive? If so, which set of gender-neutral pronouns do you prefer?
    I’m not offended by the zie/zir set, but I think it’s hopeless to try to get them widely adopted. I strongly believe that they will be fine to use as a singular gender-neutral pronoun in the near future. People already use it all the time (especially in speech), there’s a long history of it in literature, and English desperately needs such a word.
  9. On a related note, why don’t English nouns have gender, the way they do in French and Spanish?
    I don’t know!
  10. What’s your favorite bit of punctuation and why?
    I’m fond of the interrobang (‽): a combination of the question mark and exclamation point. An advertising man invented it in the 1960s and held a contest to determine the name. It was almost called an exclamaquest. It’s not on your keyboard, but you can insert it as a special character or symbol in some fonts. (The easiest way to use it online is to just cut and paste it from a site that has one.) I like it because it fills a need (much like they as a singular pronoun that we talked about a couple of questions ago). In English, you aren’t supposed to use both a question mark and exclamation point at the end of a sentence; you’re supposed to pick one of the other, but when it’s a surprised question (you did what?!), the desire to use both is strong. The interrobang fills the need, while letting you stick to the rule of only using one terminal punctuation mark.
  11. Of the other Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, which is your favorite and why?
    That’s like asking me which of my children is my favorite! I love them all equally.
  12. Below are two examples from our top grammar questions. If you click the link you can see the answers our community came up with. What is your take on these questions? Do you agree with any of the answers you see on EL&U?
  13. What do you think of the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage site? Is it something you can see yourself or your listeners using? What is your favorite question on EL&U?
    The reputation score is an essential part of the site; without that, you’d just have mess of people posting their opinions. I might use the site as a starting point for research, but even with the reputation scores, I’d still always verify anything I found there before using it in my own work. I like the question What is the origin of the term “Urban Legend”? because I had never thought about it before.

On behalf of the EL&U Community, I’d like to thank Grammar Girl for taking the time to answer our questions, and I encourage our readers to check out her site for useful tips.

Proofreading Questions

2011-10-05 by waiwai933. 2 comments

If we were to categorize all closed questions on the English Language and Usage – Stack Exchange, proofreading questions would be by far the largest category. The fact that we get proofreading questions in quantity is no surprise—after all, a vast number of people are eager to learn English, which is the lingua franca of international business, science, technology and aviation”, and they want to know if their English is respectable.

At the same time, EL&U-SE has a policy that prohibits proofreading questions. Does this mean that we don’t want to help people get better at English and that we’re only here for discussing obscure questions about grammar? Of course not! The entire point of EL&U-SE, and every other SE site, is to help people learn about the subject matter. The reason we don’t allow proofreading questions is because there is nothing to be gained by a simple proofreading question—true, a sentence will be improved, but the author does not benefit from experience, nor does the community benefit, as it is statistically unlikely that some other person will come up with the same sentence. 

Certainly, we could identify all the errors in a piece of writing, but that doesn’t teach the author about pronoun-antecdent agreement, about idiomatic uses, or about the differences between to, too, and two. We’d love to teach our friends about these things so that they can benefit in the long-term. So while we don’t allow general proofreading requests, proofreading requests that identify a specific area of concern are welcome.

For example, presume the following post was posted on EL&U-SE.

The cats eating food of cat.
What are the errors in the above sentence?

The example sentence has at least two mistakes, depending on how you count them, but that isn’t our concern right now. Let’s say we were to identify the errors for the author. Hopefully, he/she would be grateful, but in the long run, the author’s only resource is to continue asking us. This doesn’t help anyone learn, and eventually, we’d all get bored of these questions.

On the other hand, here’s a good example of a proofreading question:

The cats eating food of cat.
Can you use *eating* in the above sentence? I don’t see verbs that end in *ing* by themselves in sentences, but I don’t know why that is.

This is an example of a good proofreading question; an answer could discuss verb forms that end in -ing (i.e. participles and gerunds) and why they can’t be used as a verb by themselves (but they can with a form of the verb to be, e.g. was eating). This way, the author can understand better how verb forms work. Note that the author has to take the initiative to identify the area of concern; it would be too much expenditure of effort if we explained every error when the author was only trying to get an editor for free and didn’t care how or why the sentence was wrong

In addition, most people are kind enough to mention as a side note that food of cat is wrong, and why food for cats and cat food are the acceptable phrasings. We’re generally able to help with minor issues, so long as the original author has demonstrated concern and a willingness to learn.

In summary, proofreading questions, when they identify the area of concern, are welcome on EL&U-SE.