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Is There an Amiable Doctor in the Chiasmus?

Welcome to another edition of the A Way with Words newsletter.

This week we talked about "see a man about a horse," one of the most popular search terms that brings people to our web site. Who woulda thunk it? And, of course, we gave another airing to the varying meanings of "dinner" and "supper." Put your ear here:


This week's minicast answers the question of how to collectively refer to a married couple who are both doctors. The Doctor Chens? Doctors Chen? Find out how we settled it:


Hey, podcast listeners: If you want to hear A Way with Words over the air, why not write and tell your local station about the show? You can find more information about how to contact your station at the top of this page:


In light of our discussion of "dinner" vs. "supper," Peter of Escondido, California, writes, "How do you think the idea of people NOT eating three times a day in the past bears on the subject? Eating well and often isn't a historical norm, is it?"

That's a good question. Scientific literature tells us that humans, on the whole, prefer to eat several times a day. Not that they *have* to, but they prefer to in order to maintain metabolic equilibrium. Our brains and bodies require a great deal of energy that needs to arrive at well-spaced intervals. So perhaps eating three meals a day isn't a luxury, or even a definition of eating well, but simply ordinary for our species.

Shelly from Waupun, Wisconsin, writes, "Can the words 'amiable' and 'amicable' be used interchangeably? Is there a more preferred way to use each word?"

Shelly, the two words are generally the same, but there is a difference in how people use them.

Amiable, meaning "friendly and easy to like," is used to describe a person or their attitudes--"amiable host," "amiable chap," "amiable mood," etc.

Amicable, meaning "friendly or showing friendliness; peaceable," is used to describe group acts or situations, many of them having a sense of finality about them--"amicable settlement," "amicable parting," "amicable solution," etc. "Amicable" is almost never used to describe a person.

Both words are often used to describe the words "intention," "conversation," "feeling," "fashion," "relationship," "sentiment," and "silence."

Debra from San Diego sent us this correction: "While listening this morning, I heard Grant describe 'hat catchers' as fans of 'firemen.' You just about killed me. Why, oh why, can't we get the word 'fireman' out of the language? The use is more than politically incorrect, it is incorrect, period. There is no position called 'fireman.' The employment category is 'firefighters.'"

Good point, Debra. Although "firemen" is also often used as a unisex term, despite the presence of "men" in the name, "firefighters" is, too, and is loads more appreciated by women. "Firemen" is still used in the name of some unions and firefighting organizations, and is often used in the pages of firefighting periodicals, but we do see a number of places online where some people have asked that "firefighter" be used instead. Grant agrees that it's an appropriate change to make to his usage.

In the press this week we've seen a couple of outstanding language-related stories.

Using a quote from Bill Clinton from the Democratic National Convention as a starting point, Howard Richler in the Toronto Globe and Mail talks about "chiasmus," which is what Clinton used by swapping the places of "example" and "power" in the same sentence: "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."


The Hartford Courant has a coupe of articles celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Noah Webster:


And, finally, the Seattle Times has two articles about Microsoft's spellchecker team. They're a rare look inside a piece of software that nearly everyone knows and uses.


That's all from your radio pals. We've got a lot of new stuff planned for the coming weeks!

Chiasmus wishes and antimacassar dreams,

Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett

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