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Words that Looks Like What They Refer to

Dan from Elmira, New York, wonders if there’s such a thing as “structural” onomatopoeia, where the visual appearance or architecture of a written word suggests the meaning of the word. For example, he says, the word level is a...

Unkept vs. Unkempt

Do you describe someone with a sloppy appearance as being unkempt or unkept? A garden that’s been neglected might be described as unkept, but when it comes to personal appearance, someone who’s disheveled is far more commonly described...

To Fret Someone

At our recent appearance in Dallas, Texas, a listener asked about the use of fret as a transitive verb, as in “Don’t fret that child.” This usage is particularly common in the American South, and comes from the old notion of fret...

More Expressions from the Bible

The earliest recorded appearance of the phrases a house divided cannot stand and the powers that be occurred in early English translations of the Bible. Although the exact phrase a fly in the ointment isn’t in the Bible, the idea of a dead fly...

Tuckered Out

To be tuckered out, or tired, is thought to derive from the image of a starved quadruped that’s so skinny and worn out that it has a “tucked” appearance just behind the ribs. It may have been influenced by an older verb tuck...

She’s Porky But Not Fat

A woman in Middlesex, Vermont, says that when she was a girl her parents sometimes described her as porky, but they weren’t referring to her appearance — they meant she was acting rebelliously. This use of the word might be related to pawky...