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A Blue Million

Ian in Clyde, North Carolina, is puzzled when a colleague uses the term blue million, meaning “a large amount.” Along with words like zillion and gazillion, this expression functions as an indefinite hyperbolic numeral. Sometimes the...

Why Are Some Competitions “Heats”?

Why do we use the word heat to denote a preliminary qualifying race? Hundreds of years ago, a single instance of heating something such as a piece of metal over a fire for metalworking was called a heat. Later that term was applied to “a round...

You Must Be Smelling Yourself

Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent history, The Warmth of Other Suns, chronicles the Great Migration of American blacks from the Southern United States starting in the era of Jim Crow. In it, Wilkerson quotes someone who says of another person:...

Cute as Bee’s Knees

What’s so cool about bees’ knees, anyway? The bee’s knees, a phrase meaning “cool” or “great,” dates back to the flapper era of the 1920s. It relates to an old definition of the word “cute,”...

A Mother’s Playful Interjections

A Green Bay, Wisconsin, caller is curious about her mother’s playful interjections. If someone said, “Well,” her mother would add, “Well, well. Three holes in the ground.” If someone started a sentence with...