The “Nonplussed” Problem

The title of this post is also the title of a great (and word-wonky) article on Slate as forwarded to me by Russell Sauve. Thanks!

The first paragraph is the most important and illustrative of the ways in which language changes over time:

Suppose a friend said to you, “I know you’re disinterested, so I want to ask you a question presently.” Then he didn’t say anything. Would you be momentarily nonplussed?

The four words being questioned – disinterested, presently, momentarily & nonplussed – are all misused or, more accurately, used in their newly-evolved meaning by yours truly.

I can use momentarily in both ways, but for the other three – especially nonplussed – I’ve move on to the newer meanings.

Read the whole article. Well worth your time and much better than those “versus” and etymology posts I’m prone to doing here every so often. And while I can be a pedant about pronunciation and grammar, I’m not nearly so anal as to recognize that language is fluid because its speakers change over time.

Happy Monday!

Oft times I pronounce Often wrong

Consider the following pairs of words for a moment.
Roll them over your tongue and maybe even say them out loud a few times.
It’s OK. Your cubicle farm buddies won’t notice (too much).


If you’re like me (and, really, you should be) you pronounced the ‘t’ in Oft & Soft and dropped it in Often & Soften.

Based on the pronunciation of my wife and daughter, only Soften deserves the dropped ‘t’; Often is pronounced ‘OFF-TEN’ or so they say.

Being the diligent blogger that I am (natch) I took to the internet.

Turns out we’re all right:

The definitive answer was unearthed by a fellow blogger just a few weeks ago, via

During the 15th century English experienced a widespread loss of certain consonant sounds within consonant clusters, as the (d) in handsome and handkerchief, the (p) in consumption and raspberry, and the (t) in chestnut and often. In this way the consonant clusters were simplified and made easier to articulate. With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often, which is now frequently pronounced. In other similar words, such as soften and listen, the t generally remains silent.

So dropped consonant clusters have been around for a long time (in English) but some of those sounds have crept back in to spoken usage with the advent of more literate (if not educated) readers. Got it.

I can see how this would happen but I’d hasten (get it?) to pronounce all those pesky ‘t’s all the time. It would get tedious (groan).

You wouldn’t say LIS-TEN or FAS-TEN, so don’t say OFF-TEN. OK, kiddies?

One brief pronunciation clarification: I do find myself shortening the second syllable in these types of words to just a nasal consonant ‘n’ [n].
Like off’n.
Never like orphan.

Enjoy your Tuesday!

Staging a Coupon Coup

I know you’re all dying to know what the Miller family discusses around the dinner table back at the old homestead so here’s a taste:

Coup versus Coupon: Are they remotely (or closely) related?

Turn out, yes they are.


Pronunciation: \ˈkü\
Function: noun
Etymology: French, blow, stroke


Pronunciation: \ˈkü-ˌpän, ˈkyü-\
Function: noun
Etymology: French, from Old French, piece, from couper to cut

Two things:

  1. Those French seem to have been working from some older source and may have crammed several meanings into one verb form that we went on to unpack and use for a few of our own. Plus, how nice is it that “cut” is one of those meanings, since the defining characteristic of coupons is that they are cut. Beautiful, this English language.
  2. People who utilize that secondary pronunciation of coupon – the one that sounds nothing like coup and everything like a kewpie doll – need to be punished.

I hope you enjoyed the etymology lesson. I know I did.

Piping up about the Pike

Continuing my series on eggcorns and malapropisms in meetings (previous installment: “flushing out” versus “fleshing out”), I bring you the “down the pipe” versus “down the pike” debate.

I’m definitely in the “pike” camp, as I’d always heard of things “coming down the pike” even if I didn’t really internally the full meaning. I think I’d always assumed it meant turnpike and not the fish or the poleaxe, but who knows.

Maybe I’m just too trusting of institutionalized linguistics and didn’t question the knowledge. Either way I picked right correctly.

Here are my “sources”. See for yourself:

The Eggcorns Database
Absolute Write

Of course, even those sites still have discussion about “pipe” as not only being valid, but also a meaningful and equal modernization. Think of “close the vest” becoming “close to the chest”. Both convey the same meaning, one is just more “classic” and original.

Here are some other discussions on the topic.

Pike == Turnpike and/or 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair reference
Pipe == 20th century plumbing and/or the internet

Until next time, I’ll be working on more posts “coming down the pike”. Or is it “pipe”?

Fleshing out “Flushing out”

Yesterday during a meeting a co-worker said they were going to “flush out” an idea and suddenly my inner twelve-year-old couldn’t stop snickering. I had to pretend I was suppressing a sneeze so as not to give myself away.

I’ve always been one to “flesh out” and idea, and I had the vague understanding that it came from Renaissance-era art, but it wasn’t an idiom I thought much about and even more rarely used.

Turns out I’m not the only person who’s had some trouble discerning the differentiation between “fleshing out” an idea and “flushing out” an idea. Paul Brians of the Department of English at Washington State University drops the knowledge:

To “flesh out” an idea is to give it substance, as a sculptor adds clay flesh to a skeletal armature. To “flush out” a criminal is to drive him or her out into the open. The latter term is derived from bird-hunting, in which one flushes out a covey of quail. If you are trying to develop something further, use “flesh”; but if you are trying to reveal something hitherto concealed, use “flush.”

The differences are slight, especially where one is talking about ideas or intellectual pursuits, so I can see why folks would get confused. But if you think back to the source and origin of the phrases, you won’t get things wrong.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to flush out an unwritten blog post and flesh out another half-written one.

Are you with me?