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From: (Donna Richoux)
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Subject:  Intro C: Mini-FAQ on Words and Phrases
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Last Revised 2010-07-12 (12 July 2010)
A copy of this is posted at:
The alt.usage.english Website (Who's computer is this?)
* = recently revised

Intro C: Mini-FAQ on Words and Phrases
Questions on the meaning or origin of these words and phrases are asked
extremely frequently on alt.usage.english. There are longer answers,
with more examples, for most of these items in the full AUE FAQ (edited
by Mark Israel). Many of these topics cause much argument, and we
earnestly request that you do some research before deciding to post on


General Words and Phrases
- American
- "beg the question"
* - "billion"
- "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"
- England, Britain, Great Britain, United Kingdom, etc.
- "exception proves the rule"
- "full monty"
- "O.K."
- "push the envelope"
- "whole nine yards"

Words Relating to alt.usage.english and Usenet
- "obaue" or "ObAUE"
- "pond," "pondian," etc.
- "rhotic" and "nonrhotic"

- What words are their own antonym?
* - words ending in "-gry"
* - Did Shakespeare invent a large number of words?



Should US citizens call themselves "Americans"? The fact is: they do.
And they call their country "America," among other terms. To modern
speakers of the English language, both in the US and elsewhere, these
are the most frequent meanings of the words "America" and "American."

However, to many people outside the USA, the name "America" (with
various spellings: Amerique, Amerika, etc.) can quite normally mean the
entire "New World." That tradition goes back to the days of the first
European explorers. We have heard complaints from time to time,
especially from native Spanish speakers, that the citizens of the United
States of America have commandeered the name, as if they were the only
ones in the Americas. These attempts to convince US residents to start
calling themselves something else, such as USonians or USans, in
deference to the other inhabitants of the landmass, usually lead only to
anger and bafflement, on both sides.

However, when explaining why they call themselves "American," those in
the US are hereby cautioned not to overstate the case and imply that any
other use of the word is wrong, impossible, or obsolete. "American" has
indeed been used for a very long time, as an English word, to mean "an
inhabitant of, or pertaining to, the Americas." This meaning is
supported by all major dictionaries, although many of us encounter it
only rarely, in fixed combinations such as the American crocodile, the
Organization of American States, and the Pan-American Games.

"beg the question"

Fowler defines "begging the question" as the "fallacy of founding a
conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion

"Question" here does not mean "a sentence in interrogative form".
Rather, it means "the point at issue, the thing that the person is
trying to prove".

Common varieties of begging the question are paraphrase of the statement
to be proved ("Telepathy cannot exist because direct transfer of thought
between individuals is impossible"), and arguing in a circle ("The Bible
must be true, because God wouldn't lie to us; we know God is
trustworthy, because it says so in the Bible").

More and more, one can hear people using "begs the question" where
others would prefer they said, "raises the question."

* "billion"

"Billion" is a word which is somewhat ambiguous in U.K. practice, but
not in American. For several centuries in Britain, it meant "a million
million" (1,000,000,000,000 = 10^12 = US trillion), but in 1974, the
British government announced that it would use "billion" to mean 10^9,
the same as US usage. For the last several decades, English-language
publishers have used "billion" or "thousand million" for 1,000,000,000 =
10^9 = US billion.

The "old" use is still encountered just often enough (in speech,
informal writing, and older books) to cause some Britons to be unsure of
what the speaker or writer means by the word.

The first few U.S. words for large numbers, and the corresponding
traditional British terms, are as follows:

U.S. Traditional British
10^6 million million
10^9 billion thousand million or milliard
10^12 trillion billion or million million
10^15 quadrillion thousand billion
10^18 quintillion trillion

Scientists have long preferred to express numbers in figures rather than
in words, so it is easy to avoid "billion" in contexts where precision
is required. The plural, "billions", is still used freely with the
colloquial meaning of "a very large number".

Some articles with more history about these terms: (Who's computer is this?) (Who's computer is this?) (Who's computer is this?)

"cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"

We have examined various explanations for this phrase; some we reject as
impossible, and others suffer from lack of evidence. In particular, the
story that it relates to cannonballs stacked on a brass frame on board
ship has no historic or scientific support. Without repeating the flawed
theory in detail: the word used for a cannonball stand was "garland,"
not "monkey"; garlands were not brass; and it would have been most
unlikely that balls were stacked in such a way that daily pitching and
tossing of the ship would free them (which would have to have been the
case if the tiny effect of metal expansion from the cold was thought to
jar them loose).

England, Britain, Great Britain, United Kingdom, etc.
We are often asked what the difference is among these and similar terms.
Two long and thorough responses can be found in the
AUE FAQ Supplement; one written by John Davies and one by Don Aitken. (Who's computer is this?) (Who's computer is this?)

"exception proves the rule"

Interestingly, the old (some would say "real") meaning of this phrase is
something like "the exception proves that there *is* a rule."

The common misconception is that "proves" in this phrase means "tests".
That is *not* the case, although "proof" *does* mean "test" in such
locutions as "proving ground" and "The proof of the pudding is in the

The Dictionary of Modern English Usage explains this saying as follows:

"'Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight till 11.0
p.m.'; 'The exception proves the rule' means that this special leave
implies a rule requiring men, except when an exception is made, to be in
earlier. The value of this in interpreting statutes is plain."

"full monty"

This British expression means "the whole thing". Although it seems to be
a fairly recent coining, none of the many theories about its origin has
been verified. See full FAQ and Michael Quinion's good summary at
< (Who's computer is this?) >


This one has generated *lots* of folklore. "Oll korrect, popularized by
Old Kinderhook" is what's given in most up-to-date dictionaries. The
earliest known citation is from the Boston Morning Post of 23 March
1839. There is a whole string of other theories, given in the AUE FAQ.

"push the envelope"

"Push the envelope" is now used figuratively to mean "stretch the

The phrase has its origins in the world of aviation, where 'envelope'
has, since at least the late 60s, had the meaning 'a set of performance
limits that may not be safely exceeded.' Test pilots are often called
on to 'push' a new aircraft's performance envelope by going beyond known
safety limits, as in determining just how fast an airplane can be flown.
The best-seller 'The Right Stuff' by Tom Wolfe did much to popularize
the notion, using variations such as 'pushing the outside of the

"whole nine yards"

This phrase, meaning "all of it, everything", is first attested to in
the mid-1960s. The origin is a matter for speculation. Nine yards is
not a particularly significant distance either in football or in the
garment business. There is no record of it ever being used during the
era of sailing ships. Another theory is that the phrase refers to the
capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks, alleged to average about 9 cubic
yards. However, industry literature on the 1960s shows that standard
mixers held 4.5 or 6.2 cubic yards (see
< (Who's computer is this?) >.) So
far, no machine gun has been identified with an ammo belt nine yards
long, although some may have been close.

There are good summaries of the "whole nine yards" theories at:
Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site (Who's computer is this?)
Evan Morris's Word Detective site (Who's computer is this?) (Who's computer is this?)
David Wilton's Etymologies & Word Origins (Who's computer is this?)


"obaue" or "ObAUE"

This is derived from OBligatory and a.u.e (alt.usage.english). It is
used to introduce a snippet of on-topic content in an otherwise off-
topic posting, as in:

{Posting about recipe for yak-flavoured ice cream}
Obaue: "yak" is a slang word meaning "to talk incessantly".

The "ob..." prefix is believed to have originated in alt.hack, with an
obligatory piece of code being labelled "obhack".

"pond," "pondian," etc.

The "pond" is a nickname for "the Atlantic Ocean" that goes back to at
least 1780. Because discussions here often turn to regional language
differences between the English of the US and Canada, on one hand, and
the United Kingdom and Ireland, on the other, we playfully invent and
use terms like "pondian difference," "transpondental," "Leftpondia"
(North America), "Antipondean" (Australian), etc. So, a "pondial
difference" or "pondian difference" is an intercontinental difference in
English usage.

"rhotic" and "nonrhotic"

You will see a.u.e participants using these words to describe a major
dialectal difference in English speech around the world. The word
"rhotic" comes from "rho," the Greek letter whose pronunciation
resembles our R. Basically, rhotic people do what is
colloquially thought of as "pronouncing their Rs". Non-rhotic people do
not pronounce Rs that appear at the ends of words or before consonants
(though the R may affect the vowel sound). For example, non-rhotic
people say "teachuh" and rhotic people say "teachurr." Both groups
pronounce the R sound in "tomorrow" (between two vowels).

Most speakers in the US (especially the West and Midwest), Canada,
Ireland, Scotland, and some parts of the north and west of England are
rhotic. The South of England (including RP, "received pronunciation"),
Australia, and parts of the US East Coast and South are nonrhotic.


What words are their own antonym?

Richard Lederer, in 'Crazy English', calls these "contronyms". They can
be divided into homographs (same spelling) and homophones (same
pronunciation). The full FAQ includes a long list of such words,

dust = to remove fine particles, to add fine particles
fast = rapid, unmoving

aural, oral = heard, spoken
erupt, irrupt = burst out, burst in

* words ending in "-gry"

Questions like this belong in rec.puzzles, not here; consult the
rec.puzzles archive. However, the short answer is:


The full FAQ gives a long list of extremely obscure words which do. The
real problem with this riddle is that it is a trick question, which only
works with a spoken question. There are several possible forms of the original trick,
one of which is:

"Think of words ending in 'gry'. Angry and hungry are two of them.
There are three words in the English language. What is the third word?
The word is something that everyone uses every day."

The answer in this case is "language" (the first two words being "the"
and "English" -- the trick is that "the English language" is to be
treated as if in quotation marks).

A person who doesn't know the trick and asks someone else to try the
puzzle will almost certainly change the wording, unwittingly making it

Wikipedia has an article with a small amount of history and a large number of variants: (Who's computer is this?)

Did Shakespeare invent a large number of words?

The claim is sometimes made that William Shakespeare coined an unusually
large number of words, because for centuries his plays and poems
contained the first uses known to later generations. An example of this
claim is the book _Coined by Shakespeare: Words and Meanings First
Penned by the Bard_, by Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, 1998, and a
list of examples is at: (Who's computer is this?)

However, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary now say that

by looking at texts written by less well-known sixteenth-century
authors on Literature Online, we have confirmed our suspicions that
in many of these cases Shakespeare was using words which were
already current. (Who's computer is this?)


This series of seven "Intro Documents" is intended to aid newcomers to
the newsgroup. The articles are posted frequently here, and are also on
the Web for your convenience, at: (Who's computer is this?)

Much of this document is taken from the AUE FAQ (edited by
Mark Israel) and the rest was written by Albert Marshall and
others. Suggestions for improvements in clarity, fairness,
accuracy, and brevity should be e-mailed to me. -- Donna Richoux

Where you can get the newsgroup alt.usage.english