Articles published in September 2011

“Homing in” on the word “Hone”


According to celebrity website TMZ (quoted in the previous post on this blog), the FBI is “honing in” on the scofflaws who stole Scarlett Johansson’s nude photos.

However, this is not the usual way to use the word “hone.” Normally, you hone your skills — that is, make more acute or effective, improve, or perfect.

Hone can also mean “to sharpen on a hone” (thanks, dictionary, that was really helpful!) No, seriously, a hone is a whetstone, or sharpening tool:


Just as to “hone” your skills is to sharpen them, to “whet” your appetite is to “stimulate; make keen or eager,” or “to sharpen by rubbing on or with something (as a stone).”

Many who care about language say that “hone in” is a mistake — the speaker really means “home in.” However, over time, the two phrases have started to merge. Here is one explanation:

The original is from early aeronautics. Pilots were guided to their destinations and back to their home bases by radio beacons. In the jargon of the time ” the early 1920s ” they were said to home on the beacons. This was clearly taken from the somewhat older expression homing pigeons. In later years, beacons were fitted to aircraft so one could home on another. By this time ” around 1940 ” home had lost much of its literal association with going home and had taken on the figurative idea of guiding an aircraft to its target or destination by means of a radio signal.

…After the war, people began to use it in the current figurative sense of focusing one’s attention on a single matter.

That’s now the only situation in which most people encounter it. It’s hardly obvious to somebody who hasn’t come across it before or who doesn’t know the background. Why home? This lack of context makes it easy for speakers to change the word into something that seems to be more appropriate or make more sense. Hone in on is a classic example of the type of word shift that has become known in recent years among linguists as an eggcorn: a change in word form due to error or misunderstanding.

In this case, it seems to be the figurative sense of the verb to hone, meaning to sharpen a tool, that has led to the change, since it’s widely used to mean making something work better, for example when we say somebody is honing her skills.

A final word from Merriam-Webster:

Though “home in” seems to have established itself in American English (and mention in a British usage book suggests it is used in British English too), your use of it especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely.

Here’s to hoping that the FBI homes in on the scofflaws (and roués!) who hacked ScarJo’s phone.

ScarJo’s Nude Photo Scandal: Some Lurid Vocabulary About a Salacious Story


It seems that actress Scarlett Johansson’s phone has been hacked, and her nude photos shared with the world.

You may have wondered about the title of this blog post — a word commonly used to describe tabloid-style “news” stories is lurid , which can mean “gruesome; horrible; revolting,” or simply, “glaringly vivid or sensational.” Websites that purport to show photos of famous people’s deaths are undeniably lurid. Made-up stories about Oprah having an affair with Nick Jonas (I just made that up!) are still a bit lurid.

Another word that seems apropos is salacious, meaning “lustful, lecherous, obscene.” I wouldn’t describe ScarJo’s leaked photos as salacious so much as I would describe other people’s interest in looking at them that way. As in, “Honey, stop being so salacious — shut down that celebrity website and come to dinner!”

A few other words on the “sexy” side of the GRE are lewd (inclined to, characterized by, or inciting to lust or lechery; lascivious) and lascivious (inclined to lustfulness; wanton). Lechery is defined in the dictionary as “unrestrained and promiscuous sexuality,” but in real life is always used in a “sexual harassment” way. A lecher is the sort of person you’d hope you don’t end up alone with in a subway car. Lewd, lascivious, lecherous and lecher are all pretty bad.

(Why would these ever be on the GRE? It seems unlikely that the test makers would write a question about anything lascivious, right? If you saw one of the above words, I would suspect it to simply be a wrong answer.)

A couple of less-terrible words are bawdy and ribald, near-synonyms that mean “indecent; lewd; obscene; coarsely mocking, abusive, or irreverent.”

She loved the bawdy humor in Wedding Crashers, but she didn’t appreciate the lascivious theater attendant who asked her after the movie if she wanted to “be a bridesmaid,” whatever that meant.

Bawdy and ribald tend to refer to “dirty jokes,” and aren’t nearly as negative as the above set of words. In fact, they could absolutely appear in a GRE sentence, as in:

While today we think of opera as ______, audiences of centuries past were more attuned to — and occasionally scandalized by — the bawdy humor and ______ scenarios.

The second blank clearly calls for something that means the same as bawdy — so, ribald would be a good match. The “while” at the beginning of the sentence means that the first blank goes in an opposite direction, so the first blank should contain a word that means “not bawdy” — something like staid, proper, conservative.

So, let’s address the TMZ article above. The photos were hacked by scofflaws? What on earth are those?

As you might guess, they are people who scoff at (that is, mock, jeer, or deride) the law! What a great word.

Scofflaw – a person who flouts the law, especially one who fails to pay fines owed; a person who flouts rules, conventions, or accepted practices.

Where do scofflaws belong? See this previous post about “hoosegow”.

Vocabulary Through Star Trek


TheMarySue has brought The Star Trek Book of Opposites to our attention!

Here is one review of the book:

“Are you tired of all those boring, pedestrian, and antiquated board books for children that you are forced to read over and over again? Of course you are! That’s why creative authors like David Borgenicht are coming up with innovative board books that will keep you, the parent, from going insane. Behold the Star Trek Book of Opposites from Quirk Books.” ”

A pedestrian can certainly be “a person who goes or travels on foot,” but as an adjective, pedestrian means “lacking in vitality, imagination, distinction, etc.; commonplace; prosaic or dull.” Related GRE words are mundane and quotidian.

Here are some images from the book:

I figured I’d try this myself with GRE-level vocabulary:


Brinkmanship is “the technique or practice of maneuvering a dangerous situation to the limits of tolerance or safety in order to secure the greatest advantage, especially by creating diplomatic crises.”


A voluptuary is “a person whose life is devoted to the pursuit and enjoyment of luxury and sensual pleasure.”


An argot is a specialized idiomatic vocabulary peculiar to a particular class, profession or social group.


imperturbability is the state of being “incapable of being upset or agitated; not easily excited; calm.”

Irene Followup: Strafe, Flank, Berm, Herculean


In followup to the previous post about Hurricane Irene, this article from last week contained some unusual vocabulary words:

After the Outer Banks, the storm strafed Virginia with rain and strong wind. It covered the Hampton Roads region, which is thick with inlets and rivers and floods easily, and chugged north toward Chesapeake Bay. Shaped like a massive inverted comma, the storm had a thick northern flank that covered all of Delaware, almost all of Maryland and the eastern half of Virginia.

To strafe (obviously being used metaphorically here) is to “attack (ground troops, for example) with a machine gun or cannon from a low-flying aircraft.”

As a noun, a flank is a lateral part or side — as in, flank steak, or the flank of a mountain.

To flank — another military metaphor — means:

1. To protect or guard the flank of.
2. To menace or attack the flank of.
3. To be placed or situated at the flank or side of: Two stone lions flanked the entrance.
4. To put (something) on each side of: flanked the driveway with tall shrubs.

In other words, to flank is to do something along the side or sides of.

Long Beach, New York, where the surf is starting to pick up and they’re building berms to absorb the sea surge when it comes ashore overnight and Sunday.

A berm is “a narrow ledge or shelf, as along the top or bottom of a slope” or “a nearly horizontal or landward-sloping portion of a beach, formed by the deposition of sediment by storm waves.” To build a berm in preparation for a storm would mean to build up the beach so that it no longer slopes down towards the water.

In New York, authorities began the herculean job of bringing the city to a halt.

Image is “Hercules and the Centaur” by Giovanni da Bologna.

Herculean, of course, means “of unusual size, power, or difficulty” — as in, a job you wish you had Hercules to do for you.