Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: A question has come up concerning the origins of expressions that are considered racist. Have you run into any controversy about “red tape” referring to American Indian affairs and being offensive to Native Americans? At a seminar I attended recently, the presenter told a roomful of businesswomen that the expression is racist and not to be used, even though she wasn’t able to cite any source when I asked her. She said it came from a cultural sensitivity training session she had attended. Is this a phantom etymology? Are there many of these newly prohibited words? I am all for avoiding racism and sexism, but I think the arguments against certain expressions have to make sense before we start censoring.-Maureen Gerarden

I too am all for political correctness applied in truly caring and careful ways, such as the substitution of “homeless” as an appellation for the “bums” who used to live on the streets when I was a lad. But when a presenter teaches that the phrase “red tape” is racist against Native Americans, that is a monstrous abuse of the teacher’s role.

I’m not at all surprised that your seminar honcha offered no citation to support her position because none exists, at least not in any reputable elbow book. “Red tape” descends from the use of reddish tape to tie up official documents, a practice that began in 17th-century England.


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: During a recent training session in California, a woman came up to me and scolded me for using the phrase “rule of thumb.” I have, of course, heard that this phrase comes from a law allowing a man to beat his wife, provided the stick is no thicker than his thumb. I also have heard that the phrase comes from using the thumb as a measure (similar to a cubit). The latter seems a more logical explanation for the phrase, and so I continue to use it. Any words of wisdom on this point before I have to train this woman again? -Patricia B. Nemec

Here again we encounter a dangerous spook etymology masquerading in the guise of political correctness. Despite what you may read on the internet, “rule of thumb” has nothing to do with any law enjoining a husband from using a stick thicker than his thumb to beat his wife. The expression harks back to days of old, when rulers of the measuring kind were uncommon and people used the length of the thumb from the knuckle to the tip as an approximate measure of one inch — inexact, but better than nothing.


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: Thanks for your thoughtful column about PETA’s effort to stamp out anti-animal expressions, such as “beat a dead horse” replaced by “feed a fed horse.” I submit that imagery is woven into the warp and woof of our language because it is, or was, vivid to somebody. I will give you just one example.

I’ve seen what “dog tired” looks like. When my miniature greyhound was a puppy, I would throw a ball down the hallway, and he would chase it. That little animal was made to run, and he would play this game until he would stop suddenly, lean his shoulder against the wall, with his head down and his tongue hanging out almost the length of his head. I’d never before seen anything look that exhausted. After that, it was time for water and sleep, but first he had to recover enough to drink. Later I learned that playing all the way to exhaustion is a characteristic of dogs.

PETA’s effort, if adopted, is an act of impoverishing our language. It is a substitution of vivid imagery based on meaningful reality with insipid, arbitrary fiction. It is part of a trend to substitute discussions about the meaning of words for discussions of real-world difficulties. Every minute spent talking about the imagery we use instead of using the imagery is time of thought lost. People of ill will use this technique to deprive others of an opportunity to think and speak coherently, interrupting and chiding them for imaginary linguistic crimes, instead of listening to them. 

We do not need this. Your column, as always, was playful and inventive. PETA’s purpose is not so benign. -Valerie E. Looper