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.

Readers’ Questions

 

This is my 300th installment of “Lederer on Language,” which began life in this space on May 12, 2012. As one frog said to the other, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies!” Let’s have some flies today.

Dear Mr. Lederer: I was wondering if you had thoughts on why ruthless is a common word that means “without mercy” but ruth isn’t. —Mike Randolph

When a pig gets laryngitis, is it then disgruntled?

But seriously . . .

I’m going cognito and communicado with a promptu disquisition about negatives in our language that lack positives. What do you make of the fact that we can talk about certain things and ideas only when they are absent? Once they appear, our confounding English language doesn’t allow us to describe them. Have you ever run into someone who was gruntled, combobulated, couth, sheveled, chalant, plussed, ruly, gainly, maculate, kempt, pecunious, peccable, pervious, assuming, souciant or traught?

Dubitably, thinkably, evitably, controvertibly and advertently, English is a choate, corrigible defatiguable, delible, describable, dolent, imicable, scrutible, tractable, sensical language populated by a lot of heads without tails and odds without ends. These words and expressions are like single socks nestled in a drawer; they never become part of a pair.

Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Have you ever heard a promptu speech? Have you ever met a sung hero or a repressible, a corrigible punster? a trepid, vincible, dominable, flappable coward?

I know people who are no slouch, but I’ve never actually met a slouch. I know people who are no spring chickens, but where, pray tell, are the people who are spring chickens? Where are the people who actually would hurt a fly? All the time I meet people who are great shakes, who actually did squat, who can cut the mustard, who can fight City Hall, who are my cup of tea, who would lift a finger to help, who do have a mean bone in their body, who would give you the time of day, who find that life is a bed of roses, who can make heads or tails of something, who actually have experienced requited love, who actually are playing with a full deck, who are happy campers and whom I would touch with a 10-foot pole, but I can’t talk about them in English — and that is a laughing matter.

These negatives that lack corresponding positives have been labeled “unnegatives,” and they are close kin to “unplurals” — plurals that don’t possess corresponding singulars. Like gruntled, sheveled and combobulated, we behold another category of heads without tails.

Doesn’t it seem just a little wifty that we can make amends but never just one amend and that no matter how carefully we comb through the annals of history, we can never explore just one annal? Why can’t a moderately messy room be in a shamble? Why can’t a moderately depressed person be out of a sort, a moderately indebted person be in an arrear and moderately conspiratorial people be in a cahoot?

Why is it that we can never pull a shenanigan, read a funny, sing a blue, consume an egg Benedict, be in a doldrum, suffer from a mump, a measle, a ricket or a shingle or experience just one jitter, willy, delirium tremen or heebie-jeebie? Why, sifting through the wreckage of a room blown to smithereens, can we never find just one smithereen?

Indeed, this whole business of plurals that don’t have matching singulars reminds me to ask this burning question, one that has flummoxed and gobsmacked scholars for centuries: If you have a bunch of odds and ends and you get rid of or sell off all but one of them, what do you call that single item you’re left with?

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Grant Barrett, co-host of KPBS’s “A Way with Words,” recently co-captained the annual Word-of-the-Year vote for the American Dialect Society in Salt Lake City. The assembled linguists voted in fake news,“disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news; actual news that is claimed to be untrue,” as Word of the Year for 2017.

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Jose Cruz, CEO of the San Diego Council on Literacy, and I teamed up to identify donor levels for the organization using the names of literary genres. Here’s what we came up with and what the group will use:

$50,000+         Epic
$10,000+         Legendary
$5,000+           Mythic
$2,500+           Classic
$1,000+           Romantic
$500+              Novel