Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
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.

A recent study concluded that workers’ English skills have been waning. Almost one in 10 adults of working age in the U.S. has limited proficiency in English, a number that has been steadily increasing for decades. These deficiencies curb workers’ job prospects and their ability to contribute to the nation’s economy.

Immigrant workers and their children will account for most of the growth in the American workforce in the coming decades. As a result, investing in English language instruction is “critical to building and maintaining a skilled workforce,” the Brookings Institute contends.

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In this column I try to think outside the box. Have you ever wondered about the origin of that new expression? Wonder no more.

You may know the visual game in which you are asked to connect three rows of three dots using four straight lines without lifting the pen or retracing lines. Most people don’t venture beyond the boundaries formed by the nine dots, but those who do will usually solve the puzzle by thinking “outside the box.”

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A recent Union-Tribune column by Karla Peterson was headlined “Zoo exhibit puts leopards in the catbird seat.” The American gray catbird is so named because of its catlike call, and “the catbird seat,” popularized by legendary baseball announcer Red Barber, has come to signify “sitting pretty” in a position of advantage. That’s because male catbirds are territorial during spring and summer, singing from prominent perches and chasing away intruders.

Now you know that I am both a bird watcher and a word botcher.

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Just for the linguistic fun of it, some people enjoy mispronouncing words on purpose. The highfalutin Tar-zhay for Target department stores may well be the one you’ve used and heard the most. Other ubiquitous examples I’ve heard are co-inkidink for coincidence, muskles for muscles (in the manner of Popeye), ant-tee-cues for antiques, champeen for champion, pasghetti for spaghetti, cham-pag-nee for champagne, wiener for winner, saxamaphone for saxophone, sangwich for sandwich, hyperbowl for hyperbole, skissors for scissors, whore-doo-vrees for hors d’oeuvres, egg-zactly for exactly, reedick’luss for ridiculous (in the manner of Seinfeld), turlet for toilet, Pen-e-lohpe for Penelope and ling-er-ree for lingerie.

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This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of the invention of pickleball. A half-size version of tennis, greatly influenced by badminton, pickleball is now America’s fastest growing sport, especially among the chronologically endowed.

The game started during the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., at the home of then-state Rep. Joel Pritchard. He and two of his friends returned from golf and found their families bored one Saturday afternoon. They attempted to set up badminton, but no one could find the shuttlecock. They improvised with a Wiffle ball, lowered the badminton net and fabricated paddles of plywood from a nearby shed.

According to Joan Pritchard, Joel Pritchard’s wife, the name of the sport came “after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to the naming of the game, but Pickles wasn’t on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game.”

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You know that just about all dictionaries of the English language begin with an entry for the letter A, defined as an article, as in “a word,” as well as the first letter of the alphabet. But what is the last entry in most comprehensive dictionaries?

The answer is Zyzzyva, a genus of tropical South American snouted weevil discovered in Brazil. No longer than an ant, this insect could be labeled “the lesser of two weevils.” With the first five of its seven letters being z or y, zyzzyva is the last word in most hefty dictionaries.