Three Sheets to the Wind

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A phrase which means “very drunk.” Its origins are nautical but contested. In one version, the “sheets” refer to chains or ropes which attach the sails to the boat. For them to be “to the wind” means the ship is falling over itself in the manner of a drunk. This means that there was a scale of how many sheets to the wind one could be. But another explanation is that the sheets means sails, and the key is not that there are three because three is a lot of sheets, but that three is an odd number. Even numbers of sails would be balanced, but odd numbers would not be. I don’t know either is right. The second link references another NY Times article that is a quick and fun read.

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2 More: Disinterested and Uninterested

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I’m not sure when it happened, but “disinterested” has come to mean the same thing as “uninterested.” Oddly, at least according to this, that was what it originally meant anyways. This is wild speculation, but I think that at least some of the shift comes from a sense that people have that the prefix dis- is more powerful or makes you sound smarter than the prefix un- (dis- is from Latin, while un- is from Middle English*).

I don’t really care about whether one meaning for “disinterested” is right, or whether using it to mean “uninterested” is a mistake, but I will point out that it is a useful distinction to keep in mind. You might want a disinterested reader, but you almost definitely don’t want an uninterested one.

* “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones…” -George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

Vexillology

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A newish word (created in the late 1950s) for an old subject, and possibly a new topic of discussion on this blog, vexillogogy is the study of flags.

It is also an example of words that are half latin/half greek hybrids. Other examples include meritocracy, homosexuality, television, metadata, and sociopath. There’s a long list on Wikipedia, because of course there is, and it is not limited to Greek/Latin mash-ups. Er, hybrids. Although almost every example on the list is a Greek/Latin example. I haven’t checked that entire list though, so the ordinary caveats about things on the internet apply.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red & Blue Fishes

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The word “fish” has a strange feature: while the word is singular and plural, there is an alternative plural, “fishes,” which is used to refer to more than one type of fish. So, “I own a fish,” “I own lots of fish,” and “I own fishes” can all be correct. Thus “all the fish in the sea” means each and every fish, while “all the fishes in the sea” means all the different types of fish.

English has a bunch of words where the singular and plural are the same (especially animal words, like “moose,” though I’ve never read a thorough explanation for that).Other examples are “cannon,” “species,” and “Euro”* (as in the currency; “bitcoin” is also used as a plural.)

One note about the Euro is that as I understand it, the intention was for “Euro” to be the plural, and that is the official position of the EU, but there is widespread use of “Euros” in languages where plurals are ordinarily formed by adding an “s.” There’s even a Wikipedia entry on this.