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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2004 / 10 Mar-Cheshvan 57645

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports


'Notorious' as a compliment?; 'and' as first word in sentence; 'yeoman' a 'yewman'


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Dear Editor:

My husband recently met my boss for the first time, and upon being introduced to him said "Ah, the notorious Steve." My boss's eyebrows rose as he replied, "Notorious? I didn't think I was that bad." When I looked up the definition of "notorious" I understood his reaction. Is my husband's mistake a common one?

— C.J., Massapequa, N.Y.

Dear C.J.:

Your husband's mistake is certainly not unheard of. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, defines "notorious" as "generally known and talked of; especially: widely and unfavorably known"; your boss's reaction shows that it's this second part of the definition that comes to mind when he hears the word "notorious."

Our evidence shows that most writers, like your boss, associate the term "notorious" with the negative. The word is often used to modify nouns for an undesirable person, such as "gunman," "thief," "killer," etc. The evidence is mixed enough, however, that usage writers do not agree entirely on the term. Some say that "notorious" has a pejorative connotation that taints all usage, while others reply that it's not always used pejoratively.

When "notorious" is applied to terms that refer to something not human, it often verges on the neutral. Still, if a weed, law, or prison is described as "notorious" - in the absence of clues to the contrary - the effect of the word will be pejorative.

When there are no moral overtones, as is sometimes the case, "notorious" is used as a more emphatic term for "celebrated," "famous" or "well-known." But even in its neutral uses, the term's association with the unfavorable, disreputable and unsavory gives it a piquancy, a sharp quality, that those other words lack.


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Dear Editor:

I was brought up with the belief that "and" should not be used to start a sentence, but I see it often. What is your position on this point of grammar?

— E.M., Warwick, R.I.

Dear E.M.:

Grammarians agree that it's acceptable to begin a sentence with "and," even though everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice is wrong.

One commentator has speculated that the rule of not using "and" to begin a sentence was made to keep children from stringing together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with "ands": "We got in the car and we went to the movie and I bought some popcorn and ... ." As children grow older and master the more sophisticated ways of connecting clauses and making complex sentences, the rule against the use of "and" is no longer needed. But apparently our teachers forgot to tell us this. Consequently, many of us go through life thinking it is wrong to begin a sentence with "and."

The only rule for "and" that definitely applies is not to overuse it as a transitional word at the beginning of sentences, which would then make the writing sound unsophisticated and even choppy. A correct use would be: "The coach told his team that they would win. And he was right."

— — —

Dear Editor:

Recently I was reading a book about Anglo-Saxon rites and rituals and came across the Norse rune "eoh" meaning "yew tree." This put me in mind of "yeoman," the word used for Medieval English bowman, whose bows were made of yew. Was a "yeoman" a "yewman"?

— P.A., Lawrenceville, N.J.

Dear P.A.:

"Yeoman" in its earliest sense means "an attendant or officer in a noble house performing menial service" and especially "one ranking between a sergeant and a groom or a squire and a page."

Although the origin of the word is not known with absolute certainty, etymologists are fairly sure that the word is a contraction of "young" (in Anglo-Saxon "geong," with the first "g" pronounced like a "y") and "man." This sense is first attested in the 14th century, well after the Anglo-Saxon period and the Norse occupation of the North of England.

The military connotations of "yeoman" come from the 15th century recruiting of civilians during the Hundred Year's War. Most of these yeomen were farmers, freeholders of small plots of land. As the preferred weapon of the English army at this time was the bow, the English yeomen were soon associated with archery.

"Yeoman" has also been used since the 15th century to describe members of the "yeoman of the guard," who are attached to the British royal household to guard the sovereign and are appointed from the ranks of retired enlisted men and non-commissioned officers.


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02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
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01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
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12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
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07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
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06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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