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Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan 57645

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

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Consumer Reports


'Divers' meaning 'different'?; 'The audience brought the house down'


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

Is there such a word as ``divers'' meaning ``different,'' or is that just a misspelling of ``diverse''?

— L.M., Kankakee, Ill.

Dear L.M.:

``Divers'' is a word in its own right, albeit a formal and uncommon one. Both words - ``divers'' and ``diverse'' - come from Latin ``diversus,'' meaning ``turning in opposite directions,'' and until around 1700 they were pretty much interchangeable - both meant ``various'' and could be pronounced as either DYE-verz (like the plural of the noun ``diver'') or dye-VERS. Since then, however, ``divers'' (now always DYE-verz) has come to emphasize multiplicity. It means ``several'' or ``of an indefinite number greater than one'' (as in ``on divers occasions''). ``Diverse'' (now always dye-VERS) is used that way too, but it usually emphasizes uniqueness. It can mean ``unlike'' (as in ``a variety of activities to appeal to the children's diverse interests'') or ``having distinct or unlike elements or qualities'' (as in ``a diverse student body'').

Dear Editor:

I feel uncomfortable with the contemporary usage of ``loan'' as a verb. I realize that language changes with time, but I would hate to attend a performance of Julius Caesar and hear ``Friends, Romans, countrymen, loan me your ears.''


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— O.B., Stockbridge, Mass.

Dear O.B.:

You really don't need to worry about hearing that odd-sounding version of Mark Antony's famous line in a theater. You can either ``lend'' or ``loan'' someone a dollar, but you can only ``lend'' a hand or ``lend'' an ear, and distance can only ``lend'' enchantment. ``Loan'' may be used as a verb only when it is used literally; ``lend'' may be used either literally or figuratively.

``Loan'' as a verb has been around at least since the time of Henry VIII. It was brought to this country by our earliest settlers, and it continued to be used here after it fell out of use in England. Its use was first criticized by English visitors to America. In its continued use it is a sturdy Americanism. Many people have been taught to dislike it, but there is no question that ``loan'' is entirely standard as a verb.

Dear Editor:

``The audience brought the house down'' - I know it refers to wildly enthusiastic applause, but I was wondering whether it originated in some sort of house literally having been ``brought down'' - and if not, just why it's ``bring down'' (and not ``shake the rafters,'' or some such) and why ``house'' for ``theater''?

— J.K., Seminole, Fla.

Dear J.K.:

As far as we know, no ``house'' was ever really brought down by ``a furor of laughter or applause'' (as our dictionary puts it).

While ``bring down'' does have an archaic ring in the sense of ``cause a building to fall down'' - typically, nowadays, what we ``bring down'' is something we shoot down - maybe that's simply because bringing down buildings isn't the sort of thing that most of us engage in. But demolitions experts are indeed still said to be engaged in ``bringing down'' buildings.

And, lest you think it's rather absurd to imagine that mere applause could bring down a building, don't think ``clapping'' - think foot stamping. We've been able to trace the expression (which can be either ``bring the house down'' or ``bring down the house'') back as far as 1739.

British playwright James Miller's drama ``An hospital for fools,'' first performed that year in London's Theatre-Royal (a wooden structure at the time), opened with the following exchange:

Actor: Sir - Madam - for Heav'n's sake let us begin.

Actress: What's the matter? Actor: Why, they are pounding ready to bring the House down.

So there you have it - the audience members aren't clapping; they are stamping their feet, as audiences (particularly in Europe) are still known to do, whether in impatience or applause. (The above, of course, was simply part of the script; we don't know that the audience really was ``ready to bring the house down.'')

As to ``house'' for ``theatre,'' that use goes back to at least the 1660s.


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02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
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