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Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2004 / 26 Kislev 57645

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

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Sailors using 'port' and 'starboard' for 'left' and 'right'; plural of compound words


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

Why do sailors use the terms "port" and "starboard"? Why not just say "left" and "right" like the rest of us?

— S.G., Burlington, Vt.

Dear S.G.:

To those of us unfamiliar with nautical terminology, experienced sailors can seem to be speaking a different language, but words like "port" and "starboard" are not modern jargonistic inventions, created for the purpose of confounding landlubbers.

"Starboard," for example, can be traced to the Old English word "steorbord," which combines "steor-," meaning "rudder" or "steering oar," and "board" meaning "ship's side." The word refers to the right side of a ship because of an early practice of steering by means of an oar held in the water over the right side.

"Port" came about later (in the 17th century) as a replacement for "larboard," which sounded too similar to "starboard" when called out as a command. (The "lar" of "larboard" is from Old English "lade" and is apparently related to a verb meaning "to load.") The history of "port" is obscure. We don't know for sure if it evolved from the sense of "port" meaning "harbor or harbor town" or from the sense meaning "an opening in a vessel's side (as for admitting light or cargo)," but in either case we can speculate that early vessels with their steering apparatus on the right would have had reason to keep port to the left.

In today's boats, left and right sides are usually identical, but nautical men and women are unlikely to abandon these long-standing terms any time soon. In addition to historical longevity, "port" and "starboard" have the practical advantage of referring clearly to the left or right side of the ship when looking forward, rather than referring to left or right side of the speaker, who could be facing in either direction.

— — —


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Dear Editor:

Call us odd, but in my family we sometimes pretend that the plural of a compound word follows the odd pattern that "passer-by" and "mother-in- law" follow, and make the plural of a word like "bookcase" into "bookscase." We all know, of course, that this isn't right, but what is the exact rule?

— E.S., Durham, N.C.

Dear E.S.:

Most compounds that are made up of two nouns - whether they appear as one word, two words, or a hyphenated word - form their plurals by pluralizing the final element only; a word like "bookcase" is pluralized as "bookcases," "book club" as "book clubs," and "bird-watcher" as "bird-watchers." Nouns that are made up of words that are not nouns also form their plurals on the last element, as in the plurals "breakthroughs" and "close-ups." Things get more complicated than this, though.

If a compound is made of a noun with the "-er" suffix and an adverb, only the noun element is pluralized. This means that "runner-up" becomes "runners-up," "onlooker" becomes "onlookers," and "passer-by" becomes "passers-by." For a compound made up of two nouns separated by a preposition, the first noun is pluralized to form the plural, as in "attorneys-at-law" and "chiefs of staff."

Compounds made up of a noun followed by an adjective are usually pluralized by adding "-s" to the noun, as when "heir apparent" becomes "heirs apparent." But if the adjective tends to be understood as a noun, the compound may have more than one plural form. In this way, both "poets laureate" and "poet laureates" are acceptable.

For compounds that consist of two nouns separated by a preposition and a modifier, plurals are formed in various ways. "Snake in the grass" is pluralized as "snakes in the grass," but "jack-in-the-box" is pluralized as both "jack-in- the-boxes" or "jacks-in-the-box." That last one sounds odd to our ear, but it may go over well in your family.


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Up

11/30/04: 'Fly off the handle'; why the words 'left' and 'right' became associated with the political connotations of 'liberal' and 'conservative'; 'review' and 'revue'
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07/01/04: Origin of 'vitamin'; 'binnacle list'
06/25/04: 'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
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04/21/04: Meaning of "budget'' in the word "fussbudget''; "bleeding hearts''; "skycap''
04/01/04: "Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
03/22/04: "King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
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12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
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06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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