Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2004 / 26 Kislev 57645

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

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

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

— — —

Donate to JWR

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.

Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster column, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102. Comment by clicking here.


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'
11/17/04: 'Ball the jack'; Nazis
11/11/04: 'Catachresis'; 'kick the bucket' and dying; ballots
11/03/04: 'Divers' meaning 'different'?; 'The audience brought the house down'
10/25/04: 'Notorious' as a compliment?; 'and' as first word in sentence; 'yeoman' and 'yewman'
10/20/04: 'Shaggy-dog story'; 'tawdry'; 'Shawnee'
10/12/04: 'Busted'; differences between 'iterate' and 'reiterate'; 'the rain has quite abated'
10/04/04: 'Hat trick', 'rubber game' or 'rubber match'; source of 'spin doctor'; 'trope'
09/22/04: ' Redux'; 'elan'; 'swan-neck'
09/08/04: 'Adam's apple'; 'You sure lucked out'; 'the lion's share'
09/02/04: 'King's shilling'; 'Stockholm syndrome'; 'amid the alien corn'
08/24/04: Guacamole = avocados?; 'bona fides' needs plural verb?; 'exact same' redundant?
08/17/04: 'Nosey parker'; where the question mark came from?; why 'wash' doesn't rhyme with 'cash'
08/12/04: 'Vexillologist'; 'fifth column'; 'Homer sometimes nods'
08/05/04: 'Spitting image'; 'eclectic'; 'spendthrift'
07/28/04: 'Trousers'; 'argosy'
07/19/04: 'Sourdough wit'; 'headshrinkers'; 'seventh heaven'
07/08/04: 'The proof is in the pudding'; 'Pyrrhic victory'
07/01/04: Origin of 'vitamin'; 'binnacle list'
06/25/04: 'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
06/17/04: 'Whinge'; 'whole cloth'
06/10/04: 'The devil to pay'; 'crack', as in 'a crack marksman'; 'the dog that didn't bark'
06/03/04: 'Surrounded on three sides'; sleuths
05/18/04: 'Of the first water'; horses and horseradish; more
05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
04/27/04: Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
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"?
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''
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
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
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

©2004 Merriam-Webster Inc.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services