Word Court


WILLIAM PEAK, of Easton, Maryland, writes, "Does the term robin's-egg blue have the same meaning in England as it does in the United States? Old World robins are an entirely different species from our own; and their eggs, at least as illustrated in J. Felix's Oiseaux des pays d'Europe, appear to be an undistinguished brown. Yet the other day I heard a ceramics expert on the British version of Antiques Roadshow say 'robin's-egg blue' in describing a piece of pottery. Have the British adopted what must seem to them an illogical Americanism, or are the French colorblind?"

You're right that the European robin, Erithacus rubecula, isn't the same as our robin, Turdus migratorius, otherwise known as the red-breasted thrush. Evidently, because both birds have a red breast, colonists who came from Great Britain applied the old, nostalgic name to the bird in the New World. Other bright-breasted birds, too, in such former British colonies as Australia, New Zealand, India, and Jamaica, are called robins locally—or blue robins, yellow robins, and so forth.

You're also right that robin's-egg blue refers to the color of the American robin's eggshells. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's New World Dictionary each note that robin's-egg blue is an Americanism. No doubt British birders are aware that the term doesn't pertain to their local robins, but whether ceramics experts spend enough time outdoors to know this surely varies from expert to expert. The term does occasionally turn up in the British media (for instance, here's a snippet from an article about makeup that appeared in the Birmingham Evening Mail last spring: "And colour is back. Glorious, vibrant, and dare I say 'girlie' colour. Pink, turquoise, violet, and robin's egg blue. Lagoon teal, apple green, and even yellow"). Nonetheless, on the evidence of the media database I use, robin's-egg blue is much, much more frequently seen and heard in the United States.

ERIC FOCHT, of Herndon, Virginia, writes, "I definitely do not claim to be an authority on grammar, but I can find no support for using disrespect as a verb. I often hear people, even folks in the media, say things such as 'He disrespected her.' Its use is becoming more prevalent, and I am beyond being annoyed."

I wonder if you also dislike dis, which is an informal or slang shortening of disrespect, and this has turned you against the latter verb. Although The New Oxford American Dictionary calls both the verb disrespect and dis "informal," none of the entries for disrespect in six other major contemporary American dictionaries so much as hints that the verb is anything less than standard. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, which gives the date of the earliest citation it has for most words, traces the verb disrespect back to 1614—seventeen years before its earliest citation for the noun. Does this antiquity change your opinion?

SCOTT SMITH, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, writes, "My brother and I are having a dispute about ice cream. I contend it is two words. It is listed that way in the dictionary, and if you were playing Scrabble, it would be challenged and you would be forced to take it from the board (or so says my Scrabble dictionary). My brother contends that it is one word, and if you were diagramming a sentence, ice cream would 'hold the place of' one word, not two. Your input on this would be appreciated."

It's true that the rules printed on the Scrabble box say, "Before the game begins, players should agree which dictionary they will use, in case of a challenge. All words labeled as a part of speech ... are permitted with the exception of the following: words always capitalized, abbreviations, prefixes and suffixes standing alone, words requiring a hyphen or an apostrophe."

It's also true that all the major contemporary American dictionaries (except Scrabble dictionaries) have entries for ice cream, and these give "noun" as its part of speech. But is it a word? In defining word, the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary says, "Words are usually separated by spaces in writing," and other dictionaries echo that idea.

Do linguists—scientists of words—agree? In fact they don't tend to use word to mean anything very precise, instead discussing the likes of morphemes and listemes and syntactic atoms. In the glossary of his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker explains this last term as "one of the senses of 'word,' defined as an entity that the rules of syntax cannot separate or rearrange." That seems to be the sense of word that your brother has in mind. He's right that ice cream is a word for some purposes. And you are right that it is not a word for Scrabble's purposes—though amerce, macer, and racemic (each of which uses only letters from ice cream) all pass muster. Go figure.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.
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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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