Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 83: Mail Call

Today we're going to jete from our usual format to dig into the many questions that have been building up in our mailbag. Our first question comes from Elizabeth in Minneapolis:
"Where does the term 'slap happy' come from? And how did 'punchy' evolve?"

As you might have guessed, the two terms are actually related. They both mean confused, and in most cases, pleasantly so. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green says that "slap happy" came into the language in the 1930s from the boxing world. It was originally used to describe a boxer or "someone whose brain had suffered from an excess of fighting." "Punchy", or "punch-drunk", seems to have come first, and through exactly the same channels. According to Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, punch-drunk was a boxing term popularized between 1915 and 1920. And like its slap happy counterpart, it means "befuddled" or "dazed."

Thanks, Elizabeth, for the question.

Our next one comes from Trent who works for a medical device company. He asks:
"I have a concern with the use of the term antisocial. Commonly people use it to mean someone who shies away from social contact. In medicine it refers to someone who doesn't adhere to the usual societal rules, like a habitual criminal. Is one meaning more proper?"

This is one of those tricky examples of idiom that tends to divide and confuse. Idioms are words or expressions that are unique to speakers of a particular region or, in this case, a profession. In the case of antisocial, Merriam Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms says:
"Unsocial, asocial, antisocial, [and] nonsocial are comparable in meaning not social and therefore opposed in some way to what is social."

The dictionary goes on to say, though, that "antisocial is applied chiefly to things (as ideas, movements, acts or writings) which are regarded as harmful to or destructive of society or social order or institutions."

That said, antisocial, through common usage, has evolved to mean unsocial or unable to associate in a normal or friendly way with other people. It's one of those terms that got its start as a specific medical or psychiatric definition and has been turned into a pejorative in common usage. Terms like "idiot" and "anal retentive," once used to be specific and descriptive to the psychiatric community. Then they made their way into mainstream language and picked up very different connotations.

So to answer Trent's question: yes, one meaning is more proper, but it depends on whether the context is professional or casual.

Our final question comes to us from a member of the Bruyninckx (BREW-nicks) family in California. Ms. Bruyninckx writes:
"How should sur names be pluralized? Our name ends in 'x.' However, people almost always greet our family by simply pronouncing our name, 'Hey, Bruyninckx!' even though there are five of us."

Actually there is a pretty straightforward grammatical rule to answer this question. According to the American Heritage Book of English Usage:
"Common nouns ending in ch, sh, s, ss, x, z, or zz usually form their plurals by adding -es."

Think of words like "box" which becomes "boxes." Or "quiz" becomes "quizzes." The American Heritage Book of English Usage goes on to say, "Proper nouns of this type always add -es."

Good news for all you Lutzes and Foxes and Bruyninckxes out there.

Source material for this episode comes from the questions and comments from our amazing audience. Also from Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green, Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, and The American Heritage Book of English Usage.

Music from this episode: "Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes; "Send Me A Postcard" by Shocking Blue.

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland