Author: Samantha Enslen

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

One of our listeners recently wrote in, wondering about the proper way to describe quantities. She said her sixth-grade English teacher had taught her that “a few” means one or two, and that “several” means three or more. However, following this rule, she sent a work colleague into a panic. She told him that a project would ready in “a few days.” She meant it would be done in a day or two. But he interpreted it, in her words, as an “ambiguous brush-off.” He assumed she was saying she wouldn’t meet her deadline. After they sorted out the confusion,…

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A listener recently wrote in to ask about the word “bougie.” He’d heard it being used to mean something elevated or high-class. But he thought it came from the word “bourgeois,” meaning “middle class.” He’s right on both counts. Here’s what we found. First of all, “bougie” is indeed a slang form of “bourgeois.” The more formal word dates back to the 1600s and was probably used even before that. Its root word, in turn, is “bourg,” meaning a town or large village. That word was derived from the Latin “burgus,” meaning a castle or a fortified town. “Bourgeois” originally…

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International Women’s Day is March 8. On this day, people around the world celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The first celebration was held in 1911, and the event was recognized by the United Nations starting in 1975. It’s a great time to think about the origin of the word “woman.” It’s a combination of the words “wife” and “man.” Now, that’s not necessarily as discriminatory as it sounds. You see, when Old English was first being spoken in the 5th century AD, there were two distinct words for men and women: “wer” meant “adult male,”…

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It’s the end of February, which means Mardi Gras is almost here! When we think of Mardi Gras, we picture parties, parades, and beads. But did you ever wonder what “Mardi Gras” means? Mardi Gras Kicks Off Lent The first thing to know about Mardi Gras is that it kicks off the Christian season of Lent. That’s the time when people prepare for Easter, the holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ. In Western churches, Lent begins six-and-a-half weeks before Easter on what’s known as Ash Wednesday. On this solemn day, Christians are asked to reflect on their mortality and…

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To talk about how we got the names of the days of the week, we have to go back in time—way back to 4000 BC, when the Babylonian civilization flourished in the Persian Gulf. Ancient Babylonians First Divided the Year Into Weeks of Seven Days Each Just as people have done throughout history, the Babylonians looked up to the sky. They tried to understand what was out there and how it might affect them. They could, of course, see the sun, and the moon, and the stars.  And rather amazingly, even without telescopes, they could see five planets—the five closest…

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Thanksgiving is the U.S. holiday that many people jokingly call “Turkey Day.” That’s because most people celebrate the occasion by baking a turkey: the domesticated version of a member of the pheasant and grouse family native to the Americas. Why do we call this bird a “turkey?” It’s a case of mistaken identity. For centuries before Europeans came to North America, Turkish traders were importing African guinea fowl into Europe. The birds were known as “turkey-cocks.” When North American traders started to import our bird from the Americas into Europe, they were sometimes mistaken for turkey-cocks, and then they came…

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One of our listeners wrote in recently with a question. He wanted to know whether to use the word “on” when talking about a date or an event. Should you say, “I went to the store Saturday,” he asked, or “I went to the store ON Saturday”? The short answer is that normally, either version is correct. You can use the one that sounds most natural to you or fits best with the rest of the sentence. Skip ‘On’ When Following AP Style The Chicago Manual of Style didn’t have anything to say about this topic, nor did most…

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Cathy from Maryland wrote, "I have a question for you. When I read a novel that's written in England, they refer to being 'in hospital.' Americans refer to it as being 'in the hospital.' Why do British people say 'in hospital,' and Americas say 'in the hospital?'" Cathy is right. People in the UK say they are “in hospital,” and people in the US say they are “in the hospital.” There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why we use the word “the” here. It’s rarely added for similar terms. For example, if you were attending college, you wouldn’t say you were…

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Let’s start by establishing that both of these words are short for “mathematics,” the science of numbers and their operations. The word comes from the ancient Greek “mathimatikós.” Its root means “to learn.” As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered why someone who seems to know everything is called a “polymath,” it’s because the “math” part of “polymath” comes from the same root, so a polymath is simply someone who has learned a lot. It doesn't have anything to do with mathematics. In the US, 'mathematics' was first shortened to 'math' in the mid-1800s. In the US, “mathematics” was first…

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Have you ever wondered about the term “wheelhouse?” Our listener named Heidi did. She asked, “Have you guys noticed the term ‘wheelhouse’ being tossed around a lot lately? It seems to be the business meeting/pop culture buzzword du jour. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed the same and if so, if you have any theories on why that is.” Heidi, this term is definitely in frequent use. I can’t tell you why it’s so popular, but I can tell you where it came from. A wheelhouse is exactly what it sounds like: the little “house” on a ship where the captain…

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