Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2003 / 5 Elul, 5763

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

"Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason'' | Dear Editor:

Is saying "out loud'' rather than "aloud'' incorrect? It sounds less formal, but I feel like I hear it all the time in both formal and informal contexts.

_L.W., Columbia, Tenn.

Dear L.W.:

"Out loud'' was once widely decried as an error for "aloud,'' and it is still sometimes described as a colloquialism to be avoided in formal writing. Its first recorded use was in the early 19th century, as found in an 1821 letter by Maria Edgeworth: "Lord Andover in the presence of Lord and Lady Suffolk and speaking out loud.''

Its heyday as an object of criticism came about a hundred years later, when American commentators routinely prescribed against it in their books. Its use continued to be common, however, and its notoriety eventually diminished. It now survives as a usage topic chiefly in composition textbooks for high school and college students.

Our abundant written evidence for "out loud'' shows clearly that it is not a colloquialism. We would agree that "aloud'' is more likely in solemn writing, but in general use the two terms are essentially interchangeable. A distinctive and exclusive use of "out loud'' is in the idiom "for crying out loud!'' It is also preferred to "aloud'' following the verb "laugh.''

Dear Editor:

How did the expression "pushing the envelope'' come about?

_T.C., Lynnwood, Wash.

Dear T.C.:

"Pushing the envelope,'' which means "testing the outermost limits,'' is a technological phrase popularized by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 best seller "The Right Stuff.''

In this look at the development of the U.S. space program, the expression "push the envelope'' was used by test pilots and engineers as they tested the performance of aircraft. "Envelope'' is a term used in many mathematical, technical, and medical areas, and refers to a three-dimensional conception of a set of performance limits.

Donate to JWR

If, for example, the "performance envelope'' of an aircraft indicates that it should not be flown above a certain speed, then flying it above that speed is "pushing the envelope,'' something that test pilots may be required to do in order to find out the aircraft's true limits.

The popularity of Wolfe's book brought "push the envelope'' into widespread use, and it can now refer to testing the limits of almost anything, from mechanics to morals to public standards of civility.

Dear Editor:

My daughter often will use the phrase "without rhyme or reason.'' What's the story behind that saying?

_T.J., Tampa, Fla.

Dear T.J.:

There are several stories behind "rhyme or reason.'' We begin with an apocryphal one.

Legend has it that an aspiring author took his manuscript to Sir Thomas More, then the chancellor of King Henry VIII, and asked for More's opinion of it. The well-respected author of "Utopia'' looked at the work, then asked the would-be writer to turn it into rhyme. He did so and again submitted it to Sir Thomas. More's response? "Ay, ay, that will do. 'Tis rhyme now, but before it was neither rhyme nor reason.''

Not only does this tale reflect well on the man for all seasons, but it makes a great story about the origin of the phrase "rhyme or reason.''

Unfortunately, it's not true. Although "rhyme or reason'' (meaning "good sense or reason'') first appeared in print in the 15th century, the century of More's birth, we can't credit that wise and witty gentleman with the coinage.

But it is likely that the origins of the phrase do owe something to bad poetry. Because a piece of badly rhymed verse is at best distracting and at worst nonsensical, French speakers said such poor poetry was "sans rime ni raison'': literally, "without rhyme or reason.'' Many educated English speakers of past centuries were also fluent in French, and they simply borrowed the translated version of the phrase into their native tongue. It must have been a good idea, since "rhyme or reason'' (and its negative version, "neither rhyme nor reason'') still remain popular today.

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.


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

©2003 Merriam-Webster Inc.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services