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January 29, 2011

Readers ask about fangled, every day/everyday and infinity symbol


Daily Star

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Recent e-mails from readers have included some pretty thoughtful questions, three of which I present to you here, along with what I hope are equally thoughtful answers ...

Andrew Allen sent in this: "I've heard of things being oldfangled and newfangled, but can something be just plain fangled?"

Answer: Absolutely, Andrew.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fangled is an adjective defined as "characterized by crotchets or fopperies."

If you're thinking, "Huh?," I should probably be a little less of a stinker and point out that the OED also tells us that the word is obsolete. The OED's most recent citation for it is from Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" ("Be not, as is our fangled world, a Garment, Nobler than that it covers"), written circa 1611.

It may no longer exist in standard use, but it is interesting to note that the word fangled had a derogatory or disapproving tone to it. The same can be said for both oldfangled and newfangled.

When people today say things like, "How long do we have to keep this oldfangled telephone?" or "I can't figure out that newfangled billing system," the inference is clearly one of displeasure or objection (although rarely as poetically put as by Shakespeare).

G. K. Jessop asked if I would settle an argument: "Is there any difference between everyday (one word) and every day (two words)?"

Answer: I don't know which side of this argument you're on, G. K., but the answer in brief is "Yes, there is most definitely a difference."

To explain more fully, we need to think about the grammatical distinction between the two forms.

As one word, everyday is an adjective, as in "Hannaford's everyday prices" and "it's an everyday occurrence." The adjective everyday is not uncommon, but we more often use the two-word form every day, not as an adjective, however, but as an adverbial phrase -- for example, "I eat fish every day" and "he stopped by every day this week."

An easy trick for remembering this difference is to think of every day as being equivalent to each day, and therefore interchangeable. So, if "it rained each day" makes sense, then "it rained every day" is also correct. But if "doing my each day chores" sounds wrong, then "doing my every day chores" is also wrong. The correct form would be "doing my everyday chores."

Another trick is to imagine the word single between "every" and "day." If it makes sense ("it rained every single day"), then every day is correct. If it doesn't make sense ("doing my every single day chores"), then it should have been the one-word adjective everyday.

Maria Johns came up with an interesting poser when she asked, "Is there a name for the sideways-8 symbol that stands for 'infinity'?"

Answer: Like most people, Maria, I know exactly the symbol you're referring to. But as your question illustrates so well, even when we're familiar with a symbol and what it stands for, we may not be aware that the symbol itself has a given name. I'm not even sure that all symbols do have given names distinct from what they stand for (I mean, I wouldn't know what to call "+" other than a "plus sign"), but many symbols do have such designations, including "&," which stands for "and" but which is also commonly known to be an ampersand.

So, does the infinity symbol have a name? Actually, it does--it's called a lemniscate (pronounce the —niscate to rhyme with biscuit), which in mathematics can also refer to other figure-8 curves, especially in algebraic geometry.

Thanks for your excellent questions!

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.