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On words: If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers. – Doug Larson, newspaper editor and columnist

Over the July 4 holiday, with many grandchildren about, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the bedtime parental order:

“Go brush your teeth, and find your pajamas.”

One morning, after pancakes and sausage, I posed this question to one of the grandsons: “What did you use to brush your teeth last night?”

“A toothbrush, Grandpa, the red one.”

“Oh,” I said. “Did you have just one tooth to brush?”

He grinned, knowing we were going to have another conversation about words.

He looked at me impishly.

“Do you want me to call it a ‘teethbrush’ Grandpa?”

By that time another grandson was chiming in and wondering about the bookcase over in the corner of the TV room.

“Should we call that a ‘bookscase,’ ?” he wondered.

It’s fun to engage the younger set in discussions about words and word meanings. Trust me, I learn as much as I teach. When this particular visit began, one of boys was reading a book on his Kindle and the other was involved in some sort of game on an iPad.

The terminology – and the kids – help keep me up-to-date in today’s world of technology.  Their parents – and our other daughters and their husbands – are tech-savvy, but at the same time, patient with those of us who still have landline telephones.

Harking back to a day 35 years ago when I would quiz the daughters at the dinner table about a word and say, “Let’s see what Mr. Webster has to say about it,” I said to the boys: “Let’s see what Merriam Webster has to say about this. Should it be ‘toothpaste’ or ‘teethpaste’?”

And, here’s what Miss Merriam says:

“Our universe is plagued with tough ontological questions. Why does evil exist? Is there existence beyond death? And the most pressing of them all: Why is it toothpaste, not ‘teethpaste’?

“In English, there is a whole host of compound nouns wherein the first noun is an object or body part and the second noun in the compound refers to an agent used.

Examples: eyeglasses, nailpolish, legwarmers, hairbrush, earphones, footwear.”

Merriam doesn’t say it, but our language is quirky, or as one of my grandsons has said: “It’s weird, Grandpa.”

Merriam simply puts it this way:  “The singular is used to refer to the whole in almost all these noun+agent compounds. They are, to be honest, much easier to say. That doesn’t just go for eyesglasses. Bookscase? Carswash? Keysboard? Dishessoap?

“C’mon, even English has standards.”

July 12, 2017