Columns » Words


by and


“As expected, ‘Bad Twin’ is chalk full of cheeky references to the prime-time juggernaut, including several mentions of the 17th-century philosopher John Locke … ”

Susan Van Dusen asks “Doesn’t the writer mean to say ‘chock-full’ instead of ‘chalk-full’ ? ”

Yes. Chock-full, the adjective, is derived from the noun chock: “A wedge or block of wood, metal or the like, for filling in a space, holding an object steady, etc.”

“I read that President Bush had done a volte-face on the importance of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that Iraq was supposed to possess but didn’t. I gather this means he did an about-face. Why didn’t the writer say so?”

Trying to impress people, I suppose. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage says that U-turn, about-turn, about-face and volte-face can all refer to an abrupt reversal of policy, and:

“The most recent (U-turn) is already the most frequent in British English … and it has the force of its other very familiar use in describing the 180-degree change of direction of a vehicle. Both about-turn and about-face come from the military parade ground, though their imperatives are muted. In British English about-turn is somewhat more common than about-face, though both are current. In American English about-face is by far the commoner of the two, and almost as popular as U-turn. Neither British nor American writers make much use of volte-face, a French calque of the Italian voltafaccia (‘[a] turn [of the] face’). “

Random House says that “calque” is a linguistics term that means “a loan translation, especially one resulting from bilingual interference in which the internal structure of a borrowed word or phrase is maintained but its morphemes are replaced by those of the native language, as German halbinsel for peninsula.”

I think I’ll find even less use for calque than for volte-face.

You don’t normally carry guns in a gunnysack, so where does the word come from? According to Success With Words, “Gunny comes from the Hindi goni, which means ‘sack.’ ” It entered English in the 18th century, when the British ruled India.

Add a comment