FAQ: Questions About Language

Updated January 31, 2017

What's the longest word in the English language?

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis meaning a lung disease caused by breathing ultramicroscopic particles of volcanic silica. This word has never been used; it was artificially contrived to be the longest word in the English language.

What does "antidisestablishmentarianism" mean?

At 28 letters, "antidisestablishmentarianism" might be the best-known long word in English. It is a rare British term meaning "opposition to removing the tie between the Church of England and the state."

How do I say [a common phrase] in language X?

  • To translate phrases, web pages, entire documents, or anything else among European languages, try our translation engines.
  • To find everyday, useful phrases in almost every conceivable language, have a look at Jennifer's Language Pages.

I need to find a girl's/boy's name in language X.

Our links to resources about names are listed on the Specialty page, under Names. We will be adding to them as they become available.

  • YourDictionary.com has links to an extensive naming resource under "Names" in the specialty dictionary section.
  • If you cannot find what you need there, try a search engine like Google or Yahoo. Type in the language that you need, the gender of the name you want, and the word "names," for example, "Thai boy names." That ought to do it.

What does this name mean?

YourDictionary.com maintains its shelf of naming glossaries and dictionaries under "Names" in our specialty dictionary section. If you can't find the name you are looking for there, you probably won't find it on the Web.

I know the meaning but I can't think of the word for it. What do I do?

Go to the YourDictionary's Quick Lookup, type in 2 or more words you would expect to be in the definition of the word, select "Definitions" instead of "Normal" in the menu bar to the right of the input. Click "GO!" If you do not find the word you are looking for, click "HELP!" above the "GO!" button for additional suggestions.

Is it "judgment" or "judgement"?

The English spelling system is a nightmare (see "The Chaos" in our library) caused by inconsistencies in the spelling system. To remain on the side of the orthographic angels and help our children learn to spell words in the language more accurately, YourDictionary.com is committed to as much consistency in spelling as the English language allows. To spell "judgement" without an "e," while spelling "abridgement," "acknowledgement," "arrangement," "engagement," and the 40 other words in English with a soft "g" before -ment with an "e," is an act of bewildering inconsistency that makes learning the spelling system unnecessarily difficult (See Dr. Language's article on the equally puzzling but ever popular editorial error, "an historical" for the correct "a historical".)It is not a new problem; both spellings have trailed this word throughout history and all English-language dictionaries assure us that both are acceptable. However, we are offering a reasoned resolution to the dilemma that allows us to spell all such words accurately and consistently, making our kids' task of learning the language just a bit easier. We should use the "e" after "g" and "c" (e.g. "advancement" when they are soft and omit it when they are hard (e.g. "segment," "pigment"). By the way, we have William Shakespeare and all our British brethren on our side. Not bad company to keep.

Are "imply" and "infer" synonyms?

These two terms cannot be correctly used interchangeably. In fact, "imply" and "infer" are antonyms. If I say that your car is too small, I would imply that I don't want to ride in it. YOU would infer from my comment that I do not want to ride in it. The subject of "imply" is the source of an implication while the subject of "infer" is the recipient of an implication.

What is the difference between "its" and "it's?"

"It's" is always the abbreviation of "it is" as in "It's (it is) a nice day, isn't it?" "Its" is the possessive of "it" as in, "That is Morton's puppy but I don't know its name."

What is the difference between "may" and "can?"

We use "can" to indicate capability or possibility, e.g. "I don't know if I can lift this piano by myself." "May" is used when you are speaking of permission, "May I lift your piano for a little exercise?"

What is the difference between "there" and "their?"

Glad you asked. "There" indicates a place as in, "I live here not there." It is the opposite of "here." "Their" is the possessive of "they" as in "They live there but is isn't their house."

What is onomatopoeia?

Onomatopoeia is the naming of a sound by trying to imitate it, as in "meow" (The cat meowed) or "quack" (The duck only uttered a muffled quack.) For more on onomatopoeia, read John Whitman's article on Japanese onomatopoeia, "Chit-Chat Among Japanese Farm Animals."

What is an eponym?An eponym is a person's name on which a common noun is based, for example "nicotine" was named after Jean Nicot (1530-1600), who purportedly introduced tobacco to France. Another way of saying the same thing is that "nicotine" is a commonization of "Nicot" plus the suffix -ine.

What is the difference between an epithet and an epitaph?

An epithet, from Greek epithetos "placed upon, attributed," is an adjective or other descriptive word or phrase that characterizes the person or object it is attributed to. As George Eliot wrote in "Romola," "Hollow, empty is the epithet justly bestowed on Fame." An epitaph, from Greek epi "on" + taphos "tomb," is an inscription on a tomb or gravestone.

What is an acronym?

An acronym is a word formed from the initials of words in a phrase, such as NATO ['neyto] from North Atlantic Treaty Organization or "scuba" from "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus." It is often used to include abbreviations but abbreviations are not all pronounceable words. "YDC" is an abbreviation, not an acronym.

What is a synonym and a homonym?

A synonym (from Greek syn "with" + onoma "name") is a word that has the same meaning as another word. "Couch" and "sofa" are synonyms. A homonym is a word that is pronounced like another word. "Pare," "pair," and "pear" are homonyms. Homonyms, from Greek homo "same" + onoma "name," are sometimes called "homophones" from Greek homo "same" + phone "sound."

What is a thesaurus?

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms and homonyms (for which see above). YourDictionary has integrated the best English dictionary with Roget's thesaurus for your reference.

What is PIE?

"PIE" is an abbreviation of "Proto-Indo-European" believed to be the ancestor of most of the languages of Europe (except for Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian) and India (except for the Dravidian languages in the south). It probably existed around 5000 BCE, i.e., 7000 years ago. The Sanskrit Rig Vedas date back as far as 900-1500 BC so PIE must have antedated them. This language over time developed dialects, such as those between the northern and southern U.S. states. However, the people speaking these dialects migrated away from the center and the dialects became so strong that people speaking different ones eventually could not understand each other. At this point we say they were speaking different languages. Now, the people speaking these new languages developed dialects and the process continued on and on until today (and continues today). For an idea of which languages developed this way from the original Proto-Indo-European, read "How is a Hippo like a Feather" in our library and take a look at the illustration by clicking here.

What does the suffix -stan mean in words like "Afghanistan" and "Pakistan?"

-Stan is formed from the old Iranian root *sta- "to stand, stay," and means "place where one stays," i.e., homeland or country. Names such as Afghani-stan, Tajiki-stan, Hindu-stan are formed by adding this suffix to the usually pluralized names of the people living in that country, as the Afghani (one Afghan) live in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan was formed from the initial letters of "Punjab," "Afghanistan," and "Kashnir" and the questionable extended suffix -istan. So, now there is an extended suffix floating around that may be added to new countries, the name of whose people is not pluralized by the suffix -i.By the way, Iranian is the mother language from which the modern Persian or Farsi, Pashto, Baluchi, etc. languages developed. The Germanic language family, of which English (German, Swedish, Dutch, etc.) is a member, developed from the same great-great-grandmother, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) some 7,000 years ago, so the same root also turns up in English "stand," "stay," "steady," and others.

What does 'kumbaya' in the song, "Kumbaya, my Lord" mean?

"Kumbaya, my Lord" started out in the 1920s as a Gullah spiritual sung on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the Creole featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of "Song of the South." "Come by here, my Lord" in Gullah is "Come by (h)yuh, my lawd" (see our Gullah dictionary). American missionaries probably took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the late 1950s the song was rediscovered in Angola and returned to North America where it swept the campfire circuit as a beautiful and mysterious religious lyric. That is why the song is associated with Angola in many current printed versions.

What is the difference between sit/set and lie/lay?

These two pairs of words operate on the same rule, a rule that has to do with transitivity. Transitivity is a property of verbs that allows them to take direct object, a second noun directly after the verb without an intervening preposition. In the sentence, "Frank bit the dog," "Frank" is the Subject (doer) of the sentence. "Dog" is the object ('doee'), the object to which something is done. "Bite" is a transitive verb in that it allows a direct object (the bitten dog above). Other verbs, like "sleep," do not allow direct objects. You can't say "Frank slept a dog." You can say "Frank slept all night" but "all night" is not the object to which something is done but an adverbial phrase telling us how long the action of the verb lasted.That brings us to sit/set and lie/lay. "Sit (sat, sat)" and "lie (lay, lain)" are intransitive verbs. You can sit down, sit up (movement involved), or sit in a chair (no movement) but you can't sit Frank - or anything else. You can, however, set a plate on a table or seat Frank in a chair - but not sit him. "Set (set, set)" is a transitive verb; "sit" is intransitive. this same distinction separates "lie" from "lay (laid, laid)." You can lie on a rug but you cannot lie a rug. You can, however lay a rug anywhere you please or lay down your trouble with lie/lay if you understand this brief note. The confusion here arises from the fact that the past tense of "lie" is also "lay." Don't let that confuse you.