SIR: What is the origin of "first string," as in the statement that a football player is "a first-string quarterback"? - Paul S.
ANSWER: That goes back to the time of medieval archery when a man needed more than one string for his longbow in competition. If his first string broke, he could take out his second (or reserve) string and proceed.As early as 1524, archers were advised to "have two stringes to your bowe, specially when the one is wroght with a womans fingers." The usefulness of the term caught on.
In 1897 an encyclopedia of sports explained that " `first,' `second' and `third' strings are the first, second and third men chosen to represent a club in any event." Fortunately, that sexist dig about a woman's fingers has been forgotten.
SIR: During recent employment as a documentation writer, I was told that I was using "which" too much when I should be using "that." I see and hear this usage all the time and find it hard to believe that it is incorrect. Your opinion, please. - Steve B.
ANSWER: The old rule is that "which" should be used to introduce non-restrictive clauses and "that" should be used to introduce relative clauses. Many writers follow the rule, but many others ignore it. One authority has written, "in current English `which' is used in place of `that' chiefly for variety." My opinion is that it makes practically no difference, though overuse of "which" could grow tiresome. And if this sounds like straddling the issue, it is.
SIR: What is the meaning of "angst"? I have two dictionaries and neither has the answer. - Sarah R.
ANSWER: Angst, which is borrowed from the Germans, seems to be enjoying a lot of popularity these days, in a neurotic sort of way. It means a general feeling of dread or anguish or anxiety, often accompanied by depression.
SIR: Where did the expression "to eat crow" come from? - Turner K.
ANSWER: That's not easy to say, though it's easy enough to note that crow is a disgusting food and having to eat it would be humiliating.
Crow-eating, at least as a phrase, is American and first appeared in print in the 1870s. It was originally applied to political prophets, according to at least one source. Guess wrong and eat crow.
Actually, there is an elaborate story about the origin of the expression, but it's highly suspect. It is said that during a truce in the War of 1812, an American soldier shot a crow and was forced by a British officer to eat a mouthful of it as punishment. But the soldier later got the drop on the Britisher and made him eat the rest. One problem with this account is that it didn't appear in print until 1888, which is a mighty long time to keep a crow-eating tale waiting.
SIR: Watch your language? You wrote the phrase, "each and every," is alliterative. Alliteration, of course, is the repetition of consonant sounds, which simply does not occur in this phrase. - John H.
ANSWER: Oh? Then I wonder why two major dictionaries, under "alliteration," quote a line from poet Charles Churchill, "Apt alliteration's artful aid." Any repetition of consonant sounds there?
If you wish to become an authority on alliteration (I don't), perhaps you should bone up on the distinction between consonantal alliteration and vocalic alliteration. Thank you for providing such an easy setup.
WRY WONDER of the week, from Lillian B.:
"I read an article about country roads that spoke of `bridal paths used only for horses and pedestrian traffic.' I wonder who would be the breadwinner in such a couple, the horse or the walker?"
Send questions, comments, and good and bad examples to Lydel Sims, Watch Your Language, P.O. Box 161280, Memphis, TN 38186. If you quote a book, please give author, title and page number. Sorry, but questions can be answered only through this column.