Q. An "augur" is someone who can tell the future by interpreting omens, but change just one vowel, to "auger," and you get a tool for boring holes. Do these words come from the same root? If so, what is that root's meaning?A. Good guess, but despite their similar spelling, "augur" and "auger" are actually unrelated.

The word "augur" originally referred to a member of the highest class of official diviners of ancient Rome, later broadening to cover anyone reputed to foretell events by omens. The Roman augurs examined such things as the behavior of birds and the entrails of sacrificial animals in order to determine the will of the gods and then recommend the best political or military course of action to the leaders. The word itself comes from Latin and is of somewhat uncertain origin. It is probably related in some way to the Latin term "augere," meaning "to increase" or "to carry out." "Augere" is the same word that gave us English "auction," "augment," and "author." Another theory, however, holds that "augur" derives from "avis" (meaning "bird") plus "-gar" (a root associated with the Latin word "garrire," meaning "to talk").

"Auger," however, has a completely different etymology. "Auger" (as in the tool) derives from the Old English word "nafogar," which is itself akin to two other Old English words "nafu," meaning "nave" (as in the hub of a wheel), and "gar," meaning "spear." In Middle English, "nafogar" became "nauger" and then "auger." The initial "n" was lost as the result of false division of "a nauger" - the same process that gave us "an apron" from "a napron" and "an adder" from "a nadder."

Q. Can you explain why we say we can "see the handwriting on the wall" when we know something bad is about to happen?

A. The concept of handwriting on a wall portending doom goes back to the Bible. The Book of Daniel (Chapter 5) relates the story of King Belshazzar of Babylon, who, while feasting, was horrified by the sight of human fingers writing on a candlelit wall. The prophet Daniel translated the message: "God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it"; "Thou are weighed in the balanced, and art found wanting"; and "Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians." Later that night, Belshazzar was slain and the kingdom taken.

The phrase itself, which is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, as "an omen of one's unpleasant fate," was being used outside Biblical contexts as early as 1720 in the form "writing on the wall." In that year, Jonathan Swift used it to decry the precarious nature of high finance: "A baited Banker thus desponds, From his own Hand foresees his Fall; They have his Soul who have his Bonds; 'Tis like the Writing on the Wall."

Q. In a newspaper article recently, a reporter used the words "carrot" and "stick" to describe the good and bad aspects of a particular situation. How did these familiar uses originate?

A. A "carrot" and a "stick" are both ways of getting someone to do something. They are two sides of the same coin; "carrot" is symbolic of a reward received for a task performed, while "stick" symbolizes punishment for a job not done. The image underlying these symbols is the donkey cart that has a reluctant engine. The driver gets out of the cart and pulls on the donkey, pushes from behind, and finally resorts to beating the animal with a stick, all to no avail. But when the driver uses the stick as a fishing pole of sorts, a carrot serving as bait, the donkey is more than happy to do its job and pull the cart. It knows it will be rewarded with the carrot when the job is done. The "bait" is there to serve as a constant reminder of that fact.

A similar way of expressing this idea is the old maxim, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." In other words, a sweet disposition will win you more favors than a sour one. A tempted donkey is more likely to pull your cart than a beaten one.