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Know your English

What is the meaning and origin of the expression ``to throw one's hat into the ring? (R. Ramasubramanian, Coimbatore)

When you ``throw'' or ``toss'' your hat into the ring what you are doing is informing everyone that you are willing to enter a contest. The expression these days is normally used in politics. When someone throws his hat "in" or "into" the ring, he is announcing to the world that he is a candidate in the coming election. In other words, he is contesting. Here are a few examples.

* Renuka is seriously considering throwing her hat into the ring this time.

* Arjun has tossed his hat in the ring. This should make things interesting.

* I would sound people out before throwing my hat into the ring if I were you.

The expression comes from the sport of boxing. In the old days whenever someone threw his hat into the boxing ring, it implied that he was challenging the boxer; he was willing to fight the person in the ring.

A well-known boxer, John L. Sullivan, used to go through this ritual every time he fought. After defeating his opponent, Sullivan would toss his hat into the ring. This was a challenge to the people in the audience.

If the man who challenged him was able to remain on his feet till the end of the bout, then Sullivan used to give him a prize. They were not too many occasions when he actually had to pay the challenger!

So the original meaning of "tossing the hat into the ring" was to challenge. It was only in the 19th Century that the expression took on the meaning it has today - announcing one's political candidacy.

What is the plural of "mother-in-law"? (S. Shanthi, Kurnool)

At the beginning of this century there was only one plural for this word - mothers in law. The word "mother in laws" was considered unacceptable. As a result, we had "fathers in law", "brothers in law", "sisters in law", etc.

Of late, native speakers of English have started saying, "mother in laws", father in laws", "brother in laws", etc. So to get back to your question, the plural of "mother in law" could be either "mothers in law" or "mother in laws". Take your pick.

Which of the following sentences is correct? "The fees has to be paid", or "The fees have to be paid"? (Chandrasekhar, Chennai)

The word "fees" is considered to be plural; the singular is "fee". Rules of grammar dictate that "fees" should be followed by a plural verb. The correct sentence is, "The fees have to be paid". Here are a few more examples.

* The entrance fee has gone up.

* The school fees are exorbitant.

* The fee is likely to be increased.

Does the word "timepass" exist? (M. Aruna, Thiruvannamalai)

It certainly does; at least it is alive and kicking in Indian English. We often use this word in our country to mean a good way of spending one's time. For example, we hear people say.

* The movie was a good timepass.

* It was just timepass.

* I always take a book with me when I travel. It's good timepass.

The word however does not exist in the native varieties of English. The native speaker would normally say, "pass time".

* The movie was an enjoyable way of passing one's time.

* I always take a book with me when I travel. It's a nice way of passing one's time.

* I passed time watching the kids at play.

What is the word for a wife who is excessively fond of her husband? (Kriti Nath Jha, Delhi)

Some time ago I had written in this column that the English language has a word for a man who is excessively fond of his wife -"uxorious"- but that it doesn't have a word for a woman who is excessively fond of her husband. I am happy to report that such a word does exist. The word is "maritorious". It is derived from the Latin "maritus" meaning "husband". But unlike the word "uxorious", "maritorious" is a word that is seldom heard or used. One does not find it listed in most dictionaries. Wonder why!

Is it OK to say, "Rectify my doubts"? (A. Arunachalam, Chennai)

The word "rectify" means to correct something that is wrong. This is a word, which is normally used in formal contexts. One can talk about rectifying a situation, mistake, or defect. Here are a few examples.

* Santosh did his best to rectify the situation.

* We would like you to rectify the mistakes made by the previous Manager.

* The defects could not be rectified.

One does not `rectify' doubts. One can get them `cleared'. We can for example say, "I would like to have my doubts cleared".

* * *

"The word trousers is an uncommon noun because it is singular at the top and plural at the bottom."

- A student


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