What is the difference between ‘amateur’ and ‘novice’?

(J Shanthi, Chennai)

The word ‘novice’ is mostly used to refer to someone who is a beginner. For example, if you say, ‘When it comes to cricket, I’m a novice’, you mean that you are not very good at the game because you have just started playing it. When you say that someone is an ‘amateur’ cricket player, what you mean is that the individual is not a professional; he does not play the game for the money. An amateur is someone who takes part in an activity for the sheer joy of it. Unlike a novice, an amateur can be very skilled at the game; he is not necessarily a beginner. The word comes from the Latin ‘amotorem’ meaning ‘lover of’.

*Devi is an amateur cricket player. He plays on weekends.

*I didn’t want a novice like Mala on my team.

Unlike ‘novice’, the word ‘amateur’ can be used to show disapproval. When someone doesn’t do a very good job of something, you can say that he has done an amateur job.

*Raghavan did an amateur job of fixing the leak.

What is the meaning of ‘tail wagging the dog’?

(Vivek Sharma, Delhi)

The ‘tail’ is a very small part of a dog, and usually it’s the dog that wags the tail and not the other way around. The American expression ‘tail wagging the dog’ is normally used to refer to a situation where a minor or insignificant part of something controls the whole.

*In some households, the parents do whatever their children want them to. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Another expression that is sometimes heard is ‘wag the dog’. Whenever there is a scandal, the government tries to divert the attention of the public by turning the spotlight on something insignificant. Such a ploy is called ‘wag the dog’.

How is the word ‘emeritus’ pronounced?

(George Matthai, Cochin)

The first ‘e’ and the ‘i’ in the third syllable sound like the ‘i’ in ‘sit’, ‘lit’ and ‘fit’, while the ‘e’ in the second syllable is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘set’, ‘pet’ and ‘get’. The final vowel sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The word is pronounced ‘i-ME-ri-tes’ with the stress on the second syllable. It comes from the Latin ‘emereri’ meaning ‘earning one’s discharge by service’. It was first used to refer to veteran soldiers; those who had earned their retirement after having served in the army for many years. Nowadays, emeritus is frequently heard in academic contexts. When a professor who has served the university with distinction retires, he/she is sometimes given the title ‘emeritus’. The word can also be used to suggest that the retired individual retains the title on an honorary basis. For example, when the editor of a newspaper retires, he can call himself ‘Editor Emeritus’.

Is it okay to say ‘Sita has gotten to like him’?

(L Divya, Chennai)

In American English, ‘gotten’ is frequently used in speech. ‘I’ve gotten used to the pain’; ‘She’s gotten a new car’, etc. Such sentences would be frowned upon in writing because many people consider ‘gotten’ to be non-standard.


“Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”Ann Landers