Why is an actor sometimes called a 'ham'? (R Aswath, Chennai)

An actor who is overly theatrical - in other words, 'overacts' - is usually referred to as 'ham'. He does such a bad job that the audience ends up laughing. The word is frequently used in everyday contexts to refer to someone who likes to draw attention to himself by being overly dramatic.

As expected, the acting was pure ham.

There are many theories regarding the origin of this word. According to one theory, in the past, not all actors could afford to buy cold cream to remove their makeup. The ones who were struggling to make a living, invariably made use of pig fat or 'ham fat' for this purpose. This practice led to actors being called 'hamfatters'; it was later shortened to 'ham'. Another theory is that the word comes from the title of Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet'. Many of the actors who played the hero were often very theatrical.

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What is the difference between 'noxious' and 'obnoxious'? (K Vinay, Bangalore)

The two words have very different meanings. When you say that someone is 'obnoxious', you mean that the person is rather rude or offensive; he says and does things that make people angry. The word can be used with things as well; a smell that is 'obnoxious' is something that is terrible. An obnoxious painting is one that is really bad; it is awful to look at. The word 'noxious', on the other hand, is mostly limited to things; something that is harmful or poisonous is usually referred to as 'noxious'. An obnoxious smell need not necessarily be dangerous to living things.

Three workers died after inhaling the noxious fumes.

Sita had obnoxious things to say about her boss.

What made you buy such an obnoxious painting?

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Why is a batsman in cricket sometimes referred to as the 'sheet anchor'? (R Kaushik, Delhi)

When a batsman is referred to as 'sheet anchor', it means that he is holding up one end. In other words, he is defending stoutly; though he may not be scoring runs very quickly, he ensures that he does not get out. His job is to provide support to the batsman at the other end whose aim it is to score runs quickly. The sheet anchor plays a supporting role.

I don't see Dhawan playing the role of a sheet anchor.

The expression comes from the world of sailing. A sheet anchor was a relatively large anchor that was used only in case of emergencies - for example, when the sea was rough. When applied to people, it began to mean someone you could fall back on or depend upon during times of difficulty.

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Is there a difference between 'She's a lovely woman' and 'She's a beautiful woman'? (Jayashree, Chennai)

In the second sentence, you are talking about a person's looks. In this case, you are saying that the individual is good looking or attractive. In the case of 'lovely woman', you are thinking of the character of the person. She may not be good looking, but there is something about her you find endearing. A lovely person is a very likeable person; a beautiful person need not be likeable.

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“People are seldom too busy to stop and tell you how busy they are.” Anonymous

S. Upendran

upendrankye@gmail.com