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October 8th, 2003

Whence bulldozers? / alot and alright

by Barbara Wallraff

Jonathan Kaye, of San Francisco, writes, “When I told my five-year-old son that the big yellow thing digging up dirt was called a bulldozer, he laughed and laughed and said it was a ‘silly name.’ Come to think of it, he’s right. Do you have a convincing explanation of how the bulldozer got its name—convincing, I mean, to a five-year-old?”

Convincing, yes. Heartwarming, no. Interesting to a five-year-old boy? I’ll say! The “bull” part of this word is the powerful animal you’d think it is. The “dozer” part started out as the verb “dose” when the term originated in America, shortly after the Civil War. In 1881 “Saturday Review” magazine explained, “A ‘bull-dose’ means a large efficient dose of any sort of medicine or punishment”—a dose fit for a bull. Originally a man who “bull-dosed” or “bull-dozed” or “bulldozed” another man, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, coerced him by violence or intimidated him. (Think Paulie in “The Sopranos.”) From there it wasn’t much of a stretch to apply the noun to the intimidating machine that now goes by the name “bulldozer.”

Paul Abrahams, of Deerfield, Mass., writes, “A quite literate friend of mine uses the word ‘alot’ a lot in her writing. She thinks it’s correct and cites Microsoft Encarta; I think it’s wrong and cite Webster’s Collegiate, which doesn’t list it. I have similar questions about ‘alright’ and ‘awhile,’ as in ‘If it’s alright with you, I’ll be here for awhile.’ Are these forms acceptable or not?”

But “alot” isn’t in Microsoft Encarta—not in the original World English Dictionary, in the more recent College edition, or online. Not even Microsoft’s spell-checker approves of it. I use Microsoft Word to write this column, and reproducing your letter accurately took some doing, because Word’s “AutoCorrect” feature insists on changing “alot” to “a lot.”

If your friend would like to see for herself how often “a lot” and “alot” turn up in edited media like newspapers and magazines, she can visit the Google News website (http://news.google.com), type each version into the search window (put quotation marks around “a lot” to search for the two words together) and … well, the day I did that, the result came back 105,000 to 237, or more than 400 to one, in favor of “a lot.”

As for “alright,” do you want to be nonconformist or above reproach? Some people respond to “alright” the way they do to pierced navels, tofu hot dogs and singers who scream their lyrics. Meanwhile, nobody finds “all right” repulsive. The latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, published this summer, defines “alright” as meaning “all right,” and devotes the rest of the entry to explaining why the one-word version is not flat-out wrong. Whenever I see a usage note like that, I stick with the version no one calls incorrect: “all right.”

“Awhile,” though, has made it into standard English, except (some say) after a preposition, such as “for.” Faultless usage calls for “I’ll be here awhile” or “I’ll be here for a while.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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