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December 17th, 2008

Cut in half or halves? / rein and reign / origins of surnames

by Barbara Wallraff

Tim O’Brien, of Allen Park, Mich., writes: “A story in today’s paper included the phrase ‘salaries are cut in half.’ It is, of course, a logical impossibility to cut anything ‘in half,’ since you are necessarily turning something singular into a plural -- ‘halves.’ No other subdivisions are subjected to this grammatical mistreatment. One never sees or hears that, for instance, something has been ‘cut in quarter.’ Is this misconstruction now considered acceptable?”

Dear Tim: Surely you’ve realized that English is full of expressions that are considered correct even though they don’t quite make sense. “In half” is one of them. To be honest, I’d never noticed how illogical it is until you pointed it out.

The word “half” is more than a thousand years old, and anything that has been around that long is bound to have developed some quirks. For instance, the original meaning of “half” was “side,” and although that meaning has long been obsolete, the phrase “on behalf of,” which grew out of “half,” still does mean something like “on the side of” or “on the part of.” As for the quirk you don’t like, “in half” meaning “into halves” is very well established. It’s been with us at least since 1820, when the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley used it in “Prometheus Unbound”: “Each by lightning riven in half.”

As I thought all of this over, I wondered (on your behalf!) whether the fact that “half” has no etymological relationship to “two” -- unlike, say, “one-third” and “three” -- might help explain the odd phrase. Then I realized that we say, similarly, “cut it in two” -- but not “cut it in three.” Evidently, what’s special about “half” isn’t the word itself but its connection to the very common, basic idea of two.

Ted Young, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., writes: “Kindly explain the difference between the words ‘rein’ and ‘reign.’ In newspapers I continually see phrases such as ‘reign in’ and ‘give him free reign.’ I believe those should be ‘rein in’ and ‘free rein.’ Am I correct?”

Dear Ted: Yes, you are. “Reining in” and “free rein” are metaphors that have to do with riding horses. To “rein in” a horse literally is to assert control by pulling on the reins, and to “give it free rein” is to do the opposite.

To “reign” is what God and kings and queens do. And, of course, to “rain” is what cats and dogs do. (Joke!) However, I’ve actually seen “free rain” written: “I would hate to give free rain to executors and administrators ...” That mistake is bizarre. I mean, as far as I know, rain is free to everyone.

Clyde MacDonald, of Hampden, Maine, writes: “Years ago, I heard a very interesting lecture in which the professor cited the roots of English, French and German surnames. I have made several unsuccessful attempts to locate the book that he probably used for his information. Do you know of a book that explains the origins of surnames?”

Dear Clyde: Most books about surnames treat one country or ethnicity’s worth; I would suppose your professor used a number of books in his research. These days, Web sites can be equally helpful. Take a look at www
.genealogytoday.com/names/origins and the pages it links to for specific countries, and you’ll be on your way to learning what you want to know.

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

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