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March 25, 2006

Like a lot of Americans, our adult Presbyterian Sunday school class spent some time recently discussing the meaning of certain phrases. One of these was "bar ditch." Do you know what it means, "borrow ditch," and when to use it? That is where we got hung up. Turns out, "bar" in this case is a corruption of the word "borrow," so when you hear the phrase "bar ditch," think "borrow ditch," and you will be at the right place. The term, bar ditch, came into existence when someone misunderstood a phrase that meant "borrow ditch," and the mystery ends there. In another age, a pile of dirt was placed on the center of an adjacent thoroughfare to provide material for continued improvement of the road in the future. The borrowed dirt came from an adjacent ditch. Hence, "borrow ditch."

Another tricky one (because of our use of it) was "tin whistle." Few of us knew the meaning or origin of that phrase. It is a term commonly applied to a device that allows excessive rain water to run beneath a driveway, for instance, following a heavy rain. We knew about rain in this part of the country, but the whistle term was not uniformly familiar. Now you know. A good dictionary will guide you along the way and prevent a stumble.

A conservative host of a popular talk radio show was amused the other day to see the word "bungled" in a statement issued by a Southern government official. The host was amused because no one on his staff knew what the heck "bungled" meant. Someone pointed out to him that it was another way of saying "messed up," and it was perfectly understandable to many people. You know, of course, that something bungled is normally considered a mess, so why doesn't the rest of the world know that? It's a way of understanding why our version of the American language is hard for outsiders to learn its correct usage.