The Word

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Is one half equal to the other?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
January 20, 2008

WHEN IS A half not a half? Reader Rick Oberndorf of Wexford, Pa., posed that question recently, after way too many viewings of a pre-Christmas jewelry ad. In that TV spot, a couple pulled apart a turkey wishbone, explaining to their daughter that "whoever gets the bigger half wins."

"I've always been taught that, by definition, one half of something is always equal to the other half," e-mailed Oberndorf. "If they are not the same size, then they are not halves."

Other ad-watchers shared that view. At a Web forum on hated commercials, one commenter accused the jewelry chain of "creating faulty concepts in young impressionable minds." A math teacher chimed in: "The 'bigger half' does NOT exist in the English language."

But of course it does exist. Half has never, in its long history, been limited to the "50 percent" sense. In fact, half didn't even mean "half" at the beginning; in the earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from the eighth century, half meant one of two sides or parts.

The "one of two equal divisions" sense came later, but it never stood alone. And the casual, approximate sense - as in "bigger half" - goes back at least 700 years. The first citation, in fact, mentions the "four halves of this world," outdoing public radio's Click and Clack, who like to promise "more in the third half of 'Car Talk."'

Jonathan Swift, some centuries later, mentioned a china cup that "broke into three halves." Thomas Carlyle called Russia "the bigger half" of the challenges facing Frederick the Great. Lincoln said the nation could not survive "half slave and half free."

So firmly established is this approximate half that the usage advice literature, as far as I can discover, has ignored it: Not even the most querulous quibbler argues that half must mean 50 percent. And dictionaries agree: half can mean one of two equal parts, or one of two "approximately equal" parts, or one of a pair ("better half"), or, as an adjective, simply "partial" ("half-smile").

This tolerance does not make us innumerate dolts. When technical words are invented for a scientific use - epicenter, googol, feedback - their creators have every right to try to prevent their being appropriated for casual use, though the odds of success aren't encouraging.

But when specialists borrow from the existing lexicon - energy, mass, velocity - they can hardly expect people to drop all other senses of the word in favor of the new, limited one. In the case of half, the approximate senses are just as old as the precise one, and probably far more widespread.

A flag at half-staff isn't necessarily at the pole's midpoint. We can wonder how the other half lives, whether that half is one-tenth or two-thirds. And half a loaf is better than none, even if it's only a fourth of a loaf.

And those impressionable children will manage to sort out the senses of half, just as their forebears have done for the past seven centuries.

. . .

HOW THE COOKIE TRANSLATES: Linguist Lynne Murphy, who blogs on British-American dialect differences at Separated by a Common Language, was late with her Words of the Year for 2007 - she was busy having a baby. But her picks (from a pool of readers' nominations) were worth waiting for. Best British-to-American import was bump (as in pregnant belly); Best American-to-British import was cookie.

A bump is the same thing whether its proud owner is British or American; the only debate is whether it's cute or crude. But cookie has a more complicated story to tell.

In Britain, as all you Anglophiles know, cookies are called biscuits. But the biscuit category, Murphy explains, doesn't include home-baked Toll House cookies; it's made up of shortbread, rich tea biscuits, and "other brittle things that can be dunked in one's tea."

When America's big, soft, cookies began to migrate across the Atlantic, the word cookies went with it, since the new treats were so different from British biscuits.

But is cookie truly welcome? Last year, a mini-scandal involving the word suggested there might be pockets of resistance. A children's TV show invited viewers to name a new kitten. But when the kiddies voted to call it Cookie, the producers balked; they named it Socks instead.

Well, at least it wasn't Muhammad. Nonetheless, when the truth came out faces were red and apologies abject, though there wasn't a convincing explanation. "No one seems to know why Cookie was deemed unsuitable," says Murphy, but she has a theory: "I can't help but wonder if it wasn't because the name was felt to be too non-traditional (i.e. American!)."

Silly grown-ups. They should have foreseen that adopting a new word was a small price to pay for access to the warm, fresh-baked "American-style" cookie.

E-mail Jan Freeman at For past columns, go to

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