Why Do People Say 'Bias' Instead of 'Biased'?

It’s an error you see a lot these days: the use of bias in place of biased. Bias is a noun. You can have a bias, show a bias, or worry about bias. But when used as an adjective to describe something, the word is biased. It’s incorrect to say, “your opinion is bias,” “that’s a bias statement,” or “don’t be so bias.”

There are a number of factors that make this mistake likely and even hint at the notion that one day it could stop being seen as a mistake. First, in speech people drop the d or t sound from the end of words so often that linguists have a label for the phenomenon: "t/d deletion." Think about how you say “I passed through.” If you think very carefully about it, and speak very slowly you can get all the sounds in there, but in casual speech, it will come out as “I pass through.”

If a sound is often missing in speech, it’s likely to get left off in writing, too. There are a number of common errors where the –ed ending is left off of adjective forms. You see stain glass for stained glass, can goods for canned goods, bake chicken for baked chicken, and hundreds more like these (especially on menus).

When an adjective-noun phrase is used often enough, the –ed may eventually go missing for good. Skim milk, popcorn, and ice tea began their lives as skimmed milk, popped corn, and iced tea. Whip cream is well on its way to crossing over. Do you go over things with a fine-toothed comb or a fine-tooth comb? Either way works.

The process for biased losing its ending doesn’t quite fit this pattern. It doesn’t participate in any set phrases with a following noun of the skimmed milk variety (the most common words that follow biased are the prepositions against and toward). But bias fits another pattern: many adjectives that describe stances toward the world end in –ous, among them jealous, oblivious, righteous, serious, cautious, meticulous, treacherous, generous, callous, and pious. Bias might get a boost from the –ous family of adjectives because it ends in the same sequence of sounds.

Bias wouldn’t be the first such word to become an adjective because it coincidentally sounded like one. That’s what happened to the word genius, which has nothing to do with the –ous ending and was not used as an adjective until the 1920s, when people started saying things like “What a genius idea!” There are other words that coincidentally sound like they end in –ous, like prejudice and jaundice, which also seem especially susceptible to word errors of the bias type. “Are you prejudice?” gets thousands of hits on Google. “He was jaundice” and “She was jaundice” get thousands more.

Bias, prejudice, and jaundice are less likely than genius to become fully acceptable as adjectives because their spellings don’t fit as closely with the expectations for –ous words. They are still errors. But they are errors that reveal a complex sensitivity to the patterns of English. You might say the language is biased toward them.

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Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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