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crackerjacks

“Crackerjack” is an old slang expression meaning “excellent,” and the official name of the popcorn confection is also singular: “Cracker Jack.” People don’t pluralize its rival Poppycock as “Poppycocks,” but they seem to think of the individual popped kernels as the “jacks.” A similarly named candy is “Good and Plenty.” All three have descriptive names describing qualities and shouldn’t be pluralized. A way to remember this: in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” “Cracker Jack” rhymes with “back.”

crafts

When referring to vehicles, “craft” is both singular and plural. Two aircraft, many watercraft, etc. Do not add an “S.”

But when referring to hobbies and skills such as “woodcrafts” or “arts and crafts” adding an “S” in the plural form is standard.

cowtow

You can tow a cow to water, but you can’t make it drink. But the word that means bowing worshipfully before someone comes from the Chinese words for knocking one’s head on the ground, and is spelled kowtow.

croissant

The fanciful legend which attributes the creation of the croissant to Christian bakers celebrating a 17th-century victory over the Turks is widely recounted but almost certainly untrue, since there is no trace of the pastry until a century later. Although its form was probably not influenced by the Islamic crescent, the word croissant most definitely is French for “crescent.” Pastries formed from the same dough into different shapes should not be called “croissants.” If a customer in your bakery asks for a pain au chocolat (PAN oh-show-co-LA), reach for that rectangular pastry usually mislabeled in the US a “chocolate croissant.”

crochet / crotchet / crochety

Although all of these words derive from a common ancestor meaning “hook” and are related to “crook,” they have taken on different meanings in modern English. Those who do needlework with a crochet hook crochet. Your peculiar notions are your crotchets. And a crabby old person like Bob Cratchit’s boss is crotchety. There are various other technical uses for “crotchet,” but people who use them usually know the correct spelling. Just remember that “crochet” goes only with goods made with a crochet hook.

creeped / crept

The standard past tense of “creep” is “crept.” “Creeped” is used mostly in the slang expression “creeped out” to describe the reaction of someone to something weird or disgusting.

costumer

Just what would a “costumer service” do? Supply extra-shiny spangles for a Broadway diva’s outfit? But this phrase is almost always a typographical error for “customer service,” and it appears on an enormous number of Web pages. Be careful not to swap the U and O when you type “customer.”

contrary / contrast

The phrases “on the contrary” and “to the contrary” are used to reply to an opposing point. Your friend tells you she is moving to New York and you express surprise because you thought she hated big cities. She replies, “On the contrary, I’ve always wanted to live in an urban area.”

When a distinction is being made that does not involve opposition of this sort, “in contrast” is appropriate. “In New York, you don’t need a car. In Los Angeles, in contrast, you can’t really get along without one, though you won’t need a snow shovel.”

Here’s a simple test: if you could possibly substitute “that’s wrong” the phrase you want is “on the contrary” or “to the contrary.” If not, then use “in contrast.”

credible

“Credible” means “believable” or “trustworthy.” It is also used in a more abstract sense, meaning something like “worthy”: “She made a credible lyric soprano.” Don’t confuse “credible” with “credulous,” a much rarer word which means “gullible.” “He was incredulous” means “he didn’t believe it” whereas “he was incredible” means “he was wonderful” (but use the latter expression only in casual speech).

Although you will commonly see it said of some far-fetched story either that “it strains credulity” or that “it strains credibility,” the latter is more traditional. Something that strains credulity would be beyond the powers of even a very gullible person to believe. This form of the saying isn’t very effective because a credulous person isn’t straining to believe things anyway. Such a person believes easily without thinking. It makes more sense to say that something too weird or wild to be credible “strains credibility.”

See also “incredible” and “begs belief.”

criticism

Beginning literature or art history students are often surprised to learn that in such contexts “criticism” can be a neutral term meaning simply “evaluating a work of literature or art.” A critical article about The Color Purple can be entirely positive about Alice Walker’s novel. Movie critics write about films they like as well as about films they dislike: writing of both kinds is called “criticism.”