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RIDDLE MAY MAKE YOU ANGRY - OR HUNGRY FOR THE ANSWER

Question: A friend asked me this question the other day: "There are three words in the English language that end in G-R-Y: one is "angry," another is "hungry"; what is the third? If you have been listening to what I have said, I have already told you the answer." This question has been driving me crazy since I heard it. I'm certain that I know the answer, but I can't seem to think of it. Can you help?

A. You're not alone in being driven crazy by this question: if the number of times we've heard it is indicative of the question's popularity (and unanswerability), then there must be millions more like you throughout the country, and possibly the world. In fact, judging from the amount of correspondence we receive on this question, it might be the single most important issue in the English language today. While we're not sure what evil genius came up with this question, we do have an answer - or, should we say, a number of answers.

There are actually quite a few English words that end in "gry"; the problem is that all of them, with the exception of the common "angry" and "hungry," are obsolete, archaic, extremely rare or variants with no real backing.

Our stock answer to the question about the "third word" is "an-hungry," a variant of the earlier "ahungry." Shakespeare used "anhungry" in his play "Coriolanus" (1607-08), and a couple of other authors used the word later. The word, which is simply a synonym of "hungry," is labeled obsolete in our unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary. But there are more words that end in "gry," including "gry" itself. This extremely rare word was entered and defined in our Second New International Dictionary of 1934 as "a measure equal to one-tenth of a line" and was also marked as obsolete.

"Aggry" is sometimes mentioned as a possibility, but it is not a word in its own right - it only appears in the compound "aggry bead" ("a variegated glass bead found buried in the earth in Ghana and in England"). There is also "maugry" (a variant of the archaic "maugre," meaning "in spite of"), "puggry" (a variant of "puggaree," meaning "a light scarf"), "ymagry" (a very rare variant of "imagery"), as well as "higry pigry," "huggry-muggry," "meagry," and a surprising number of others of equal or greater obscurity. Apart from "aggry bead," all of these "gry" words are so rare that we don't even include them in our unabridged dictionary.

That's about as much as we can tell you about words ending in "gry," and it may be more than you ever wanted to know. We sincerely hope that this answers the question once and for all.

Question: I have a question about the word "holistic." Is the spelling "wholistic" incorrect?

Answer: Although condemned by some, and considerably less common than "holistic," "wholistic" is not wrong. It has been established in the English language since at least the early 1960s and remains a standard variant of "holistic" today. In fact, there is evidence of its use dating back as far as the late 1930s.

The term "holism" was coined in 1926 by South African soldier and statesman Jan Christian Smuts. Smuts, who aside from war and politics was also a student of natural science, used the term to describe his complex philosophy regarding the organization of nature. Viewing the universe in terms of "wholes," (that is, organisms and systems instead of molecules and atoms), Smuts derived "holism" from a Greek word, "holos," which means "whole." Since Smuts' coinage, "holistic" has been used liberally with various meanings ranging from "concerned with wholes" to "complete," "comprehensive," "broad" and "well-rounded."

The addition of "w" to "holistic" probably came about as a result of the similarity between the "hol-" root and the word "whole," which are alike in both meaning and pronunciation. Equally significant is the relative obscurity of the root "hol-," which appears in only a handful of familiar words besides "holism," such as "holocaust" and "hologram." And even in these words its suggestion of wholeness is not obvious. In this light, the formation of "wholistic" seems a natural, if not inevitable, step in the evolution of "holistic."

The argument made by some that "wholistic" is a corruption of "holistic" is not supported by our language's history. Just take a look at the word "whole" itself. It comes from Middle English "hool" and only during the 16th century acquired its initial "w." Is the "w" of "whole" a corruption, then? Of course not. The history of English is full of such alterations, and once they have become established we do better to understand them than to condemn them as incorrect.