Grammar Moses: Follow me down the rabbit hole

"Is the expression 'going down a rabbit hole' appearing more frequently these days?" reader Cliff Darnall asked.

"I was asked what the expression meant a couple of years ago by an English learner (aren't we all still to some extent?), and I stumbled to give an adequate explanation. Since then, I have noticed 'rabbit hole' more and more in the media, including in your March 11 column and even as the title of a new streaming series."

Cliff, etymology is all about going down rabbit holes, and there is nothing I love more than to find myself in a warren of word origin stories.

I'd always assumed the phrase has something to do with "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

In this case, I was right.

In Lewis Carroll's 1865 book, 7-year-old Alice follows a white rabbit and falls down a rabbit hole, finding herself in another, surreal world.

While I haven't as yet seen Kiefer Sutherland's new star vehicle "Rabbit Hole," I assume he finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

And I wouldn't be surprised, given the familiar breathless action in advertisements for the series, if there were a ticking clock in the frame at all times as in an earlier series that won him some acclaim.

Owing to the familiarity of the content, I've already nicknamed the new series, with apologies to Federico Fellini, "24½."

Back to Cliff's question: Is the phrase more commonplace these days?

After firing up Google's Ngram Viewer for some statistical analysis, I've concluded that Cliff is not as mad as a hatter. While Google's locus of English language books shows merely a blip in "rabbit hole" around the time of the publication of "Alice," its use has continued to become more commonplace. Why?

Twenty-nine films and cartoons have been made since the first years of the 20th century with variations on the title, or at least the same basic story or a spinoff thereof. That kind of repeated exposure to a mass audience over more than a century is sure to bring a phrase like "rabbit hole" into many people's orbits.

The new series "Rabbit Hole" might not be precisely "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" but, as derivative as TV shows tend to be, I'd bet the fish-out-of-water concept of "Alice" is hard at work.

Keifer does look awfully uncomfortable in each scene in the previews.

It slices, it dices!

A few weeks ago I discussed the difference between "use" and "utilize."

I thought I'd come up with the perfect example of something that can be used for anything - a Swiss Army knife - because it seems there is nothing it was not designed to do.

I offhandedly mentioned that perhaps the only function for which it wasn't designed was removing an oil filter.

I guess I was wrong.

If you've seen an oil filter wrench - I inherited one from my grandfather 35 years ago and have yet to use it - you'll know why I chose that.

"I had to chuckle at the final paragraph in your article regarding the Swiss Army knife and changing an oil filter," reader Jeff Overby wrote. "I think I could effectively argue that it was indeed also designed to remove an oil filter. This is because I've had to occasionally stab a screwdriver into the filter in order to remove it as it was too slick to 'use' a proper tool - and I wouldn't hesitate 'utilizing' or 'using' a Swiss Army knife to do it if it was the only tool available at the time."

I stand corrected.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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