The Grammarphobia Blog

When horses stalked

Q: I know that the phrase “stalking horse” means a sham candidate or a ruse used to disguise a hidden purpose. But were there ever real stalking horses, and what did they stalk?

A: Yes, there were real stalking horses, but they didn’t actually stalk anything. They helped hunters stalk game birds.

When the phrasal noun “stalking horse” showed up in the early 1500s, it meant “a horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or under its coverings in order to get within easy range of the game without alarming it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation for the noun in the OED is from a bill, dated 1519, for shoeing a stalking horse: “Item pd for Shoyng of Thomas Lawes Stawkyng horse.” (From Archaeologia, a collection of early documents published in 1834 by the Society of Antiquaries of London.)

By the early 1600s, “stalking horse” was being used to mean “a portable screen of canvas or other light material, made in the figure of a horse (or sometimes of other animals), similarly used for concealment in pursuing game,” the dictionary says.

This 1621 citation from Gervase Markham’s Hungers Prevention, or the Whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land, uses the term for both equine and canvas stalking horses:

“The Stalking-Horse … is any old lade trayned vp for that vse, which … will gently … walke vp and downe in the water … and then … you shall shelter your selfe and your Peice behind his fore shoulder. Now forasmuch as these Stalking horses … are not euer in readinesse … In this case he may take any pieces of oulde Canuasse, and hauing made it in the shape or proportion of a Horse … let it be painted as neere the colour of a Horse as you can deuise.”

In the late 1500s, as “stalking horse” was evolving in the hunting sense, it took on the figurative meaning of an “underhand means or expedient for making an attack or attaining some sinister object; usually, a pretext put forward for this purpose,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for this new sense is from a 1579 religious polemic by William Wilkinson, attacking a mystical evangelizing sect called the Family of Love: “Abusing the pretence of the Gospell as a stalking horse to leuell [level] at others by.”

In the early 1600s, the noun took on the figurative sense of a “person whose agency or participation in a proceeding is made use of to prevent its real design from being suspected.”

The first Oxford citation is from The White Divel, a 1612 tragedy by the English playwright John Webster: “You … were made his engine, and his stauking horse, / To undo my sister.”

It’s unclear from the dictionary’s examples when that last sense evolved into the modern political meaning of a sham candidate put forward to divide the opposition or mask the candidacy of another.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a May 7, 1869, hearing in the House of Commons of the Select Committee on Parliamentary and Municipal Elections:

“He polled a very small number compared with the other candidates, but he was a mere stalking horse for his colleague, who polled within 74 of the next candidate on the poll.”

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When “one” isn’t the one

Q: This grammar question was posed by a friend on Facebook: Which is correct? (1) “She is one of the few freshmen who understand” or (2) “She is one of the few freshmen who understands.” At first I thought #2 was the answer. Now I’m not sure.

A: The first example is correct. The verb here is plural (“understand”) because the subject (“who”) is plural. It refers to the plural “freshmen.”

You might mentally transpose the sentence this way: “Of the few freshmen who understand, she is one.”

Sentences with “one of the” can create verb agreement puzzles, as we wrote back in 2007.

The problem here is compounded by the presence of “who.” We wrote in 2014 that “who” can be either singular or plural. When it’s preceded by a noun (as in “freshmen who”), “who” takes its number—singular or plural—from the preceding noun.

Another common problem crops up when we use “one of the” and “if not the” in the same sentence.

Say you go to a fantastic pizzeria and conclude, “That was one of the best, if not the best,  pizza I’ve ever had.” Then you wonder if the noun should have been plural, “pizzas.”

The trick here is to put “if not the” toward the end of the sentence, after the noun: “That was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, if not the best.”

Here’s how Pat explains it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“ONE OF THE . . . IF NOT THE. Here’s another corner you can avoid backing yourself into: Jordan was one of the best, if not the best, player on the team. Oops! Can you hear what’s wrong? The sentence should read correctly even if the second half of the comparison (if not the best) is removed, but without it you’ve got: Jordan was one of the best player on the team. One of the best player? Better to put the second half of the comparison at the end of the sentence: Jordan was one of the best players on the team, if not the best.”

Finally (since we brought it up), “if not” in this case means “perhaps” or “maybe even.” That’s generally the case when used with superlatives like “best,” “fastest,” “oldest,” and so on.

But as we wrote in 2013, “if not” can also mean “but not,” as in “His language is colorful, if not grammatically correct.”

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The awkwardness of “awkward”

Q: “Awkward” is an awkward-looking word, with a “w” on each side of the “k.” Online sites only categorize it as an adjective, while its brethren and sistren (like “forward” and “backward”) can be adverbs or adjectives. I wonder if it’s related to “gawk” or “gawky.”

A: Yes, “awkward” is an awkward-looking word, one that suits the awkwardness of its various meanings.

That “wkw” in the middle is what sets “awkward” and its derivatives apart. We can think of only one other “wkw” word in English: “hawkweed,” the common name for a favorite wildflower of ours.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says “awkward” was coined in the 1300s in Scotland and northern England, where it meant “turned in the wrong direction.”

Ayto writes that it’s a combination of the Middle English adjective “awk” (“the wrong way round, backhanded”) and the directional suffix “-ward.”

The word “awk,” in turn, is derived from Scandinavian sources. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites the Old Icelandic adjective ǫfugr (“turned the wrong way”), while the Oxford English Dictionary says the source is probably the Old Norse afugöfug, or öfig (“turned the wrong way, back foremost”).

Ayto doesn’t give any citations for the Scottish and northern English origins of “awkward.” But the earliest example of the word in the OED is from a manuscript that includes words in the Northumbrian dialect spoken in the north. The medieval Kingdom of Northumbia covered what is now northern England and southeastern Scotland.

Oxford says “awkward” meant “in the wrong direction, in the wrong way,” when it appeared for the first time in the Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience (1340): “Þe world þai all awkeward sette” (“They turned the world all awry”).

(Though some scholars say the author of the manuscript is unknown, the OED attributes the poem to the English mystic Richard Rolle, who spent much of his life as a hermit in the north of England.)

You mentioned those “brethren and sistren” that are adverbs as well as adjectives. “Awkward” was an adverb when it first showed up in writing. In the 1340 citation above, “awkeward” is an adverb modifying the verb “sette.”

Today, however, the adverbial form is “awkwardly,” while “awkward” is an adjective.

The adjective didn’t appear until the early 16th century, when “awkward” meant “turned the wrong way, averted, back-handed; not straightforward, oblique,” according to the OED.

In the dictionary’s first adjectival citation, from the Scottish clergyman Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid sometime before 1522, the grief-stricken Dido beholds the departing Aeneas “with acquart luke” (“with a sideways glance”).

The “clumsy” sense of “awkward” showed up a few years later. The OED’s earliest example is from John Palsgrave’s L’Esclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French-English grammar:

“Awkwar leftehanded, gauche.” (At the time, “left-handed” meant “clumsy” as well as “using the left hand more naturally than the right.”)

Over the years, the adjective “awkward” has taken on many other senses.

In the early 1600s, Shakespeare used “awkward” to describe an ungraceful or uncouth action: “With ridiculous and aukward action.” (From Troilus and Cressida, believed written in 1602.)

In a July 15, 1665, entry in his Diary, Samuel Pepys used the adjective to describe an ungainly person: “The most awkerd man I ever met withal in my life.”

Since then, the adjective has been used to describe, among other things, embarrassing or inconvenient actions and situations (1709), embarrassed or ill-at-ease people (1713), a difficult action (1860), and someone who’s difficult or dangerous to deal with (1863, as in an “awkward customer”).

Finally, you ask if “gawky” (ungainly) and “gawk” (to stare stupidly) are related to “awkward.” No, though all three words may perhaps have Scandinavian roots. However, the etymology here is uncertain or, as the OED puts it, “difficult.”

One theory is that the adjective “gawky” (1759) and the verb “gawk” (1785) may have been influenced by an earlier adjective “gawk” (1703), which meant “left” and was used in the phrases “gawk-hand” and  “gawk-handed.”

The OED says the earlier adjective is apparently a contraction of various two-syllable combining words in northern English dialects: “gaulick-,” “galloc-,” and “gaulish-.” If you’re thinking that those dialectal terms may come from gauche, French for left, think again. Oxford says that idea has “grave difficulties.”

Another theory is that the 18th-century verb “gawk” may have come from “gaw,” a Middle English verb meaning to stare or look intently. Oxford compares “gaw,” dating from around 1300 and perhaps earlier, to the Old Norse  (to heed). But this is all very speculative.

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Priority: the highs and the lows

Q: Settle our nitpicking debate about the term “priority.” It implies importance, so is a qualifier necessary in “high priority,” and is a “low priority” even a priority?

A: Yes, something can be a “high priority” or a “low priority.” But the noun “priority” has several other meanings, which may lead to confusion and even a “nitpicking debate.” Here are the most common senses today:

(1) Something important: “Health insurance is a priority.”

(2) Something ranked in order of importance: “In Miami, flood insurance is a high priority and earthquake insurance a low priority.”

(3) The right to go before someone or something else: “Ambulances take priority over other vehicles.”

(4) The things one cares about the most: “Our children are our priorities.”

When “priority” showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s, it meant “precedence in order or rank,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED, from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte.”

That original meaning, the OED says, gradually evolved into the “right to precede others or to receive something before others.”

The first citation for this sense of “priority” is from the Aug. 19, 1802, issue of the Times (London): “We must give priority to more direct and specific topics which immediately concern ourselves.”

The dictionary says in an etymology note that “priority” is of “multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.”

Those origins include the Anglo-Norman and Middle French priorite (precedence in time, order or rank), the post-classical Latin prioritas (fact or condition of being earlier in time), and the classical Latin prior (former, previous, in front, better).

In the 20th century, the noun came to mean the “right to proceed before other traffic,” according to the OED. Although the dictionary says this usage is chiefly British, we find it common in the US too.

The first Oxford example is again from the Times (May 8, 1929): “At road junctions they favour the rule that the vehicle on the more important road has priority.”

The noun soon took on the sense of a “thing that is regarded as more important than others; something which needs special attention. Freq. in pl.

The first citation is from another issue of the Times (July 21, 1936): “The function of … deciding the main priorities in all classes of munition production should be separated from all functions connected with the problem of material and supply.”

We won’t get into the use of the term in legal writing, but we should mention that “priority” is often used attributively—that is, as an adjective—to describe someone or something that’s more important than others.

The first example in the OED is from an 1849 letter by Charles Darwin. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“If I, a PRIORITY MAN, called a species C. D., it implies that C. D. is the oldest name that I know of; but in order that you and others may judge of the propriety of that name, you must ascertain when, and by whom, the name was first coined.”

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Jerk, jerky, and jerking off

Q: What’s with “jerk”? A great verb and a greater noun. And what about “jerk seasoning”? And “jerk-offs” need their moment. Which leads me to this slur from my adolescent past: “He’s off jerking his gherkin.” It’s better with a Brooklyn accent!

A: There are several “jerks” to be considered here, not all of them related.

The “jerk” that refers to a sudden, sharp movement also gave us a couple of slang usages—the noun for a fool as well as the sexual verb so beloved of Alexander Portnoy.

But the “jerk” that we associate with Jamaican cooking comes from Quechua, the language spoken in the Inca Empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, which is still widely used among the indigenous people of South America.

We’ll save the culinary “jerk” for later and start with the first “jerk” to come into English, the verb and noun referring to a quick movement.

This “jerk” was known from the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Originally the verb “jerk” meant to strike or lash, as with a whip or a switch, and the noun “jerk” meant such a stroke or lash, Oxford says.

The word in both forms—verb and noun—was “apparently echoic” in origin, the OED says. In other words, it sounded like what it meant.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example of the verb in written English: “Than he beateth and gierketh vs a lytle wyth a rodde.” (From Spyrytuall & Precyouse Pearle, a 1550 translation of a German religious tract by Otto Werdmueller.)

And this is the earliest known example of the noun: “To the manne … foure  score ierkes or lasshes with a skourge.” (From The Fardle of Facions [“collection of customs”], a 1555 translation of a Latin work of anthropology by Joannes Boemus.)

Over the next half a century or so, “jerk” acquired the ordinary meaning it has today. A “jerk,” in the words of the OED, came to mean a “quick suddenly arrested movement; a sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust, or twist,” and the verb meant to make such a movement.

The earliest written example of the new noun usage is from Weedes, a 1575 poem by the Elizabethan writer George Gascoigne: “The stiffe and strongest arme / Which geues a ierke and hath a cunning loose; / Shoots furdest stil.”

The OED has a questionable 1589 citation for the verb. The earliest definite appearance is in The Puritaine, or the Widdow of Watling-Streete, a 1607 comedy whose author is listed as “W. S.” on the title page: “Let him play a litle, weele ierk him vp of a sudaine.”

(Because of the “W. S.,” the play has at times been attributed to Shakespeare, but modern scholars reject that attribution.)

By the way, the “i” in those early “ierke” and “ierk” spellings of “jerk” was pronounced as a “j.”

We should mention here that this new use of “jerk” had a predecessor in the Middle Ages, the earlier noun and verb “yerk” (sometimes “yark”). This word was written and pronounced with a “y.”

This “yerk,” which was known as early as the 1420s, started out as a verb used to describe the action of a shoemaker yanking hard to tighten leather stitches. It soon became synonymous with “jerk” and was used in many of the same senses.

While “yerk” (or “yark”) survived well into the 19th century, it’s now mostly dialectal, the OED says. And it apparently never had the slang meanings that “jerk” acquired in the late 19th and early 20th century.

These slang uses of “jerk” are the noun for a worthless or offensive person and the verb (often in the form “jerk off”) that means to masturbate.

The sexual slang came first, and the derivation is obvious. Considering the meaning of the word that showed up in the late 16th century (“sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust”), it’s a wonder that this sense of “jerk” wasn’t recorded earlier.

While the OED’s earliest citation is from 1937 (for “jerk off”), the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has citations for the masturbatory “jerk” from the 1880s and “jerk off” from the early 1890s.

The slang dictionary’s earliest example is from Stag Party, an 1888 collection of erotic humor that includes a fictitious list of prices set by a “Whore’s Union” in New York:

“Common, old-fashioned f—k $1 … Pudding jerking $2.” (As we recently wrote on the blog, “pudding” and “pud” are slang terms for the penis.)

And slang dictionaries published in the 1880s and ’90s carried these definitions, according to Random House: Jerking (low), masturbation” … “To jerk one’s juice or jelly … to masturbate.”

Since we mentioned Alexander Portnoy, we’ll include this Random House citation: “Jerk your precious little dum-dum ad infinitum!” (From Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, 1968.)

Now what about the “jerk” that means a contemptuous person, a usage that began showing up in American slang in the early 1930s?

This “jerk” probably doesn’t derive (as some have suggested) from the notion of a chronic masturbator. Neither the OED nor Random House makes that  connection. The OED discusses this slang term in an entry that begins with the lashing and pulling senses of the noun.

So it seems likely that in the sense of a stupid, worthless, or contemptible person, “jerk” probably derives from the physical motion of jerking, like the “jerk” in “jerkwater.”

In the 1870s, as we wrote in 2013, a “jerkwater” meant a small branch line of a railroad or stagecoach (one to which water had to be brought, or “jerked”). As Random House notes, the adjective “jerkwater” is even older, dating from the 1860s.

The noun “jerkwater” soon came to mean an insignificant or hick town. And in the early 1900s, the adjective “jerkwater” was sometimes abbreviated to “jerk” and meant “small-time, second-rate, mediocre,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

This sense of the adjective “jerk” as insignificant or provincial suggests that the noun “jerk” originally conveyed the notion of a clueless rube.

As further evidence, Random House says the slang adjective “jerky” (early 1930’s), meaning “imbecilic; stupid, silly,” was influenced by “jerk town.”

On the other hand (if we may use the expression), the masturbation sense of the verb “jerk off” inspired the use of the noun “jerk-off” for a stupid, lazy, or worthless person, according to Random House.

The slang dictionary’s earliest citation is from Christ in Concrete, a 1937 novel by Pietro di Donato: “He was … the half-pint jerk-off.”

You mention the phrase “jerk the gherkin.” Here, the euphemism “gherkin” was probably chosen for the rhyme (“jerk”/“gherk”) as well as for the comic value of the pickle as a sight gag. The sources we’ve checked date it no earlier than the 1960s.

(We’ve never gone into the etymology of “gherkin,” so we’ll say briefly that it was borrowed in the mid-17th century from Dutch, in which it was a diminutive of “cucumber.”)

Now that we’re on the subject of food, we’ll turn to the noun “jerky” (the dried meat), the verb “jerk” (to dry meat), and the adjective “jerk” (describing a style of cooking native to Jamaica).

These three culinary terms ultimately come from the Quechua noun ccharqui (strips of dried meat) and verb ccharquini (to dry meat), according to the OED, though the linguistic journey has a few twists and turns.

The words entered Spanish (as the noun charqui and the verb charquear) after the conquest of the Incas, whose Andean empire was based in what is now Cuzco, Peru.

Spanish colonizers apparently carried the verb charquear to Jamaica after occupying the island in the 1500s. The British then Anglicized the verb after driving out the Spaniards in the 1600s.

During a 1687 visit to Jamaica, Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician and naturalist, picked up the Anglicized word, “jirking,” which the OED describes as a corruption of charquear.

In A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, a memoir of his voyage published in 1707, he writes of the dried meat made from swine “running wild in the Country amongst the Woods” and “sought out by Hunters with gangs of Dogs.”

“After pursuit,” he says in an OED citation that we’ve expanded, “they are shot or pierc’d through with Lances, cut open, the bones taken out, and the flesh gash’d on the inside into the skin, filled with salt, and exposed to the sun, which is called Jirking.”

(Incidentally, the plant specimens that Sloane collected on that voyage were the foundation of the British Museum.)

Similarly, the noun “jerky” (as in “beef jerky”) is derived from the Spanish noun charqui. The first appearance in the OED is from Three Years in California, an 1850 memoir by Walter Colton: “A junk of bread, and a piece of the stewed jerky.”

Finally, the word “jerk,” used as a noun, adjective, and verb in reference to the style of cooking native to Jamaica, has its roots in Africa as well as the Caribbean.

Food writers believe that jerk cooking evolved from the pork curing practices of the indigenous Taino and Arawak inhabitants of Jamaica as well as the spicing methods of African slaves who escaped when the British drove the Spanish from the island.

The OED, which traces this sense of the word “jerk” to the Spanish verb charquear, defines its use for the Jamaican style of cooking this way:

“Designating meat (esp. pork or chicken) which has been marinated in a spicy mixture of seasonings (typically prominently featuring allspice) before being smoke-cured or barbecued. Also: designating a seasoning or sauce used in this method of preparation.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a Jamaican newspaper, the Daily Gleaner in Kingston (May 10, 1930): “You could also buy on the race course from the jerk pork men a quattie [coin worth 1.5 pence] jerk pork with bread and mustard.”

And here’s a more recent citation from World Food: Caribbean (2001), by Bruce Geddes: “Your first bite of jerk may lead you to believe that hot pepper is used by the bowlful. However, the most essential ingredient is allspice.”

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On rifling and riffling

Q: I’m seeing the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” used interchangeably. I’d use “rifle” (pronounced like the weapon) for searching through a box for something, and riffle” (to my mind, beautifully onomatopoeic) for going through papers. Are these still two distinct terms?

A: Yes, the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” are still two distinct terms, but they overlap somewhat, and it’s not surprising that some people confuse them.

Both verbs can refer to searching, but “rifle” suggests a search for something to steal, while “riffle” means flipping through pages, perhaps searching for something and perhaps not.

(“Rifle” here is pronounced, as you say, like the firearm, while “riffle” rhymes with “piffle.”)

The verb “rifle” is by far the older of the two terms. English borrowed it in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old French, where rifler meant to scratch, scrape, graze, or plunder.

When the verb entered English in the late 1300s, it meant to carry off as booty, to plunder or rob, to ransack or search a receptacle for valuables to steal, and several other felonious actions, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first example cited is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1391), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “He ruyfleþ [rifleth] bothe book and belle.”

And here’s an example from Piers Plowman (c. 1378), an allegorical poem by William Langland: “I roos whan þei were areste and riflede hire males” (“I rose when they were at rest and rifled their bags”).

Piers Plowman is also the source of this OED citation: “What wey ich wynde ful wel he aspieþ, / To robbe me and to ryfle me” (“He clearly discovers which path I take, / To rob me and to rifle me”).

When the verb “riffle” showed up in the 18th century, it referred to storm damage, specifically the stripping of slate, tiles, and other roof coverings.

Oxford says it’s of unknown origin, but may be a variant or alteration of the verbs “rifle,” “ruffle,” or “ripple.” (Remember, the French sources of “rifle” meant to scratch or scrape, as well as to plunder.)

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, from a poem in a 1713 issue of the Monitor, a storm does its damage at sea: “A sudden Storm descends, / That, in an Instant, riffles all the Boat, / Whose scatter’d Streamers on the Billows float.”

In the 19th century, the OED says, “riffle” took on the sense you’re asking about: “To flick through (papers, books, etc.); to thumb (a block of paper, a book, etc.), releasing the leaves in (usually rapid) succession.”

The earliest citation is from Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopedia (1878): “Every three minutes the book is taken out of its covers and ‘riffled.’ Riffling consists in shaking up the leaves, so as to loosen the whole and prevent the gold from clinging to the parchment.”

Here’s a more recent example, minus the gold, from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000): “Most magazine editors can tell how long a story is just by looking at the print and riffling the pages.”

As for the use of the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” today, here are the relevant definitions from Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity from the OED):

rifle: “Search through something in a hurried way in order to find or steal something: ‘she rifled through the cassette tapes.’ ”

riffle: “Turn over something, especially the pages of a book, quickly and casually: ‘he riffled through the pages.’ ”

You didn’t mention the felonious implications of the verb “rifle” in your question, but we should note that all six of the standard dictionaries we’ve consulted mention stealing as the goal of rifling.

Finally, the noun “rifle” (the firearm) doesn’t come from the verb “rifle” (to search for loot). However, the noun is derived from another verb “rifle” (to cut spiral grooves inside the barrel of a firearm). And both of those verbs may share a French ancestor, rifler (to scratch or to plunder).

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Is “bumblebee” a buzz word?

Q: I am working on a discussion of bumblebees, and looking for the origin of the “bumble” portion of the word. What I haven’t been able to figure out is if “bumble” refers to the buzzing/humming noise or the clumsy flying. Any thoughts?

A: The “bumble” that means to buzz or hum (the one we find in “bumblebee”) and the “bumble” that means to flounder around may or may not be related.

We say “may or may not” because there are differences of opinion about this. Rather than split any hairs at the beginning, let’s start with the etymologies given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first “bumble” (to buzz or hum) was originally recorded in the 1380s. It was derived from the old verbs “boom” and “bum,” which the OED describes as echoic words that imitated a buzzing, a humming, or the low resonant sound a bittern makes, the OED says.

To this day, the soft, low call of the bittern, a marsh bird in the heron family, is described as a “boom.” You can listen to it, courtesy of the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

In fact, the OED’s earliest written example of the verb “bumble” is a reference to the bittern’s call: “As a Bitore bombleth in the Myre.” (From “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, circa 1386.)

This later example refers to flies that bumble: “Much bumbling among them all.” (From John Heywood’s parable The Spider and the Flie, 1556.)

And this one refers to bees that bumble: “Bumbling of Bees.” (From a 1693 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of five novels by François Rabelais.)

The noun “bumblebee,” which we think was inevitable and simply begged to be invented, first showed up as “bombyll bee” in the mid-1500s: “I bomme, as a bombyll bee dothe.” (From a 1530 work of John Palsgrave, a tutor in the household of Henry VIII.)

Etymologically, a “bumblebee” is a bee that bumbles. And this noun (sometimes written as “bumble bee” or “bumble-bee”) replaced an earlier word for the same critter, “humblebee,” which is literally a bee that humbles. (In the 14th century, to “humble” meant to buzz or hum like a bee.)

The OED defines “humble-bee” (which it hyphenates) as “a large wild bee, of the genus Bombus, which makes a loud humming sound; a bumble-bee.” (We should add that the taxonomic name Bombus is derived from the Latin noun bombus, an imitative word that means a hum or boom.)

This bucolic example is the earliest known appearance of “humblebee” in writing: “In Juyll the greshop & the humbylbee in the medow.” (From Treatyse on Fysshynge Wyth an Angle, probably written sometime before 1450 by Dame Juliana Barnes. “Angle” is an old word for a fish hook.)

It’s probable, however, that “humblebee” existed long before it was discovered in a written document. Based on comparisons with other Germanic formations, Oxford suggests it may have existed in Old English, possibly as humbol-béo.

Though “humblebee” was eclipsed by the more popular “bumblebee”—probably because of that nice alliteration of b’s—the old word continued to show up into the 19th century.

Charles Darwin apparently preferred it: “Humble-bees alone visit the common red clover … as other bees cannot reach the nectar.” (From On the Origin of Species, 1859.)

Now for that other “bumble,” which means to screw up or bungle or flounder helplessly.

That “bumble” dates from the 1500s in English writing, and is “onomatopoeic” in origin, the OED says, meaning that the word sounds like what it names.

Oxford’s two earliest sightings of the verb are both from the same source, Sir Thomas More’s 1532 polemic against the Protestant scholar William Tyndale:

“The thinge wher about he hath bombled all thys while. … Which argument Tindall hath all thys while bumbled aboute to soyle.”

Thomas More used “bumble,” the OED says, in this sense: “To bungle over; to do in a bungling manner.” The verb is also used intransitively—that is, without an object—in the sense “to blunder, flounder,” the dictionary says.

As we mentioned, Oxford says the verb is onomatopoeic in origin. The dictionary refers the reader to similar verbs that are probably onomatopoeic, like “fumble,” “jumble,” “mumble,” “rumble,” “stumble,” and “tumble.”

All of those verbs do have in common a general sense of awkward disorder or confusion. And they end in the frequentative suffix “-le,” which expresses a repeated action or movement.

However, another source, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, has a different explanation for the “bumble” that means to “bungle” or “botch.” Chambers says it refers “to the noise of booming or buzzing about.”

If that’s true, then the two “bumbles”—one meaning to buzz or hum and the other to blunder—aren’t separate verbs after all. The “bungle” or “botch” sense of the verb was merely an extension of the earlier meaning.

Chambers interprets the Thomas More quotations above as using “bumble” in both senses of the verb—that is, he felt Tyndale was buzzing (perhaps droning on) as well as floundering about.

Consequently, both senses of the verb ultimately reflect the same echoic notion: the sounds made by bees, flies, and bitterns, according to Chambers.

Are the two “bumbles” related? With etymologists divided, you can form your own opinion.

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How tolerant is tolerance?

Q: The word “tolerance” seems to suggest something at least one step short of acceptance. To me, it carries the connotation of a superior agreeing not to actively work against someone clearly not regarded as an equal. Has the meaning changed or am I simply a curmudgeonly stickler or could both be true?

A: Most standard dictionaries define “tolerance” as accepting beliefs or behavior that one may not agree with or approve of. In other words, putting up with them.

This is, as you say, at least a step short of acceptance in the usual sense. It also reflects the Latin origin of the word. English borrowed “tolerance” in the 15th century from French, but the ultimate source is the Latin tolerāre (to bear with or endure).

Is “tolerance,” you ask, evolving in English? Perhaps.

We were recently driving behind a car with a bumper sticker displaying “tolerance” spelled out with a cross, a peace symbol, a star of David, a star and crescent, and other images.

The driver of that car apparently sees “tolerance” as something like respect or consideration for the views of others.

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of the word used that way, including this one from a speech by Trudy E. Hall, the former head of school at the Emma Willard School in Troy, NY:

“What is tolerance? Tolerance is the acceptance and celebration of the full range of emotions, learning preferences, political opinions, and lifestyles of those in community.”

However, we could find only one standard dictionary with such a definition. The entry for “tolerance” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this as its primary sense: “The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.”

When “tolerance” showed up in English writing in the early 15th century, it meant “the action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes that sense as obsolete, but similar senses survive today, such as in “tolerance” to a toxin or an allergen or the side effects of a drug.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “tolerance” is from Troy Boke (1412–20), John Lydgate’s Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy:

“For as to a fole it is pertynent / To schewe his foly, riȝt so convenient / Is to þe wyse, softly, with suffraunce, / In al his port to haue tolleraunce” (“For as a fool plainly shows his folly, the wise man, for his part, shows gentle sufferance and tolerance”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Similarly, “tolerate” meant to endure or sustain pain or hardship, and “toleration” meant the enduring of evil or suffering, when the two words showed up in the same book in the early 16th century.

Here are the two relevant Oxford citations from the The Boke Named the Gouernour, a 1531 treatise on how to train statesmen, by the English diplomat Thomas Elyot:

“To tollerate those thinges whiche do seme bytter or greuous (wherof there be many in the lyfe of man).”

“There is also moderation in tolleration of fortune of euerye sorte: whiche of Tulli is called equabilite.” (“Tulli” refers to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.)

In the 16th century, the verb “tolerate” and the noun “toleration” took on the sense of putting up with something that’s not actually approved, as in these OED citations.

“He can … be none other rekened but a playne heretyque … whome to tolerate so longe doth sometyme lytle good.” (From Debellation of Salem and Bizance, 1533, a theological polemic by Thomas More.)

“The remission of former sinnes in the toleration of God.” (From the Rheims New Testament of 1582.)

When the adjective “tolerant” appeared in the 18th century, it referred to bearing with something. The OED’s earliest example is from a 1784 sermon at the University of Oxford by Joseph White, an Anglican minister and scholar of Middle Eastern languages:

“His [Gibbon’s] eagerness to throw a veil over the deformities of the Heathen theology, to decorate with all the splendor of panegyric the tolerant spirit of its votaries.”

Over the years, “tolerance” and company have taken on various other meanings, such as referring to variation from a standard (“The part was made to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch”) or the decrease in a drug’s effectiveness after prolonged use (“The body builds up a tolerance to allergy medications”).

What does the sense of “tolerance” you’re asking about mean today?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “willingness to accept beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” The dictionary gives this example: “This period in history is not noted for its religious tolerance.”

Cambridge has similar definitions for “tolerate,” “toleration,” and “tolerant.”

However, some scholars argue that “tolerance” is a less judgmental term than “toleration.”

In “Tolerance or Toleration? How to Deal with Religious Conflicts in Europe,” an Aug. 12, 2010, paper on the Social Science Research Network, Lorenzo Zucca says that “non-moralizing tolerance should be distinguished from moralizing toleration and should be understood as the human disposition to cope with diversity in a changing environment.”

And Andrew R. Murphy, in “Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition,” a 1997 article in the journal Polity, sees “tolerance” as a more personal term than “toleration.”

“We can improve our understanding by defining ‘toleration’ as a set of social and political practices and ‘tolerance’ as a set of attitudes,” he writes.

In a June 2, 2008, post on his blog, the linguist David Crystal says “tolerance” is a more positive term than “toleration.”

Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean ‘we have to put up with this,’ ” he writes. “Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.”

Of the two terms, “tolerance” is far more popular today, but “toleration” was more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer.

So language changes! And we wouldn’t be surprised if other standard dictionaries eventually follow American Heritage’s lead and define “tolerance” less judgmentally than “toleration.”

Note: The reader who asked this question later reminded us of Tom Lehrer’s satirical 1965 song about tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week.” It seems an appropriate accompaniment to this political season.

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On “unchartered” waters?

Q: I often hear references to “unchartered” territory. As I understand, “uncharted” means unmapped and the use of “unchartered” is incorrect. I would appreciate any information you might provide regarding these terms.

A: You’re right, of course. Unknown or unexplored territory is “uncharted,” and the use of “unchartered” here is incorrect.

However, the misuse has been in print for more than a century and a half, apparently the result of early misspellings. And at least one standard dictionary includes “unchartered” in the figurative sense of “irregular.”

In fact, the adjective “unchartered” is not often used correctly in its literal sense, though it can be done.

It’s possible to hire an “unchartered accountant” (one without the professional designation), or to sail an “unchartered boat” (one you own instead of hire). But you can’t sail on “unchartered waters.”

We once mentioned this misuse in passing (in a post about “baited breath”), but now we’ll take a closer look.

“Uncharted,” first recorded in the 19th century, literally means not appearing on a map or chart. It’s derived from the noun “chart,” which originally meant a map when it entered English in the 1600s or possibly earlier.

The word for a map came into English from French (carte), derived in turn from the Latin carta or charta, which the Oxford English Dictionary says meant paper or a leaf of paper.

The OED has a few questionable uses of “chart” from the 1500s. The first definite example appeared in the following century:

“The Geographicall Mappe is twofold: either the Plaine Chart, or the Planispheare.” (From Nathanael Carpenter’s Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes, 1625.)

Before the English word was spelled “chart,” it appeared in the 1500s as “carde” or “card.”

Here’s an early example, written sometime before 1527: “A little Mappe or Carde of the Worlde.” (From an account in Diuers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America, a collection published in 1582.)

Until long into the 1600s, the OED says, a seagoing map might be called a “card,” “card of the sea,” “mariner’s card,” or “sea-card.” By the late 1600s, it was a “chart” or “sea-chart.” (Even now, the navigation room on a ship is called the “chart-house” or “chart-room.”)

Over the years the noun “chart” eventually acquired related meanings (a graph, a sheet of information, a musical arrangement, a plan, a course).

In the 19th century the noun gave rise to a verb (1842) and to the adjectives “charted” (1857) and “uncharted” (1890s), according to citations in the OED.

These are the two earliest Oxford examples of “uncharted”:

“To establish the latitude and longitude of uncharted places” (from Popular Science Monthly, 1895).

“In tracking the Siberian coast through the month of August, many uncharted islands were discovered” (from the Edinburgh Review, 1897).

However, we’ve found several earlier appearances, including one that dates from the first half of the 19th century.

In Sparks From the Anvil (1846), the American diplomat Elihu Burritt writes that ancient shepherds and sailors used the stars “to guide them by night over the vast plains of the East, and the uncharted waters of the ocean.”

The expression “uncharted waters” is still used literally, as in this sentence from “Sailing the Artic,” an article by Nicolas Peissel in the May 5, 2011, issue of Sail magazine:

“In these uncharted waters full of ice, unidentified rocks, sand bars and low islands that provide little sanctuary, heavy weather tactics must be planned in advance.”

But “uncharted waters” (along with its sister phrase, “uncharted territory”) gets much more mileage as an idiom for the unknown or unexplored.

The OED doesn’t have an entry for these popular idioms, but in our own searches we haven’t found any earlier than the 1890s.

When used idiomatically, “uncharted” is sometimes replaced by “unchartered,” a substitution that makes no sense.

“Unchartered,” first recorded in the late 18th century, literally means not having a charter, or “not formally privileged or constituted.”

Figuratively, as the OED adds, it means “irregular, lawless.” However, we could find only one standard dictionary (Merriam-Webster Unabridged) that now includes the figurative sense.

The earliest literal usage we know of was reported by the linguist Mark Liberman, who found a passage referring to “the unchartered banks of Scotland” in a 1799 issue of the Scots Magazine. (Reported in a 2013 article in the Language Log.)

The OED’s earliest literal use is from 1812: “Those planters … who should place confidence in the paper of unchartered banks.” (From the Weekly Register of Baltimore.)

And here’s a figurative use from 1805, cited in the OED:  “Me this unchartered freedom tires.” (From the “Ode to Duty,” by William Wordsworth.)

As for misuses of “unchartered” to mean “uncharted,” we’ve found many examples dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Here’s one from Shawmut: Or, the Settlement of Boston by the Puritan Pilgrims (1845), by Charles Kittredge True:

“His prudence, patience, courage and energy made him the successful pilot of the ship of state in the unchartered waters into which she was launched.”

It’s clear from the context that “unchartered” is being used in the sense of “uncharted”—that is, unmapped, unexplored, unknown.

An even clearer example, from Sanders’ High School Reader, an 1856 textbook by Charles W. Sanders, was undoubtedly the result of a typo.

The book cites the example mentioned earler in Sparks From the Anvil, but misspells “uncharted” as “unchartered.”

The adjective “unchartered” is the negative of “chartered,” a word from the early 1400s meaning “founded, privileged, or protected by charter.”

That word in turn is derived from the verb “charter,” originally meaning to grant a charter (circa 1425), later meaning to privilege or license (1542), and finally to hire (1803).

The source of the verb is the noun “charter” (1200s), for a legal document granting rights or privileges, or for a contract between people.

“Charter” came into Middle English from the Old French chartre, which in turn comes from the Latin noun for a charter, cartula.

And here’s an etymological connection for you. The Latin cartula—which literally means “small paper or writing,” the OED says—is a diminutive of carta or charta (paper), the ultimate source of “chart.”

It’s also the source of our map-related words “cartography” (map making), and “cartographer” (map maker).

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Words of prey

Q: As a birdwatcher in Florida, it grates on my  ears to hear the town of Osprey referred to as OSS-pree. The bird’s name rhymes with “prey,” which works since the Osprey is a bird of prey. Why does the town’s name rhyme with “spree,” as in a shopping spree?

A: The bird’s name literally means “bird of prey,” so we can see why you assume the last syllable should sound like the word “prey.”

But the usual American pronunciation of the bird’s name rhymes with “spree,” so the townspeople of Osprey aren’t guilty of any disrespect to this wonderful bird.

The word apparently came into English in the late Middle Ages from the French ospreit, which was derived from post-classical Latin avis prede (“bird of prey”).

It was first recorded in English, spelled “hospray,” about 1450, the OED says. The “h” soon disappeared, as in this citation: “Every goos, teele, Mallard, Ospray, & also swanne.” (From John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, written sometime before 1475.)

Shakespeare mentions the bird in his tragedy Coriolanus (possibly 1605-08): “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the Aspray to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature.”

The “osprey” spelling didn’t become the norm until around the mid-18th century, according to OED citations.

The bird is defined in the OED as “a large, long-winged, dark brown and white bird of prey” whose taxonomic name is Pandion haliaetus. It lives principally on fish—both marine and freshwater—and is found almost worldwide.

Getting back to how “osprey” sounds, the OED says it’s pronounced differently in Britain and in the US. In British English it’s OSS-pray, while in American English it’s OSS-pree.

The online Cambridge Dictionary, published in Britain, also gives OSS-pray as the British pronunciation and OSS-pree as the American.

Three standard American dictionaries—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)—give both pronunciations, listing OSS-pree first and OSS-pray second. They use OSS-pree for their online pronouncers.

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Can a number be a pronoun?

Q: I’m puzzled by the numbers in this example: “Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three.” Is “seven” a numerical pronoun? Or is it an adjective with an implied noun? Ditto regarding: “three.”

A: In our opinion, a number used this way is not a pronoun. We would call it an adjective functioning as a noun.

The noun “seven” here has a clear antecedent; it refers to “Bob and his friends.” The noun “three,” given the context, is understood to mean three adversaries.

In English, the cardinal numbers (which say how many, like “three”) and the ordinal numbers (which say in what order, like “third”), have two general functions. They can be adjectives (some prefer the term “determiners”), or nouns.

This is how they’re treated, for example, in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Using “three” as an example, the OED says it’s a noun when it means “a group or set of three things or persons.” And in entries for other numbers, Oxford says they’re nouns when they mean a size, rank, score, weight, and so on.

So the numbers in these examples are nouns, by Oxford’s definition: “They left in twos and threes” … “She wears a six, sometimes a seven” … “So far they’ve won nine and lost eight” … “He discarded a five and drew an ace.”

A number is an adjective, the OED says, when it modifies an expressed noun (“three gentlemen”), or when it stands alone in the predicate (“we galloped all three”).

And finally, the OED says a number like “three” can be an adjective used “absolutely”—that is, without an accompanying noun and functioning as a noun.

The dictionary gives this citation from the Wycliffe Bible (1382): “For where two or three shulen be gedrid [shall be gathered] in my name, ther am I in the midil of hem.”

It also gives this 20th-century example: “Which three do you choose? Any three you please.”

So the “seven” and the “three” in your example (“Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three”) would be adjectives used absolutely—that is, as nouns.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a somewhat similar view of numbers like this, though it uses very different terminology. It would describe that “three” as a “fused-head construction.”

In this type of construction, an implied noun phrase (“three people,” “three objects,” or whatever), is fused into a single word (“three”). The head of the phrase (the implied noun) disappears into the adjective or determiner (“three”), which now functions as a noun.

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples (the editors underline the fusions): “Four boys played croquet and two played tennis” … “He gave ten copies to me and six to the others” … “After having a first child, I didn’t want a second.”

(We should point out that the fused part can appear in a separate sentence: “I’ll take two, please” … “Only five showed up at the meeting.”)

But this kind of construction isn’t limited to numbers. Some ordinary adjectives can become nouns in fused constructions. Here are examples from the Cambridge Grammar:

“Henrietta likes red shirts, and I like blue” … “Knut wanted the French caterers, but I wanted the Italian” … “I prefer cotton shirts to nylon” … “Lucie likes big dogs, but I prefer small.

In short, neither the OED nor the Cambridge Grammar treat numbers as pronouns, and we agree with them, though some grammarians and even some standard dictionaries disagree.

But even if you do regard a number as a pronoun, it’s not a good idea to call it a “numerical” or “numeral” pronoun. The term “numeral pronoun” is sometimes used in linguistics, but it means something else entirely—a word, like “all” or “many,” that means an indefinite number.

Here’s a definition from the Dictionary of Linguistics, by Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor. “numeral pronoun: A term occasionally used for a word which denotes an indefinite number of persons or things.”

The only number that everyone agrees can be a pronoun is “one.”

As we’ve written on our blog, “one” is a personal pronoun in uses like “One does one’s best” and “One never knows.” Like the other personal pronouns, it has possessive and reflexive forms, “one’s” and “oneself.”

When “one” is a pronoun, it can be replaced completely by something else, like “people in general.” It’s not intended as an adjective used elliptically—that is, short for “one person,” “one citizen,” etc.

We think it’s a good policy to focus on how a word functions rather than on what it’s called.

Grammatical terminology today is not what it was 100 (or even 50) years ago. The most respected authorities may differ in their terminology, which can be confusing to a non-linguist.

Take the examples of the “poor” and the “rich,” meaning poor people and rich people. They’ve been interpreted in at least three different ways:

They’re “adjective pronouns” according to one 19th-century grammarian (Stephen Watkins Clark, A Practical Grammar, 1847).

They’re nouns, according to the OED. 

They’re fused-head constructions, says the Cambridge Grammar. The implied noun phrase (which could be paraphrased as “those who are rich,” “those who are poor”) is fused into a single word.

So as you can see, the terms change but the words work in the same way—they act exactly like nouns.

That 19th-century grammarian (who, by the way, invented sentence diagramming) defined a pronoun as “a word used instead of a noun.” Consequently, he identified “sublime” and “ridiculous” as pronouns in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But authorities today don’t regard as a pronoun any word that can replace a noun or noun phrase. If this were the case, words for colors could be pronouns, as in “She considered the black dress but ending up buying the gray.”

It would be reasonable to consider “gray” either as a noun or as an adjective used elliptically for the noun phrase “gray dress.” But no one would call it a pronoun.

And no one today would call “bad” a pronoun in a sentence like this: “Each dress has its good points and its bad.”

Similarly, we don’t consider “two” a pronoun in this similar construction: “She looked at a dozen scarves and purchased two.”

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Pissy language

Q: Where does “pissed off” (as in “angry”) come from? I know this sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious question!

A: Our serious answer begins around the year 1300, when English adopted the verb “piss” from the Anglo-Norman pisser.

Although the word is “now chiefly coarse slang,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant simply “urinate” back then.

The dictionary notes that “piss” is “probably ultimately of imitative origin”—that is, it represents the hissy sound of peeing.

The OED’s first citation for the verb is from the South English Legendary, a collection of lives, or biographies, of saints and other church figures.

In the life of St. James the Great (i.e., the Apostle James), the devil persuades a young pilgrim to cut off his penis and commit suicide. James brings the pilgrim back to life, but doesn’t undo the castration:

“His menbres þat he carf of, euer-eft he dude misse Bote a luytel wise ȝware-þoruȝ he miȝhte, ȝwane he wolde, pisse” (“He did forever miss the member that he cut off, leaving a little stub through which he might urinate”).

Over the years, the verb “piss” came to be used figuratively in various expressions, including “piss money against the wall” (squander, 1540), “piss on someone” (show contempt, before 1625), “piss against the wind” (waste one’s time, 1642), and “piss and moan” (complain, 1948).

The noun “piss” first appeared sometime before 1387 in John Trevisa’s English translation of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Þey þrewe on his heed wommen pisser out of a chambre” (“They threw on his head women’s urine out of a chamber pot”).

Like the verb, the noun later took on some additional meanings, including its use as an intensifier in such phrases as “piss poor” and “piss elegant,” which we discussed in a post six years ago.

And like the verb, the noun “piss” meant simply “urine” in the 14th century, and wasn’t considered “coarse slang,” according to the OED.

When the adjective “pissed” showed up in the early 17th century, Oxford says, it referred to something “that has been urinated on or in; wet or stained with urine.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Alchemist, a 1612 comedy by Ben Jonson: “Wrap’d up in greasie leather, or piss’d clouts.” (“Clouts” were pieces of cloth.)

It’s unclear from the OED citations exactly when “piss” came to be seen as coarse or vulgar.

In the early 19th century the adjective “pissed” came to mean “drunk.” Here’s an example from John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812): “Sit still you pist fool!”

And in the mid-20th century, the adjective took on the sense you’re asking about: angry, irritated, fed up.

In British use, the OED says, it’s frequently seen in the phrase “pissed off.” We’d add that the phrase is probably just as common in the US. In fact, the dictionary’s earliest citation is from an American memoir.

In Artist at War (1943), the American artist George Biddle writes of his experiences in Italy and Africa during World War II: “When I’m pissed off, I always get that starry look.”

The phrasal verb “piss off” showed up in writing just after the war, in a 1946 issue of the journal American Speech: “He pissed (or peed) me off. An expression used of a person who in any way disappointed the speaker.”

Finally, the phrasal verb “piss off” is also used (primarily in the UK) to mean “Go away!” or “Scram!”

The first OED citation is from The Mint, a memoir by T. E. Lawrence published after his death in 1935: “You piss off, Pissquick.” (Lawrence, an army colonel in World War I, describes enlisting anonymously after the war as an aircraftman in the Royal Air Force.)

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Pudding and other ing-lish words

Q: For some reason I hate the world “pudding”—it’s like nails on a blackboard to me. Aside from that, why do we have “-ing” words that aren’t participles or gerunds?

A: Your instincts are right. There is something repulsive about “pudding”—about its etymology, anyway. As they say about sausage, you might not want to know how it was made. More about that later.

As you’ve noticed, not every “-ing” suffix is part of a participle or gerund, like “being” or “going.” The suffix “-ing” is also used in English to form nouns, as is the related suffix “-ling.”

The nouns formed with “-ing” and “-ling” are of two kinds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Some originated as diminutives, while others had “the sense of ‘one belonging to’ or ‘of the kind of,’ hence ‘one possessed of the quality of.’ ”

The diminutive nouns, mostly of the “-ling” variety, often refer to very young animals, as in “kidling,” “duckling,” “gosling,” and “codling” (a small cod). But they can also be contemptuous, as in “godling,” “lordling,” and “princeling.”

The words with the other sense—belonging to or concerned with or having the quality of the root word—include extremely old nouns like “king” (cyning in Old English, from cyn, for “kin”).

This group of nouns also includes “nursling” (literally, one being nursed); “stripling” (someone thin as a strip); “hireling” (one who works for hire); “sibling” (originally a kinsman, from Old English sib, for “related”); “nestling” (one still in the nest); “suckling” (one being suckled); “underling” (a subordinate); and “earthling” (originally, a plowman or cultivator of the soil).

Also, “gelding” (derived from Old Norse geld, meaning barren or impotent); the fish names “whiting” (from “white”) and “herring” (possibly from har, for “gray,” or Old High German heri, for “multitude”); and the former English coins “farthing” (feorþing in Old English, from féorð, for “fourth”) and “shilling” (perhaps from ancient Germanic roots meaning to ring or to divide).

Finally, this category includes “darling” (one who is dear, derived from Old English déor, for “dear”); the archaic endearment “sweeting” (one who is sweet); and last but not least, “pudding.”

No matter how you look at it, the origin of “pudding” isn’t pretty. It came into English in the 13th century, and the OED says the source was “probably” the Anglo-Norman word bodeyn, which meant sausage or (in the plural) animal intestines or entrails.

According to this theory, the “b” changed to “p” in English, and the “-eyn” ending was altered by analogy with similar English nouns ending in “-ing.”

Where did the French bodeyn come from? The OED traces it to the Old French boudin (for sausage, entrails, intestines, or a person’s stomach). But Oxford says any further etymology is “uncertain and disputed.”

However, the OED does mention “an alternative etymology” that derives the word from “a Germanic base” meaning a boil, ulcer, or swollen body part.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology also says the ultimate source could be prehistoric Germanic roots (like bod-), having to do with boils, swellings, or bloatings.

While both Chambers and the OED rule out Latin as a source, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins disagrees. It traces the Old French boudin ultimately to botellus, Latin for “sausage.”

Regardless of its earlier history, when “pudding” entered English in the 13th century it meant a stuffed entrail—that is, a sausage.

As the OED defines it, “pudding” originally meant “the stomach or one of the entrails (in early use sometimes the neck) of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled.”

The English word was first recorded in 1287 as “pudinges” and “pundinges” in Norwich city documents that were otherwise rendered in Latin.

The first appearance in an English context is found in a Middle English poem, The Land of Cokaygne (circa 1300), in a reference to “fat podinges, / Rich met to princez and kinges.”

A “pudding” continued to mean a sausage until well into the 19th century, and many English speakers still use the word that way. In British usage a “black pudding” is a blood sausage, and in Ireland and Scotland a “white pudding” is a sausage made with oatmeal and suet, sometimes with the addition of shredded pork.

Meanwhile (banish food from your mind), the plural “puddings” was used to mean “the bowels, entrails, or guts of a person or animal” from the mid-16th to the late 19th century, the OED says.

This cringeworthy example is from Lodowick Lloyd’s The Pilgrimage of Princes (1573): “The Foxe … did bite and scratche the yongman so sore, that his puddynges gusshed out of his side.”

We won’t burden you with any more examples of that usage.

Futhermore, “pudding” was a slang term for both the vagina and the penis from the mid-16th century, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Citations for this use of “pudding” date from 1538 (meaning vagina) and 1546 (meaning penis). In our own time, “pud” is used this way in the male sense and is found in masturbatory verbal phrases like “pull one’s pud.”

Getting back to food, the more familiar meaning of “pudding” and the one that survives in general use today, also came into written use around the mid- to late 1500s. In this sense, it meant “a sweet or savoury dish made with flour, milk, etc.,” the OED says.

Why call these dishes “puddings”? Probably because of the association with sausage casings. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “came to be applied to any food cooked in a bag (hence the cannon-ball shape of the traditional Christmas pudding).”

The earliest definite sighting in the OED is from John Rider’s dictionary Bibliotheca Scholastica (1573): “A pudding made of milke, cheese, and herbs.”

And in a 1736 letter, Lord Castledurrow compliments Jonathan Swift on his hospitality: “Your puddings … are the best sweet thing I ever eat.”

The word “pudding” as used today “refers almost exclusively to sweet dishes,” the OED says, with exceptions like Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like dish that’s savory rather than sweet.

Furthermore, as used “chiefly in Britain,” the word generally means “any sweet dish served as a dessert,” Oxford says, a sense recorded in the early 20th century.

Although the OED doesn’t say so, “pudding” in the US is a soft, creamy dessert with the consistency of a custard.

An American would not refer to a cake or a pie or an apple crisp as a “pudding” (the cake-like exceptions are “bread pudding” and “sticky toffee pudding”).

The American usage is no small matter, and the OED should take note. The difference between “pudding” in the US and the UK “is the one that diverges most, food-wise, in the two countries,” the linguist Lynne Murphy writes in 2008 on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

Finally, you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2012 about whether the proof is in the pudding or the eating of it.

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What’s in a word?

Q: Why aren’t these words, and can they be: “vigorance” or “vigorence” (instead of “vigorousness”) and “analgesity” (meaning pain resistance)?

A: Put simply, a word is a unit of language that has meaning, can be written or spoken, and is used to form sentences. By that definition, the terms you’re asking about are already words, though they’re barely on the lexical radar and can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

A bit of googling will give you examples for “vigorance,” “vigorence,” and “analgesity,” terms that clearly have meaning to the people who use them, but not to many others.

Vigorance,” for example, is the brand name for a series of hair-care products, “Vigorence” is the name of a program to revive stressed-out executives, and the developers of an analgesic derived from snake venom tested the antidote for its “analgesity.”

Can those terms take on the meanings you want them to have, and find acceptance in standard dictionaries?

Lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, examine the various media—Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, Fox News, Amazon bestsellers, Wikipedia, and so on—in search of new words to add.

If enough people use a new term, it will eventually make it into dictionaries. But we wouldn’t bet on “vigorance,” “vigorence,” or “analgesity.”

We’ve written over the years about words we’d like to save—and a lot of good it’s done! The people who speak a language, not language mavens, decide which words live and which die.

For what it’s worth, we don’t see any need for “vigorance” or “vigorence.” If you want a shorter, punchier word than “vigorousness,” how about “vigor”? It seems vigorous enough to us.

As for a word to describe resistance to pain, one might use “analgesia,” which means the reduction or absence of pain. Or perhaps “analgesic,” which is a noun or an adjective for a substance that reduces pain. And if you’d prefer a less technical term, “painkilling” and “painkiller” are possibilities.

The word “analgesic” (as well as the variant “analgetic”) is derived from the noun “analgesia,” which meant the absence of pain when it showed up in the late 17th century. All three terms are ultimately derived from the classical Greek analgesiaan (without) plus algesis (sense of pain).

The first citation for “analgesia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1684 English translation of a medical dictionary compiled by the Dutch physician Steven Blankaart. The definition of “analgesia” includes “absence of pain and grief.”

By the early 20th century, the word was being used in the modern sense of “the relief or reduction of pain, by the use of drugs or other treatments,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new sense is from the June 2, 1900, issue of the Lancet: “The first operation was done under local (eucaine) analgesia and the second under chloroform anæsthesia.”

The word “analgesic” first showed up in the mid-19th century as an adjective meaning “insensitive to pain; exhibiting loss or reduction of the ability to feel pain,” according to the OED.

The earliest Oxford citation is from an 1852 issue of the North American Homœopathic Journal: “There are sensitive spots or even points in the midst of analgesic surfaces.”

In a couple of decades, the adjective took on its modern sense of relieving or reducing pain. The earliest OED example is from an 1868 issue of the American Journal of the Medical Sciences:

“Thus we clearly separate anæsthetics from soporifics, or rather the analgesic influence from the hypnotic.”

The noun “analgesic” soon showed up with the sense of “a drug or other treatment that relieves or reduces pain.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A Treatise on Therapeutics (1874), by the American physician Horatio C. Wood Jr.:

“In the class Analgesics, are placed those drugs whose chief clinical use is in the relief of pain.”

The words “vigor,” “vigorous,” and “vigorousness” are much older, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. English adopted them from Anglo-Norman, but the ultimate source is the Latin vigor, which refers to physical and mental energy.

The first to show up, the adjective “vigorous,” meant strong, healthy, and active when it appeared in Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Herui, þat was vigrous & liȝt, / On þe scheld him hit a dint hard” (“Hervi, who was vigorous and quick, / Struck a hard blow against his shield”).

The noun “vigor” referred to active physical strength, power, and energy when it appeared a half-century later. The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Man of Law’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386):

“That right as god spirit of vigour sente / To hem, and saued hem out of meschance, / So sente he myght and vigour to Custance” (“That just as God sent to them the spirit of vigor to save them from disaster, so he sent might and vigor to Constance”).

Finally, “vigorousness,” a longer and perhaps clunkier version of “vigor,” showed up in Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440 and attributed to a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian: “Vigorowsnesse, vigorositas, ferocitas.”

We’re not feeling much vigorositas or ferocitas right now, so we’ll call it a day.

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Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?

A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.

Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).

Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price

For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a  three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.

Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).

So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.

It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).

The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.

We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.

It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.

In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”

Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”

And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment:  “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”

If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.

The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”

In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”

“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.

We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”

When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.

The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”

At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.

The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”

The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:

“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”

The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”

We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.

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Why verb a noun? Why not?

Q: A few aspects of verbing puzzle me. Why does “Bowdler” give rise to “bowdlerize,” but “Boycott” to “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this? And is it verbing if there’s a suffix? To “Shanghai,” yes, but what about “Londonize” and “New Yorkify”? Finally, is verbing peculiar to English?

A: As you know, some language commentators have complained over the years about turning nouns into verbs, arguing that it erodes the distinction between the two parts of speech.

Other commentators (we’re among them) have defended the process, noting that the verbing of nouns is as old as the English language.

The linguist Steven Pinker (another defender), says, “I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns.” (The Language Instinct, 1994.)

“Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries,” Pinker writes; “it is one of the processes that makes English English.”

In fact, the process began in Anglo-Saxon times with the conversion of the Old English versions of nouns such as “love” “rain,” and “shield” into verbs, and it continues today with newbies like “email,” “medal,” “bookmark,” “tweet,” and “blog.”

The OxfordWords blog estimates that 40 percent of the new verbs in the 20th century came from nouns.

There are several ways to convert nouns to verbs in English, a process often referred to as “verbing,” “verbifying,” or “denominalization.”

(Although “verbing” usually refers to turning nouns into verbs, it can also mean converting adjectives or other terms into verbs.)

The simplest method of verbing a noun, sometimes referred to as “zero derivation,” uses the noun, with its original spelling and pronunciation, as a verb: “I hate rain, but I fear it will rain soon.”

Another method, referred to as “affix derivation,” involves adding a prefix or suffix: “She’s my idol. I idolize her” … “The witch wants to bewitch me.”

A third form is “consonant modification”: “I’m waiting for the bath to fill, so I can bathe” … “It’s my belief; I really believe it.” And a fourth is “stress modification”: “Is that the contract? When did you contract it?”

The first of these methods of converting a noun to a verb seems to bug traditionalists the most, but we can’t see much difference between using the noun as is or altering it slightly with an affix or a change in pronunciation, similar to what happens in more inflected languages.

Why, you ask, did the name “Bowdler” gives us the verb “bowdlerize,” while the name “Boycott” gave us the identical noun and verb “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this?

Yes, there does seem to be some logic—or at least a pattern—behind whether a verb derived from the name of a person has a suffix or not. Here are two features that we’ve observed:

(1) If the person’s name is the source of an identical common noun, the accompanying verb generally doesn’t have a suffix. Some suffix-less noun/verb examples: “boycott,” “guillotine,” “sandwich,” and “silhouette.”

(2) If the name of the person didn’t give rise to an identical common noun, the verb derived from the name usually has a suffix. Some examples: “bowdlerize,” “galvanize,” “mesmerize,” “pasteurize,” and “vulcanize.”

However, there are exceptions to number 1, such as “bogart” (a verb but not a common noun) and “gerrymander” (from “Gerry” + “salamander”), as well as exceptions to number 2, such as “bork” and “lynch.”

Also, our sense is that a suffix isn’t generally used today when coining a nonce word (one made up on the fly) from somebody’s name, as in “She Taylor Swifted him on her new album.”

Verbs derived from the names of products generally don’t have affixes. Examples: “bubble-wrap,” “facebook,” “google,” “rollerblade,” “scotch-tape,” “skype,” “taser,” “velcro,” and “xerox.” (Though companies disapprove, we generally lowercase product names that are routinely used as verbs or common nouns.)

As for turning geographic names into verbs, we don’t see much logic there, though many of these verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary come from adjectives rather than nouns: “Americanize,” “Frenchify,” “Germanify,” “Russianize,” and so on.

Fanny Burney, in her novel Evelina (1778), coined the word “Londonize” (“to make like London or its inhabitants”), according to this OED citation: “Her chief objection was to our dress, for we have had no time to Londonize ourselves.”

When the verb “shanghai” first showed up in the 19th century, Oxford says, it was nautical slang for to “drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands.” Now, it also means to coerce or trick someone into doing something.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past participle, is from the March 1, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune: “And before that time they would have been drugged, shanghaied, and taken away from all means of making complaint.”

“Is verbing peculiar to English?” you ask. No, though “zero derivation” conversions (with the words unchanged) occur more often in English. Other languages generally add an affix to turn a noun into a verb.

We came across a guide to verbing in Costa Rican Spanish that includes many affixed examples, like these: café (coffee) to cafetear (drink coffee); galleta (cookie) to galletar (eat cookies), mujer (woman) to mujerear (chase after women—we might say “womanize”).

The OxfordWords blog, in the post mentioned earlier, says the conversion of nouns with their original spelling is “much more common in English than in other Indo-European languages.” It cites a 2010 article by the Irish writer Anthony Gardner in the Economist.

“What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections,” Gardner writes. “The infinitive does not take a separate ending.”

So English can have a noun “act” and a verb “act,” while in French the noun action has to become the verb actionner.

Gardner says such noun/verb words are virtually unknown in German and Chinese, and not found at all in Arabic. However, he notes a couple of exceptions: essen means “food” and “eat” in German, and the Chinese noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “shock.”

You mentioned the suffixes “-ize” and “-ify” in your question. Both have many uses in English, according to the OED, but we’ll mention only a few of them.

The suffix “-ize” is used, for example, to form verbs derived from Greek (like “idolize”) or Latin (“civilize”), as well as to make verbs from the names of people (“Calvinize”) and from ethnic adjectives (“Romanize”).

The suffix “-fy” or “-ify” is used to form verbs from Latin (“pacify”), jocular verbs (“speechify”), verbs that characterize something (“countrify”), verbs that describe attributes (“Frenchify”), and nonce verbs like your example “New Yorkify.”

We’ve written several posts that deal with verbing, including one in 2010 that mentions many common verbs derived from nouns, like “cook,” “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm.”

Here are brief descriptions of the people who gave English the eponymous verbs mentioned above:

  • Thomas Bowdler published an 1818 edition of Shakespeare “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
  • Captain Charles Boycott was ostracized in the autumn of 1880 when he tried to evict protesting tenants from the estate he was managing in County Mayo, Ireland.
  • Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a partisan redistricting bill in 1812 that created a district shaped like a salamander, hence “gerrymander.”
  • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, proposed in 1789 that capital punishment should be by mechanical decapitation.
  • Étienne de Silhouette was the French Controller-general in 1759. The most common of several theories is that his petty economies were compared to the cheap outline portraits that were popular in France at the time.
  • Luigi Aloisio Galvani, the source of “galvanize,” was an 18th-century Italian scientist and a pioneer in the field of bioelectricity.
  • Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician whose research in animal magnetism was a forerunner of hypnosis.
  • Louis Pasteur, a 19th-century French chemist, discovered the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and metalworking, is the source for the name of a process for hardening rubber.
  • Capt. William Lynch and Justice of the Peace Charles Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s, have been cited as sources for the term “Lynch law,” which led to the verb “lynch.” The OED considers Captain Lynch the most likely source.
  • Judge Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987 after a heated Senate debate.
  • Humphrey Bogart, who often smoked in films, gave us a slang verb for monopolizing something, especially a marijuana cigarette.
  • John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) is said to have spent 24 hours at the gaming table, eating only some slices of cold beef placed between pieces of toast.
  • John Calvin (1509-64) was a French theologian during the Protestant Reformation.

We’ll end by letting the critics of verbing have the last word. In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1993, Calvin tells Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, that “verbing weirds language.”

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“Shoulder,” a term with legs

Q: What is the purpose of the “-er” suffix in “shoulder”? Is it a comparative (as in “stronger”) or an agent (as in “farmer”). And is “shoulder” related to “shield,” as some suggest?

A: The “-er” in “shoulder” is not a suffix. It’s merely part of the word. And while “shoulder” may have some distant connection with “shield,” there’s no evidence to prove it.

“Shoulder” was recorded as far back as the 600s in early Old English, where it was spelled variously as sculdur, sculdor, sculder, and scyldur.

The word came into English by way of old West Germanic languages, in which it had two syllables and ended in –er or –ra (the modern German is schulter), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest known use of “shoulder” in English writing, the OED says, comes from The Epinal Glossary, a book of Latin terms translated into Old English.

The glossary, which dates from sometime before 700, has this entry: “Scapula, sculdur.” (In Late Latin, scapula meant shoulder; in English “scapula” has always meant shoulder blade.)

Another word from Germanic, “shield,” first appeared in English writing more than a century later, about 825, in a passage from The Vespasian Psalter:

“Ðer gebrec hornas bogan sceld sweord & gefeht” (“The clamor of horns, bows, shield, sword, and fighting”).

Now for their etymologies.

The OED traces “shoulder” to a prehistoric West Germanic term reconstructed as skuldr-, and it traces “shield” to another prehistoric Germanic root, skelduz-.

These may sound similar, but the OED doesn’t connect them. As the editors say, “the affinities of the West Germanic word [skuldr-] are disputed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins does mention a possible link: “One suggestion is that it [skuldr-] is distantly related to English shield, and originally denoted ‘shoulder blade’ (the underlying meaning being ‘flat piece’).”

This is plausible but difficult to prove, since even before prehistoric Germanic, “shoulder” and “shield” were represented by different roots.

Language scholars have identified the source of “shoulder” as an ancient Indo-European root, skep– (to cut or scrape), and the primitive ancestor of “shield” as skel– (to cut).

(These roots, from before written language, are rendered differently by some scholars. We’ve used spellings from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.) 

What do shoulders have to do with cutting and scraping?

Some etymologists suggest that shoulder blades, perhaps from animals, were used as tools for scraping.

Others speculate that the anatomical term may have originally referred to spades or shovels, and that shoulders were named for their resemblance to those flat, sharp implements.

What does a shield have to do with cutting? In Germanic the original sense, as Ayto writes, may have been “a flat piece of wood produced by splitting a log, board.”

If there is a link connecting “shoulder” and “shield,” some common ancestor beginning with ske-, perhaps new evidence will eventually come to light and etymologists will connect the dots.

One thing is certain about these very old words. They’ve kept their original literal meanings since they entered English some 1,500 years ago—“shoulder” as the anatomical part and “shield” as the defensive weapon.

They’ve become verbs and adjectives as well as nouns, and over the centuries they’ve developed scores of figurative and extended meanings, both alone and in phrases.

To choose just one example, would you believe that “cold shoulder,” in the sense of coldness or indifference, is 200 years old?

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Antiquary (1816), a novel by Sir Water Scott: “The Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther.”

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On dentists and dontists

Q: Why is a regular tooth doctor called a “dentist” while a specialist is a “dontist,” as in “periodontist” or “orthodontist”?

A: To begin at the beginning, the “dent“ (in “dentist”) and the “odont” (in “orthodontist”) are ultimately derived from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European term meaning “biting,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This ancient term, which the American Heritage guide renders as əd-ent-, may have been pronounced something like uh-dent. It was the source of the words for “tooth” in Greek (odous, odont-) and in Latin (dens, dent-).

Now let’s fast-forward to the mid-18th century, when English adopted the word “dentist” from the French dentiste, a derivative of dent (French for “tooth”) and its Latin ancestors.

What, you may ask, were dentists called before the 18th century? The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “dentist” has the answer:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.” (From the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle.)

Yes, for hundreds of years the term was “tooth-drawer.” The OED’s oldest example is from Piers Plowman (1393), an allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Of portours and of pyke~porses and pylede toþ-drawers” (“Of porters and of pick-purses and bald-headed tooth-drawers”).

As for those people you call “dontists,” the story begins in the early 19th century with the scientific term odontia.

The OED traces the term to John Mason Good’s book A Physiological System of Nosology, which he began writing in 1808 and published in 1820.

(No, the book isn’t about noses; “nosology” is the classification of diseases.)

Although Oxford doesn’t have a citation from the work, a search of the text online finds Good’s description of odontia as “pain or derangement” of teeth or their sockets.

Good explains that he chose a classical Greek source for his terminology because compounds based on odous (“tooth”) were “common to the Greek writers” in referring to toothaches.

Here are the OED’s dates for the earliest appearances of some words derived from odontia:

“orthodontia” (1849), “orthodontist” (1903),  “periodontia” (1914), “periodontist” (1920), “periodontics” (1948), “endodontia” (1946), “endodontics” (1946), and “endodontist” (1946).

So why do practitioners of general dentistry refer to themselves with the Latin-derived “dent,” while dental specialists use the Greek-derived “odont”?

Well, the word “dentist,” borrowed from a Romance language with roots in Latin, showed up first, and it had become firmly established in English by the time Good used a Greek term to classify dental diseases almost a century later.

However, we can’t tell you why Good’s terminology rather than the earlier Latinate usage gave us the names for dental specialties and specialists that showed up later. Not all developments in English have clear-cut explanations.

One possibility is that the usage may have been influenced by the writings of the Scottish author John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s magazine in the early 1800s.

Shortly before Good’s book on diseases was published, Lockhart used “odontist” as a humorous term for a dentist.

Lockhart published a series of highly popular comic poems and songs purportedly written by James Scott, The Odontist, a semi-fictional character based on a real dentist of the same name who practiced in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Lockhart put so many of the real doctor’s phrases and friends into the poems and songs that Dr. Scott started behaving like a literary figure himself and perhaps even believed he was one, according to James Hogg, another Blackwood’s writer.

In Poetry as an Occupation and an Art in Britain, 1760-1830, a 1993 book of literary criticism, Peter T. Murphy includes this comment from Hogg about the real Dr. Scott:

“Lockhart sucked his brains so cleverly, and crammed ’The Odontist’s’ songs with so many of the creature’s own peculiar phrases, and names and histories of his obscure associates, that, though I believe the man could scarce spell a note of three lines, even his intimate acquaintances were obliged to swallow the hoax, and by degrees ‘The Odontist’ passed for a first-rate convivial bard.”

With the political conventions behind us, here’s an applicable excerpt from “Clydesdale Yeoman’s Return,” an 1819 poem by The Odontist that offers a farmer’s thoughts about a noisy political meeting;

For ’tis idle hand makes busy tongue, and troubles all the land
With noisy fools, that prate of things they do not understand.

PS: If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2014 on “dent,” “indent,” “dentist,” and their relatives.

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To be or not to be a question

Q: Often, when I write emails to finalize appointments, I end as follows, “Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you.” Although this would seem to be a question, I am not clear as to whether it really is one and needs a question mark.

A: No question mark is necessary.

Although that sentence is worded as a question, it’s not intended as one. It’s intended as a polite imperative—that is, a courteous command or directive. The speaker (or writer) softens the imperative by framing it as a question.

This is a very common way of expressing a command in a mannerly way.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) calls sentences like this “requests as questions,” and says they don’t need question marks: “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this form of expression an “indirect speech act,” one in which meaning is conveyed indirectly.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, use as an example the sentence “Would you like to close the window.” As they explain:

“Syntactically, this is a closed interrogative, and in its literal interpretation it has the force of an inquiry (with Yes and No as answers).” But in practice, they say, it’s “most likely” a directive, a request to close the window.

“Indirect speech acts,” the authors write, “are particularly common in the case of directives: in many circumstances it is considered more polite to issue indirect directives than direct ones (such as imperative Close the window).”

Clearly, a sentence like yours—”Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you”—is neither a question nor a demand. It lies somewhere in between, which is why a question mark (and certainly an exclamation point) might seem inappropriate.

Still, we would not call a question mark incorrect here—just unnecessary. The use of a question mark instead of a period would make the request sound even more tentative, an effect you might not want.

If you wanted to make the request firmer but still polite, you could use a straight imperative, refined with a “please,” as in “Please confirm that this appointment will work for you.”

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And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling  for foreign-sourced words.

A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.

The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”

We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.

Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.

The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in the late 1990s. In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,

Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:

“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”

And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:

“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”

“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”

In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”

And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”

In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.

If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).

In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”

“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.

You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”

“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”

Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”

Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]

As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus , there).

The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”


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An old usage risen from the dead

Q: In a usage that I hope is not becoming common, my 21-year-old grandson said he had “deaded” a former friend he had argued with. Are others using dead as a verb?

A: Well, the usage is out there, and it occasionally shows up in print.

Here’s an example from a brief item in the Sept. 1, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone about Kanye West’s performance at the Budweiser Made in America Festival in Philadelphia:

“At one point, he deaded rumors that he and Jay Z were on less-than-good terms.”

In fact, you can find written examples of the usage dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, but it’s not common today and it’s not considered standard English.

Only one of the eight standard dictionaries that we regularly check, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, includes the use of “dead” as a verb, and it describes the usage as obsolete.

When used today, the verb “dead” often means to put an end to something, such as those rumors that Kanye West deaded, rather than to kill someone.

However, to “dead” is also used in hip-hop lyrics in reference to an actual killing, and in video games to a virtual killing.

Here’s an example from “Kingdom Come,” a track on a 2006 album of the same name by the American rapper Jay Z:

“I’m so indebted, I should have been deaded / Selling blow in the park, this I know in my heart.”

And this is a Feb. 9, 2013, comment on a discussion board for the multiplayer video game League of Legends:

“I deaded him and won the game and btw – he was countering my spin with…counterstrike.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that chronicles the evolution of words, traces the usage back to Old English, where déadian or adéadian meant to become dead, and díędan or dýdan meant to kill.

The OED says the use of “dead” as a verb is now obsolete, but it has literal and figurative examples for the usage from the mid-10th to the late 19th centuries.

The dictionary’s sources include the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), the Wycliffe Bible (sometime before 1382), Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum; or, A Naturall Historie (1626), and the August 1884 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

In the latest citation, from Harper’s, the verb is college slang meaning to stump a student with a difficult question: “Whose … enquiry, ‘What is ethics?’ had deaded so many a promising … student.”

Although standard dictionaries generally list “dead” as an adjective, adverb, or noun, the Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from the early 1600s to the mid-1900s for the verb “dead” used to mean to die or to kill.

The earliest DARE example is from a 1638 entry in the Watertown, MA, records: “Ordered yt whosoever shall dead any Trees up ye Commons … shall pay for every Tree so killed.”

And here’s an example from Negro Myths From the Georgia Coast (1988): “You guine dead a po man. [You’ll die a poor man.]”

Finally, this one is from Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Julia Mood Peterkin: “Sometimes, it [a charm] works backwards as well as forwards, you might be de one to dead.”

We never suspected that the verb “dead” had such a life. Will this old usage become common? We don’t see signs of a significant revival, but only time will tell.

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On dysphemism and euphemism

Q: I know that a euphemism is an inoffensive substitute for an expression considered offensive. But is there a term that refers to an offensive substitute for an inoffensive expression, such as using “death tax” for “estate tax”?

A: Yes, there is such a term—“dysphemism,” a word that’s about 150 years old.

A “dysphemism” is an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression that’s used in place of a pleasant or inoffensive one.

So “dysphemism” is the opposite of “euphemism” and in fact was modeled after the earlier word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was formed in the 19th century, the OED explains, “dysphemism” was a combination of the negative prefix “dys-” plus the “-phemism” portion of “euphemism.”

The earlier word, which has been part of English since the mid-17th century, is from the Greek rhetorical term euphemismos (for speaking well, or speaking with good words). The elements are eu- (good, well) plus pheme (speech).

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says euphemismos was first used by the Greeks to denote “the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

“Its opposite, dysphemism,” Ayto continues, means “use of a more offensive word,” and was a modern coinage using the Greek prefix dus– (bad, difficult).

The noun “dysphemism” was first recorded, as far as we can tell, in the April 1873 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article by Lionel A. Tollemache:

“The great system which Comte, and other assailants, call by the euphemism, or dysphemism, of Catholicism.”

(Tollemache’s article was reprinted in the digest Every Saturday in May 1873. In addition, it appeared in the 1884 book Safe Studies, a collection of essays and poems by him and his wife, Beatrix L. Tollemache, a citation that’s listed in the OED.)

We also found this example from the other side of the Atlantic, in an 1876 issue of Transactions of the American Philological Association:

“The accuser, even when driven into the last corner, can still say: ‘Oh, I am quite sure that he was angry, though he did not show it’; then this is confessed to be a mere adventurous dysphemism for what, when strictly defined, is only a ‘dissatisfaction at not being answered.’ ” (From an article by William Dwight Whitney, a professor of linguistics at Yale.)

The word is not part of everyday English (when found, it’s usually alongside “euphemism”), but the OED does have these later examples:

“A minor species of dysphemism is the pejorative suffix, as in ‘robustious.’ ” (From a piece by Eric H. Partridge, published in 1940 by the Society for Pure English.)

“ ‘Robber’ may also be one of those political dysphemisms used to discredit a nationalist rebel.” (From a June 1962 issue of the British weekly John O’London’s.)

Although the term “dysphemism” isn’t common (most of the examples we’ve found are in lexical discussions about it), the use of dysphemisms is not all that uncommon.

Some examples that readily come to mind are “death panels” for “end-of-life counseling,” “tree hugger” for “environmentalist,” “partial-birth abortion” for “late-term abortion,” “reactionary” for “conservative,” “bleeding heart” for “liberal,” “bureaucrat” for “official,” “do-gooder” for “altruist,” “regime” for “administration,” and “big brother” for “government.”

As for euphemisms, we’ve discussed examples of them many times over the years, but we haven’t written much about the development of the word itself. So what better time?

“Euphemism” was first recorded in English, according to OED citations, in the mid-1600s.

Originally it was a term for a rhetorical device, the method of substituting a favorable word or expression for a harsher or more offensive one that might be more precise.

In this sense, the OED says, the word was first recorded in 1656 in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia: “Euphemism, a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word.”

In the following century, the meaning of “euphemism” evolved from a rhetorical device to the word itself, the modern sense of the term. These 19th-century citations in the OED are good illustrations:

“A shorn crown … a euphemism for decapitation.” (From James Anthony Froude’s History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 2nd ed., 1860.)

“The Skunk yields a handsome fur, lately become fashionable, under the euphemism of ‘Alaska Sable.’ ” (From Elliott Coues’s monograph Fur-bearing Animals, 1877.)

After those headless and furless examples, we’re wordless.

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We can’t help but change

Q: It bothers me to hear actors or see writers (who should know better) say things like “I couldn’t help but cry over that.” I thought “help” should be followed by a gerund.  I can’t help wondering where those “professionals” learned English. If I’m wrong, would you be so kind as to straighten me out?

A: We used to regard “can’t help but” as a casual usage, not appropriate for formal occasions. But on closer examination, we can’t help but ask why we saw anything wrong with it at all.

The truth is that “cannot [or can’t] help but” has had a long life in literary and scholarly English as well as in common usage.

It’s a firmly established idiom, and we can’t see any reason to restrict a usage that’s at least 200 years old and is still found in every variety of educated writing.

Yet since the late 19th century, many language commentators have condemned the usage in a sentence like “I can’t help but ask.”

The correct phrases, or so the story goes, are “I can’t help asking” and two equivalent old-fashioned expressions—“I can but ask” and “I cannot but ask.” In those last two idioms, “can but” means “can only,” and “cannot but” means “cannot do otherwise than.”

Apparently nobody was bothered by the fact that “can but” and “cannot but”—complete opposites—were accepted as idioms with identical meanings.  Probably they sounded normal to 19th-century ears because they’d been in use steadily since the mid-1500s.

The “cannot help but” version was a relative newcomer; it did not become common until the early 1800s. Where did it come from?

We suspect that “cannot help but” emerged as a variant of an earlier and very popular idiom, “cannot choose but,” which had been in written use since the 1540s.

In fact, “cannot choose but” was once used in exactly the same way that “can’t help but” is used today.

So let’s start by looking into the history of “cannot choose but.”

Within its entries for the verb “choose” and the conjunction “but,” the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “cannot choose but” spanning three centuries—the 1540s to the 1880s.

As the OED explains, an obsolete meaning of the verb phrase “cannot chose,” which dates from the 1300s, was “have no alternative, cannot do otherwise, cannot help.”

“But” was added to the construction in the mid-1500s to yield “cannot choose but,” a usage that the dictionary says is now archaic.

“I cannot choose but speak,” according to Oxford, means “I cannot help speaking.”

However, the construction “cannot help” plus a gerund, as in “cannot help speaking,” wasn’t common until the early 1700s, so a contemporary equivalent would be “cannot do otherwise than speak.”

Here are a three early examples from the OED:

“Suche … crueltee … as could not choose afterwarde but redound to his … confusion.” (From Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus, 1542.)

“He cannot chose but he must fall downe flat to the grounde.” (From Sir Thomas North’s 1557 translation of Antonio de Guevara’s The Diall of Princes.)

“He cannot choose but breake.” (From Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1600.)

By Elizabethan times, the usage had become extremely common. It was popular enough to be used in a comic play performed before Queen Elizabeth on Dec. 27, 1599.

Here are the lines:

“Whether is it more torment to loue a Lady and neuer enioy her, or alwaies to enioy a Lady, whome you cannot choose but hate?” (From The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus, by Thomas Dekker.)

From the early 1600s to the early 1900s, “cannot choose but” was ubiquitous in all kinds of writing, according to searches of Early English Books Online and other databases. It was used in ordinary English as well as in works by prominent dramatists, novelists, and poets.

But by the latter half of the 19th century, “cannot choose but” had fallen out of favor in ordinary, everyday English, though it survived well into the 20th century as a literary or poetic usage.

Meanwhile, as “cannot choose but” fell out use in everyday English, “cannot help but” took its place.

In searches of various databases, the earliest definite example of “cannot help but” that we’ve found is from 1809.

(Three earlier findings—from 1646, 1650, and 1776—are too ambiguous to count. The first two, “The hands of men cannot help but hinder this Work” and “Nature and art … cannot help but hinder one another,” could be interpreted in two different ways. The third, “They cannot help but feel the responsibilities,” is from a letter written from France dated 1776, but it’s unclear whether it was originally written in English or French.)

The first clear example is from an anonymous letter to the editor dated Oct. 23, 1809, published in an English newspaper, the Chester Courant:

“When I reflect on the local advantages this city possesses, and look at the flourishing towns of Liverpool and Manchester … I cannot help but fix upon the shackles of the select junta as the cause that this ancient city is less prosperous.”

The expression quickly gained ground in the 1820s and ’30s. These lines by an anonymous poet appeared in the Oriental Herald, published in London, February 1825:

“In truth, she cannot help but think / That bolder hearts than hers would pause.”

This comes from another British source, an 1829 issue of the Odd Fellows’ Magazine, Manchester chapter: “Sympathy is an impulse which we cannot help but experience for one another, it is a feeling that is interwoven in our very nature.”

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a poem by Henry Mason, delivered before the Franklin Debating Society in Boston in January 1830:

“Blame not the heart that cannot help but feel / Its pulses quicken at the soft appeal.” (The poem was published by the society in March 1830.)

Americans seem to have liked the construction. Here’s an example from Pelayo (1838), an adventure tale by the Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms: “We cannot help but weep when we survey it.”

Yet another American example is this one from the January 1840 issue of the New Genesee Farmer, published in Rochester, NY:

“The  immense number and beauty of the articles there exhibited, are truly surprising, and cannot help but excite a spirit of improvement in the mind of every farmer, who views them.”

By the 1840s, “can’t help but” had become firmly entrenched in both common and literary British and American usage.

Here, for instance, is a cluster of sightings from a book published in London in 1841: “they cannot help but be uncharitable” … “he cannot help but see” … “we cannot help but love it.” (From Christianity Triumphant, attributed to Joseph Barker.)

And this flurry of examples is from sermons preached during a Christian convention in Chicago in 1883 by the evangelist D. L. Moody: “God cannot help but trust” … “we cannot help but blame” … “I cannot help but think” … “we cannot help but remember” … “you cannot help but love” … “you cannot help but preach” … “he cannot help but work” … and (five times) “I cannot help but believe.” We might have missed a couple.

Even in the most formal academic writing, authors have used “can’t help but” over the years as if it were irreproachable English. Today it’s found in scholarly writing of all kinds, in fiction, in journalism, and in ordinary, everyday English, both written and spoken.

Examples are so plentiful that it seems superfluous to cite any. But take a look at this one, from Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (2012), by Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell:

“Moreover, in so packaging the past through our choice of periodization points and rubrics, we cannot help but draw deep lines of inclusion and exclusion, of identity and difference.”

And this one, from The African Stakes of the Congo War (2002), by John F. Clark:

“As ordinary observers of human frailties, cruelties, and heroism, we cannot help but be fascinated by Congo and its travails; as moral beings, we cannot help but be gravely concerned with the unspeakable human suffering that has resulted….”

The point here is not that scholarly writing is the norm. The point is that “can’t help but” is considered respectable even in the most formal (we might even say stuffiest) writing.

So what do the critics of “can’t help but” find wrong with it? Some have objected without giving a reason, but others have complained on these grounds:

(1) “help” is unnecessary, since we already have “cannot but”;

(2) “cannot + help + but” has too many negative elements, since “help” is used in the sense of “prevent” or “avoid.”

(3) “cannot help but” is the result of confusing “cannot but” with “cannot help” plus a gerund. (As we’ve explained, we think it developed otherwise—as a variant of  “cannot choose but.”)

As far as we know, the earliest critic was Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric and oratory. In The Foundations of Rhetoric (1892), Hill objected for reason #1:

“ ‘He could not but speak’ is equivalet to ‘He could not help speaking.’ Help in ‘He could not help but speak’ is tautological.”

Another critic was an English professor at Columbia University, George Philip Krapp, who wrote this in A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927):

“The construction I can not help but think, believe, etc., is crude and unidiomatic English for I can not help thinking, believing, etc.” No explanation was offered. (It should be noted that Krapp also promoted the spelling “Shakspere.”)

Various other commentators have chimed in over the years, like Wilson Follett in his Modern American Usage (1966), who called the usage “grammarless” for reason #3 above.

The first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Fowler, has no mention of “help but.” However, the revised second edition (1965), edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, condemns it for reason #3.

The two of us, former editors at the New York Times, remember “help but” as one of the paper’s no-nos. Here’s The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (revised ed., 2013), under an entry for the verb “help”:

“Use the construction help wondering, as in He cannot help wondering. Not He cannot help but wonder.”

We even promoted this view ourselves in the past (but no longer). Pat’s book Woe Is (3rd ed.), last updated in 2010, has this advice:

“In formal writing, avoid using help but, as in: Huck can’t help but look silly in those pants. Unless you’re speaking or writing casually, drop the but and use the ing form: Huck can’t help looking silly in those pants.” (That entry will change if the publisher authorizes a fourth edition.)

On reflection, we wonder whether the Times’s prohibition prejudiced us against a usage that has nothing wrong with it. Yes, even in formal English.

The fact is that the feeling against “help but” was never unanimous.

In 1954 the grammarian Otto Jespersen commented on “cannot help but” and seemed to have no reservations about it:

“A frequent combination,” he wrote, “is cannot choose but with a bare infinitive.” And he added: “In the same sense, we have cannot help but with infinitive,” a usage that he said “is not confined to U.S., but is also found in British writers.”

He went on to quote some 20th-century British novelists who have used the phrase.

Theodore Bernstein, writing about “can’t help but” in The Careful Writer (1965), argued against grammarians who “contend that it is ‘crude and unidiomatic English.’ ” He called it “usual and acceptable.”

So did Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957): “Grammatically, the construction is as irreproachable as I cannot choose but think.”

Today, the more thoughtful usage guides have no problem with “can’t help but.”

Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage regards “can’t help but” as standard English (“logic cannot measure idioms,” it says), and so does The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Both guides say the only consideration as to formality is whether you use the phrase with “cannot” or “can’t.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rates the idiom as “fully accepted” and says it “should no longer be stigmatized on either side of the Atlantic.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has little to say about the “help but” construction one way or another.

In fact, the editors use it themselves. In explaining the use of “have” to mean “must,” the OED says that in statements like “I have to say, you have to admit, it has to be said, etc.,” the meaning is “I cannot help but say, etc.”

The OED’s entry for “help” includes a section on the use of the verb with “can” or “cannot” to mean “to prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear; to do otherwise than.” Two of the later examples are of the “help but” variety:

“She could not help but plague the lad.” (From Hall Caine’s novel Manxman, 1894.)

“If clairvoyants are to be attached to police stations they can hardly help but become officials.” (From the Manchester Guardian Weekly, 1928.)

Those examples are cited without remark—that is, with no hint that “help but” is anything less than acceptable English.

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Q: When I was growing up in New Haven, CT, my mother told me that saying “rabbits” as the first word of the month brings good luck. I’ve lived elsewhere since then and many people haven’t heard of the word’s lucky powers. Where does this belief comes from?

A: The custom has been around for more than a century, but we can’t find any authoritative information on its origin. Our guess is that it may have been  influenced by the much older practice of keeping a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the usage is from the March 13, 1909, issue of Notes and Queries, a scholarly journal devoted to English language, literature, and history. A contributor, identified only by initials, submitted this query:

“ ‘RABBITS’ FOR LUCK.—My two daughters are in the habit of saying ‘Rabbits’ on the first day of each month. The word must be spoken aloud, and be the first word said in the month. It brings luck for that month. Other children, I find, use the same formula. I shall be glad to know if this is a common and old custom, and what is the meaning of the word ‘rabbits.’ A. M.”

Two readers of Notes and Queries responded in the March 27, 1909, issue.

One (identified as Jas. Platt, Jun.) merely offered advice on the best way to use the term: “The word to be most efficacious must be spoken up the chimney, and be the first word said in the month. I am told that if this is done the performer will receive a present.”

The other reader (W. B. Gerish) noted that The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) had “numerous references to the use of the term ‘rabbit’ as an expletive,” but none of them used it in “the formula specified” by A. M. (As an expletive, “rabbit” has meant something like “drat.”)

However, Gerish speculated that “the employment of the term by children is evidently a survival of the ancient superstitious belief in the efficacy of this or similar expressions as charms to avert evil.”

Our theory, as we’ve said, is that the tradition may have been influenced by the earlier association of rabbits with good luck. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from the late 1600s for the carrying of a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

When the word “rabbit” first appeared in English in the late 1300s, according to the OED, it referred to a young rabbit.

An adult was called a “coney” (or “cony”), a usage that’s now considered regional. English borrowed both words from French. The ultimate source of “coney” is cuniculus, Latin for rabbit, while rabotte may have been French dialect for a rabbit or rabbit hole.

The OED’s earliest “rabbit” citation, which also refers to “coney,” is from John Trevisa’s translation (sometime before 1398) of De Proprietatibus Rerum [On the Property of Things], an early encyclopedia, by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus:

“Conynges … bringen forþ [forth] many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe [exceedingly].”

The first Oxford reference to the carrying of a rabbit’s foot for good luck is from The Wits Paraphras’d, Matthew Stevenson’s irreverent, 1680 translation of Ovid: “But now too late, I’ve one to do’t, / And you may kiss the Rabits foot.”

In the 20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the plural “rabbits” (as well as the phrase “white rabbits”) came to be “uttered for good luck, esp. on the first day of the month.” (We’ve found several other variations, including “rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” and even “bunny, bunny.”)

The OED, which doesn’t offer an explanation for the usage, has these examples:

“On the first day of the month you have to say ‘Rabbits.’ If you say it to me first, I have to give you a present, and if I say it to you first, you have to give me a present.” (From Courts of Idleness, a 1920 collection of short stories by Dornford Yates, a pseudonym of the English writer Cecil William Mercer.)

“I hear the clock strike midnight and say ‘rabbits’ …. That is the end of 1949.” (From a 1949 entry in the diary of the English diplomat Harold Nicolson.)

“ ‘On the first morning of the month,’ notes a typical informant, ‘before speaking to anyone else, one must say “White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits” for luck.’ ” (From The  Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, a 1959 book by Iona and Peter Opie, a married team of British folklorists.)

“Besides, behind her back, rabbits rabbits, she’s crossing her treacherous fingers.” (From The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie.)

“I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother … told me to do it, to bring good fortune.” (From an article by the British author Simon Winchester in the Nov. 2, 2006, issue of the International Herald Tribune.)

All the OED citations are from British sources, but the usage has had its adherents on the other side of the pond, as you’re well aware.

For example, the final volume of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (1964) has this example: “On the first day of the month, say ‘Rabbit! rabbit! rabbit!’ and the first thing you know, you will get a present from someone you like very much.”

The seven-volume collection, gathered by the Duke University folklorist from 1912 to 1943, also notes citations from other sources for similar sayings heard in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Here’s a Wisconsin citation from Badger Folklore (1952): “Another correspondent … says that in her family it is a tradition to court Lady Luck by saying ‘Rabbit! Rabbit!’ as first words on the first day of every month. Then you climb out of bed over the foot and are bound to prosper.”

Edie Clark, a New Hampshire author, says in a Sept. 1, 2008, article in Yankee Magazine that it’s been a tradition in her family since her grandmother’s day for “rabbit” to be the first word spoken at the start of each month.

And Alan Zweibel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, notes in a 1994 radio interview that Gilda Radner had said “bunny, bunny” on the first day of each month since she was a child. In fact, the title of Zweibel’s 1994 book about his friendship with Radner is entitled Bunny Bunny.

Many American rabbiters learned of the custom from the cable channel Nickelodeon, which helped popularize it in the US in the 1990s by encouraging children to say “rabbit, rabbit” on the first day of each month.

We’ll end with an expanded (and earlier) version of that last OED citation, from an op-ed article by Simon Winchester in the Oct. 7. 2006, issue of the New York Times:

“Ever since I was 4 years old, I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother, tucking me into bed one night, told me to do it, to bring good fortune; and since I have enjoyed fair good fortune for all of my subsequent days I have assumed that the acceptance of this moderate and harmless habit has had something to do with it, and so has reinforced my need to keep up the practice.

“Besides, it is an ancient and thoroughly English conceit: old folk in Yorkshire and Cornwall speak of it having been practiced for many centuries (though the first O.E.D. citation of anything similar is 1920). Social historians assert that the monthly invocation of this most star-kissed of mammals (think rabbit’s-foot key rings, the Easter Bunny, the awesome fecundity of the Australian model of Oryctolagus) is entirely explicable. It would be pretty hard to imagine waking up and crying ‘mouse’ or ‘warthog’ or ‘mole’ and feeling quite so warmly confident of good fortune.”

[Note: On Aug. 1, 2016, a reader comments, “Dear friends told me about this delightful superstition about 25 years ago. But their version was just a hair more demanding: In order to be lucky the following month, you had to say ‘hare, hare’ the last thing before going to sleep, and ‘rabbit, rabbit’ first thing on waking. I imagine there are other variations.”]

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Old-fashion or old-fashioned?

Q: What would you say is more acceptable as a modifier, “old-fashion” or “old-fashioned”? One hears both interchangeably.

A: The usual form, and the only one accepted in standard dictionaries, is “old-fashioned.”

We did find a mention of “old-fashion” in one standard dictionary, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. But it says that “old-fashion” is an “archaic” term meaning “old-fashioned.”

Both versions are given in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The two adjectives are well established—they were first recorded in the 1590s—but “old-fashioned” is more frequent in current usage, the OED says.

The adjective “old-fashioned” is defined in the OED as “of or resembling a fashion or style belonging to an earlier time,” or “antiquated in form or character.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the term describes an antique ship: “Out of the medyan center … did ryse vp an olde fashioned vessell, and verie beautifull.” (From a 1592 translation of Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance originally written in Latinate Italian.)

The shorter adjective “old-fashion,” the OED says, means “resembling a fashion or style belonging to an earlier time.”

The dictionary’s earliest example comes only a few years later than the one mentioned above: “I sit like an old King in an old fashion play.” (From George Chapman’s comedy An Humerous Dayes Myrth, 1599.)

The two adjectives differ in their grammatical structure.

“Old-fashioned” combines “old” with the participial adjective “fashioned,” from the verb “fashion.”

“Old-fashion” combines “old” with the noun “fashion.” However, the OED notes that “in some instances” it is “perhaps shortened” from the longer version “by loss of the final consonant.”

We haven’t found much about these terms in usage guides. But the fact that standard dictionaries don’t recognize “old-fashion” is reason enough to prefer the longer version.

In fact, “old-fashioned” seems to have been the preference even in the 19th century.

We found this in George Crabb’s English Synonymes Explained (2nd ed., London, 1818): “OLD-FASHIONED signifies after an old fashion. … The manners are old-fashioned which are gone quite out of fashion . … The old-fashioned is opposed to the fashionable.”

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Faux French: un oeuf, already?

Q: Is there a term for a word like toupee that looks and sounds as if it’s taken from a foreign language (in this case, French) but doesn’t actually exist in that language?

A: We don’t know of a technical term for such words, but many of them, if not most, are faux French, so why not call them that?

We’ve written about such words on the blog as well as in “An Oeuf Is an Oeuf,” the chapter about fractured French in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths.

One of the words we discuss in the book is toupee, which doesn’t exist in French, where a hairpiece is a moumoute or a postiche. However, toupee may have Gallic roots.

Etymologists believe it was probably inspired by toupet, French for a tuft of real hair over the forehead, like a person’s bangs or a horse’s forelock.

Perhaps the phoniest of phony French terms is nom de plume, which the British invented in the 19th century to replace the real French expression. We’ve written about this one on our blog as well as in Origins, which we’ll quote here:

“The real French expression for an assumed name is nom de guerre, which the British adopted in the late seventeenth century. But in the nineteenth century, British writers apparently thought the original French might be confusing. One can see why nom de guerre, literally ‘war name,’ could puzzle readers. The French initially used it for the fictitious name that a soldier often assumed on enlisting, but by the time the British started using the expression, it could mean any assumed name—in English as well as French.

“The faux-French nom de plume was introduced in English in the nineteenth century. An obscure Victorian novelist, Emerson Bennett, is responsible for the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (perhaps the only feather in his cap). In his 1850 novel Oliver Goldfinch, the title character is said to be ‘better known to our readers as a gifted poet, under the nom de plume of “Orion.” ’  Bennett could have used the word ‘pseudonym,’ which we had borrowed from the French around the same time nom de plume was invented. But perhaps he felt ‘pseudonym’ lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever his reasons, nom de plume was a hit with the literary crowd—such a hit that it inspired an English translation, ‘pen name,’ which made its debut in 1864 in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

“The old French expression nom de guerre is still with us, though. It’s defined in English dictionaries as ‘pseudonym’ or ‘fictional name,’ but these days it seems to be used most often for the sobriquets of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view).”

Here are some other pseudo-French terms that we discuss in Origins of the Specious:

Double entendre. Although the expression, adopted into English in the seventeenth century, was once French for double meaning, there’s no exact equivalent in modern French. Two near misses, double entente and double sens, don’t have the suggestiveness of the English version. How should one pronounce our illegitimate offspring? Illegitimately, of course. Dictionaries are all over the place on this, but I treat ‘double’ as an English word (DUB-ul) and ‘entendre’ as if it’s French (ahn-TAN-dr).

Negligee. No, the French don’t call that frilly, come-hither nightie a négligée, though in the eighteenth century a négligé was indeed a simple, loose gown worn by a Frenchwoman at home. In France, the nightie is a peignoir or a chemise de nuit. The French verb négliger means to neglect, and a person who’s négligé is careless or sloppy or poorly dressed.

“Encore. The word we shout when we want Sam to play it again isn’t used that way in France, except by tourists. Although ‘again’ is one meaning of encore in French, a Parisian usually shouts ‘Bis!’ to call for a repeat performance. English speakers have been shouting ‘Encore!’ since at least the early 1700s, but nobody seems to know why. Perhaps we can blame the eighteenth-century vogue for all things French.

“Pièce de résistance. The French don’t use this for the main dish or the main part of something. In fact, they don’t use it at all. The closest thing to it in France is plat de résistance, meaning the main dish. But in the eighteenth century, when so many French expressions crossed the Channel, a pièce de résistance was a main dish or a dishy woman.

“Idiot savant. This invention would sound idiotic to a Frenchman, though the inventor may have been a French-born physician living in the United States, according to the OED. In ‘New Facts and Remarks Concerning Idiocy,’ an 1869 lecture to a New York medical association, Dr. Edouard Séguin used the term ‘idiot savant’ to describe someone with a ‘useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woful general impotence.’ The actual French phrase for the condition is savant autiste, similar to the current medical term for the condition in English, ‘autistic savant.’

“Résumé. A job hunter in France doesn’t polish up her résumé. She updates her curriculum vitae, or CV. In French, a résumé is a summing up, as in a plot summary. And that’s what it meant when the word entered English in the early nineteenth century. The term wasn’t used for a career summary until the mid-twentieth century, when this sense began appearing in the United States and Canada. Maybe it was easier to pronounce than ‘curriculum vitae.’

“Affaire d’amour. This would be meaningless in France, where an affaire is a business deal, not a romance. The French for ‘love affair’ is histoire d’amour. Where did our faux French come from? It’s a froufrou version of an old English expression, ‘love affair,’ which dates from Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare used the original in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (And by the way, it’s a myth that the term ‘love’ in tennis comes from l’oeuf, though an egg is more or less round like a zero. Mere folklore.)

“Risqué. Nope, risqué isn’t titillating or sexy in French. It’s merely ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous,’ which aptly describes the dubious practice of using these faux French expressions when you’re in France.”

We’ll end with a story from Origins of the Specious about the poet Coleridge, who used several noms de plume (“Cuddy” and “Gnome,” among others) as well as a nom de guerre.

When a young woman refused Coleridge’s hand, the rejected suitor dropped out of Cambridge and enlisted in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the assumed name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.” (He’d seen the name Comberbache over a door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London.)

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Why is “have to” so needy?

Q: I know what the phrase “have to” means, but it doesn’t make sense if you take the individual words literally. For example, “I have to wash the dishes.” It would make more sense to say “need to” or “must.” Is “have to” a vestige of Old English?

A: You’re right in suggesting that the usage has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times. In early Old English, people who intended or needed to do something would say they had something to do—a forerunner of the usage you’re asking about.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the duty or thing to be done was initially expressed as a direct object of the verb (to have something to do), then in an infinitive clause (to have to do something).”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an early Old English translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Nu ic longe spell hæbbe to secgenne” (literally, “Now I long story have to say” or, more naturally, “Now I have a long story to tell you”).

The OED says this early use of “have to” expressed “something that is to be done or needs to be done, as a duty, obligation, requirement, etc.”

That usage developed into the modern sense of “have to” as an auxiliary phrasal verb expressing necessity or, as Oxford puts it, “to be under an obligation to do something; to be required to; to need to.”

“Because word order was unfixed in early periods, it is difficult to determine precisely when this sense arose,” the OED says, adding that some Old English citations “are syntactically ambiguous, and may be transitional.”

However, the dictionary notes, “It has also been suggested that in early use the construction may occasionally approach a periphrastic or modal future” — that is, “have to” may have been used in Old English much like a modal phrasal verb in its modern sense.

(Modal auxiliaries, like “can,” “could,” “will,” “would,” and “must” express necessity or possibility. A periphrastic construction uses a combination of words, like “have to” or “need to,” in place of one.)

The OED gives an Old English example from the West Saxon Gospels that may show “have to” used in its modern sense of “must.”

The citation is from a translation of the Latin text of Matthew 20:22, where Jesus asks Zebedee’s sons if they are able to drink the cup of suffering that he will drink (bibiturus sum):

“Mage gyt drincan þone calic ðe ic to drincenne hæbbe” (literally, “Can you drink the cup that I to drink have?” or, more felicitously, “Can you drink the cup that I have to drink?”).

Does “to drincenne hæbbe” here mean “will drink” (a literal translation of the Latin) or does it mean “must drink,” a theological interpretation of the Latin passage by Anglo-Saxon scholars?

We lean toward interpreting “to drincenne hæbbe” as “must drink,” since other Old English translations of the same passage are closer to the Latin, according to Andrzej M. Łęcki, a linguist at the Pedagogical University of Cracow in Poland.

In Grammaticalisation Paths of Have in English (2010), Łęcki cites Old English translations of bibiturus sum in Matthew as “I will drink” and “I am drinking.” The Rushworth Gospels, for example, translates it as “ic drincande beom” (“I am drinking”).

Enough Old English. We’ll end with a very contemporary “have to” example in the OED from the July 22, 2012, issue of the New York Times: “You will have to enter the user name and password that corresponds to your account.”

[Update, July 26, 2016. A reader in Ireland writes: “In Yorkshire to this day people will say ‘I have it to do’ where standard English would say ‘I have to do it.’ ”]

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G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)

Q: I can’t find to whom the appellation “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest Of All Time) was first applied: Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali, etc. I’d like to learn it was Vin Scully, whose retirement this year after his last broadcast, in late September, will be a BIG deal. Can you figure it out?

A: The word “goat” has been used in American sports since the early 1900s, first as a derisive term for a player responsible for a team’s loss, and later, often in capital letters, as an acronym for “greatest of all time.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly when the term showed up as a positive acronym and which sports figure was the first to benefit from the new usage.

One problem is that it was used in sports as an initialism (an abbreviation made up of initial letters pronounced separately) about a dozen years before it showed up in sports as an acronym (an abbreviation formed from initial letters but pronounced as a word).

We’ll get to the sports usage in a bit, but let’s first look at the original use of “goat” as the name for, as dictionaries put it, the hardy domesticated ruminant Capra hircus.

In Old English, a male goat was a “bucca” and a female a “gat” (early versions of “buck” and “goat”). In early Middle English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “goat began to encroach on the semantic territory of buck.”

By the 14th century, Ayto says, “goat” had become the dominant form for both sexes, with “she-goat” and “he-goat” used to differentiate them (“nanny-goat” showed up in the 18th century and “billy-goat” in the 19th).

Over the centuries, the noun “goat” took on several figurative senses, including the zodiacal sign Capricorn (first recorded sometime before 1387), a licentious man (before 1674), and a fool (1916).

The earliest example we’ve found for “goat” used in the sports sense is from The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), by Paul Dickson:

“Catcher [Charles] Schmidt, who had been the ‘goat’ of the first game [of the World Series], redeemed himself at this time.” (From the Oct. 10, 1909, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

Dickson notes that most explanations for the origin of the baseball usage describe it as a clipped form of “scapegoat” that refers “to a player whose error is being blamed for a team’s defeat.”

However, he points out that one language researcher, Gerald L. Cohen, challenged this theory in the Dec. 1, 1985, issue of Comments on Etymology.

“A scapegoat is innocent, whereas the goat is not; he has blundered, usually at a crucial moment,” Cohen writes. “And the standard etymology of ‘goat’ as a shortening of ‘scapegoat’ is therefore almost certainly in error.”

He suggests instead that the usage might have been influenced by a goat used to haul a peanut wagon in the late 19th century. Perhaps, but we think the erroneous-shortening hypothesis seems more likely.

Getting back to your question, the earliest example we could find for “G.O.A.T.” used to mean ”greatest of all time” is from September 1992, when Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties for commercial purposes.

Lonnie Ali served as vice president and treasurer of the corporation until it was sold in 2006. (The business is now known as Muhammad Ali Enterprises, a subsidiary of Authentic Brands Group.)

Ali often referred to himself as “the greatest” and sometimes as “the greatest of all time.” In the May 5, 1971, issue of the Harvard Crimson, for example, he’s quoted as saying: “I wanted to be the world’s greatest fighter at 11-years-old … I wanted to be the greatest of all time.”

(Many other athletes have been called the “greatest of all time.” A 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, for example, uses the expression for the British tennis player Laurence Doherty, while a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated uses it for the Basque jai alai player Erdoza Menor.)

However, we could find no written evidence that Ali or anyone else in the 20th century used “goat,” “GOAT,” or “G.O.A.T” as an acronym (a word pronounced like “goat”) to mean “greatest of all time.”

The earliest example we could find for the term used as an acronym is an album by the American rapper LL Cool J entitled “G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time),” released on Sept. 12, 2000.

In “The G.O.A.T.” track on the album, LL Cool J (a k a James Todd Smith) repeatedly says, “I’m the G.O.A.T.” (pronounced “goat”) and “the greatest of all time.”

By 2003, the term was being used in the sporting sense, but it’s unclear from the early written citations whether it was pronounced like “goat” or spelled out (“G-O-A-T”).

The online Urban Dictionary, a slang reference site that relies on definitions submitted by users, has two Sept. 28, 2003, contributions:

“Greatest Of All Time: Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T.” … “anacronym for G.reatest O.f A.ll T.ime Ultimate competitor G-O-A-T etc.,etc.”

Magic Johnson was apparently using “goat” in the old negative sense when he was quoted on an NBA website on March, 3, 2003, as saying Kobe Bryant has “plenty of great years ahead of him. He’ll be one of the best clutch players in NBA history. He wants it. He has no fear about whether he’s the goat or not.”

But the term is clearly being used in a positive way in this title from a July 21, 2004, post on the Basketball Forum comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon: “Wilt Chamberlain is overrated; Hakeem is the GOAT.”

And the term is positive in a July 12, 2004, article in the Los Angeles Times that describes the American sprinter Maurice Green’s victory in the 100-meter dash at Olympic trials in Sacramento:

“Maurice Greene released a shriek of joy and pointed to the tattoo on his right biceps, a stylized lion whose mane shelters the letters GOAT, for Greatest of All Time.”

Although Vin Scully has been referred to as “the goat,” most of the examples we’ve found came after an April 4, 2016, broadcast in which the sportscaster says he learned of the usage from the outfielder Jon Jay.

“Jon Jay had a big thrill,” Scully said. “He was in a shoe store buying some shoes and who came in? Michael Jordan.”

When Jay referred to Jordan as “the G.O.A.T.,” Scully was puzzled: “ ‘Goat’? Why is Michael Jordan ‘goat’? ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘G-O-A-T. Greatest of all time.’ ”

One last point: Some people believe the usage can be traced to Earl (the Goat) Manigault, a New York City playground basketball player who many thought was the greatest of all time, though his career was cut short by years of drug abuse.

However, Manigault, who died in 1998 at the age of 53, got the nickname because a teacher in junior high school pronounced his name “Mani-Goat,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

[Update, July 22, 2016: A reader notes that in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, Joelle Van Dyne is referred to as “the P.G.O.A.T., for the Prettiest Girl of All Time.]

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A guerrilla of France

Q: In A Hero of France, Alan Furst’s latest World War II thriller, one of the characters uses the phrase “guerrilla warfare.” Did the word “guerrilla” really refer to an unconventional war in the early 1940s, when most of the novel takes place?

A: Yes, “guerrilla” has been used that way for more than 200 years, well before Alan Furst put the word into the mouth of Fabien, a sabotage instructor working with the Resistance in France.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples dating from the early 1800s for “guerrilla” used as a noun or an adjective in reference to an unconventional war or someone fighting in such a war.

English borrowed the word directly from Spanish, where guerrilla is a diminutive of guerra, or war. The usual spelling in English is “guerrilla,” though some dictionaries also accept “guerilla.”

In the earliest OED citation, from an 1809 dispatch by the Duke of Wellington, the word refers to someone engaged in unconventional war: “I have recommended to the Junta to set … the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.”

An 1811 citation, from The Vision of Don Roderick, a poem by Sir Walter Scott about Wellington’s victories in the Peninsular War, uses “guerrilla” adjectivally:

“But, with the darkness, the Guerilla band / Came like night’s tempest, and avenged the land.” (We’ve gone to the original and expanded the OED citation.)

An 1819 example, from an article in the Edinburgh Review by Sydney Smith, an Anglican cleric, uses “guerrilla” as a noun for the war itself, a usage that the dictionary describes as “now somewhat rare”:

“A succession of village guerillas;—an internecive war between the gamekeepers and marauders of game.”

Finally, the word “guerrilla” has been used loosely since the late 1800s to describe almost any kind of irregular, unorthodox, or spontaneous activity: “guerrilla advertising,” “guerrilla cooking,” “guerrilla filmmaking,” and so on.

The earliest OED example for the newer usage is from the November 1888 issue of the Polyclinic, a medical journal in Philadelphia:

“The so-called pure pepsins … which, by a system of ‘guerrilla’ advertising … have been foisted upon the deceived medical profession.”

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A reactionary usage

Q: I’ve been seeing the use of the word “reactionary” for “reactive.” Have you noticed this?

A: No, we haven’t noticed it, and none of the standard dictionaries we rely on have entries for the adjective “reactionary” that include “reactive” as a meaning.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes this sense of “reactionary” as used in chemistry: “Of, pertaining to, participating in or inducing a chemical reaction.”

Wiktionary cites an April 11, 2013, article by Brandon Smith on, a website devoted to barter networking and other economic alternatives:

“Psychiatry extends the theory into biology in the belief that all human behavior is nothing more than a series of reactionary chemical processes in the brain that determine pre-coded genetic responses built up from the conditioning of one’s environment.”

Although the usage you’re asking about isn’t all that common, it isn’t all that new either.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations dating back to the mid-19th century for “reactionary” used to mean “of, or relating to, or characterized by reaction, or a reaction (in various senses); that constitutes a reaction or reversal.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for this reactive sense is from an 1847 volume of A History of Greece, a 12-volume work by George Grote:

“The intensity of the subsequent displeasure would be aggravated by this reactionary sentiment.” (The reference is to how Athenians reacted when Mitliades, a hero of the Battle of Marathon, failed in the Expedition at Paros.)

In Women in Love (1920), D. H. Lawrence describes an affair as the result of—that is, a reaction to—marriage: “A liaison was only another kind of coupling, reactionary from the legal marriage. Reaction was a greater bore than action.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation (from the Feb. 6, 2003, issue of the Charlotte Business Journal in North Carolina) with the term used in the medical sense: “We want to practice preventative health care and not just reactionary medicine.”

Well, the usage is out there, as you’ve noticed, and it has a history, but it’s not out there enough to make it into standard dictionaries. In other words, you’ll probably be misunderstood if you use it.

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The singular life of “they”

Q: I’m a 69-year-old psychotherapist who learned his grammar from a Jesuit-trained teacher obsessed with diagramming. As a stickler for good usage, I’m especially troubled by the use of “their” for “his” or “her.” Am I nuts or is the usage changing?

A: No, you aren’t nuts (as you ought to know, since you’re a psychotherapist). But yes, the usage is changing.

As close observers of the language, we are well aware that it’s a living thing, and that the prescriptive “rules” invented at various periods by well-intentioned grammarians were often groundless and misguided.

But like you, we’ve drawn the line at the use of “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to an indefinite someone—at least in formal English and at least for the time being.

We’ve resisted this usage in our own writing on the ground that a third-person plural pronoun is inappropriate in reference to a singular somebody, though some of our favorite writers have used “they” and company in just that way.

We grant that this use of “they” is acceptable in informal and colloquial English, and that it has a long history, but we think that it’s still not an acceptable formal usage in contemporary English.

Here’s what we wrote about the subject on our blog in 2013:

“The plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ were often used as indefinite singulars centuries ago, and are quite commonly used that way today in informal (some would say substandard) English. But in formal English, they’re restricted to the plural.

“And anyone who wants to be correct without resorting to ‘he/she’ or some variant can always recast the sentence and make the antecedent plural. Instead of ‘Every parent loves his or her (or their) child,’ make it ‘All parents love their children.’ ”

We still believe this. But ask us again in 10 years. The “formal-versus-informal” argument aside, the singular use of “they” has shown no signs of going away and has clearly become established.

Earlier this year, linguists recognized this fact in a rather emphatic way. In January, the American Dialect Society voted for “they,” used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as the “Word of the Year” for 2015.

As the organization said in a press release, “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

Although the announcement singled out a very specific use of “they” (for people who don’t consider themselves either male or female), it called attention to the more general use of “they” as a generic singular for an unknown person.

For example, “If anyone calls, tell them I’ve gone for the day.”

The press release says “they” was long used as a singular by writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

(We could add Byron, Thackeray, Goldsmith, Swift, Wharton, Orwell, Auden, as well as the King James Version of the Bible, all cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.)

In its announcement, the society noted that in 2015 the “singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide,” but we think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

The Post style guide says that it’s “usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural” and that the singular “they” should be used only in “the rare case when such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward.”

Commenting in the ADS press release, the linguist Ben Zimmer said: “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

Recent scholarship has shown that the use of “they” in a singular sense is not just an aberration but an expected development in a language that has a hole in it.

“In truth, the English language lacks a gender-neutral (sex-indefinite) pronoun for third-person singular,” Darren K. LaScotte wrote in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech.

Since the 14th century, he wrote, “they” has been used to fill the gap. And it’s still in use, despite generations of advice to the contrary.

LaScotte conducted a study to determine “which pronouns native English speakers use when writing about a genderless person,” and found that “they” was the overwhelming choice.

In using a pronoun to refer back to a single person of no particular sex (“the ideal student”), 71 percent of the participants chose “they.” The other alternatives, including the combination “he or she” and the generic masculine “he,” trailed far behind.

Those results came from a question that did not call the participants’ attention to the pronouns they used. But the results were slightly different later in the survey, when they were specifically asked about pronoun use in reference to a single, genderless person.

When asked which pronoun was appropriate in a formal context, 55 percent chose the combination “he or she” and 25 percent chose “they.”

When asked which pronoun was appropriate for informal use, 74 percent chose “they.” Another 18 percent chose “he or she,” and 10 percent chose “he.”

We’re not surprised by these results. In informal writing or conversational English, “they” is used as a singular by even educated people today. And in such informal usages it doesn’t seem to call attention to itself.

But formal English is another matter, and here a singular “they” looks like a mistake, in our opinion. Few scholarly writers, even those who pride themselves on their descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) attitudes, would deliberately refer to a single student as “they.”

So we’ll stick with what we’ve written before. Singular “they” is fine in informal usage, but we don’t advise it in formal English.

LaScotte’s conclusion was different. He says that “writers of handbooks should be less timid in offering singular they as a strategy for solving the singular, generic antecedent problem in academic writing.”

Call us timid if you like, but we don’t think the singular “they” has fully arrived in formal use. We’d be surprised if academic writers began consciously using it any time soon, and if the editors of scholarly journals began accepting it.

One final word. The use of “they” to refer to someone clearly identified as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is indefensible (“a man in their prime” … “a woman knows their own breasts”).

There’s certainly no point in being gender-neutral when there’s no question about gender.

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When “bourgeois” became bull

Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense?

A: We don’t want to shock you, but our best guess is that your father was using “bourgeois” as a euphemism for “bullshit,” a term he didn’t want to inflict on your tender ears. ­­

A ­similar-sounding word, “bushwa,” has been a euphemism for “bullshit” for more than a century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says “bushwa” was “probably” derived from the French “bourgeois, as popularized by the radical movement, esp. in the early 20th C.”

The dictionary says the word is “now taken as a euphem. for bullshit,” in the sense that one would use “nonsense” or plain “bull.”

Random House’s earliest example of “bushwa” is from a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette: “ ‘Bushwa,’ … a term of derision used to convey the same comment as ‘hot air,’ drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives.”

The reference may have been to language popularized by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”), formed in Chicago in 1905.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that “bushwa” (also spelled “bushwah”) is “apparently a euphemism for bullshit.” But it doesn’t suggest that it was derived from “bourgeois.”

However, “bourgeois” was apparently the source. This passage from the historian Dorothy Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded (2009) describes members of the “Overalls Brigade” of the IWW in 1908:

“They bellowed out revolutionary songs, scorned the niceties of ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) society, and made a point of dressing in the workingman’s garb that eventually became the Wobblies’ trademark uniform.”

And in this passage another historian, Bruce Watson, discusses popular terms used by the Wobblies in the first decade of the 20th century:

“A ‘scissor-bill’ was an unenlightened worker, some ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) who still believed in ‘Pie in the Sky,’ i.e., capitalist promises of a better life ahead.” (From Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2006.)

Several histories of the Wobblies were published during the 1960s, and in reviewing one of them for the Journal of Southern History in 1970, George T. Morgan Jr. wrote:

“IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as ‘bushwa’ society.”

So it seems that “bushwa” was a pronunciation—perhaps a deliberately dismissive one—of “bourgeois,” a term that was hateful to early 20th-century labor activists.

Over the years, many American authors have used the term in hard-boiled fiction. A couple of citations from the OED:

“Looks to me like it’s all bushwa.” (From a novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921.)

“If you’re a detective, what was all that bushwa about Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard?” (From Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, 1960.)

As for “bourgeois,” English borrowed it from the French bourgeois in the early 1600s, when the two words had the same meaning: an inhabitant of a town or borough in France.

(In French, bourg was a walled settlement or market town. The term comes from burgus, Latin for castle or fort. But the ultimate source, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is bhergh, a prehistoric root meaning high.)

Over time, the English noun “bourgeois” broke from its original ties to France and took on three primary senses that could be applied to people or things anywhere in the world:

(1) the middle class or a member of the middle class, (2) someone or something that’s conventional, unimaginative, or materialistic, and (3) in Marxist theory, a capitalist exploiter of the working class. The adjective adopted related senses.

It’s unclear from OED citations when each of these meanings developed, but the dictionary has examples for all three dating from the 1800s.

The pejorative sense of “bourgeois” used by your father apparently evolved from the Marxist meaning of the word, which Oxford defines as “a person who upholds the interests of capitalism, or who is considered to be an exploiter of the proletariat.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the “capitalist” sense of the word is from an 1850 translation of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in German in 1848:

“Bourgeois and Proletarians. Hitherto the history of society has been the history of the battles between the classes composing it.”

(The original German: “Bourgeois und Proletarier. Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen.”)

The OED also cites this passage from a work of Engels: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money.” (From an 1886 translation of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from 2010: “By forcing workers to work for money, the bourgeois transformed workers into commodities.” (From Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. ed., edited by  Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy.)

It’s that “exploiter of the proletariat” element of “bourgeois,” built into the word by Marx and Engels, that inspired the “bullshit” sense of the word and the “bushwa” pronunciation.

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When out of your home is in it

Q: Why is it that when I say I’m working out of my home, I’m actually working at an office in my home?

A: The compound preposition “out of” usually refers to moving from, or being away from, something, and it’s had that meaning since Anglo-Saxon days.

In early Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “out of” was the opposite of “into.”

The first example in the OED is from a translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the early medieval theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Hie aforan ut of þære byrig hiora agnum willan.” (“They went out of the city of their own accord.”)

In the 20th century, according to Oxford citations, “out of” developed a new sense: working “from (a base or headquarters)” or “using (a place) as a centre of operations.”

The earliest OED example (from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run?) refers to a prostitute working out of a different kind of house than the one you’re asking about:

“ ‘She’s turned pro,’ I said. ‘She’s working out of Gladys’.”

Most of the OED citations use “out of” in the sense of using a place as headquarters but working elsewhere at least some of the time.

It’s easy to see, though, how the place in question evolved from a headquarters to a primary workplace, as in this example:

“The miscellaneous radio amateurs and visionaries who worked out of shacks and garages.” (From the June 25,1976, issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)

Here are the dictionary’s other examples:

“We were going to run away together. … I could always get work out of Miami.” (From Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, 1960, an “87th Precinct” novel by Ed McBain.)

“Goodall had now started to work out of Devon Concrete to all parts of the South West.” (From a 1993 issue of Vintage Roadscene magazine.)

Finally, here’s a recent example that we found in the June 18, 2016, issue of the New York Times: “My wife and I still work out of our home in South Portland; I’m a writer and she’s a digital strategist for a software company.”

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Shining a light on candles

Q: I have wondered how “chandler,” the word for a candle-maker, came to mean a supplier of ship’s provisions.

A: Originally, a “chandler” was someone who made or sold candles. Later on, the word was used more generally for a retailer of groceries and other goods, and eventually it came to mean a supplier specializing in grain or ships’ provisions.

That’s the short answer to your question. For the longer answer, we have go much further back and start with “candle,” one of the oldest words in the language.

“Candle” is interesting because of its great age. It’s as old as Christianity in England, making it one of the oldest Latin-derived words in English.

Candēla (from candēre, to glow or shine) is Latin for “candle” and the source of the English word.

“It probably arrived with Christianity at the end of the sixth century,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That would mean “candle” was in use during the 500s, a century before it was recorded in English writing.

Because of its association with the new religion, “candle” had an air of sanctity to the Anglo-Saxons.

As “one of the Latin words introduced at the English Conversion,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “long associated chiefly with religious observances.”

It first appeared in English writing in the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written somewhere in Southumbria during the last quarter of the 7th century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for a pair of snuffers into Old English: “Emunctoria, candelthuist.” (A candlethuist was a scissor-like device for snuffing, or extinguishing, candles.)

In Beowulf, which may have been composed as early as 725, the word appears in a passage referring to the sun as “roderes candel” (“candle of the firmament”).

The OED notes that other terms for the sun in Old English poetry included “dæg candel” (“candle of the day”), “heofon-candel” (“heaven’s candle”), “woruld-candel” (“candle of the world”), and “Godes candel” (“God’s candle”).

But “chandler,” the word for a candle maker or seller, was a much humbler term. It came into English hundreds of years later than “candle” and from a different source—which explains its “ch-” spelling.

First recorded in the late 14th century, “chandler” came from the Anglo-Norman chandeler, derived from the Old French chandelier, meaning a candlemaker or a candlestick. (Yes, the Old French term gave us our word “chandelier,” but not until the 18th century.)

The ultimate source of “chandler” was Late Latin—the terms candēlārius (candlemaker) and candēlāria (candlestick), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Sometimes the word was used in a compound (“wax-chandler,” “tallow-chandler”) to specify what the candles were made of, beeswax or tallow (animal fats).

Oxford‘s earliest example is in a passage, dated 1389, from ordinances of early English craft guilds: “Yei shul bene at ye Chaundelers by pryme of ye day.” (“You shall be at the chandlers by early morning.”)

However, the word was already in use as an occupational surname, “Shaundeler,” as early as 1332, Chambers says.

The wider sense of “chandler” as a dealer in groceries and other provisions came into use in the late 16th century. The OED’s earliest citation, a snatch of dialogue by an Elizabethan pamphleteer, amply illustrates the meaning:

“Theodorus: Be there any Chandlers there? … What do they sell for the most part? / Amphilogus: Almost all things, as namelie butter, cheese, fagots, pots, pannes, candles, and a thousand other trinkets besides.” (From Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses, Part II, 1583.)

As the OED notes, use of the term was “often somewhat contemptuous,” as in this line from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by “Boz” (1839): “The neighbours stigmatized him as a chandler.”

More to the point, “chandler” was also used in combination with another term to show a tradesman’s specialty. And this explains terms like “corn-chandler” (grain dealer) and “ship-chandler,” both dating from the 17th century.

Oxford defines a “ship-chandler” as “a dealer who supplies ships with necessary stores.” It’s a term that has survived into modern times.

The dictionary’s earliest example is an order by the House of Lords in 1642, authorizing inspectors to examine “what Quantities of Gunpowder is, or shall be, in the Hands of any Merchants, Ship-chandlers, Grocers, Societies, or Companies.” (We’ve expanded the quotation to provide context.)

Sometimes, when the “ship-” designation isn’t necessary, a maritime supplier is referred to simply as a “chandler.”

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Unconsciously? Subconsciously?

Q: I’ve just read Pearl Buck’s final novel, The Eternal Wonder, which was discovered dozens of years after her death and may have been a first draft. At one point, she describes a character who scarcely listens while “storing away unconsciously” the conversations around him. Do you think she meant—and would eventually have used—“subconsciously” instead of “unconsciously”?

A: Both “unconsciously” and “subconsciously” can describe doing something without being aware of it—the way Pearl Buck is using “unconsciously” in that paragraph in The Eternal Wonder:

“People were talking again, accustomed now to her presence, but he scarcely listened, except as he always listened, saying little himself but storing away unconsciously the sound of these voices, the changing expressions of their faces, their postures, their ways of eating, all details of life while though useless, it seemed, in themselves, he could not help accumulating because it was how he lived.”

So either word is fine as far as meaning, but would Buck have eventually changed “unconsciously” to “subconsciously”? Perhaps, if she had done a lot of tinkering with the manuscript. Then again, perhaps not.

The decision would probably have depended on rhythm. If she had ultimately broken up that long paragraph or replaced one of the pronouns with a noun, “subconsciously” might have sounded better to her ear than “unconsciously.”

However, it’s silly to pick apart a single paragraph of a work by a major writer. An “improvement” or two in one paragraph might weaken the work as a whole.

As for the etymology here, “unconsciously” is the older of the two adverbs, showing up in the early 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “in an unconscious manner; without conscious action, effort, thought, or awareness; unknowingly.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Death’s Vision, a 1709 poem by the Presbyterian minister John Reynolds about the relationship between philosophy and poetry:

“But Pardon that I thus / Unconsciously Accuse! / How much more Cruel have I been to Thee?”

“Subconsciously,” which appeared in the mid-19th century, means “in a subconscious manner; without conscious perception of control; (also) by means of the subconscious,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from The Logic of Political Economy, an 1844 treatise on economics by Thomas de Quincey:

“But there is still a final evasion likely to move subconsciously in the thoughts of a student, which it is better to … strengthen until it becomes generally visible.”

The two adverbs are derived from the earlier adjectives “unconscious” and “subconscious.”

When “unconscious” first showed up in the late 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “not having knowledge or awareness of a fact or circumstance; unaware, heedless; unwitting.”

The first Oxford citation is from an anonymous 1678 translation of De Mirabilibus Pecci, a Latin poem by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes about the wonders of the Peak District in Derbyshire:

“It moves in haste … it flies. / (Unconscious of its Fault which tortur’d cries).” We’ve gone to another source and expanded the citation to give it context.

When “subconscious” appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it meant “operating or existing (just) below the level of conscious perception” or “not clearly perceived” or “instinctive, unwitting.”

The earliest example in the OED is from an essay by De Quincey in the June 1834 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine:

“The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not … without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.”

Both words, “unconscious” and “subconscious,” showed up in 19th-century psychological terminology, first as nouns and then as adjectives.

The OED defines “the unconscious” used in the psychological sense as “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the consciousness; spec. an aspect of the mind containing material repressed from and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from 1818 lecture notes by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “As in every work of Art the Conscious, is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it … so is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.”

The OED defines “the subconscious” as “an aspect of the mind containing material not immediately available to the consciousness,” specifically “that containing material of which a person is not currently aware, but which can readily be brought back into the consciousness” or “that containing material repressed from, and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The first clearcut Oxford citation is from a July 1878 issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “We are at each successive moment elevating one impression or group of impressions after another into clear consciousness, while the rest fall back into the dim regions of the sub-conscious.”

“Although Freud used the term subconscious (Unterbewusstsein) in his early writings, he later rejected it in favour of the less ambiguous terms preconscious (Vorbewusstsein) and unconscious (Unbewusstsein),” the OED explains.

But in 1920, the dictionary notes, Freud replaced those terms “with his system of idego, and superego,” and “subconscious is not therefore used as a technical term in psychoanalysis.”

“In Psychology more generally subconscious is sometimes used as a synonym for preconscious, but the latter term is preferred in more precise or technical writing,” the OED adds.

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