The Grammarphobia Blog

The light and dark of language

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on the blog on Dec. 16, 2009.)

Q: I teach cultural anthropology at the City University of New York. Some of my students have asked when the negative association with the color black first arose, as in “black sheep” or “black day” or “Black Death.” In other words, why is “angel food cake” white and “devil’s food cake” black? HELP!

A: This is a tall order!

It’s easy enough to say when some of the phrases you mention came into English. But it’s harder to tackle the notion of blackness or darkness as negative. This idea predated English and probably predated written language.

The word “black” has been in English since the earliest days of the language. In Old English in the eighth century it was written as blaec or blec, a word that was often confused with blac (white or shining).

The two words were even pronounced similarly at times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Middle English (spoken roughly between 1100 and 1500), they were “often distinguishable only by the context, and sometimes not by that.”

The etymological history of “black” is difficult to trace, according to the OED, but it may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. We can only speculate here. A prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bhleg meant “burn.”

The oldest definition of “black” cited in the OED is the optical one: “the total absence of colour, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light.” This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in Beowulf in the 700s.

In the 1300s “black” was first used to mean soiled or stained with dirt, which the OED describes as a literal usage.

It wasn’t until the late 1580s that “black” was used figuratively to mean “having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister,” according to the OED.

The published usages include “black curse” (1583); “black name” and “black Prince” (1599, Shakespeare); “blacke edict” and “blacke victory” (1640); “black moment” (1713); “black enemy” (1758); and “black augury” (1821, Byron).

Around the same time, “black” took on other negative meanings, including horribly wicked or atrocious, as in “blacke soule” (1581); “blacke works” (1592); “blackest criminals” (1692); “blackest Calumnies” (1713); “black ingratitude” (1738, Macaulay); “the blackest dye” (1749, Fielding); and “black lie” (1839).

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, “black” also became identified with sorrow, melancholy, gloom, and dire predictions; a “black” outlook was pessimistic, whereas “bright” meant hopeful.

The word “blackguard” originally referred to dirtiness rather than to evildoing. It originated about 1535, and according to the OED it was first used first to refer to a scullery or kitchen worker, someone who had charge of pots and pans.

“Blackguard” was later used to describe a street urchin who worked as a shoe-black. In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote of “The little black-guard / Who gets very hard / His halfpence for cleaning your shoes.”

And a 1785 slang dictionary described a “black guard” as “a shabby dirty fellow; a term said to be derived from a number of dirty tattered and roguish boys, who attended at the horse guards … to black the boots and shoes of the soldiers, or to do any other dirty offices.”

Boys who picked up odd jobs in the streets were also called “blackguards,” and in 1736 the term was first used to mean a scoundrel.

“Blackmail,” first recorded in 1552, originally meant protection money.

The OED defines its first meaning as “tribute formerly exacted from farmers and small owners in the border counties of England and Scotland, and along the Highland border, by freebooting chiefs, in return for protection or immunity from plunder.”

In those days, “mail” meant rent or tribute (its ancestor, the Old English mal, meant payment extorted by threats). But we can’t find any explanation for the “black” in the term, aside from the term’s earlier sense of soiled or dirty.

The phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 1790s; according to legend, there was one in every flock.

The term “blacklisted” was recorded as far back as 1437. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the name indicated “edged with black.” The OED says the “black” in the term is from the negative sense of the word and means disgrace or censure.

However, the OED notes elsewhere that such a list was “often accompanied by some symbol actually black,” as in this 1840 citation from Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge: “Write Curzon down, Denounced. … Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.”

Similarly, a “black mark” (meaning a mark of censure) was originally “a black cross or other mark made against the name of a person who has incurred censure, penalty, etc.,” the OED says. The first published use is from a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845): “Won’t there be a black mark against you?”

As for the great plague of the 1300s, it wasn’t called the “Black Death” at the time. In the 14th century it was called “the pestilence,” “the plague,” “the great pestilence,” “the great death,” etc.

In English, the “black” wasn’t added until the early half of the 1800s, though it appeared in Swedish and Danish in the 1500s and in German in the 1700s.

The OED says it’s not known why the plague was called “black,” but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it was because the disease caused dark splotches on the victims’ skin.

We can’t find anything in standard etymologies about “devil’s food,” but it may get its name either from its original color (red), or from its heaviness and density as opposed to “angel food,” which is weightless and feathery. A website called The Straight Dope has a good entry on the subject.

The metaphors in question aren’t Western notions, either. From what we’ve been able to find out, they’ve been around since the beginning of time, when people first became aware of the division of their world into day and night, light and dark.

From the point of view of primitive people, day brought with it light, sun, warmth, and of course visibility. Night was colder and darker; it was threatening and fearful, full of unseen dangers and hidden threats.

This ancient opposition between day and night, light and dark, became a common motif in mythology. It’s unfortunate that dark-skinned people, merely by the accident of skin color, have become victims of the mythology.

We’ve found an article that might have some ideas for you to share with your students. In it, the psychiatrist Eric Berne explores the folklore of our conceptions of light and dark, black and white, good and evil, clean and dirty, and so on.

The article is “The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore,” published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 72, No. 283 (Jan.-Mar., 1959), pp. 1-13. You can get it through JSTOR, assuming CUNY subscribes to its digital archive. Skip the first page and go to the history, which begins on page 2.

Berne notes that the ideas of light=goodness and dark=badness existed in ancient cultures (including Egyptian and Greek), and can be found in Asia and around the globe.

Joseph Campbell, writing in the journal Daedalus in 1959, says it was the Persian philosopher Zoroaster (circa 600 BC) who put the seal on the concept of darkness being evil.

Zoroaster, Campbell writes, saw a “radical separation of light and darkness, together with his assignment to each of an ethical value, the light being pure and good, the darkness foul and evil.”

The Old and New Testaments are full of such dichotomies. In later Christian writings, the bright angel Lucifer transgresses and is thrown out of heaven (which is, of course, flooded with light), to become the dark lord of night.

In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that the flames of hell produce “No light, but rather darkness visible.”

For what it’s worth, we don’t believe that metaphors identifying lightness as positive and darkness as negative are inherently racist. They certainly didn’t begin that way, though these negative connotations have certainly fed into and reinforced racism over the centuries.

Your students may also be interested in a recent item on The Grammarphobia Blog about the word “nigger” and its evolution (for some African-Americans) into a positive term through a process that has been called semantic bleaching.

The blog entry cites a paper by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at CUNY. We’ll bet he could direct you to other sources of information about the mythology of blackness.

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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Breaking the ice

Q: How did “break the ice” come to mean get a conversation going? Does it have something to do with the ice cubes in a drink at a cocktail party?

A: No, this figurative use of the expression “break the ice” doesn’t have anything to do with scotch on the rocks or any other drink with ice cubes.

It ultimately comes from breaking ice to clear the way for a vessel to get through a frozen waterway. However, the figurative sense apparently showed up in English more than a century before the expression was used literally.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “break the ice” is an Anglicized version of the medieval Latin expression scindere glaciem, which Erasmus added in 1528 to his Adagia, Greek and Latin adages that he collected from 1500 to his death in 1538.

Erasmus, writing in Latin, says the figurative meaning of scindere glaciem is “to open the way and be the first to carry out a task.” He says this sense is derived from sending a crewman of a boat ahead to break up the ice and open the way on a frozen river.

In The Adages of Erasmus (2001), William Barker says the figurative sense in medieval Latin cited by Erasmus isn’t found in classical Latin literature.

Barker notes that Erasmus attributed the figurative usage to the 15th-century Italian humanist Franceso Filelfo, who used glaciem fregi (“I have broken the ice”) in his  Epistolae.

When the expression first showed up in English, according to the OED, it meant to “make a beginning in an undertaking or enterprise, esp. in the face of difficulty or resistance.”

The earliest Oxford example is in a 16th-century passage about John Fisher, a Roman Catholic bishop and theologian executed by Henry VIII:

“This reuerend father … chaunced … to be one of the first that brake the yse, and [showed] … the inconvenience that followed [the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon].”

(The passage, which the OED tentatively dates at 1553-77, is cited in The Life of Fisher, a 1921 biography by Richard Hall and the Rev. Ronald Bayne.)

The dictionary’s next example, which uses the expression to mean “to prepare the way for others,” is from A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Last Willes (1590), by Henry Swinburne:

“The authour therefore in aduenturing to breake the yse to make the passage easie for his countrymen, failing sometimes of the fourd [ford or crossing], and falling into the pit, may seeme worthie to be pitied.”

The first literal example in the OED is from a 1710 article in the Tatler by Richard Steele: “The Ice being broke, the Sound is again open for the Ships.” (Steele, who founded the magazine with Joseph Addison, wrote under the pen name “Isaac Bickerstaff Esquire.”)

The use of the sense you’re asking about is defined in the dictionary as to “break through cold reserve or stiffness, esp. facilitating conversation or social ease.”

The first example in the OED is from the English writer Samuel Jackson Pratt’s Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia (1795):

“Notwithstanding … there is an air of distance, reserve, and even coldness, they are all … replete with an anxious desire to break the ice.”

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Drones, bees and otherwise

Q: I would have thought that the word “drone” in reference to a remote-controlled plane was a recent neologism. However, I found “droneplane” in a New York Times crossword puzzle from 1953 as an answer to the clue “Remote-controlled aircraft.” How long has “drone” actually been used for an unmanned aircraft?

A: The word “drone” has a long history, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, but its use for a remote-controlled aircraft is relatively new, not showing up in print until the mid-1940s.

When the word appeared in Old English (spelled dran or dræn), it referred to a male bee whose primary role is to impregnate a fertile queen bee.

The earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 1000: “Fucus, dran.” (Fucus is Latin for a drone bee.)

In Middle English, the noun “drone” took on the figurative sense of a “non-worker; a lazy idler, a sluggard,” according to the OED. (In apian terminology, a “worker bee” is a usually sterile female that industriously collects pollen for the hive.)

The first OED citation for the figurative usage is from “Against the Scottes,” a poem by John Skelton written sometime before 1529 about the English victory over Scottish forces at Flodden Field in 1513: “The rude rank Scottes, lyke dronken dranes.”

A few decades later, the noun “drone” took on the sense of a “continued deep monotonous sound of humming or buzzing, as that of the bass of the bagpipe, the humming of a fly, or the like.”

None of the OED citations specifically mention the sound of bees, though a 1751 comment by Samuel Johnson in the Rambler refers to insects “that torment us with their drones or their stings.”

The earliest example in the dictionary for the sense of “drone” you’re asking about is from a 1946 newspaper article cited in the journal American Speech.

Here’s the original newspaper version, which is abbreviated in the OED: “The navy’s Drones will be sent into the cloud by one mother ship, then taken over by other ships and led by radio control, of course to a landing field at Roi.”

Why did the navy choose the word “drone” for an unmanned aircraft?

As the military historian Steven J. Zaloga explains in a letter published in a May 2013 issue of the journal Defense News, the usage was inspired by the British use of the term “Queen Bee” for a remotely controlled aircraft used in gunnery practice:

Drone is one of the oldest official designations for remotely controlled aircraft in the American military lexicon. In 1935, when the chief of naval operations,  Adm. William Standley, visited Britain, he was given a demonstration of the Royal Navy’s new DH 82B Queen Bee remotely controlled aircraft that was used for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. On his return, Standley assigned an officer, Cmdr. Delmer Fahrney at the Radion Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, to develop a similar system for US Navy gunnery training. Fahrney adopted the name drone to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee. Drone became the official US Navy designation for target drones for many decades.”

It seems to us that “drone” is more apt than “Queen Bee” for a remote-controlled vehicle. The linguist Ben Zimmer agrees.

In an article in the July 26, 2013, issue of the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer says: “The term fit, as a drone could only function when controlled by an operator on the ground or in a ‘mother’ plane.”

“During World War II,” he adds, “the Army and Navy stepped up production of ‘target drones’ for practice and ‘assault drones’ for combat. One pioneer in the field was the British actor Reginald Denny, whose model-plane hobby led him to found the Radioplane Company.”

The Army’s version of Denny’s creation was called the OQ-2, according to Zimmer, while the Navy’s version was “the TDD-1, short for ‘Target Drone Denny 1.’ ”

Some etymologists have speculated that the verb “drone” may have played a role in the use of the noun “drone” for an unmanned aircraft, perhaps because of the droning sound of fixed-wing planes. However, we haven’t found any evidence to support this.

When the verb showed up in the early 16th century, it meant to make a monotonous buzzing or humming sound as well as to act in a sluggish or lazy way.

The OED cites several quotations dating back to the early 1500s that suggest these two usages. We don’t want to put you to sleep, so we’ll end with a single examples, from “Of Discretioun in Asking,” a 1513 poem by the Scottish bard William Dunbar:

“And he that dronis ay as ane bee / Sowld haif [should have] ane heirar [hearer] dull as stane [stone].”

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Does a doorway need a door?

Q: I have always used the word “doorway” to describe the opening where a door might be located, whether or not there is a door. For example, a door-less passageway between rooms. Is this correct or should another term be used?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and most of them define “doorway” as an opening with a door. However, several accept a door-less “doorway.” In fact, the two dictionaries we use the most differ on this.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it as “the opening that a door closes; esp. an entrance into a building or room.” However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t mention a door in its definition: “The entranceway to a room, building, or passage.”

Several dictionaries also include a figurative sense of “doorway” as an opportunity for success or a means of access or escape. Oxford Dictionaries online offers “the doorway to success” as an example, while the Collins English Dictionary offers “a doorway to freedom.”

Is it correct, you ask, to use “doorway” for an opening that could have a door but doesn’t? With standard dictionaries divided on the issue, it’s your call.

We see nothing wrong with this casual use of “doorway” for a door-less opening between rooms. But in formal English it might be better to use a word like “entry,” “entrance,” “opening,” “entranceway,” or “exit” for such a passageway.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “doorway” as the “opening or passage which a door serves to close or open; the space in a wall occupied by a door and its adjuncts; a portal.”

The earliest example for the usage in the OED is from “The Ruined Cottage,” a 1799 poem by Robert Southey: “I remember her / Sitting at evening in that open door-way / And spinning in the sun.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

As you would imagine, the word “door” is much older, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it was written duru in Old English.

The oldest example in the OED is from Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s: “Duru sona onarn fyrbendum fæst” (“The door, fastened with fire-forged bonds, swung open at once”).

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How French is “Des Moines”?

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the city of Des Moines got its name from a Native American word for a path. I always thought the French named it for the monks, or moines, in the area.

A: No, the monk story is a popular myth, or as historians call it, “a spurious etymology.” It’s true that moine means “monk” in French, but that wasn’t the source of the name.

The city was named for the Des Moines River, which was indeed named by French explorers. However, they got the name in the 1600s from a Native American term that sounded to them like “Moingona,” and which they eventually shortened to “Moin,” historians say.

In the indigenous Miami-Illinois language, moingona meant a road or a portage (a path for carrying a boat and supplies between waterways).

The word referred specifically to a path that a local tribe of the Illinois nation (also called the Moingona) used to circumvent rapids on the river near where it joins the Mississippi at the southeastern corner of Iowa.

As the city’s official website notes, opinions about the origin of the name have varied over the years.

But “the consensus seems to be that Des Moines is a variation of Moingona, Moingonan, Moingoun, Mohingona, or Moningounas, as shown on early maps.”

(We’ve also seen the spelling “Mou-in-gou-e-na,” apparently an attempt to reproduce the original native pronunciation.)

In the 1670s, two French explorers, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, were the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River Valley, and hence the first to set foot in what is now Iowa.

They encountered the Moingona people near a large tributary on the west bank of the Mississippi, and later French explorers adapted the name of the tribe, shortening it to Moin, and named the tributary des Moins (“of the Moins”), according to historical accounts.

A 1681 French map, based on the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, shows a Moingona village, marked as Moingwena, along a river that runs into the Mississippi. And later French maps and journals, from the early 1680s to the 1780s, refer to this tributary as Rivière Des Moingona, le Moingona R, r des Moingona, Moin, and River des Moins.

English speakers used the name as well. In the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the name is recorded as “the river Demoin” (1804), and in the journals of the English explorer Thomas Nuttall it’s “the river des Moins, or Moingona” (1819).

An article entitled “The French Impress on Place Names in the Mississippi Valley,” by John Francis McDermott, published in August 1979 in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, remarks on the ”constant habit of abbreviation” by the French.

“No monks ever had anything to do with the Des Moines River in the present state of Iowa,” McDermott writes. “The Moingona tribe of Indians lived there and the French merely cut their name down to Moin; traders went to le pays des Moins.” (That is, “the land of the Moins.”)

The historian Virgil J. Vogel has much the same explanation in his book Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin (1983). He quotes from an early 19th-century account of the meeting of Marquette, Joliet, and the Moingona people:

“The travellers, having halted within hailing distance, were met by the Indians, who offered them their hospitalities, and represented themselves as belonging to the Illinois nation. The name which they gave to their settlement was Mouin-gouinas (or Moingona, as laid down in the ancient maps of the country), and is a corruption of the Algonkin word Mikonang, signifying at the road; the Indians, by their customary elliptical manner of designating localities, alluding, in this instance, to the well-known road in this section of country, which they used to follow as a communication between the head of the lower rapids and their settlement on the river that empties itself into the Mississippi, so as to avoid the rapids.”

Later on, the account continues, the French “adopted this name; but with their custom (to this day, that of the Creoles) of only pronouncing the first syllable, and applying it to the river, as well as to the Indians who dwelt upon it; so that they would say ‘la rivière des Moins’—‘the river of the Moins’; ‘aller chez les Moins’—to go to the Moins (people).”

So how did “Moines” get its “e”? The account explains that later inhabitants came to believe that the word was derived from the French term for “monks” (moines), assuming incorrectly that monks must have lived in the area.

All this preceded the existence of the city, of course. In 1843, a military post was established in central Iowa where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers intersect. The post was named Fort Des Moines. The city that grew up on the site was named “Fort Des Moines” when incorporated in 1851, and shortened to “Des Moines” six years later.

Not long after, an unincorporated town about 40 miles upstream on the Des Moines River was named Moingona, and to this day it bears the original Indian name.

Here’s another interesting aside. The original proposal was to name the military post “Fort Raccoon,” a choice that was rejected by higher-ups in the army.

The War Department, in the person of Gen. Winfield Scott, declared that “Fort Raccoon” was not a dignified name for a fort. Instead, it was named “Fort Des Moines.”

So if it hadn’t been for General Scott, the state capital would probably be known as “Raccoon.”

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When “old chestnut” was new

Q: You’ve used the expression “old chestnut” on your blog, but you’ve never explained its origin. Where does it come from?

A: There’s no definite answer here, but all the evidence points to an origin in 19th-century show business.

Before going on, we should mention that the word “chestnut” was spelled “chesnut” for much of its life, but we’ll use the modern spelling except when quoting an early source.

Since the 1800s, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “chestnut” has been used figuratively to mean “a story that has been told before, a ‘venerable’ joke.”

In extended use, the dictionary says, a “chestnut” means “anything trite, stale, or too often repeated.” The adjective “old” was added along the way for emphasis.

But what’s the literal connection? Did the stale old “chestnut” originally refer to the tree, to the nut, or perhaps to a chestnut-colored horse?

The OED’s formal answer: “origin unknown.” However, the dictionary offers a possible explanation.

The usage may have been inspired by an early 19th-century melodrama, William Dimond’s The Broken Sword, which includes a scene featuring a chestnut tree.

The comic relief in the play, first performed in London in 1816, is provided by Captain Zavior, a character who monotonously retells his old exploits, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering servant Pablo, who knows them by heart.

Here’s the scene involving the chestnut tree (we’ll expand the OED’s citation):

Zavior: Let me see—aye! it is exactly six years since, that peace being restored to Spain … I mounted a mule at Barcelona, and trotted away for my native mountains. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree—

Pablo: (Jumping up.) A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut.

Zavior: Bah! you booby, I say, a cork.

Pablo: And I swear, a chesnut—Captain! this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.

Zavior: Did I? Well, a chesnut be it then. But, take your seat again.

Pablo: Willingly—Only out with the cork, and I’m your man for sitting.

Zavior: Well then—from the thick boughs of a chesnut, suddenly slipped down a little boy, who cast himself on his knees in the path before me. … I dismounted, fasten’d my mule to the—the—

Pablo. (Eagerly.) Chesnut.

Zavior. Well, well, the tree that stood next me.

The play, forgotten now, was very popular in its day. It got rave reviews, had long runs in London and New York, and was a favorite with touring theatrical companies.

So it’s “plausible,” as the OED puts it, that “chestnut” became show-biz slang for a worn-out story and, by extension, anything trite, stale, or too often repeated.

Unfortunately, the dictionary’s first citation for the figurative use of “chestnut” doesn’t appear until many decades later—1880.

But we’ve found what might be an early figurative use—a pun from 1826 playing off the “chestnut” that’s a joke against the “chestnut” that’s a horse.

Here’s the passage, from Charles Dibdin’s comic poem “My Kingdom for a Horse.” He italicizes words for horse colors that have other meanings:

“No critic can carp at the bays,
Though jokes on each chestnut he cracks,
And, should he look blue at the grays,
Molineaux will stand up for the blacks.”

(From Universal Songster: Or, Museum of Mirth, London, 1826. Tom Molineaux was an African-American prizefighter who toured professionally in Britain in the early 1800s.)

And we’ve come across an anecdote, supposedly from 1867, that was reported in a California newspaper, the Daily Alta, in its issue of April 27, 1885:

“Hanley, Harrigan & Hart’s old theatrical manager … says that the term originated eighteen years ago. He alleges: ‘In 1867 I was traveling through New York, putting an old play called ‘The Broken Sword’ on the stage with Marietta Ravel as leading lady.’ ”

Here the manager summarizes the comic chestnut-tree routine from 1816, with Captain Zavior and Pablo, that we quoted above. He then continues:

“ ‘After the performance in Rochester, P. Connelly, dead now, was in one of the dressing-rooms with others of the company, and he started to get off a funny story. Everybody interrupted with shouts of ‘Chestnut!’ It clung to the company all season, and, of course, was soon caught by the profession.’ ”

The OED’s earliest example for “chestnut” in the sense of something that’s repeated too often is from a May 27, 1880, American diary entry that also has a theatrical connection:

“When he said that the song was ‘Nancy Lee’ we girls nearly fainted! … Really, I thought we should choke with laughter and dismay. Think of doing that awful old ‘Nancy Lee’—such a chestnut!—in a romantic Portuguese opera, and following it up with that hoppy, romping dance!” (From Diary of a Daly Débutante, first published in 1910 and written by Dora Knowlton Ranous, an actress in Augustine Daly’s theatrical company.)

And this 1889 example nicely meshes with the 1867 anecdote above. In Reminiscences of J. L. Toole (1888), by Joseph Hatton, the American actor Joseph Jefferson is quoted on the origin of “chestnut.”

After repeating the relevant lines from The Broken Sword, Jefferson continues:

“William Warren, who had often played the part of Pablo, was at a stage-dinner a few years ago, when one of the gentlemen present told a story of doubtful age and originality. ‘A chestnut,’ murmured Mr. Warren, quoting from the play, ‘I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.’ The application of the lines pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary.”

From 1880 onward, the OED has citations for this figurative “chestnut”—and the more emphatic “old chestnut” (from 1886)—extending into the late 20th century. The expression has been used for everything from an old repertory piece to a stale idea for advertising copy.

Given the popularity of that old melodrama, it’s reasonable to suggest that the usage began among actors and spread into general usage.

However, another expression involving chestnuts was in the air when William Dimond’s play came along, and it might have given the figurative “chestnut” usage a boost.

This older expression, very popular in its day, was a catch phrase to the effect that a “horse chestnut” is not the same as a “chestnut horse.”

We’ve found scores of published examples, the earliest from an entry in the journal of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall in reference to the 1808 session of the House of Commons. (The entry was included in his memoirs, published posthumously in 1836.)

Here’s the journal entry, from a passage largely devoted to parliamentary business:

“Mr. Matthew Montagu seconded the address to the throne. It was of him that General Montagu Mathew, brother to the Earl of Landaff, said in the last house of commons (upon some mistakes arising relative to their identity, produced by the similarity of their appellations), ‘I wish it to be understood that there is no more likeness between Montagu Mathew and Matthew Montagu, than between a chesnut horse and a horse chesnut.’ ”

When the story was picked up by a Philadelphia literary digest in 1809, it was embellished a little:

“There are two members in the house of commons, named Montagu Mathew, and Mathew Montagu; the former a tall handsome man; and the latter a little man. During the present session of parliament, the speaker, having addressed the latter as the former, Montagu Mathew observed, it was strange he should make such a mistake, as there was as great a difference between them as between a horse chesnut and a chesnut horse.” (From Select Review, and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines.)

That same parliamentary anecdote inspired a humorous poem that ran in the November 1808 issue of The Sporting Magazine, London.

The anonymous poem, “A Chapter on Logic: Or, the Horse Chesnut, and the Chesnut Horse,” was described by the editors as “occasioned by” the incident in the House of Commons.

It’s too long to quote here, but we’ll give you the gist. A young “Eton stripling” who’s a student of logic is invited to spend a fortnight at the estate of his uncle, who is something of a practical joker.

Sir Peter, promising to give his nephew a “chesnut horse,” leads him to a tree, shakes from its branches “a fine horse-chesnut,” hands it to the youth and says, “saddle it and ride.” By the rules of logic, he tells the boy, “a horse-chesnut is a chesnut horse!”

The poem became a popular recitation piece, remaining in print through most of the 19th century.

But apart from its humorous use, the motif of the horse chestnut versus the chestnut horse cropped up frequently in serious 19th-century British and American writing as a rhetorical device for contrasting and comparing. Here’s an example:

“No two things in nature, not a horse-chestnut and a chestnut-horse, could be more different.” (From Maria Edgworth’s novel Harrington and Ormond, 1841.)

As for the etymology of “chestnut,” the word for the tree in Old English, cistenbeam or cystbeam, was derived from Germanic sources.

But the term evolved in Middle English under the influence of Middle French. The Gallic word for the tree (chastaigne) gave Middle English a word spelled various ways, including chesteine, chasteine, and chesten.

In 1519, according to the OED, the term “chesten nut” showed up, meaning the nut itself. Later in the 1500s the word “chesnut” appeared in reference to both the tree and the nut.

As the dictionary explains, “Chesten-nut was soon reduced to chestenut, chestnut, and chesnut: the last was the predominant form (82 per cent. of instances examined) from 1570 to c1820.”

The “chestnut” spelling, which was adopted by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary of 1755, “prevails in current use,” according to the OED.

Current standard dictionaries no longer include the old “chesnut” spelling.

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Is red beautiful?

Q: I’m curious about the history of “red” in various languages. In Russia, Red Square was so named because “red” used to mean beautiful. In Spain, Alhambra means “the red one.” Is it also “the beautiful one”? And did “red” ever mean beautiful in English?

A: When the square near the Kremlin in Moscow was named Krasnaya Ploshchad in the 17th century, the Russian meant “Beautiful Square.”

At that time, the adjective krasny (the feminine is krasnaya) could mean either “red” or “beautiful.” Now it just means the color, except in a few old idiomatic expressions, such as krasnaya devitsa (beautiful girl).

So why did the Russian word for “red” once mean “beautiful”? Probably because the Russian for “beautiful” (krasivy) and the Russian for “red” (krasny) are ultimately derived from the same root in reconstructed prehistoric Proto-Slavic.

Interestingly, the Russian square was often referred to as “Beautiful Square” in English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital databases.

But in the late 19th century, well before the Russian Revolution in 1917, “Red Square” became the usual name for it in English.

The earliest example we’ve seen of “beautiful square” is from Characteristic Anecdotes From the History of Russia, Bernard Lambert’s 1805 translation of a work in French by Heinrich Friedrich C. Clausen.

The translation lower-cases “beautiful square,” but it clearly refers to the square near the Kremlin in Moscow:

“The ancient Russians had a custom of assembling daily, in the beautiful square, at Moscow, from a certain hour in the morning until dinner time, to meet their friends and acquaintances.”

An asterisk after “beautiful square” refers the reader to a note that says “Krasnaja Plosehad before the Kreml.” (We’ve used an ordinary “s” in place of the long “s” that appears in “square” and several other words in the original text.)

In Travels in European Russia, an anonymous 1826 work, the phrase is capitalized: “One of the most striking objects in it is ‘the Beautiful Square,’ 1260 feet long, and in its greatest breath [sic] 434 feet.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “Red Square” is from an article, entitled “Russia,” in the October 1816 issue of The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, citing a report in the St. Petersburg Gazette:

“On the 28th August, the Emperor reviewed troops in the Red Square at Moscow.”

However, most of the early examples we’ve seen use “Beautiful Square,” not “Red Square,” though we’ve found a few from the 19th century that include both “red” and “beautiful” in reference to the square.

Here’s an example with both adjectives, from Russian Pictures Drawn With Pen and Pencil (1889), by Thomas Michell:

“We are now in the great Red (or beautiful) Square, where we are at once struck by the eccentric appearance of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Beatified.”

As for Alhambra, the palace in Granada, the name is derived from the Arabic phrase Al Hamra (“the red one”). The reference is probably to the red clay used to make the building, not to its beauty, according to etymologists who’ve studied the issue.

When the adjective “red” showed up in early Old English as read, it referred to “shades of purple, pink, and orange, which are now distinguished by these distinct colour terms,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, adding, “The term is now applied to shades that vary from bright scarlet or crimson to reddish yellow or brown.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Epinal Glossary, a Latin-Old English glossary dating from as far back as the 600s: “Flauum uel fulfum, read.” (The Latin here refers to golden or reddish yellow.)

The next OED citation is from the Corpus Glossary, which is believed to date from the 700s: “Ruber, read.” (The Latin here refers to red and shades of orange.)

The word “red” in its various spellings (read, rad, rade, ræden, reedde, etc.) has usually referred to color. However, the word has had many other senses over the years, such as angry (as in a “red rage”), superior (as in “red blooded”), Communist (as in “red peril”), and so on.

Has it ever, you ask, meant beautiful in English? Not as far as we can tell.

By the way, we’ve written often on our blog about colors, including a post in 2014 about why some colors are more popular than others in surnames, an item in 2015 about the off-color history of green, and a post in 2011 about which came first, the color orange or the orange that’s eaten.

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Getting to the bottom of pants

Q: I was watching the BBC show Blandings when the Earl was discomforted by an American’s use of “pants,” until it was explained that the reference was to trousers, not underpants. Is the meaning of “pants” still different in the US and the UK? If so, when did it diverge?

A: Yes, “pants” is one of those words that distinguish American from British usage. The usual meaning is “underpants” in the UK and “trousers” in the US. However, a secondary meaning in the US is “underpants.”

The word first appeared in the US in the early 1800s as a clipped version of “pantaloons,” close-fitting men’s breeches common in the 19th century.

The longer term, which showed up in its trousers sense in the 17th century, is ultimately derived from Pantalone, a silly old man in Italian commedia dell’arte whose thin legs were encased in long tight trousers, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest example for “pants” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger: “In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

In American English, according to the OED, “pants” originally referred to men’s trousers, but in the 20th century the term “extended to include those worn by both men and women.”

In the late 1800s, “pants” showed up in British usage as “underpants.” Ayto suggests that this meaning was “perhaps influenced by pantalets, a 19th-century diminutive denoting ‘women’s long frilly drawers.’ ”

The earliest OED example for the underwear sense of the word is from the Nov. 8, 1880, issue of the Daily News in London: “Pants and shirts sell rather freely, and jerseys are still in request.”

The OED‘s latest citation is from a 1999 issue of Watt’s On, the student newspaper at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland: “The University seems to be asking us to choose between wearing no underwear … and wearing damp pants.”

While the OED says this is “chiefly” a British usage, it does occur in American English, as we mentioned. Many standard dictionaries in the US recognize “underpants” as a secondary sense. And Pat recalls that “pants” meant underwear as well as trousers when she was growing up in Iowa.

The American novelist Thomas Sterling uses the word both ways in his thriller The House Without a Door (1950), as seen in these two examples:

(1) “She chose her blue underwear, trimmed with sand-colored lace, which she had ordered from an advertisement. She laid the pants and brassière on her bed and placed a plain blue slip beside them.”

(2) “He walked down the stairs, struggling for change in his pants pocket.”

The OED says “pants” also has the slang sense of “nonsense” in British English, especially in the expressions “a pile of pants” and “a load of pants.”

The first citation for the slang usage is from the Sept. 22, 1994, issue of the Guardian: “It’s all a bit embarrassing because Mayo (catchphrase: ‘It’s a pile of pants!’) fails to recognise her at first.”

The word “pants” is used colloquially in various other expressions. Here are some cited in the OED and the dates of their earliest examples:

to wear (also put on) the pants: to be the dominant member of a household, relationship, partnership, etc.,” 1898.

to be caught with one’s pants down: to be surprised in an embarrassing situation; to be caught off guard,” 1922.

to beat (also bore, scare, etc.) the pants off (a person): to beat (bore, scare, etc.) completely, utterly, or beyond the point of endurance,” 1925.

to keep one’s pants on: to keep calm,” 1928.

to get into someone’s pants: to have sexual intercourse with (a person),” 1937

by the seat of one’s pants: by instinct and experience rather than logic, expert knowledge, or technical aid,” 1938.

In case you’re interested, we ran a post in 2015 on the use of “pant” for “pants” in the fashion world, and a post in 2012 on why some items of clothing are singular and some plural.

As for Blandings, we haven’t watched the BBC series. But we’re big fans of P. G. Wodehouse’s novels and stories, so we’re familiar with Lord Emsworth, the Empress (his prize pig), and the other residents of Blandings Castle.

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Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!

Q: I came across “nuncheon” in my paperback of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It apparently refers to a meal of some sort, and I wonder if it’s a misprint for “luncheon.”

A: No, “nuncheon” is an actual word—an archaic term that’s heard now only in regional dialects in England. It refers to a between-meals snack, not a regular meal like “luncheon.”

The word, spelled “noonschench” when it showed up in the Middle Ages, began as a compound of elements meaning “noon” and “drink.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nuncheon” as “a drink taken in the afternoon; a light refreshment between meals; a snack.”

While it seems to have meant a drink early on, in later citations it clearly meant a snack, taken in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval account book of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. A Latin entry, dated circa 1260-75, includes the Middle English “noonschench.”

For centuries, as OED citations show, it was spelled many different ways: “nonesenches,” “nunseynches,” “nunchions,” “noonshun,” “noonchin,” “nunchun,” and others. The spelling with the “-eon” ending was likely influenced by the old words “puncheon” and “truncheon,” Oxford says.

Jane Austen spelled it “noon-chine” in her novel Sense and Sensibility (1811): “I left London this morning at eight o’clock, and the only ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time, procured me a noon-chine at Marlborough.”

However, editions of Sense and Sensibility published since Austen’s death in 1817 usually spell the word either “nuncheon” or “nunchion.”

Robert Browning spelled it “nuncheon” in his poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842): “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, / Breakfast, dinner, supper, luncheon!”

And the OED has this example from A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Wiltshire (1893), by George Edward Dartnell and Edward Hungerford Goddard:

“About Salisbury Nuncheon is between 10 and 10.30 a.m., and again at 4 p.m., and is a very small meal.”

Why did the word fall out of everyday use? Our guess is that it was no longer needed, or that the British replaced it with other words—like “elevenses” for the mid-morning break and “tea” for the mid-afternoon.

As for “luncheon,” it didn’t start out as the name of a meal.

In the late 16th century, when both “luncheon” and “lunch” were first recorded, they meant a piece, hunk, or lump, as of bread or cheese or meat. In fact, the OED suggests, “lump” may be their etymological source.

While the longer form was recorded earlier—“luncheon” in 1580 and “lunch” in 1591—it’s not certain what their exact relationship was. Perhaps “lunch” was a clipped form of “luncheon.” Or perhaps “luncheon” was an extended form of “lunch.”

At any rate, in the mid-1600s “luncheon” became the name of a meal, originally “a slight repast taken between two of the ordinary meal-times, esp. between breakfast and mid-day dinner,” the OED says.

But in the meantime, “lunch” continued to mean a hunk or lump (usually of food). It wasn’t until the 1820s that “lunch” became a synonym for the “luncheon” meal, and it is now the dominant term.

Today, as the OED says, “with those who ‘dine’ in the evening, luncheon denotes a meal (understood to be less substantial and less ceremonious than dinner) taken usually in the early afternoon.”

The word is now “somewhat formal,” the dictionary adds, so “lunch” is “the usual word exc. in specially formal use.”

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Pay her a call? Or call her up?

Q: How did “call” evolve from a visit in person (“call on her”) to a visit by telephone (“call her up”)?

A: The use of “call” in telephone terminology developed from the age-old sense of a shout or a loud cry, not from the sense of a social visit.

In the 1870s, when first used in reference to telephones, a “call” meant the noise made by a telephone demanding to be answered, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And this sense of “call,” the OED says, was descended from the earliest meaning of the noun back in the 1300s: “a cry, shout, or other sound.”

In the telephone sense of the word, a “call” was originally defined as “an audible signal indicating that a person is trying to contact another by telephone,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1878 issue of the journal Design and Work, describing an apparatus “to enable the sound of the voice while singing to be heard all over a room, and which I use as a ‘call,’ instead of an electric bell.”

And this example is from 1879: “It being necessary to keep the vibratory bells at each station in circuits, in order that the calls may be heard.” (From George B. Prescott’s book The Speaking Telephone, Electric Light, and Other Recent Electrical Inventions.)

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the OED says, the notion that a “call” meant the sound of a ringing phone was “weakened or lost,” and a “call” came to mean a phone conversation or an attempt to reach someone by phone.

The dictionary has this example from the Jan. 11, 1929, issue of the Morning Post in London: “The charge for a three-minute call between London and Warsaw will be 15s. 3d.”

Meanwhile, the verb “call” in its telephone sense has always been used much as we use it today. Oxford’s earliest definition still applies:

“To contact or attempt to contact (a person, organization, building, etc.) by telephone; to connect with (a number) in this way; to phone.”

The dictionary’s earliest examples are from the 1870s. In this one, the verb is used transitively (that is, with a direct object):

“Pressure on the sending push serves to call the corresponding station.” (From an 1879 translation of Théodose Du Moncel’s book The Telephone, the Microphone, and the Phonograph.)

And here it’s used intransitively (without an object): “We run a branch line from the line of the station calling, to a suitable terminal, x.” (From M. Daniel Connolly’s 1879 US Patent #222458, for a telephone exchange system.)

The original verb “call,” from which the noun is derived, dates back to Old English and is probably inherited from Scandinavian languages, the OED says.

The verb first meant to cry out loudly and forcibly. The 19th-century use of the verb in relation to the telephone is derived from “senses in which summoning, invoking, or requesting is the primary meaning,” according to Oxford.

So ultimately, to “call me” by phone is to summon me. It’s notable that “ring me,” a similar use of a noisy word in reference to telephoning, means the same.

Now on to the other use of “call” that you mention—the noun and verb referring to a brief visit. Interestingly, they’re also probably derived from that original sense of a shout or loud cry.

Originally, the use of “call” in the sense of “to make a visit to a house or premises” probably included “the notion of calling aloud at a person’s door to make one’s presence known,” the OED says.

In early use, the dictionary adds, to “call” was sometimes “limited in reference to speaking to a person who answers a call, knock, ring, etc., without entering the premises (the notion of entering being originally encompassed by to call in).”

The earliest written uses of “call” in this sense are from Shakespeare: “To day as I came by I called there” (Richard II, 1597) … “You are to cal at all the alehouses” (Much Ado About Nothing, 1600).

The noun use came later, in the mid-1600s, the OED says, when a “call” came to mean “a short social or formal visit,” and “to pay a call” meant “to make a brief visit.”

The dictionary’s earliest example was published in 1648 in Mercurius Aulicus, a Royalist newspaper published in Oxford: “I’le pay your tooth-less pipkin, you wizzend-chapt a call; and teach your leather eares prick-song.”

This more demure example is from Ann Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey (1847): “Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls.”

The characters in old novels always seem to be making, or paying, or receiving “calls.” This use of “call” is still with us, as in the OED’s more modern examples. Here’s a selection:

“When a major underworld figure dies, FBI agents pay a call at the national headquarters of the Florists’ Transworld Delivery Association.” (Nation’s Business, March 1974.)

“What is it you want, Fan? I don’t suppose this is a social call.” (From Eileen Dunlop’s novel The Maze Stone, 1982.)

“South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered dictator.” (New York Review of Books, June 2008.)

The verb we use along with the noun “call” makes a big difference. “Give me a call” means a phone call, but “Pay me a call” means an in-person visit.

[Update, Dec. 28, 2016. A reader reminds us of an episode of The Honeymooners in which two meanings of “call” were used to comic effect:

“Alice: I won’t be long, Killer.  I call you ‘Killer’ ’cause you slay me.

“Ralph: And I’m calling Bellevue ’cause you’re nuts!”]

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Does your sweetheart stink?

Q: I remember reading a book by Wilfred Funk that says the verb “stink” was once a compliment. That has got me into some trouble of late. Could you please clear this up for me?

A: In Six Weeks to Words of Power (1955), the lexicographer and publisher Wilfred J. Funk writes: “In the days of long ago the phrase that rose stinks meant that its odor was pleasant. You stink was a compliment.”

That’s right, more or less. For a few hundred years in Anglo-Saxon times, the verb meant simply to give off an odor. The odor could be pleasant, disgusting, or something in between.

That old sense is now obsolete, and it would be considered offensive today to tell someone—your sweetheart, for example—that she stinks.

When the verb showed up in Old English in the early 700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “to emit a smell or vapour of any kind; to smell (sweetly or otherwise).”

The earliest OED example for this sense—from an Anglo-Saxon glossary dated at around 725—translates flagrans, Latin for “smelling” or “sweet smelling,” as stincendi, Old English for “stinking.”

The dictionary’s next example is from a grammar written around 1000 by the Benedictine scholar and abbot Ælfric of Eynsham: “Ic stince swote” (“I stink sweetly”). This is the only example in the OED for “stink” used in a positive sense to refer to a person.

A third citation is from the Ormulum, a biblical commentary by the medieval monk Orm: “To strawwenn gode gresess þaer Þatt stunnkenn swiþe swete” (“To strew good grasses there that stink very sweetly”). A question mark in front of the citation suggests that the OED may be uncertain about the date. The dictionary dates it at around 1200, while some scholars believe it was written as early as the mid-1100s.

As Ælfric was finishing his grammar, which was used to teach Latin to Old English speakers at the turn of the 11th century, the verb “stink” began losing its pleasant or neutral senses. By the late Old English or early Middle English periods, only the negative sense of “stink” seems to have survived.

Used negatively, according to the OED, the verb “stink” meant “to emit a strong offensive smell; to smell foully.” The dictionary’s first citation is from Old English Leechdoms, a medical work dated at around 1000: “Eal se lichoma stincð fule” (“That corpse stinks quite foully”).

The next example, dated around 1200, is from a document in the Trinity Cambridge Manuscript: “stincð fule for his golnesse” (“stinks foully due to his lasciviousness”).

And here’s one from Mirk’s Festial, a collection of homilies for the liturgical festivals, by John Mirkus, an Augustinian canon: “How his brethe stinkyth.” (The OED dates Mirk’s Festial at around 1450, but some scholars say it may have been written as early as the 1380s.)

The verb “stink” is ultimately derived from the reconstructed West Germanic term stiŋkwan, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. Ayto notes that another form of the prehistoric term, stiŋkw-, gave English the word “stench.”

By the time the noun “stink” showed up in the 14th century, according to the OED, the word was clearly negative, and meant “a foul, disgusting, or offensive smell”—that is, a stench. The first example in the dictionary—”The stynk of hym”—is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

Over the years, the verb and noun took on several other meanings, including “to be abhorrent” (1303), as in “His money stinks”; “a row or fuss” (1819), as in “Don’t make a stink about it”; and “to be incompetent” (1934), as in “I stink at tennis.”

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Toothsome dishes

Q: The other day I heard “toothsome” used to describe an attractive woman. What is the origin of this usage? Is there some connection to calling someone “a real dish”?

A: “Toothsome” has meant tasty—in the literal sense of good to eat—since the 16th century.

But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the sexier sense of “toothsome” (think of a luscious or delicious morsel) was applied to attractive people.

Here’s how all these meanings evolved.

To begin with, the words “tooth” and “teeth” are extremely old, as you might expect. They were recorded in Old English writing as far back as the early 700s, as tóþ and téþ (the runic letter þ represented a “th” sound).

“Tooth” came into English through the Germanic languages, but it can be traced to prehistoric Proto-Germanic and even further back to ancient Indo-European. It’s notable that the word for “tooth” in Indo-European, reconstructed as dont, is derived from a base (ed-) that meant to eat.

Since teeth and eating are so closely connected—etymologically as well as in everyday life—it’s not surprising that “tooth” has long had figurative meanings related to the sense of taste.

From the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century, for example, the expression “to (or for) one’s tooth” meant to one’s taste or liking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest known figurative use in writing is from Chaucer, where it’s found in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (circa 1386): “I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth.” (Here the raunchy Wife of Bath is speaking not of food but of her body.)

These 17th-century examples also illustrate the use of “tooth” to mean one’s liking:

“A wanton tooth is the harbinger to luxurious wantonnesse.” (From Bishop Joseph Hall’s Contemplations, 1615.)

“And keep the best o’ th’ meat (forsooth) / For your own Worships dainty tooth!” (From Charles Cotton’s Burlesque Upon Burlesque, 1675.)

The OED’s sole 19th-century example is from an English magazine, Beck’s Florist, Fruitist and Garden Miscellany (September 1851): “What a tooth for fruit has a monkey!”

“Palate,” another word for a part of the mouth, has also been used figuratively to mean taste or liking. And the adjective forms, “palatable” and “toothsome,” both originally meant tasty.

The tasty sense of “toothsome” was first recorded in the 16th century, and the OED’s definition (“pleasant to the taste, savoury, palatable”) is still current today.

Oxford’s earliest example is from an account of a slave-trading expedition: “We … found water, which although it were neither so toothsome as running water … yet did we not refuse it.” (From John Sparke’s Sir John Hawkins’ 2nd Voyage, circa 1565.)

And here are examples from each of the next three centuries:

“The Patattoes, which they eate as a delicate and toothsome meate.” (From Edward Grimeston’s 1604 translation of José de Acosta’s The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies.)

“I began to find a Craving … for more solid and Toothsome Food.” (From the physician George Cheyne’s The English Malady, 1733, a book about nervous diseases.)

“Hard to please if they cannot select something toothsome from the menu.” (From Edward Callow’s Old London Taverns, 1899.)

At the same time, from about the mid-1500s, “toothsome” was also used figuratively to mean pleasant in general, a usage that is less common today but is still found.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from 1551: “Speaking thinges nothing tothsome.” (Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason.)

The OED’s most recent example is from 1805: “Elegant and toothsome sermons were most in request.” (John Ramsay’s Scotland and Scotsmen in the 18th Century.)

As for the “toothsome” that means sexually alluring, it apparently came into use in the early 20th century. The usage was probably inevitable, since similar taste-related words, like “luscious,” “delicious,” “scrumptious,” “delectable,” and even “yummy,” are also used in a semi-humorous way to describe sexually attractive people.

The OED has no citations for this sense of “toothsome,” but in our own searches we’ve found examples dating from 1930. Here’s the earliest:

“Another [advertisement] shows a very toothsome miss revealing her shapely limbs far above the knees. I have just discovered that, in the small type occupying one-fourth of the copy, she is supposed to advertise a certain brand of cathartic.” (From a brief item published in the “News of the Week” column of the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, January 1930.)

We’ve also found examples from the 1940s onward.

A catalog of 1944 copyrights for advertising slogans included these, intended to promote tooth powder and other dental products: “Tall, Dark and Toothsome” … “Toothsome Joe” … “Dates Galore for Toothsome Lenore” … “Most Toothsome Ensign at Headquarters” … “Word for the Sergeant Is Toothsome.” (No doubt the models in the illustrations were displaying toothy grins, and the use of “toothsome” for alluring was a pun.)

The adjective appears in Anya Seaton’s novel Foxfire (1950), in a conversation between lovers: “‘You look toothsome as always,’ said Tim, examining her, ‘but a trifle blurred, my darling. I prefer the ultra-golden locks and that’s the wrong shade of lipstick, should be darker.’ ”

And a review of Stanley Kubric’s film Fear and Desire, published in Variety in January 1953, refers to the actress Virginia Leith as “a toothsome dish.”

There are also plenty of examples from academic and literary journals. Examples are so numerous that we’ll give just one per decade:

“We think Webster clever when the Duchess of Malfi reveals that she is pregnant by asking for an apricot, and we are as baffled as Troilus when toothsome, wenchy Cressid is in the arms of Diomede in the Greek camp.” (From “A Literary Correspondence,” by Edward Dahlberg and Herbert Read,  the Sewanee Review, summer 1959.)

“The same drama may take place aboard a steamer: a traveler (the Normal Lecherous Male) in a deck chair shakes a dozing neighbor to make sure he doesn’t miss a toothsome blonde in toreador pants.” (From an article, “The Last Gospel: Cartoons and Christianity,” by Bill Casey, Southwest Review, winter 1963.)

“This presentation must be more responsible than commercial weather news need be, where toothsome girls and half-inebriated aging boys cavort before maps and satellite photos.” (From “U.S. Government Documents: A Mazeway Miscellany,” by Joe Morehead, published in the journal RQ, summer 1974.)

“Kimball reminds himself sternly that this wonderful creature before him, this toothsome woman, is merely somebody’s daughter.” (From “Real Time,” a story by Al Gowan, Ploughshares, 1981.)

“At the same time, a strong bias towards the colloquial language is felt throughout, with many phrases of the type … ‘a toothsome (sexually attractive) blonde’ – sdobnaja (colloquial) blondinka.” (From a review of an English-Russian phrasebook in the Slavonic and East European Review, January 1997.)

“Suppose the late Ian Fleming had got End-Times religion and built on it a portentous Scripture-based epic in 007 style, only with a certain paucity of toothsome women.” (From “Millennial Sideshow,” an essay by J. C. Furnas, American Scholar, winter 2000.)

“Certainly ‘The Libertine’ is as lavish—with its sumptuous illustrations of luscious Rococo nudes and other toothsome lovelies—as an 18th-century bal masqué.” (From a review by Caroline Weber of The Libertine, a collection of 18th-century French erotica edited by Michel Delon, New York Times Book Review, Dec. 8, 2013.)

As you can see, this use of “toothsome” is alive and well. But sometimes the adjective is misused in place of “toothy” to describe someone with a big smile.

As William Safire wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1982, “Toothsome does not mean ‘toothy,’ any more than fulsome means ‘full,’ or noisome means ‘noisy.’ Fight cavities; stop the decay of a good word.”

More than 30 years later, Safire is still right. No standard dictionary recognizes the use of “toothsome” to describe someone with a generous mouthful of teeth.

By the way, while a “toothsome” person can be called a “dish,” there’s no etymological relationship. But there’s a semantic connection; both  “dish” and “toothsome,” terms for good things to eat, have been applied to sexy people.

Shakespeare may have been the first to use “dish” in this figurative way, in reference to sexy Cleopatra: “He will to his Egyptian dish againe.” (From Antony and Cleopatry, 1606.)

But this was probably just a passing metaphorical use. It wasn’t until the 1920s that “dish” came to be used this way in general English.

The earliest modern example in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from Variety, that fountainhead of American slang: “She ought to be a swell-lookin’ dish in tights” (Nov. 25, 1921).

The OED has this hardboiled example from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929): “He turned his half-wit’s grin on me and said: ‘What a swell dish you are.’”

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Isn’t that a coinkydink?

Q: A delightful teenager in my life just texted the word “coinkydink.” I used this term for a coincidence at her age (circa 1975). Any idea when it was coined? I have a vague memory of hearing it in some old black and white movie.

A: The earliest example we’ve found for “coinkydink” (often spelled and pronounced “kawinkydink”) is from the June 1952 issue of Trolley Topics, a publication of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. The term appears in an “Office News” item about trolley employees:

“Just after bowling his massive 696 series in the Association sweepstakes, Jimmy ‘The Arm’ Dickinson reached into his wallet for a look at a raffle ticket that he holds. Lo and behold, the number it bore was 696 also! A charming ‘coinkydink,’ as Jim Pagee says.”

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang describes “coinkydink” as an “intentional malapropism” used jocularly to mean a coincidence. (A malapropism, as we wrote on the blog in 2007, is an unintentionally comic misuse of a word.)

The earliest example for “coinkydink” in Random House is from a 1969 episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC-TV: “Isn’t that a coinkydink?” This may have been the source of your vague memory of having heard it in an old movie.

We haven’t found “coinkydink” (also spelled “coinkidink” and “kwinkydink”) in any standard dictionary, though readers have submitted the term to Merriam-Webster Online‘s Open Dictionary as well as to the collaborative Urban Dictionary. And the popular online reference Wiktionary describes it as a “jocular alteration of coincidence.”

The use of “coinkydink” for “coincidence” is sometimes referred to as “eye dialect,” though that term (coined by the language scholar George P. Krapp in 1925) usually refers to the literary use of a nonstandard spelling to indicate the pronunciation of a poorly educated speaker.

The lexicographer Grant Barrett, in an April 2, 2008, post entitled “Saying it wrong on purpose,” says he and his wife, a linguist, often mispronounce words deliberately, as do many other English speakers.

“People speak that way because saying a word wrong on purpose is a form of wordplay,” he writes. “It adds variety, colour, and whimsy to our speech. It’s a common characteristic of slang, which is partly built upon fooling around.”

Barrett says he and his wife “sometimes say chimbly instead of ‘chimney,’ fambly instead of ‘family,’ and liberry instead of ‘library,’ ” among other deliberate mispronunciations.

“Many Americans also say coinkydink instead of coincidence,” he adds. “It’s sometimes spelled kwinkydink or kawinkydink and is almost always used in a light-hearted or goofy way. It refers to when two or more things happen in the same way, at the same time, at the same place, or to the same people in a way that is surprising. Although you know they’re not related, they seem to be. Coinkydinks are interesting but unimportant.”

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How hip is a hippie?

Q: I’m working on a story about a “hippie” from the 1960s, and need some insight on the origin the term. I’ve searched your blog and your book Origins of the Specious, without finding it. Elsewhere, there’s a plethora of guesses. I need something more certain.

A: “Hippie” has led two lives, which may account for some of the lexical confusion.

When the word showed up in the 1950s, it was a disparaging term for a “hipster,” someone up on the latest trends, especially in jazz.

But in the ’60s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “hippie” came to mean a young person characterized by such things as long hair, unconventional clothes, drug use, and countercultural values.

That’s the short answer, and it’s generally true, but it’s hard to tell from some written examples in the early ’60s whether “hippie” is being used to mean someone up on the latest trends or an unconventional young person.

In other words, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as to when the first life of “hippie” ended and the second began. And things get even more uncertain when one looks for the ultimate origin of the term. Now for the longer answer.

The “hippie” story begins in the early 20th century with the adjectives “hip” and “hep,” both meaning “in the know,” “up to date,” or “knowledgeable.” As we’ve said in a 2010 post on the blog, the two terms showed up in print around the same time—”hip” in 1902 and “hep” in 1903.

With written citations so close together, it’s hard to say definitively whether “hip” or “hep” showed up first in spoken language.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, suggests that “hep” may have been first, saying the alteration of “e” to “i” in the word “is phonologically perhaps more likely than the reverse.”

The earliest example for “hip” in Random House is from a 1902 cartoon by T. A. Dorgan that shows a boy carrying a sign reading “Joe Hip / For Congress / Son of old man Hip.”

The slang dictionary’s next citation, which also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, is from Jim Hickey, a 1904 novel by George Vere Hobart, in which a character says, “Say, Danny, at this rate it’ll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

The earliest Random House example for “hep” (initially spelled “hept”) is from the May 9, 1903, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Modern Slang Glossary … Hept — To get wise or next.” [As a slang term, “next” meant “in the know.”]

The following citation, with the usual spelling, is from a 1904 T. A. Dorgan cartoon: “Take it easy now fellers, one of you stay behind so that no one will get hep.”

The ealiest example for “hep” in the OED is from the Dec. 5, 1908, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

During the first half of the 20th century, the two words took on many senses related to their original “in the know” or “up to date” meaning, according to Random House, including “shrewd,” “sophisticated,” “smart,” “in fashion,” “splendid,” “enjoyable,” and “infatuated.”

As for the ultimate etymology here, both the slang dictionary and the OED list the origin of “hip” and “hep” as unknown. Chambers agrees.

Lighter, the Random House editor, notes that “hip” has been more common than “hep” since about 1960. And he adds that “hip” was the common form of the term “much earlier among blacks, esp. jazz musicians.”

Joey Lee Dillard, in his book Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (1972), says it’s “a commonplace of the jazz language that hep is a white man’s distortion of the more characteristically Negro hip.”

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, writing in Slate, has explored the word’s etymology and debunked a theory that “hip” came from a West African language.

When “hip” first appeared, Sheidlower points out, the word meant merely “aware” or “in the know,” and “it was not widely used by African-Americans.”

“It wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during the jive era,” he writes, “that the modern senses—‘sophisticated; currently fashionable; fully up-to-date’—arose. (These senses did arise among African-Americans.)”

As for the noun “hipster,” the earliest example in Random House is from the Nov. 7, 1940, issue of Current History and Forum: “A hipster never teaches a square anything.”

The dictionary defines the term as someone who is or tries to be hip—that is, in the know or with it—especially a fan of swing or bebop music.

When “hippie” first showed up, according to the slang dictionary, it had pretty much the same meaning as “hipster,” but it was “often used derisively.”

The first Random House citation is from Flee the Angry Strangers, a 1952 novel by George Mandel about the drug world: “Every junkie and hippie came to sit around her table.”

The next example, from the Aug. 18, 1957, issue of the New York Times Magazine, offers a colorful definition: “Hippy—Generic for a character who is super-cool, over-blasé, so far out that he appears to be asleep when he’s digging something the most.”

In the third citation, “Madison Avenue hippies” are on the cutting edge of culture: “Upper Bohemia, tired of Van Gogh, Italian movies, charades, and sex, and so ready to try anti-art, anti-sex, anti-frantic non-movement.” (From “The American as Hipster,” an essay by Herbert Gold, originally published in the February 1958 issue of Playboy as “The Beat Mystique.”)

A few years after “hippie” showed up in its first incarnation, the term “beatnik” arrived on the scene for a member of the Beat Generation, and more generally for someone leading an unconventional life.

In “The Origin of Beatnik,” a 1975 paper by Richard Rex in American Speech, the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining the term.

Caen’s April 2, 1958, column in the San Francisco Chronicle, has this item: “Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s beat generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze. They’re only beat, y’know, when it comes to work.”

The columnist said later, according to a Nov. 26, 1995, article in the Chronicle, that the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite—launched on Oct. 4, 1957— must have been spinning around in his subconscious when he came up with the term.

In the early 1960s, the word “hippie” took on its second life, as an updated version of “beatnik.” Jonathan Lighter, the slang lexicographer, has this all-encompassing definition for the new sense:

“A usu. young, longhaired person who dresses unconventionally, holds various antiestablishment attitudes and beliefs, and typically advocates communal living, pacifist or radical politics, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.” Lighter adds that the term is “usu. used disparagingly.”

The two earliest examples in Random House for this new sense of “hippie” are from books published in 1966:

“The poundage of LSD swallowed by college ‘hippies’ is … a minuscule amount.” (From LSD on Campus, by Warren Young and Joseph Hixson.)

“Ah, the Harvard hippie. I knew him well. Ready to prove that Kennedy and Dostoevsky and Holden Caulfield have not lived in vain. He defies his parents by sleeping with his girl friend, his neighbors by letting his hair grow, and his university by smoking pot.” (From 1 in 7: Drugs on Campus, by Richard Goldstein.)

We’ve found quite a few earlier examples in which it’s unclear whether “hippie” is being used in the old sense or the new.

For example Earl Wilson wrote in his syndicated “It Happened Last Night” column on June 8, 1960, that “Bobby Darin, a hippie from New York City, Tonsil No. 1, in the ‘New Noise’ sweeping America, completely conquered all the New York hippies.”

However, Dorthy Kilgallen does appear to use the term in the new way in her syndicated “Voice of Broadway” column on June 11, 1963: “New York hippies have a new kick—baking marijuana in cookies.”

And the following year the entertainer Jean Shepherd used it to mean someone with an unconventional spirit. Here he’s quoted in the Dec. 6, 1964, issue of the New York Times, commenting on his audience at the Limelight coffee house in Greenwich Village:

“You find the squarest people with beards and carrying guitars. And the little old grandmother from Circleville can really be a hippie.”

The word “hippie” was clearly a work in progress during the first half of the ’60s. A perfect example was a Sept.10, 1964, article in the Village Voice, headlined “Baby Beatniks Spark Bar Boom on East Side,” in which the terms “hippie,” “beatnik,” and “hipster” seem to be used interchangeably.

Sorry we can’t be more certain about the beginnings of “hippie,” but this word for an unconventional person doesn’t seem to have a conventional origin. As more texts are digitized, though, we may learn more.

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The whole nine yards, again

Q: When a World War II .50-cal. gunner was asked during training if he shot the whole belt of cartridges, he answered: “Yes, the whole 9 yards.” The ammo belt was 27 feet. Now you know.

A: “The whole nine yards” is a whole lot older than World War II, which clearly rules out that popular theory about the origin of the expression.

Other debunked theories claim it originated with cement mixers, nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, and so on.

Now for a few facts.

The expression has definitely been traced to the early 1900s, with possible roots in the 1850s. As more old documents are digitized, even older examples may show up.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “the whole nine yards” used figuratively to mean “everything” or “all of it” is from the June 4, 1908, issue of the Mitchell (IN.) Commerce:

“Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads. He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.”

A similar version of the expression (with “full” instead of “whole”) showed up a year earlier in the May 2, 1907, issue of the same Indiana newspaper:

“The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.”

In both of those examples, the expression is being used metaphorically, much like “the whole ball of wax” (which showed up in 1882), “the whole kit and caboodle” (1888), or “the whole enchilada” (1960).

The OED also has a citation from the Jan. 30, 1855, issue of another Indiana newspaper, the New Albany Daily Ledger, for “the whole nine yards” used literally—for nine yards of cloth.

A comic story in the newspaper, with the headline “The Judge’s Big Shirt,” includes this passage:

“What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!”

The OED sees the later figurative use of the expression as “apparently originating in the frequently repeated comic story” that uses it literally.

We’ve also found the story in other newspapers in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as in Yankee Notions, a magazine published in New York City.

However, all these literal examples were published in 1855, half a century before the earliest known figurative examples.

Did that early literal usage inspire the figurative sense, as the OED suggests? We don’t know. Perhaps researchers will eventually fill in the gap with more examples.

One word sleuth, Richard Bucci, has discovered a tantalizing usage that predates the 1855 story.

Bucci, an editor for the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, found two examples in the Dec. 4, 1850, issue of the Bowling Green (MO.) Democratic Banner in which “nine yards” is used to mean a lengthy verbal account. Here’s one:

“I will not attempt to follow you through your ‘nine yards’ in all its serpentine windings, but confine myself to one or two points more, and compare.”

Fred R. Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, has described Bucci’s findings on the Linguist List forum, adding, “I think it likely that this is a surprisingly early precursor of ‘the whole nine yards.’ ”

Other researchers have found that cloth was often sold in multiples of three yards during the 19th century, and “nine yards” was a common measurement.

Here’s an example from a fabric advertisement in the March 29, 1856, issue of the Cambridge Chronicle: “Prints, nine yards for a dollar.”

And researchers have also found a comic story published in the 1870s and 1880s in which “nine yards to the dollar” is used figuratively to mean honest and straight talking.

In a version from the June 1870 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a lawyer describes his client as “No. 1, extra inspected, scaled and screened, copper-fastened, free from scoots, silver-steel, buck-horn handle, nine yards to the dollar, thread thrown in!”

As more examples are discovered, we could finally learn the whole nine yards about “the whole nine yards.”

Still, this may not convince all the readers out there who have pet theories about the expression but no evidence to support them.

[Note: The person who wrote us about the machine-gun theory had this response to our answer: “You’re really full of shit.”]

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The circularity of dials

Q: In a recent post, you say the noun “dial” evolved from the Latin word for “day.” So how did it become a circular item for measuring or adjusting? My guess is that the round clock face had something to do with it. Am I close?

A: Not all dials are circular, of course. The dial on a radio for example, may be a horizontal or vertical panel. But as you’ve observed, many dials are indeed round.

As for your guess, the round face of the traditional analog clock probably had something to do with the circular sense of the noun “dial.” But a much earlier influence may have been the belief in the ancient world that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

As we say in our “Dial A for anachronism” post, the word “dial” is ultimately derived from diēs, classical Latin for “day,” but the more immediate sources were in Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and post-classical Latin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites two words in the medieval Latin that was used when “dial” showed up in English in the early 1400s: dialis (daily), and diale (clock face).

The English word may also have been influenced by the medieval Latin phrase rota dialis, or daily wheel, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The phrase rota dialis apparently referred to the rotating face of an early mechanical clock with a fixed hand, as in the following example.

In a 1368 poem, the medieval author Jean Froissart, writing in Middle French, compares the revolving dial on such a clock to what was believed in his geocentric era to be the Sun’s revolution around the Earth:

“And this dial is the daily wheel that in a natural day makes one precise turn, just as the sun makes its own turn and encircles the earth in a single day” (Et ce dyal est la roe journal / Qui, en un jour naturel seulement, / Se moet et fait un tour precisement, /  Ensi que le soleil fait un seul tour / Entour la terre en un seul jour.)

As we know now in our heliocentric age, the Earth’s rotation on its axis and its elliptical orbit around the Sun create the impression that the Sun is moving across the sky. And the position of the Sun overhead produces the shadows that have revolved around sundials since ancient times.

In fact, the classical Latin term for a sundial was solarium, from sol, or “sun.” And the Latin term was used for a sundial in English until the end of the 16th century, according to our searches of the database Early English Books Online.

The earliest example for “sundial” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the English lexicographer John Minsheu’s 1599 update of A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, by Richard Percyvall: “Relox del sol, a sunne diall.”

The OED’s first example for “dial” itself is from a 1410-12 nautical inventory in which the term “dyoll,” according to the dictionary, “is likely to refer to a sandglass.” On the other hand, the Chambers Dictionary as well as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins assert that the earliest use of “dial” in English referred to a sundial.

Whether “dial” originally referred to a sundial or to an hourglass, we suspect that the circular sense of the word was influenced by the circular shape and movement of medieval clock faces as well as the pre-Copernican belief that the Sun revolved around the Earth once a day.

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December nine: A cardinal sin?

Q: I’m noticing that TV and radio hosts are getting away from using ordinal numbers for dates. For example, “It’s Thursday, October twenty” instead of “It’s Thursday, October twentieth.” Would you have any thoughts as to why?

A: In speech, people normally use an ordinal number for a date, “October twentieth” or “October the twentieth,” rather than the cardinal version, “October twenty.”

(As we’ve written before on the blog, the ordinal numbers say in what order, like “third,” “sixth,” and 20th. The cardinal numbers say how many, like “three,” “six,” and “20.”)

Although “October twenty” isn’t the form generally heard in speech, it’s not incorrect. This usage got your attention not because it’s wrong but because it’s not the norm.

So why do broadcasters sometimes use it? We can only guess. Perhaps they’re aiming for a more clipped delivery. Or perhaps they’re reading exactly what they see on a script or teleprompter. In writing, dates are usually given in cardinals.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has these comments about the use of dates in writing and in speech:

“In writing, the day and year are normally given in figures.” The examples given illustrate American usage (“June 2, 1980, June 2nd, 1980”) as well as British (“2 June 1980, 2nd June 1980”). The authors add, “In recent times the versions  … with cardinal numbers have become increasingly favored over those with ordinals.”

“The most usual way of giving dates in speech,” the Cambridge Grammar continues, is illustrated by examples like “the second of June, nineteen eighty” and “June the second, nineteen eighty.” (Note the ordinal “second.”)

But, the authors continue, “shorter versions matching the written forms … are also found.” The example given here is “two June nineteen eighty.” (Note the cardinal “two.”)

So while the cardinal form isn’t generally used in speech, it does crop up.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2013 about the use of ordinal numbers in street names.

As we explain, “ordinal numbers are normally used in writing street names, and they’re always used in speech. We never say, for example, ‘I live on Seventy-Two Street,’ or ‘The store used to be on Nine Avenue.’ In speech, we use ‘Seventy-Second Street’ and ‘Ninth Avenue.’ ”

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How the C-section got its name

Q: If Julius Caesar wasn’t delivered by cesarean section, as I’ve read, how did the medical procedure get its name?

A: Let’s begin with the old story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean section, an urban legend that we discuss in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. (The usual spelling is “cesarean” in the US and “caesarean” in the UK.)

This fiction can be traced back to one sentence in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, a 37-volume work on astronomy, botany, architecture, human physiology, and many other subjects. It was written in the first century.

In discussing human birth, the Roman naturalist says it’s “contrary to nature for children to come into the world with the feet first.”

To make his case, Pliny cites the emperor Nero, who was born with his feet first and “proved himself, throughout the whole of his reign, the enemy of the human race.”

If such children are delivered surgically, he adds, they “are evidently born under more favorable auspices.”

In passing, he notes that the first of the Caesars “was so named, from his having been cut from his mother’s womb (a caeso matris utero).” The Latin caeso comes from caedere, to cut.

As we explain in Origins, Pliny “was plainly referring to the first of the many Caesars who preceded the great emperor. But over the centuries a lot of readers thought the first Caesar was a reference to the emperor himself. Ergo, a myth was born!”

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 12 or 13 in the year 100 or possibly 102 BC. The exact date is uncertain. However, his mother, Aurelia, lived long into her son’s adulthood, which would have been impossible if she’d delivered him by cesarean.

“In ancient times, surgical deliveries were performed only on women who were dead or dying,” we write in Origins. “Back then, the child’s survival was barely possible after such an operation, but not the unfortunate mother’s.”

The first documented case of a mother’s surviving a cesarean apparently took place in Prague on Feb. 25, 1337, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Beatrice of Bourbon, second wife of the King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg, survived a cesarean in giving birth to her only child, Duke Wenceslaus I, according to archival documents found by Czech researchers.

As for the cognomen “Caesar” (a cognomen is the last of a Roman citizen’s three names), its origin is still in dispute. Did it have anything to do with surgery?

It could be that the original Caesar was born surgically and that inspired the cognomen, as Pliny wrote, but several other theories have been proposed.

One of the more interesting comes from a Roman grammarian, Sextus Pompeius Festus, who believed the name came from the Latin word caesaries, or hair, and suggested the first Caesar was born with a full head of hair.

Be that as it may, the author of the earliest example for the term “cesarean section” in the OED apparently based the English usage on Pliny’s account of the surgical birth of the first Caesar.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Mikrokosmographia, a 1615 medical treatise by Helkiah Crooke, the court physician of King James I:

“Concerning this Cæsarian section, Franciscus Rossetus the French Kings Physitian hath set foorth an elegant Booke so beautified with Histories and abounding with good arguments.” (We’ve expanded the citation to put it in context.)

Elsewhere in the treatise, Crooke cites Pliny and says the birth of the first Caesar was by “the cutting of the mothers wombe, from whence the Caesars had their names.”

Finally, we should mention that Julius bears no responsibility for Caesar salad. As we point out in Origins, the king of salads was invented in 1924 by Caesar Cardini, a chef and restaurateur in Tijuana, Mexico.

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Off-putting and down-putting

Q: People who are put off by a remark say it’s “off-putting.” Can a put-down be described as “down-putting”?

A: Would you believe that the word “off-putting” is more than 600 years old? Honest.

In the 1300s, “off-putting” was a noun meaning “the action of reproving,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that “off-putting” became the adjective we know today.

We’ll begin at the beginning.

The OED’s earliest example for the noun (written “of putting” in Middle English) comes from this dramatic passage in the Polychronicon, a historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and translated later in the century by John de Trevisa:

“Þanne he [Sergius] hym self occupiede þe poperiche. And in wreche of his of puttynge he made hem take up Formosus þe pope out of his grave, and smyte of his heed, and þrewe þe body into Tyber.” (“Then Sergius himself occupied the papacy. And in vengeance for the off-putting of Formosus, he made them take the late pope out of his grave, and cut off his head, and throw the body into the Tiber.”)

That meaning of the noun—a reproval or a rebuke, you might say a “putdown”—is now rare, the OED says.

Also rare is this this wider meaning, which the dictionary says appeared in the late 1400s: “The action or an act of delaying, a postponement, procrastination; a fobbing off, an evasion.”

This sense of the word was in use in Scottish English from the late 1400s until modern times, according to Oxford citations. This 1833 example from Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal has a distinct Scottish flavor: “Weel, mistress, … this off-putting will do nae langer.”

Today we almost never find “off-putting” used as a noun. In the sense of a delay or an evasion, English speakers are likely to use “this putting off” instead of “this off-putting.”

As an adjective, “off-putting” originally meant procrastinating or delaying, a sense chiefly used in Scottish English and now rare, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from 1808, when a Scottish dictionary said the term meant “delaying, trifling, dilatory.” As late as 1931, the Scottish National Dictionary gave this lively example: “Gan’ away and dae yer work, ye affputting slut.”

As we said above, the adjective “off-putting” didn’t take on its modern sense until the mid-20th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “that puts one off; unpleasant, disconcerting, repellent.”

The term is derived, the OED says, from the phrasal verb “to put off,” which since the late 1300s has meant not only to defer or postpone but also to drive away or repel.

Oxford’s earliest example of “off-putting” in its modern sense is from a 1930s novel: “Your face isn’t in the least off-putting, except when you’re cross.” (From Illyrian Spring, 1935, by Mary Dolling, writing under the name Ann Bridge.)

The dictionary has these among its other examples:

“‘Shut up about Ronald,’ Tim said. ‘It’s jolly off-putting.’ ” (From Muriel Spark’s novel Bachelors, 1960.)

“The only off-putting factor is the price.” (From the Classical Review, 1986.)

“Kyle finds it a little offputting, especially when he’s only wearing his boxers.” (From Cult Times, February 2001.)

You ask whether “down-putting” is similarly becoming an adjective, perhaps derived from the phrasal verb “to put down” or from the noun “put-down,” which dates from the 1930s.

So far, no. The only examples of “down-putting” we’ve found used adjectivally are humorous uses online.

The OED has two lone examples of “down-putting,” but both are nouns and very old.

One is dated circa 1440 and uses “down-putting” in the sense of “abasing”: “Downe puttyng and a-lowenge of his euencristen” (“Down-putting and lowering of his fellow Christian”).

The other is from circa 1556 and uses the noun to mean “downfall): “To them who were the occasion of his down-putting.”

But the OED does have examples of “put-down” used as an adjective “intended to humiliate or put a person down.” The earliest is from a 1973 issue of the New York Times: “He [Trudeau] doesn’t rise to bait—with choice epithets and that put-down Gallic shrug of his.”

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You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

Q: A post about the word “rat” as it relates to despicable, disloyal, or deceitful people would be interesting, don’t you think?

A: When “rat” showed up in Old English (as ræt) it meant the rodent that we’re all familiar with. It didn’t refer to human rats until hundreds of years later. Here’s the story.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English translation (“Raturus, ræt”) in the Antwerp-London Glossaries, a collection of 11th-century manuscripts derived from earlier texts.

Similar words for the rodent appeared in other Germanic languages (Old Saxon ratta, Old Swedish rotta, Old High German rato, etc.), as well as in medieval Latin and Romance languages.

“The word was probably spread with the reintroduction of rats to Northern Europe during the Viking Age,” the OED notes. (The Norse seafarers raided and traded from the 8th to the 11th centuries.)

The relationship between the Germanic and Latin terms for “rat” is murky. As the OED explains, “It is uncertain whether the Latin and Romance words are cognate with the Germanic words, or whether they were borrowed from Germanic, or vice versa.” (Cognates are related linguistically.)

The dictionary notes that there’s no written evidence for any of the Latin or Romance words “before the end of the first millennium.”

The word’s “ultimate origin is uncertain,” the OED says, but it offers a creepy suggestion: the usage is “perhaps imitative of the sound of gnawing.”

English speakers began using the word “rat” for people in the 16th century, at first for someone who was dishonest, contemptible, or worthless, especially in a romantic relationship.

The first example in the OED is from A Chronicle of All the Noble Emperours of the Romaines (1571), by Richard Reynolds:

“He was a scourge to the Enuches, and lasciuious Courtiars, he called them the moathes and rattes of Princes Courtes.” (“Moath” was used figuratively for a person dangerously drawn to temptation, as a moth to a flame.)

In the 17th century, a “rat” came to mean a disorderly person—at first a rowdy arrested for drunkenness, and later any disruptive or troublesome person.

The OED has a questionable citation from 1607. The first definite example for the new sense is from Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (1662), an anonymous biography of a cutpurse, or pickpocket:

“A Shoomaker … being then Constable … was pleased for all my faire Words and Account to send me to the Counter for a Rat.” (A “counter” was a prison attached to a court. We’ve expanded the Oxford citation to add context.)

In the 18th century, according to the OED, “rat” took on the political sense of someone “who deserts his or her party, side, or cause; a person who puts personal considerations before political principles, departs radically from the official party line, or adopts the political beliefs of a rival party.”

The dictionary attributes this figurative sense of the word to “the belief that rats leave a ship about to sink or a house about to fall down.”

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from “A Dialogue Between X, Y, and Z,” by Benjamin Franklin, published in the Dec. 18, 1755, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette:

“Z. For my Part, I am no Coward; but hang me if I’ll fight to save the Quakers. X. That is to say, you won’t pump Ship, because ’twill save the Rats,—as well as yourself.”

In the early 19th century, “rat” adopted the slang sense of a “person who gives information, esp. of an incriminating nature, on another person to the police or other authority, an informer.”

The OED’s first example is from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), an epistolary novel in verse, by Thomas Moore: “Give me the useful peaching Rat; / Not things as mute as Punch, when bought.”

(Around this same time, “stool pigeon” also became a slang term for an informer, as we wrote in 2008.)

Soon afterward, “rat” also came to mean a “person who refuses to strike, or takes the place of a striking worker” as well as “a non-union worker” or “a person who works for lower wages than the usual or trade union rate.”

Here’s an example from the March 6, 1824, issue of the Microscope, a weekly in Albany, NY: “Loren … Webster, chief ink-dauber in a rat-printing office at the west. Ralph Walby, nothing at all but a rat-printer.”

We should mention here that James Cagney never used the exact phrase “you dirty rat” despite all the Cagney imitators using it on YouTube. The closest he came was “that dirty, double-crossing rat” in Blonde Crazy (1931) and “you dirty, yellow-bellied rat” in Taxi! (1932).

There are several other less common meanings of “rat” in the human sense, but we’ll skip them and end this post with the old expression “to smell a rat”—that is, to suspect deception or foul play.

The first OED citation is from The Image of Ipocrysy, a poem by John Skelton from around 1540: “Yf they smell a ratt, / They grisely chide and chatt.”

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Fractious or fractured?

Q: A recent edition of The Hill described President-elect Trump’s relationship with the New York Times as “fractious.” Isn’t “fractured” the right word in this instance?

A: We wouldn’t use either term to describe the President-elect’s complicated relationship with the New York Times, though “fractious” would be better than “fractured” in our opinion.

“Fractious” usually describes a troublesome, unruly, or irritable person or group of people, and it’s often used to characterize cranky or irritable children, according to standard dictionaries.

It’s true that “fractious” is sometimes used in reference to a difficult relationship, and a search of news databases suggests this is becoming more common. But we’d prefer a term without the unruly and childish connotations—perhaps “contentious,” “quarrelsome,” or even “rocky.”

As for the use of “fractured” here, it would describe a broken relationship, not a difficult one. Although the Trump-Times relationship has had its ups and downs, it’s not broken—at least not yet! In fact, the President-elect’s recent meeting with Times editors and reporters seems to have been more of an up than a down in the relationship.

Interestingly, both “fractious” and “fractured” are ultimately derived from the same classical Latin verb, frangĕre (“to break or shatter”), which has also given English such words as “fragile,” “frail,” and “fraction.”

When the adjective “fractured” showed up in the early 1600s, it was used to describe a broken bone. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Surgions Mate, John Woodall’s 1617 reference book for naval surgeons: “Nothing cureth a fractured boane so much as rest.”

The OED‘s next citation, from a poem by William Shenstone written about 1763, uses the term to describe a broken chair: “Behold his chair, whose fractur’d seat infirm / An aged cushion hides.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for “fractured” used to describe a broken relationship, but we’ve found many dating from the late 1960s, including one from a 1972 issue of the Presbyterian Journal about “the healing of the fractured relationship between God and man.”

When “fractious” showed up in the early 1700s, it meant stubborn or unruly. The earliest example in the OED is from A New Voyage Round the World, a 1725 novel that the dictionary attributes to Daniel Defoe, though some scholars question that attribution: “Having had an Account how Mutinous and Fractious they had been.”

The next citation is from The Capuchin, a play written around 1777 by the British dramatist Samuel Foote: “The young slut is so headstrong and fractious.”

The OED says the meaning of “fractious” is “now chiefly, cross, fretful, peevish; esp. of children,” and gives this example from The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole, an 1848 novel by the English writer Albert Richard Smith: “Baby would be getting so very fractious.”

The dictionary doesn’t have an examples for “fractious” used to modify “relationship,” though we’ve found a few hundred in books published since the 1950s.

The earliest we’ve seen, from Labor, Free and Slave, a 1955 book by Bernard Mandel, refers to “the complicated and often fractious relationship between the antislavery campaign and the mid-nineteenth-century labor movement.”

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Grass widow or grace widow?

Q: Lately, I’ve noticed the use of “grace widow” for a woman living in grace after being abandoned by her husband. Thinking it may be related to “grass widow,” I checked some non-scholarly sources online. Now I’m more confused than ever. Can you lexical experts clear things up?

A: The term “grass widow” has gone through a lot of changes in its 500-year history. At one time it even inspired a variant spelling, “grace widow,” which took on a life of its own.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. Neither has ever meant an actual widow—that is, a woman whose husband is dead, a term we wrote about in 2010.

We’ll take a look first at “grass widow,” which now generally means a woman whose husband is temporarily away or a woman who’s divorced.

The phrase made its debut in English writing in the 16th century, several hundred years before “grace widow” appeared on the scene.

In the 1500s, a “grass widow” was not a respectable woman. The term meant “an unmarried woman who has cohabited with one or more men,” or “a discarded mistress,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It also meant an unmarried mother, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The term was first recorded, the OED says, in a 1529 religious treatise by Thomas More, who wrote: “For then had wyuys [wives] ben in his [St. Paul’s] time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now.”

These later OED citations show that “grass widows” were often single mothers:

“The 31 day was buri’d Marie the daughtr of Elizabeth London graswidow.” (From town records of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, 1582.)

“A Grass-Widow, one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, yet has Children.” (From a slang collection, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1699.)

But what was the significance of “grass” in the phrase? It had nothing to do with “widow’s weeds”—that is mourning clothes. And in its original sense “grass widow” had no connection with notions of being “turned out to grass.”

In fact, the entire term “grass widow” may have come down to us from Germanic languages. The OED notes comparable words with the same meaning in Middle Low German (graswedewe), Dutch (grasweduwe), Swedish (gräsenka), and Danish (græsenke), as well as the German strohwittwe, literally “straw-widow.” (Interestingly, there’s an equivalent term in French, veuve de paille, “straw widow.”)

“The etymological notion is obscure,” the OED says. “It has been suggested,” the dictionary adds, that words for grass and straw “may have been used with opposition to bed.” So a “grass widow” might provide a roll in the hay, so to speak—an illicit sexual tryst, not necessarily in a bed.

In a usage note, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this explanation: “The grass in grass widow seems to have originally made reference to the makeshift bed of grass or hay (as opposed to a real bed with a mattress and sheets) on which a woman might lie with her lover before he rises and abandons her—leaving her a widow, so to speak, in the grass.”

As we wrote on the blog in 2015, grass and the color green have had sexual connotations since the Middle Ages. For example, the OED describes “green gown” as an archaic and historical term for “a dress stained green from rolling in grass.”

“Grass widow” was still used in the sense of an illicit sexual partner well into the 1800s.  On May 23, 1856, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Maria Fitzherbert, mistress of King George IV, as a “grass widow.” And A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases, published that same year, defined “grass widow” as “a female of easy virtue, a prostitute.”

However, “grass widow” was gaining more respectable meanings in the mid-19th century. Most notably, it came to mean a married woman whose husband is away, as when his work takes him elsewhere.

This sense of “a married woman whose husband is absent from her,” the OED says, may have arisen after the original, pejorative meaning “had ceased to be generally understood.”

The more respectable usage, Oxford suggests, may have been influenced by the 16th-century expression “turned out to grass,” in the figurative sense of being on vacation or freed from one’s duties.

This newer sense of “grass widow” was first recorded in a short story by Johnson J. Hooper, an American humorist: “John Green’s sister, (the grass widder, as lives with ’em), she goes to her battling bench.” (From “Taking the Census in Alabama,” originally published in 1843 in the magazine Spirit of the Times.)

The term was also used in Australian, Anglo-Indian, and British English, as in these OED citations:

“The absence of so many of ‘the lords of creation’ in pursuit of what they value … more than all the women in the world—nuggets. The wives thus left in town to deplore their husbands’ infatuation, are termed ‘grass-widows’—a mining expression.” (From A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia, by Ellen Clacy, 1853.)

“Grass widows in the hills are always writing to their husbands, when you drop in upon them.” (From John Lang’s book Wanderings in India, 1859.)

“The pretty grass-widow … is going because every one else is gone.” (From the Englishman’s Magazine, August 1865.)

“Expectant husbands come out to meet the ‘grass widows’ who have travelled with us.” (From an 1884 journal entry by Lady Dufferin, Vicereine of India, published in Our Viceregal Life in India, 1889.)

In the United States, “grass widow” also came to mean a woman whose husband has deserted her. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle used this sense of the phrase in a news item on May 7, 1857: “His sister was a ‘grass widow,’ her husband having left her years ago.”

What does “grass widow” mean today? Dictionaries differ somewhat, though most include a meaning not cited in the OED: a divorced woman.

American Heritage has the broadest number of definitions: “1. A woman who is divorced or separated from her husband. 2. A woman whose husband is temporarily absent. 3. An abandoned mistress. 4. The mother of a child born out of wedlock.”

However, both Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster Unabridged say that only the first two uses are standard today. (M-W  labels #3 and #4 as dialectal, and the OED says they’re perhaps obsolete.)

Yet another source, the Cambridge Dictionary online, has only the #2 meaning, which it phrases this way: “a woman who spends a lot of time apart from her partner, often because he or she is working in a different place.”

Now, on to “grace widow,” a comparatively rare term. As is often the case, you’ll find a lot of nonsense about it on the Internet.

For example, it’s sometimes suggested that “grace widow” was the original phrase, later corrupted to “grass widow.” This isn’t true.

The OED has no entry for “grace widow” (and neither do standard dictionaries), but in its entry for “grass widow,” Oxford rejects “the notion that the word is a ‘corruption’ of grace-widow.”

In fact “grace widow” did not occur in English, according to our researches, until the early 19th century (300 years after “grass widow”), when “grace widow” was used to mean an unmarried mother.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Edward Moor’s book Suffolk Words and Phrases: An Attempt to Collect the Lingual Localisms of That County (1823):

“GRACE WIDOW. A woman who had ‘a child for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.’ It ought rather to be grace-less.”

We found another example in a short story, published a few years later in Boston, about an elderly unmarried mother: “Hannah was a spinster—or, as the country people denominate a single woman, who has to support a family—a grace widow.” (From “Old Hannah,” by Susanna Strickland, published in the Atheneum, March 1829.)

In these contexts, “grass widow,” the long-established phrase for an unmarried mother, would have been the expected usage. So why was “grace” substituted for “grass”?

We don’t know. Perhaps “grace” made more sense to people than “grass”—that is, an unmarried mother was given the title “widow” by “grace,” or courtesy. Or perhaps people thought “grass” was a mispronunciation of “grace.”

For whatever reason, it seems clear that “grace widow” originally cropped up as a variant spelling of “grass widow.”

However, within 30 years claims were made that (1) “grace” was the original term, and (2) a “grace widow” was not a mistress or unmarried mother, but rather a married woman deserted by her husband.

Both assertions appeared in this letter to the editor in the March 1859 issue of the Ladies Repository, a Methodist magazine published in Cincinnati:

“GRASS-WIDOW.—The epithet is probably a corruption of the French word grace—pronounced gras. The expression is thus equivalent to femme veuve de gracefoemina vidua ex gratia, a widow, not in fact, but—called so—by grace or favor. Hence grass-widow would mean a grace widow: one who is made so, not by the death of her husband, but by the kindness of her neighbors, who are pleased to regard the desertion of her husband as equivalent to his death.”

The only truth in that statement is that vidua ex gratia could be translated “widow by favor” and the French veuve de grâce as “widow by grace.” But there’s no evidence that those Latin or French phrases were ever in use.

No French dictionary we’ve seen—historical, etymological, or modern—has an entry for, or even a mention of, veuve de grâce. And no Latin dictionary has vidua ex gratia. They don’t appear in official documents in any of the historical databases we’ve searched.

The story was further embroidered in the 1870s, when another element was added: the claim that the “grace” came not from kind neighbors but from a higher authority. Supposedly a “grace widow” was a divorced or abandoned wife who was given a dispensation to call herself a widow by the “grace” of the pope or the Roman Catholic Church.

The first to suggest this, as far as we can tell, was apparently David Turpie, an Indianapolis judge and later US senator from Indiana, who made the claim in a speech delivered to a literary society in 1875.

We found this paragraph in the May 5, 1875, issue of an Indianapolis newspaper, the Evening News, under the headline “Grass Widow”:

“Judge Turpie has been reading a paper to the ‘Fiat Lux’ Society on the origin of the phrase, ‘grass widow,’ or rather ‘grace widow,’ for the first has no foundation in fact, and is simply a barbarism, or fungus which has attached itself to the English language. ‘Grace widow’ is the term for one who becomes a widow by grace or favor, not of necessity, as by death, and originated in the early ages of European civilization, when divorces were granted but seldom, and wholly by authority of the Catholic church. When such decree was granted to a woman the Papal receipt stated ‘Viduca de gratia,’ which interpreted is ‘widow of grace.’ In the law of France it would read ‘Veuve de grace,’ which in English gives ‘widow of grace,’ or ‘grace widow,’ ‘veuve’ being translated as ‘widow.’ ”

The judge apparently mangled the Latin vidua ex gratia as “Viduca de gratia.” As we’ve said, we couldn’t find vidua ex gratia in any Latin dictionaries or church documents. Nor, of course, could we find the gibberish “Viduca de gratia.”

In fact, nowhere in any official documents—religious or secular, English or American—have we found a single instance of the phrase “grace widow.” Nor have we found any instance of a woman’s being declared a widow by reason of divorce or desertion.

Certainly marriages could be annulled or dissolved, but even in those cases, as far as we can tell, no woman was ever subsequently proclaimed a widow by any court or ecclesiastical authority.

Nevertheless, Judge Turpie’s assertions live on. News agencies must have distributed that brief news item as short “filler,” since the same paragraph, credited to the Indianapolis News and with only minor changes, later ran in newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States (including the New York Times).

In the 1890s the same paragraph, or part of it, was also reproduced in the British journal Notes and Queries as well as in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (it was dropped in the 1959 edition).

In 1889 the term “grace widow” even appeared in A Dictionary of Law, by William Caldwell Anderson: “Grace widow. A widow by grace, by decree of a court; a wife living apart from her husband; a grass widow.”

But in 1895 an article in Law Book News excoriated Anderson’s work and specifically mentioned “grace widow,” calling Anderson’s derivation “philologically impossible” and “pronounced by the best authorities to be ‘certainly wrong.’ ”

The Law Book News writer probably quoted The Century Dictionary of 1889, which had this in its “grass-widow” entry: “The explanation reflected in the dial. form grace-widow, as if a widow by grace or courtesy, is certainly wrong.”

Nevertheless, once that mythological “grace widow” etymology was in circulation, it continued to crop up in early 20th-century publications.

And although Brewer’s Dictionary later dropped “grace widow” and other authors attempted to set the record the straight, the myth survives on the Internet.

In his book Devious Derivations (2002), the editor and word sleuth Hugh Rawson calls “grace widow” a “false refinement.” As he writes, “The grass widow, divorced or otherwise separated from her husband, is not termed a widow by French grâce, as if this were a courtesy title.”

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Congradulations!

Q: I hear educated people pronounce the word “congratulations” as if it were spelled “congradulations.” This occurs to the point that many people must believe it is spelled that way too. Is this an example of a spelling change based on a common mispronunciation?

A: You’re right that many people spell “congratulations” with a “d” in the middle, though they’re often deliberately misspelling the word as a pun in which “congradulations” are sent to recent graduates.

The standard spelling, as you point out, is “congratulations.” However, many people who aren’t punning replace the first “t” with a “d,” probably because of the way the word is often pronounced in the US.

There are three standard ways to pronounce the first “t” in “congratulation” (or “congratulations”). American dictionaries say it’s pronounced as “ch” or “j,” while British dictionaries say it’s pronounced as “ty.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, list only the “ch” and “j” pronunciations.

The UK versions of the Oxford, Cambridge, and Macmillan online dictionaries show only a “ty” sound in their written pronunciation guides, but their audio pronouncers sound somewhat like the first American pronunciation (“ch”).

As for the sound you’re hearing, it’s probably the second American one (“j”), which as we’ve said is considered a standard pronunciation in the US. In fact, the “j” is sometimes written as “dʒ,” a sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet that combines the “d” sound with the “s” of “vision.”

If you listen carefully to yourself saying “congratulation,” you may hear a “ch” sound where the first letter “t” is written. And if you hear a “t” sound instead, you’ll probably notice a “y” sound stuck to the end of it.

Yes, spelling and pronunciation are related, but not quite as closely as you seem to think. Even Siri, the voice on our iPhones, is programmed to pronounce the first “t” of “congratulation” as “ch” when using American English. If it used a perfectly enunciated “t” here (like the one in “kite”), Siri would sound even more like a robot than it does.

As we explained on the blog in 2014, the letter “t” isn’t always aspirated crisply (as in the words “tea” and “bite”).

When it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable (as in “water,” “butter,” and “atom”), it’s often a mere flick of the tongue that sounds a bit like a cross between “t” and “d.” Linguists refer to this sound as a “flap” (some use the word “tap,” but it’s the same sound).

When the letter comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable (as in “mitten,” “button,” or “mountain”), another kind of “t” is often heard. This “t” is pronounced as a glottal stop—the air flow through the vocal cords actually stops, skips over the “t,” then is released. As a result, those three words sound like  mi’nbu’n, and moun’n.

As for the etymology of “congratulation,” English borrowed the word from French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin verb congrātulārī (con-, together, plus grātulārī, to express joy).

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Harington’s 1591 translation of Orlando Furioso, an Italian epic poem by Lodovico Ariosto: “Only Gradassos faint congratulation, / Makes men surmise, he thinks not as he saith.”

Harington may be even better known for A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), which describes a forerunner of the modern flush toilet. He installed one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace. The “Ajax” in the title is a pun on “jakes,” an old term for a privy or a latrine.

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Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

(We’re repeating this post for Thanksgiving Day. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2012.)

Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”?

A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real drumstick. Even the bone alone isn’t quite like a drumstick—it has big knobs at each end instead of a single knob or padded head.

So calling this part of the bird a  “drumstick” seems to be stretching a metaphor. But why use a metaphor at all?

Etymologists think that people started calling this part of a fowl the  “drumstick” because the word “leg” wasn’t polite table talk in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Neither were the words “thigh” and “breast,” so discreet (OK, prudish) diners referred to them as “dark meat” and “white meat.” 

Sometimes the breast of the turkey was referred to as—ahem—the “bosom.” And occasionally the term “upper joint” was used instead of “thigh,” and “lower joint” or “limb” instead of “leg.” 

Yes, really. There actually was a time when “leg,” “breast,” and “thigh” were considered too coarse for the ears of ladies and unfit for mixed company. 

The word “drumstick,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in the mid-18th century  to mean “the lower joint of the leg of a dressed fowl.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Samuel Foote’s play The Mayor of Garret (1764): “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.”

Our fellow word maven Hugh Rawson recently discussed
dinner-table euphemisms like these on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

As he writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms.” 

Rawson cites a lecture, “The Laws of Disorder,” by the Unitarian minister and speaker Thomas Starr King, who died in 1864: “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks.” 

Such terms, particularly in America, made table talk easier for everyone, Rawson explains: “Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of ‘breast meat,’ dark meat instead of a ‘thigh’ and a drumstick in place of a ‘leg’ saved embarrassment all around.

The 19th-century British novelist and naval captain Frederick Marryat pokes fun at this kind of squeamishness in Peter Simple (1834). In one episode, Rawson points out, the novel’s hero describes a dinner party on the island of Barbados. 

“It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said ‘Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.’ ”

The OED cites another example from Marryat’s works as an example of “limb” as a euphemism for “leg,” a usage it describes as “now only (esp. U.S.) in mock-modest or prudish use.” 

In his book A Diary in America: With Remarks on Its Institutions (1839), Marryat says a young American woman told him that “leg” was not used before ladies; the polite term was “limb.” She added: “I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”

That example, like several others from the OED, seems to have been used with humorous intent. 

For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his novel Elsie Venner (1861), has this bit of dinner-table conversation: “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the—under limb?” 

And John S. Farmer, in his Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1885), uses this illustration: “Between you’n me, red stockings ain’t becomin’ to all—ahem—limbs.”

Euphemistic language has proven itself useful, not just at the dinner table. It comes in handy for swearing, too. 

We’ve written before on our blog about euphemistic oaths like “doggone it,” and “gosh a’mighty,” milder substitutes for “God damn it” and “God almighty.” 

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Emigrate or immigrate?

Q: I was just reading an email announcement from the BackStory website in which “immigrate” was used where “emigrate” should have been. Is this a case of sloppy copy-editing? Or is this distinction no longer considered meaningful by editors?

A: The verbs “emigrate” and “immigrate” have had different meanings for hundreds of years—and they still do, according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked.

We haven’t seen the announcement from the website of the public-radio program BackStory, but the use of “immigrate” for “emigrate” in professionally edited writing is relatively rare and probably the result of sloppiness.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the misuse of these words “may be less of a problem than is often suggested,” adding, “Our evidence shows that almost no one does, at least in edited prose.”

This is how Pat describes the difference between “emigrate” and “immigrate” in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“EMIGRATE/IMMIGRATE. You emigrate from one country and immigrate to another. Grandma emigrated from Hungary in 1956, the same year that Grandpa immigrated to America. Whether you’re called an emigrant or an immigrant depends on whether you’re going or coming, and on the point of view of the speaker. A trick for remembering: Emigrant as in Exit. Immigrant as in In.”

The first of these verbs to show up in English was “immigrate,” from the Latin im- (into) and migrāre (to move). The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1623 dictionary by Henry Cockeram: “Immigrate, to goe dwell in some place.”

“Emigrate,” from the Latin ē (out) and migrāre (to move), showed up a century later. The OED’s first citation is from a 1782 treatise by Thomas Pownall on the study of antiquities and history:

“The surplus parts of this plethorick [printed phletorick] body must emigrate.” (The phrase “plethorick body” here refers to a plethora of population.)

Merriam-Webster’s usage manual notes that “emigrate” and “immigrate” make “a case in which English has two words where it could easily have made do with only one.”

“The two words have the same essential meaning—‘to leave one country to live in another’—and differ only in emphasis or point of view: emigrate stressing leaving, and immigrate stressing entering,” the M-W editors add.

Since we have two words, we might as well use them as they were intended.

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Is “posse” racist?

Q: “Posse”? Racist? I trust you know the current controversy over that word. If a black celebrity says it is, I guess that makes it so, but has it been? Where does this come from?

A: Is “posse” a racist term? Not necessarily. But it has a negative, “gang” connotation in some dictionaries. And an African-American might consider it racist when used in reference to his friends.

“Posse” made news on Nov. 14 when Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knicks, used the word in comments he made about LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In an interview with ESPN, Jackson was critical of James for demanding “special treatment” when he was playing for the Miami Heat a few years ago. The NBA star, whose hometown is Akron, Ohio, apparently demanded that he get to spend an extra night in his home state after playing a game in Cleveland.

“When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night,” Jackson said. “They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t.”

The Knicks president went on to say: “You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”

Here, “posse” was a reference to James’s longtime friends, fellow athletes, and business associates, some of whom grew up together.

James, who is a successful businessman off the court, took offense at “posse,” suggesting it had racial overtones:

“I believe the only reason he used that word is because it’s young African Americans trying to make a difference,” James said. “If he would have said LeBron and his agent, LeBron and his business partners or LeBron and his friends, that’s one thing. Yet because you’re young and black, he can use that word. We’re grown men.”

We were surprised to hear that “posse” was objectionable, but many people were not.

The next day, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks told ABC News that “I think everybody would understand” why James objected to the term. “To some people, the word ‘posse’ might not mean anything. It might just be a word. To some other people it could be a derogatory statement. It all depends on who you mention it to and who you’re talking about in essence.”

As for himself, Anthony said, “I would never want to hear that word about me and my—I don’t want to say crew—but people that I consider family or people that I come up [with], been through thick and thin with. I’d want to be called a tight-knit group or family. That’s what I consider those close people to me.”

Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the Detroit Pistons, was also sympathetic to James, according to the New York Post: “When all that came out, I had to ask myself: Have I ever used that word before with a white player? The answer is no.”

“I understand why it’s offensive,” Van Gundy added. “I’ve never used that word publicly, but I have used it in talking to people I know. It has never been in conjunction with a white player.”

Others were less critical of the term. Magic Johnson, according to New York Newsday, praised James and his business team in several Twitter posts, then wrote: “Phil Jackson made one small mistake by using the word posse.”

“I know Phil Jackson, he’s a good man,” he continued. “I don’t think he meant to disrespect LeBron James and his team.”

So what about the word itself? In all the news coverage, there’s been very little about its etymology or its definitions.

In classical Latin, posse was a verb meaning “be able.” It was derived from the phrase potis esse (esse for “be” and potis for “able” or “powerful”).

In medieval Latin, as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, posse came to be used as a noun meaning ‘power, force.’ It formed the basis of the expression posse comitatus, literally ‘force of the county,’ denoting a body of men whom the sheriff of a county was empowered to raise for such purposes as suppressing a riot.”

“The abbreviated form posse emerged at the end of the 17th century, but really came into its own in 18th- and 19th-century America,” he writes.

As it turns out, the noun “posse,” which was introduced into English in the mid-1600s, has had negative associations in some of its usages, but other senses of the word are benign or positive.

Like the longer phrase “posse comitatus,” the short form “posse” once meant “the population of local able-bodied men whom a sheriff may summon to repress a riot, pursue felons, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was used this way in 1646, for example.

But at almost the same time, in 1645, it was also being used loosely to mean “an assembled force, band, or company, often with hostile intent.”

This is the OED’s earliest example: “All the Posse of Hell, cannot violently eject me.” (From Thomas Fuller ‘s Good Thoughts in Bad Times, the reflections of a Loyalist in the time of Charles I.)

However, by the 1700s “posse” was being used figuratively, according to the OED, to mean “any throng or assembled group (of persons, animals, or things); a clutch.” In this sense, the word is found “now usually without negative connotation,” the dictionary adds.

Sometimes it’s even used semi-humorously, as shown in many OED citations. In a letter written in 1728, for example, Jonathan Swift mentioned a “whole posse of articles.”

And in a 1787 journal entry William Beckford wrote, “A whole posse of the young lady’s kindred—brothers, cousins and uncles—stood ready at the street door to usher me upstairs.”

In her Letters From Abroad (1841), Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote: “Found her flying from a posse of cock-turkeys.”

In other citations, the word simply means a group, as in these examples from Oxford:

“I met Mr. Ferdinand, M. d’Herigny, and a posse of their friends, who were just entering the Carreau Wood, to hunt.” (From Benjamin Webster’s play The Village Doctor, 1839.)

“He posed a posse of rhetorical questions.” (From Frederic Raphael’s biography Byron, 1982.)

“May I suggest that the Transport Secretary, together with a posse of ministers, visits Heathrow and Gatwick.” (From a July 1990 issue of Flight International.)

The word is also used colloquially, the OED says, to mean a peer group, especially of the young. Oxford cites these examples:

“[In 1982] the d.j.’s developed a specialized presentation. … ‘Posse’ was used to refer to any group.” (From Anita M. Waters’s book Race, Class, and Political Symbols, 1985.)

“He … jammed with both a posse of M-Base acolytes from Belgium and with Surinamese musicians based in Amsterdam.” (From a 1990 issue of Straight No Chaser, a British magazine devoted to black music.)

“There are about 20 seats up there, so there was Leo and his posse and his mom all watching the movie.” (From a January 2001 issue of a London newspaper, the Star.)

This sense of the word—a group of friends—is also found in all the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, both American and British.

In Jamaican English, however, “posse” has a more pejorative meaning—a criminal gang, often involved in drugs. This sense of the word is known in the US, since two of the OED’s citations are from American sources:

“Enforcement agents blame Jamaican posses for some 500 homicides and … gun-running.” (From Boston magazine, July 1987.)

“Blake, a former posse leader, has agreed to help attack the Caribbean drug pipelines.” (From a September 2000 issue of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis.)

Though the OED doesn’t say so, this criminal sense of “posse” is also used in reference to American gangs, according to at least two standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has the old “sheriff’s posse” definition, plus these others: “A search party”; “A gang involved in crimes such as running guns and illegal narcotics trafficking; “(Slang) A group of friends or associates.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) lists those same senses of “posse.” It words the criminal sense this way: “a gang, esp. one engaged in selling drugs.”

We don’t find that meaning in any other standard dictionaries. Merriam Webster Unabridged, for example, includes all of those above, except the gang sense.

Getting back to your question, is “posse” racist?

Standard dictionaries generally define “racism” as the belief that one’s own race is better than others, and as discrimination or prejudice based on that belief. The adjective “racist” describes someone or something that fosters such discrimination or prejudice.

By that definition a white man’s use of the term “posse,” with its Jamaican gang associations, in reference to the friends of a successful black athlete and businessman may perhaps be seen as racist.

In fact, we often hear the adjective “racist” used loosely to describe anyone or anything that demeans a racial, ethnic, or religious group. This sense isn’t in standard dictionaries, but we wouldn’t be surprised to find it there one of these days.

However, dictionaries may not be the best place to settle a dispute about whether a word like “posse” is racist in certain situations.

As the editors of Merriam-Webster Online say in a usage note, dictionaries “are not always well suited for settling disputes” like this:

“The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”

We doubt that Phil Jackson meant to refer to LeBron James and his associates as a gang. He likely meant the word in the sense of a group of friends or associates.

But LeBron James didn’t interpret it that way.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this. Words don’t operate in a vacuum. The same word can be neutral, positive, negative, or perhaps even racist, depending on the context.

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Dial A for anachronism

Q: When I call a doctor’s office, I always hear this message: “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” The terms “hang up” and “dial” were meaningful in the days of rotary phones. But I imagine that millennials must find them quaint or silly. How long will it be before they’re replaced?

A: Many old words die out, while others live on with new meanings. In horse-and-buggy days, for example, a “dashboard,” was a board or apron that prevented horses’ hooves from throwing mud onto passengers. But the word survived into the automobile era as the instrument panel on a car.

Will the old telephone terms “hang up” and “dial” survive in the age of smartphones? Perhaps.

The paper-editing terms “copy,” “paste,” and “carbon copy” (or “CC”) have lived on in the digital age, as has the analog phone term “ringtone” (originally, “ringing tone”). And if you work in an office with a telephone exchange, you’re familiar with the sound of a “dial tone.”

Most standard dictionaries now define the verb “dial” simply as to make a phone call, and “hang up” as to end a call.

However, it wouldn’t be hard to rewrite that doctor’s message (“If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911″) without using the old terms or creating new ones: “If this is an emergency, call 911.”

The Collins English Dictionary reports a drop in the use of “dial” (both noun and verb) since 2002, though our googling indicates that the verb is still quite popular. The sentence “If this is an emergency, dial 911” is apparently more than three times as popular as “If this is an emergency, call 911.”

Even if English speakers eventually abandon the use of “dial” for making phone calls, we wouldn’t be surprised if the phrasal verb “dial down” survives in its figurative sense of to lower the intensity of something, as in “He needs to dial down his rage.”

(“Dial down” showed up in its literal sense in 1935, and figuratively in 1988, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

The word “dial” has evolved since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a noun for an instrument used to measure time—an hourglass, a clock, a watch, and so on. It ultimately comes from diēs, classical Latin for “day” and the source of the English word “diurnal.”

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1410-12 nautical inventory in which the term “dyoll,” according to the dictionary, “is likely to refer to a sandglass.” (The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites a sundial for the earliest usage.)

When the verb showed up in the 17th century, it meant “to survey or lay out (land, a mine) with the aid of a miner’s or surveyor’s compass.”

The first OED citation is from a 1653 chronicle in verse about lead mining in Derbyshire: “To make inquiry, and to view the Rake, / To plum and dyal.” (A “rake” is a vein of ore.)

The use of the noun “dial” in reference to telephones showed up at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest OED citation is from American Telephone Practice (1900), by K. B. Miller:

“The subscriber … places his finger in the slot numbered 6, and turns the dial until his finger strikes the stop on the lower edge of the dial, then he lets go and the dial returns to normal position.”

The dictionary’s first use of the verb “dial” in the telephone sense is from a 1918 congressional report about extending the telephone system in the District of Columbia: “Making it possible to dial from any station connected with the War Board to any other automatic station connected to that board.”

Oxford‘s earliest citation for “hang up” used for a telephone is from Modern American Telephony in All Its Branches (1912), by Arthur Bessey Smith: “When the subscribers are through talking, they hang up their receivers.”

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we discuss the history of “dashboard” and other old terms that are now used for the most part in new ways. Here’s an excerpt:

Loophole. In the 1300s a ‘loupe,’ later a ‘loop hole,’ was a small vertical slit in a castle wall for spotting enemies and shooting arrows at them. It probably came from a Middle Dutch word, lupen, meaning to lie in wait, watch, or peer. So an archer trapped in a besieged tower would shoot through a loophole at the surrounding forces. Today a loophole is usually an omission or ambiguity that gives you an opening to evade a legal provision.

Earmark. For centuries, farmers notched the ears of livestock as a means of identifying them, and many ranchers still do. The resulting noun, originally spelled ‘eare-marke,’ dates from 1523 and the verb from 1591, according to the OED. These days to ‘earmark’ usually means to set aside funds for a specific purpose, a metaphorical usage dear to the hearts of politicians since the mid-nineteenth century.

Transfixed. It once meant pierced or stuck through with an arrow or a spear. The verb ‘transfix,’ according to the OED, first appeared in print in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590), where Semiramis, the queen of Assyria, is ‘transfixt’ by her son’s own sword. Nowadays someone who’s ‘transfixed’ is fascinated or mesmerized, as if stuck to the spot.

Tenterhooks. In the 1400s, tenterhooks were nails or pointed, L-shaped hooks set along the edges of a wooden frame (called a ‘tenter’) for stretching and drying newly woven woolen cloth. In the eighteenth century, people began using the word figuratively, and ‘to be on tenterhooks’ (no, not ‘tenderhooks’!) was to be tense or held in suspense. In today’s far from relaxing times, that’s the principal meaning.

Bellwether. Once upon a time, everybody knew that a wether was a castrated ram, and a bellwether the sheep that wore a bell to lead the flock. The word today has a literal meaning only in sheep-raising circles. Most of us now regard a bellwether as something that signals future trends.

Distaff. In the eleventh century a distaff (then spelled ‘distaef’) was a staff wound with unspun flax or wool. The ‘dis’ in ‘distaff’ was probably from a Low German word diesse, meaning a bunch of unspun flax. The staff, about a yard long, was held under the left arm, and wisps of material were pulled through the fingers of the left hand, then twisted with the fingers of the right and wound onto a spindle. The word ‘distaff’ came to be associated with women’s work, and it’s now a noun or adjective referring to the feminine side of things.

Dashboard. Believe it or not, we had dashboards before we had cars. In the early nineteenth century, a dashboard was a barrier of wood or leather used as a mud guard at the front, and sometimes the sides, of a horse-drawn carriage. The dashboard kept mud from being ‘dashed’ into the interior by the horses’ hooves. When you go for a spin today, the horses under your hood don’t splatter mud on the passengers, but a dashboard is standard equipment.

Deadline. The original deadline was a four-foot-high fence that defined the no-man’s-land inside the walls around the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, during the Civil War. Any captive Union soldiers who crossed the deadline were shot. The word first appeared in an inspection report written in August 1864 by a Confederate officer, Lieut. Col. D. T. Chandler: ‘A railing around the inside of the stockade and about 20 feet from it constitutes the “dead-line,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.’ After the war ended in 1865, Capt. Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the infamous camp, was tried and hanged for war crimes. Not until the early twentieth century did ‘deadline’ come to mean a time limit. The OED’s first mention is in the title of a play about the newspaper business, Deadline at Eleven (1920). This usage may have been influenced by a somewhat earlier sense of the word: a guideline marked on the bed of a printing press. These days, as we all know, journalists aren’t the only ones with deadlines to meet.

Linchpin. The word ‘linchpin,’ which dates back to the 1300s, began life as a pin inserted into an axle or a shaft to keep a wheel from falling off. It was used exclusively in that way from the days of horse-drawn carriages to the T-Birds and Coupe de Villes of the 1950s. The metaphorical use of ‘linchpin’ (as a vital person or thing) is relatively new—the OED’s first citation is a 1954 diary entry by the author Malcolm Muggeridge. But today only mechanics and hobbyists still use the word in its original sense.”

Some old words have needed a little help to survive in a changing world, as we wrote on the blog in 2012. What was once simply a “guitar,” for example, is now referred to as an “acoustic guitar” to distinguish it from the newer “electric guitar.”

The term “retronym,” which arrived on the scene in the 1980s, refers to such a new name coined to differentiate the original form of something from a more recent version. Other retronyms include “analog watch” (as opposed to a digital one), “conventional oven” (versus a microwave), and “skirt suit” (as opposed to a pantsuit).

Getting back to your question, will the verbs “dial” and “hang up” die out? Or will they be repurposed for the age of smartphones? Only time will tell.

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A copper’s nark

Q: I’ve been doing a bit of time travel these days via old radio recordings. On a 1950 broadcast of Whitehall 1212, a program based on Scotland Yard cases, a key character is a “copper’s nark.” In the states he’d be called a “stool pigeon.” How did Brits come up with “copper’s nark”?

A: The term “copper’s nark,” meaning a police informer, showed up in Britain in the late 19th century, but “nark” itself had been used earlier in that same sense and still earlier to mean a nasty person.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “nark” is of “unknown origin,” but adds that “perhaps” it comes from nok, the word for “nose” in the dialect of Romany spoken in England.

However, the OED says this “assumed development would require that the Romani word had an extended sense denoting a person, but this is not attested.” (The English word “nose” has been used as a slang term for a police informer since the 1780s.)

When the word “nark” appeared in the mid-19th century, it referred to an “annoying, unpleasant, obstructive, or quarrelsome person,” according to the dictionary.

The first example in the OED is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “They are the rankest narks vot ever God put guts into, or ever farted in a kickses case [pair of trousers].”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “nark” used in the snitch sense is from The Vulgar Tongue, an 1857 slang dictionary that defines it as “a person who obtains information under seal of confidence, and afterwards breaks faith.”

(The author, Ducange Anglicus, is a pseudonym formed from the surname of the 17th-century French philologist Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, and the Latin word for “Englishman.”)

The next citation refers specifically to a police informer: “Nark, a person in the pay of the police; a common informer.” (From  A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, 1860, by John Camden Hotten.)

The third Oxford example (from the May 24, 1879, issue of the journal Notes and Queries) uses the full term you heard on the radio program Whitehall 1212 (the old phone number for Scotland Yard): “Copper’s nark, a police spy.”

In the late 19th century, the word “nark” took on the additional sense of a “police officer.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from No. 747: Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy, an 1891 novel by Francis Wylde Carew (pen name of Arthur E. G. Way): “If you don’t turn up my fair share, I’ll put the narks upon you. S’elp me never, I will.”

Finally, the verb “nark” has been used since the late 1800s in the sense of to act as an informer or to annoy. Here’s an example for the “annoy” sense from John Dalby’s 1888 novel, Mayroyd of Mytholm: “That’s just what he’s ta’en to him for, just to nark Mayroyd.”

All the OED citations for “nark” in its various senses are from British, Australian, or New Zealand sources.

However, the dictionary has an entry for a similar word, “narc,” which it defines as chiefly North American slang for a “police agent or investigator concerned with narcotics.”

Oxford describes the American usage as a “clipping or shortening” of the noun “narcotic,” and notes a similar US slang term, “narco,” for illegal drugs, a South American drug baron, or a police agent concerned with narcotics. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds that “narc” can also mean an informer.

Although the OED describes “narc” as a clipped form of “narcotic,” the dictionary says it may also have been influenced by the British term “nark.” In fact, the earliest Oxford citation for the American usage spells the word “nark”:

“The narcotics bureau of the Treasury Department wanted to keep all drugs illegal, to step up law enforcement, add thousands of T-men, G-men, and narks to the payroll.” (From The Politics of Ecstasy, 1966, by Timothy Leary. We’ve filled in an ellipsis in the OED example.)

The next citation spells it the usual American way: “The police didn’t frighten him. The Narcs didn’t frighten him.” (From Shaft, a 1971 detective novel, by Ernest Tidyman, that inspired four films and a TV a series.)

And here’s an example from American Heritage for “narc” used as a verb meaning to “snitch”: “He was caught dealing drugs because his roommate narced on him.”

As for “stool pigeon,” the term originally referred to a hunting decoy—a live pigeon fastened to a stool to attract game birds. If you’d like to read more, we discussed the usage on the blog in 2008.

Getting back to “copper’s nark,” we’ll end with this example from George Bernard Shaw’s 1916 play Pygmalion: “It’s a—well, it’s a copper’s nark, as you might say. What else would you call it? A sort of informer.”

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A Melican man

Q: In your “Phoo, pfui, and phooey” post, you reference a 1926 Lorenz Hart lyric from “A Melican Man.” I remember my mother singing such a song back in the ’50s (she was born in 1907). Can you tell me something more about the song?

A: “A Melican Man” was written for the musical Betsy (1926), which was a horrific flop for Rogers and Hart. The only good song in the musical, “Blue Skies,” was written at the last minute—by Irving Berlin.

We doubt that your mother was familiar with “A Melican Man.” Like several other songs, it was cut from the production before the musical’s New York opening. There’s more about the play on the musical database Ovrtur.

You can also find the song in The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart (1995 expanded edition). Unfortunately it’s not online, but it may be at a library near you.

Something to keep in mind as you search for your mother’s song. Another old song, entitled “Melican Man” and set to a foxtrot, was published in the same year (1926) and is credited to Leland A. White, Mary Black, and Lucile Burton.

There was also a 1913 song, “Me Melican Man” (described as “A Pigtail Rag”), by Albert J. Weidt. We can’t tell you anything about the lyrics of those songs.

It may be that the song your mother sang had “Melican man” in the refrain or other lyrics, but not in the title.

The term “Melican man” showed up in the mid-19th century as a caricature of the pidgin spoken by Chinese immigrant laborers in the US.

A song called “Hay Sing, Come From China” was published anonymously in the 1860s and tells of a Chinese immigrant out West who wins the heart of an Irish girl, who later abandons him for a “Melican man”—that is, an “American man.”

The word is repeated several times, as in this verse:

Oh, my name Hay Sing, come from China.
Me likee Irish girl, she likee me.
Me from-a Hong Kong, Melican man come along,
Steal an Irish girl from a poor Chinee.

This song and others in a similar vein were popular on minstrel circuits, which caricatured Asians as well as blacks, and which toured well into the early 20th century. Chinese caricature songs were also popular on the vaudeville circuits.

The original “Hay Sing, Me From China” is anthologized in Songs of the American West (1968), by Richard E. Lingenfelter, Richard A. Dwyer, and David Cohen.  Again, it’s not online but it’s a prominent book and may be in a nearby library.

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A richly woven tapestry

Q: The fabrics in our lives assume multiple meanings, as in, “I didn’t cotton to him because he tried to pull the wool over my eyes.” A topic for the blog?

A: Fabric and sewing terms are often used figuratively. To borrow a cliché of book reviewing, English is a richly woven tapestry.

We’ve written several posts about these terms, including one in 2008 about “cotton,” a word of Arabic origin that has been used figuratively since the 1600s to mean “get on together” or “suit each other.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an anonymous Elizabethan play about the life of the 16th-century English mercenary Thomas Stukley (also spelled “Stukeley,” “Stuckley,” and “Stucley”):

“John a Nokes and John a Style and I cannot cotton.”

(From The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley, 1605. The play is in The School of Shakespeare, Richard Simpson’s 1878 collection of Shakespearian apocrypha and other works associated with Shakespeare.)

Here’s a later example from Lady Anna, an 1874 novel by Anthony Trollope: “You see, she had nobody else near her. A girl must cotton to somebody, and who was there?”

The OED says the source for this sense of “cotton” is uncertain, but it suggests that the usage may come from the original meaning of the verb when it showed up in the late 1400s: to “form a down or nap” on cloth.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the original meaning is from a 1488 entry in the accounts of  the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: “viii elne of cotonyt quhit clath” (“eight ells of cottoned white cloth”). An “ell” was roughly four feet; if a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.

In commenting on the evolution of “cotton,” the dictionary points the reader to a 1608 example from The Family of Love, a play by Thomas Middleton. The citation uses the verb figuratively to mean “prosper” or “get on well,” and at the same time harkens back to its original sense: “It cottens well, it cannot choose but beare A prety napp.”

In the early 20th century, the verbal phrase “to cotton on to” came to mean “to form a liking for” or “to  get to know about,” according to Oxford citations.

Here’s an example for the liking sense from “Children of the Bush,” a 1907 short story by the Australian writer Henry Lawson: “I s’pose the fact of the matter was that she didn’t cotton on to me, and wanted to let me down easy.”

And this is an example for the understanding sense from See How They Run, a 1936 novel by the Irish writer Jerrard Tickell: “I don’t seem to cotton on to German somehow.”

As you’d imagine, the word “wool” in its original sense (the “fine soft curly hair” of sheep and similar animals) is very old, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary, dated around 725, that translates lana, Latin for “wool,” as uul in Old English.

In the 16th century, English speakers began using the noun figuratively in the expression “against the wool” (the wrong way).

The earliest OED citation is from The Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John (1531), by William Tyndale: “He wresteth all the Scriptures & setteth them clean agaynst the woll, to destroy this article.”

In the 19th century, the noun showed up in the expression to “pull (or ‘draw’ or ‘spread’) the wool over someone’s eyes.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from the April 24, 1839, issue of the Jamestown (NY) Journal: “That lawyer has been trying to spread the wool over your eyes.”

And here’s a “pull” example from the Sept. 29, 1842, issue of Spirit of the Times, a short-lived Philadelphia daily newspaper: “Look sharp, or they’ll pull wool over your eyes.”

In a recent post, we noted that the verb “sew” is often used figuratively, especially in the expression “all sewed (or sewn) up,” which showed up in the early 1900s to describe a situation that’s brought to a conclusion.

The first OED citation is from True Bills (1904), a collection of sketches by the American humorist George Ade: “The Man with the Megaphone Voice cut no Ice whatsoever, for they had him sewed up.” (The loudmouth was prevented from speaking at a formal dinner.)

We wrote a post in 2015 that discusses several other fabric or sewing terms, including “yarn,” “weave,” “thread,” and “knit,” and one in 2014 that considers the use of “thread” in the online sense.

The “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with may be related, but the evidence is uncertain. One theory is that the expression “spinning a yarn” comes from sailors’ telling stories while making rope—that is, twisting yarn.

The verb “weave” has been used metaphorically (as in “a richly woven tapestry”) since the 1300s, while the noun “thread” has referred to a narrative train of thought since the 1600s, and a series of messages or posts on the same subject since the 1980s. The adjective “knit” has been used metaphorically to mean joined since the 1300s, as in “a close-knit family” or a “well-knit” novel.

Here are the OED‘s earliest known examples of those and some other figurative uses of textile terms.

“chiffon” (light and delicate, like the diaphanous fabric): “Chiffon pumpkin pie.” (From Fashions in Foods, a 1929 cookbook published by the Beverly Hills Women’s Club.)

“embroider” (to embellish rhetorically, often with fictions or exaggerations): “The Græcian Historians and Poets, imbroder and intermixe the tales of auncient times, with a world of fictions.” (From The History of the World, 1614, by Sir Walter Raleigh.)

“fleece” (to swindle or overcharge): “The cardinall knowing he was well prouided of monie, sought occasion to fleece him of part thereof.” (From The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, 1577-87, by Raphael Holinshed.)

“homespun” (homely and rustic, like the homemade yarn or cloth): “Lest my homespun verse obscure hir worth, sweet Spencer let me leaue this taske to thee.”  (From Thomas Watson’s Eglogue Vpon the Death of Walsingham, 1590.) “Eglogue” is an early spelling for “eclogue,” a short poem.

“knit” (joined, as in “a close-knit family”): “First body and saul togyder knyt.” (From the anonymous Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience, 1340.)

“plush” (luxurious, like the sumptuous fabric): “If one were to pass his life in moving in a palace car from one plush hotel to another.” (From the March 1890 issue of Harper’s Magazine.)

“tweedy” (casual, countrified, preppy): “Iris stood before them in tweedy brevity of skirt and pertness of tam-o-shanter.” (From Between Two Stools, a 1912 novel by Rhoda Broughton.)

“weave” (to create an intricate story or plan): “Wo! … seith the Lord, that ȝee [you] schulden do counseil, and not of me; and wefen [weave] a web, and not bi my spirit.” (From John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Vulgate Latin Bible into Middle English.)

“yarn” (a story): “Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.” (From a glossary of criminal slang in The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, 1819.) Despite this citation, the OED says the usage originated as nautical slang.

“thread” (a narrative train of thought): “If one read skippingly and by snatches, and not take the threed of the story along, it must needs puzzle and distract the memory.” (From James Howell’s Instructions for Forreine Travell, 1642.)

“thread” (a linked group of posts or messages): “When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.” (From a May 30, 1984, post on a Usenet group, net.news.)

“wooly” or “woolly” (hazy and confused): “It [a scene in a picture] looks woolly, undecided in shapes.” (From an 1815 issue of The Sporting Magazine.)

“tapestry” (a colorful and intricate mixture of things): “Nature neuer set forth the earth in so rich tapistry, as diuers Poets haue done.” (From An Apologie for Poetrie, written sometime before 1586 by Philip Sidney.)

We’ll end with the word “fabric,” which meant a building when it showed up in English in the 1400s. It didn’t come to mean a textile until the late 1700s.

English borrowed the term from French, but the Latin source is fabrica, the trade of a faber, a worker in metal, stone, wood, and so on (a carpenter, for example), according to the OED.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is probably “a prehistoric Indo-European base meaning ‘fit things together.’ ”

The first example in the OED (as “an edifice, a building”) is from William Caxton’s 1483 translation from the Latin of Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), a collection of stories about medieval saints, by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa: “He had neuer studye in newe fabrykes ne buyldynges.”

How did the English word for a “building” come to refer to cloth? As Ayto explains, “the underlying notion of ‘manufactured material’ gave rise to the word’s main present-day meaning ‘textile.’ ”

The first OED citation for this new sense is from An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea (1753), by Jonas Hanway: “We are every day making new fabrics.… No nation can make such excellent cloth as this.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add the reference to “cloth.”)

The dictionary’s next example, which we’ve also expanded, is from An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India (1791), by William Robertson:

“There they observed the labours of the Silkworm, and became acquainted with the art of working up its productions into a variety of elegant fabrics.”

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It’s powwow time

Q: I assume “powwow” comes from a Native American language, but how did this word spread to all parts of the country when the indigenous peoples spoke so many different languages?

A: You’re right in thinking that “powwow” was an indigenous American word. You’re also right in suspecting that it wasn’t originally used throughout the continent, since Native American tribes did speak many different languages.

The word came into English in the early 17th century from Narragansett, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This was one of the Eastern Algonquian languages spoken in the coastal Northeast.

To the Narragansetts, who were indigenous to what is now Rhode Island, the word “powwow” meant a priest—that is, a shaman or healer. The word was also known among the Massachusett Indians.

The meaning in reconstructed proto-Algonquian, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), was “one who has visions.”

Native American languages were not written until the advent of Europeans, so “powwow” was first recorded in the 1620s by English colonists who spelled it a variety of ways (“powah,” “powaw,” “pawawe,” etc.).

In the 1630s another meaning of the word was recorded in English, and it’s the principal meaning today. Here’s the OED’s definition: “A religious or magical ceremony (especially one with feasting),” as well as “a council or conference of North American Indians.”

This ceremonial sense of “powwow” apparently originated in English, not in Narragansett, which had other words for “meeting” (miâawene), “religious feast” (nákommit), “feast” or “dance” (nickómmo), and “solemn public meeting” (esaqúnnamun), according to colonial-era glossaries.

As American Heritage explains, the new usage evolved “because of the important role played by the healer or holy person in these events.”

“Today, when speaking in English, some Native American communities themselves use the word powwow to refer to meetings or gatherings held according to the traditional ways of their people,” the dictionary adds.

So how did “powwow” spread from New England to tribes across the continent? Our guess is that the Narragansetts themselves had something to do with it.

Notable as traders and importers of goods from other tribes, the Narragansetts were also trading with the British and Dutch at least as far back as 1623, according to Barry M. Pritzker, in A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples (2000).

The British recorded the word the following year, in 1624 (we’ll get to its use in English later). But it’s reasonable to assume that “powwow” spread first from the Narragansetts to neighboring tribes and later to distant ones.

As Pritzker notes, for most of the 17th century the Narragansetts were the dominant tribe in New England. In the mid-1670s, after what is known as King Philip’s War, many Narragansetts were dispersed among other tribes, and some ended up as far west as Wisconsin. No doubt they took their words along with them.

“By 1880, at least thirty tribes were organizing public-invited gatherings, increasingly referred to as ‘powwows,’ ” Craig Harris writes in Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow (2016), a book about American Indian music.

But it’s likely that European settlers and traders who had picked up the word also helped spread it as they traveled across the continent. OED citations show that the use of “powwow,” in both of its senses, was widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One white settler in particular helped to popularize “powwow” and to preserve many other Narragansett words—Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Plantation, an English settlement that welcomed religious dissenters.

It was the Narragansetts, then a powerful and influential tribe, who sold land to Williams in 1636 for the settlement.

Williams was not only a clergyman and a statesman but also a language scholar, and he’s responsible for much of what we know of the Narragansett and other Algonquian languages in colonial times.

He said that his book A Key Into the Language of America (1643), a study of the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of the native people, was “framed chiefly after the Narrogánset Dialect, because most spoken in the Countrey.”

But even before Williams arrived on the scene, “powwow” had entered English.

When first recorded in English in the 1620s (spelled “powah”), the word meant “a priest, shaman, or healer,” according to the OED.  This is also what it meant to the Narragansetts. In his book, Williams spelled the word powwaw (plural powwaûog) and said that to native speakers it meant “priest.”

Here is Oxford’s earliest citation in English writing:

“The office and dutie of the Powah is to bee exercised principally in calling vpon the Divell, and curing diseases of the sicke or wounded.” (From Good Newes from New-England, 1624, by Edward Winslow, who acted as the Pilgrims’ primary negotiator with New England Algonquians, including the Wampanoag, Massachusett, and Narragansett tribes.)

In the following decade the ceremonial meaning of “powwow” came into English. The earliest example we’ve found is from “A Discourse About Civil Government,” a tract written sometime in 1638 or ’39 by the clergyman John Davenport:

“These very Indians that worship the Devil, will not be under the government of any Sagamores [chiefs] but such as join with them in the observance of their pawawes and idolatries.”

(The OED quotes part of this passage, but gives an imprecise date, 1663, and an incorrect author, John Cotton. In his 1702 biography of Davenport, Cotton Mather credits the tract to Davenport and says the name “Cotton” was substituted for “Davenport” on the printed tract “by a mistake.” An 1839 commentary by Leonard Bacon demonstrates convincingly that the tract was written “sometime between April 15th, 1638, and June 4th, 1639.” The tract was published in 1663, but the title page notes: “Written many Years since … And now Published.”)

The modern spelling of the word as “powwow” (often hyphenated, “pow-wow”) was recorded as early as 1634, according to OED citations, though the spelling fluctuated for a couple of centuries until that became the standard.

A third, and more general, meaning of the word emerged in the early 19th century, defined in the OED as “a meeting, a conference, esp. of powerful people; (also) bustle, activity.”

The dictionary describes this usage as “colloquial” and says it first appeared in the US: “The Warriors of the Democratic Tribe will hold a powow at Agawam on Tuesday.” (From the June 5, 1812, issue of the Salem Gazette in Massachusetts.)

We still use “powwow” this way, as in this more contemporary example from the OED: “A family pow-wow after lunch decided that the afternoon should be spent on a secluded beach.” (From a 1987 issue of the Sunday Express Magazine, London.)

Among Native Americans today, “powwow” usually means a festive get-together celebrating Indian culture, and less commonly a medicine man or woman. Pritzker’s Native American Encyclopedia defines it this way:

“Powwow: Commonly used to describe a gathering at which native people dance, sing, tell stories, and exchange goods, the term also refers (in a mainly Algonquian context) to a healer or a healing ceremony.”

Today the Narragansett language has died out, though revival efforts are under way. Meanwhile, “powwow” has lived on in other Native American languages as well as in English.

The Narragansetts have lived on too. Today, as Capers Jones writes in The History and Future of Narragansett Bay (2006), their yearly powwow is “perhaps the most long-lived Indian meeting on the North American continent.” The tribe’s 341st annual powwow was held in Charleston, RI, last August.

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Testing the waters

Q: Do you know when the phrase “to test the waters” came to mean “to float an idea”? I can’t help wondering if it once had something to do with “to take the waters,” as at a spa.

A: The expression “to test the waters” (or “water”) has been used literally since the 19th century in the sense of testing water for its purity, chemical content, and so on.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a report in the February 1881 issue of the Canada Medical Record about an outbreak of typhoid fever at Bishop’s College University (now Bishop’s University) in Lennoxville, Quebec:

“It appeared desirable to test the waters qualitatively as to their constitution, as to presence of ammonia or ammoniacal salts, chlorides, and organic matters, also for magnesia.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has a somewhat later citation from The Fatal Three, an 1888 novel by the English writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “I have tested the water in all the wells.”

In the 20th century, the expression “to test the waters” took on the figurative sense you’re asking about, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “to make a preliminary test or survey (as of reaction or interest) before embarking on a course of action.”

The earliest OED citation for this sense is from A Little Murder Music, a 1972 mystery by Diana Ramsay: “ ‘If you’re attempting to establish a motive—’ ‘I’m just testing the water,’ Meredith said.”

And here’s an example from Judith Krantz’s 1980 novel Princess Daisy: “ ‘I guess it’s just a lucky thing that Supracorp’s such a big business,’ Kiki said, testing the waters.”

The OED doesn’t have an example for the expression used in the literal sense of testing the temperature of water, such as before going in for a swim or giving a baby a bath.

But we’ve found many examples in database searches, including this one from Building the Baby (1929), by Carolyn Conant Van Blarcom: “Test the water with a thermometer or your elbow before putting the baby in.”

You asked if “to test the waters” once had something to do with “to take the waters,” a much older usage that the OED defines as “to drink or bathe in the waters from a mineral spring or spa for reasons of health or well-being.”

As far as we can tell, the two expressions have nothing in common except the H2O, which they refer to either literally or figuratively.

The earliest OED citation for the older “take the waters”  is from The Yorkshire Spaw, a 1652 treatise by John French on four medicinal wells: “I approve not of taking the waters too fast.”

However, we found an example from the 1980s that uses “test the waters” in the sense of “take the waters” at a spa. In Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980), the biographer Ronald Steel writes:

“During the summer of 1898, when with his parents at the resort town of Saratoga Springs, where New Yorkers of all classes retired to test the waters and bet on the horses, he met his first authentic hero.” (The hero was Admiral George Dewey, whose squadron had just defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila.)

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When “tract” is off track

Q: Several educated people I know use “tract” when they mean “track,” as in “The political science tract is one path to law school.” My desultory search of reference works finds nothing on this usage. Do you condone it?

A: No, “tract” and “track” are not synonyms. They mean different things and are not interchangeable.

As a general rule, the word for an extent or expanse of something (like a plot of land), or for a system of organs, is “tract.” The word for a trail, path, line, or course (academic or otherwise) is “track.”

However, people quite often confuse these words.

Sometimes they mistakenly use “track” in place of “tract,” as in this citation from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “SCAAP skirted those obstacles by buying tracks of undeveloped land.”

Or this Fox News headline from 2014: “Have digestive problems? Tips, tricks to get your digestive track in check.”

In both cases, the correct word is “tract,” meaning an area of land in the first example and a bodily system in the second.

Less often, people use “tract” where “track” is called for, as in this example from Garner’s Modern American Usage (4th ed.): “to help you keep tract of where you are in the filing system.”

Or on the academic websites that offer “advance tract” or “college pre-med tract” or “pre-law tract” programs.

In those cases the correct word is “track.” In the Garner’s example, to “keep track of” means to mentally follow the course of something. In the school examples, it means a course of study.

Despite their similar sounds, “tract” and “track” come from different sources, “tract” from Latin and “track” from Germanic.

But as we’ll explain, both of these words, first recorded in English in the 15th century, ultimately have to do with pulling, dragging, or drawing out. So over the centuries they’ve occasionally overlapped.

We’ll start with the more limited word, “tract.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it comes from the noun tractus, which in Latin means “a drawing, dragging, pulling, trailing,” derived from the verb trahĕre (to draw, drag).

The more distant ancestor is a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as tragh– (pull, move, run), which is a “rhyming variant” of dhragh– (drag), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

The first example in writing is far off the beaten path. In 1486, it appeared as an obscure term in heraldry for a longitudinal division of a field within a coat of arms.

The OED’s earliest example is from a Middle English work, The Book of St. Albans, which has a passage devoted to the subject: “Off tractys in armys” (“Of tracts in arms”). This sense of “tract” is now obsolete.

The principal meanings of “tract” all have to do with the extent or duration of something, senses that began showing up around 1500 in relation to time.

These senses of the word, and the dates when they first appeared, include a time delay or deferral (1503-04); a period of time, as in a “longe tracte of tyme” (sometime before 1513); a stretch of territory or an expanse of space, air, water, etc. (1533); an anatomical structure, usually extending lengthwise, in a plant or animal, such as the “alimentary tract” (1681); a bounded parcel of land, especially one slated for development (1912).

The OED notes, though, that over the years “tract” was sometimes used in the senses of “track” and “trace,” but later on, the words diverged again.

For instance, during the 16th to 19th centuries “tract” was sometimes used to mean a path, route, or course of action. This usage is now rare or obsolete, the OED says, and the meaning is “usually expressed by track.”

And during the same period “tract” was sometimes used to mean a mark left behind, like a footprint or trail. This usage, too, is now rare or obsolete, and Oxford says the usual word is “trace.”

Another, unrelated meaning of “tract” should be mentioned here. The noun for a piece of writing, as in a book or pamphlet, showed up in the 1400s, an apparent abbreviation of tractātus, a Latin noun meaning “a handling, treatment, discussion, treatise,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest examples, “tractes of God” and “a generalle tracte,” are from 15th-century documents that are perhaps as early as 1425 or as late as 1475.

When “track” entered English in the 1400s, it meant pretty much what it means today, if you add in the later figurative uses.

This is the OED’s earliest definition: “The mark, or series of marks, left by the passage of anything; a trail; a wheel-rut; the wake of a ship; a series of footprints; the scent followed by hounds.”

The dictionary’s first written example is dated 1470-85: “Myght I fynde the trak of his hors I shold not fayle to fynde that Knyghte” (from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).

Unlike “tract,” as we mentioned earlier, the noun “track” did not come from Latin, according to etymologists.

“Track” entered English through Old French (trac), but language scholars generally think the French borrowed it from Germanic sources, the OED explains.

The dictionary says that it may have entered French by way of the Middle Low German and Middle Dutch noun trek (a pull or a haul). In both Germanic languages, the verb trekken means to draw, pull, tug, drag, or haul.

How did an English word derived from Germanic sources for dragging and pulling come to mean a trail?

The OED explains that “the original sense would appear to have been the line or mark made on the ground by anything hauled or dragged, whence also the mark made or path beaten by the feet of man or beast.”

Though etymologists don’t link “track” to ancient Indo-European, it seems likely that the Germanic trekken has prehistoric origins that would connect it to “tract.” But the evidence, if it exists, apparently hasn’t been found.

Some later senses of the word, and the dates when they were first recorded in writing, include a route of travel (1576); a course of action or conduct (1638); a path or rough road (1643); a railway line (1806); a race course (1836); a branch of athletics (1905); a set of grooves on a record album, hence a recorded piece of music (1904); an educational stream (1959).

The word has given us many catchphrases and figurative expressions, including to shoot someone “dead in his tracks” (1824); to “make tracks” (1835-40); to be on a “false track” (1871); “covering up his tracks” (1878); “to keep track of” (1873); “on the right track” (1886); “on a wrong track” (1889); “one loses all track of” (1894); “kept close track of” (1902); “from the wrong side of the railroad tracks” (1945, later with “railroad” omitted); “made me stop dead in my tracks” (1954); “keep us on track” (1978).

With that, we’ll stop in our tracks.

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Couples therapy

Q: I’m curious to hear your views about the correct use of the word “couple” when referring to therapy. Is it “couple therapy,” “couples therapy,” or “couple’s therapy”?

A: All three appear regularly in popular and scholarly publications. A fourth version, “couples’ therapy,” isn’t seen as much.

Which term should you use? Well, usage writers haven’t weighed in on the subject, but these are our thoughts.

If you’re writing for publication, use the one preferred by the publication. Otherwise, we’d recommend “couples therapy.” It showed up first in print, it’s the only one in standard dictionaries, and it appears more often than the others in medical dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “couples therapy” as “any form of therapy aimed at relieving problems in a sexual or domestic partnership.”

The earliest written examples date from the mid-1960s, but the usage probably existed earlier, since experiments with this therapy began a decade earlier.

The earliest example that we’ve found in our database searches is from Family Therapy and Disturbed Families, a 1967 book edited by Gerald H. Zuk and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.

A chapter in the book, written by Carl A. Whitaker and John Warkentin, is entitled “The Secret Agenda of the Therapist Doing Couples Therapy.”

As we’ve said, earlier examples probably exist, since Whitaker began experimenting with couples therapy in the mid-1950s, according to Reshaping Family Relationships: The Symbolic Therapy of Carl Whitaker (1999).

The authors of the book, Gary Connell, Tammy Mitten, and William Bumberry, discuss Whitaker’s early work:

“While it was perfectly acceptable for both partners to be in their own individual therapy, the idea of exposing them to each other during a therapy hour was unorthodox. When the presenting complaint seemed relational, Carl began inviting both partners to attend.”

The OED also has a citation for “couples therapy” from the same year as the Whitaker/Warkentin example above:

“The reason you took up couples therapy is because you got bored with individuals.” (From an interview with Whitaker, recounted in Techniques of Family Therapy, 1967, by Jay Haley and Lynn Hoffman.)

The term has been used steadily ever since. Oxford has this more contemporary example, from the British magazine Diva (May 27, 2000): “We had spent a fortune on couples therapy and, believe me, we really worked hard when we were in that room.”

The singular form, “couple therapy,” which the OED defines as meaning the same as “couples therapy,” has been around since the 1970s.

The dictionary’s earliest example is the title of a 1970 article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry: “Behavioral Approaches to Family and Couple Therapy.”

This later example is from a Texas newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News (Sept. 17, 2005): “The sex therapist may want to work with him alone at first, then eventually include couple therapy.”

The OED doesn’t have any citations for “couple’s therapy,” but we’ve found several dating from the 1970s.

The earliest is from a 1970 issue of Voices, a journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists: “The therapist is always involved during couple’s therapy with the struggle between the spouses.”

We’ve found entries for the therapy in only two standard dictionaries, Meriam-Webster Unabridged and the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Both entries are for “couples therapy,” which the Unabridged defines as “usually short-term counseling designed to help couples understand and resolve problems, dissatisfaction, and conflict in their relationship.”

It gives this example from the March 1990 issue of Vogue: “For wealthy addicts or poor ones, addiction is never an isolated problem, but often requires treatment for depression or anxiety, or couples therapy for the many addicts in dysfunctional relationships.”

We’ve found several medical dictionaries with entries for “couples therapy,” including the online Dorland and Merriam-Webster medical references. However, the entry in Mosby’s Medical Dictionary (9th ed.) is for “couples’ therapy.”

As for the various terms for the therapists themselves, the plural “couples therapist,” defined in the OED as “a practitioner of couples therapy,” is the oldest.

This is the OED’s first citation: “The sex therapist must be an extremely skilled psychotherapist and couples therapist if he is to be successful.” (From Helen Singer Kaplan’s The New Sex Therapy, 1974.)

And this is the dictionary’s earliest example for the singular form, “couple therapist,” defined as meaning the same as “couples therapist”:

“There may be a perception of one of the therapists in family therapy which is dominated by his role as an individual or couple therapist.” (From an article by Roger L. Shapiro and John Zinner, collected in Exploring Individual & Organizational Boundaries, edited by W. Gordon Lawrence, 1979.)

The OED doesn’t have a citation for “couple’s therapist.” The earliest we’ve found is from Soul Survivors: A New Beginning for Adults Abused As Children, a 1989 book by J. Patrick Gannon:

“If you select an experienced couple’s therapist, who is savvy in the issues that survivor relationships present, it may be well worth the time and the expense.”

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The roll of the dice

Q: When an indeterminate number of dice are rolled, does one say “die roll” or “dice roll”? I play a lot of tabletop role-playing games and some authors tend towards one usage, some the other. I would like to be correct in my own usage. (I favor “die roll.”)

A: Traditionally, the word “dice” refers to either a game played with dice, or to more than one of the cubes used in such a game.

While traditionalists still prefer “die” for just one of the cubes, many usage authorities now define “dice” as one or more.

If an indeterminate number of dice are to be rolled, you ask, is it a “die roll” or a “dice roll”? We would say “dice roll.”

In the phrase “dice roll,” the noun “dice” is being used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to modify the noun “roll.” We think the word “dice” in that phrase can be viewed two ways: either as a game played with dice or as one or more of the cubes used in the game.

The phrase “die roll,” in our opinion, is a legitimate but stuffy way of referring to the roll of a single cube.

However, the popular online dictionary Wiktionary notes that “die” is “predominant among tabletop gamers.” If the phrase “die roll” is part of the specialized language used by the gamers you play with, then feel free to use it yourself.

We haven’t used the singular “die” ourselves in this post because we use “dice” for both the singular and plural in the gaming sense. We’ll explain our thinking later, but let’s look first at the history of these words.

When the term showed up in early Middle English, the singular was “die” (originally spelled “dē” or “dee”), and the plural was “dice” (originally, “dēs” or “dees”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The plural showed up first in writing. The earliest OED citation is from Robert Mannyng’s Middle English translation (circa 1330) of Roman de Brut, a verse history of Britain by the Norman poet Wace:

“Somme pleide wyþ des and tables” (“Some played with dice and tables”). Backgammon was once referred to as “tables.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the singular is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “The chaunce is cast upon a dee, / But yet full oft a man may see.”

However, the OED also has citations dating from the late 1300s for a Middle English version of “dice” used in the singular.

The first example, from a 1388 act of Parliament, uses the plural “dyces,” suggesting the existence of a singular “dyce.”

The next example, a Latin-English translation from around 1425, is clearer: “Hic talus, dyse.” (Talus means “ankle bone” as well as “dice.” The Romans made dice from the tali, or ankle bones, of animals.)

So is “die” or “dice” the singular today when used in the gaming sense? The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical principles, says “dice” is by far the dominant singular.

“The form dice (used as pl. and sing.) is of much more frequent occurrence in gaming and related senses than the singular die,” the dictionary says.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard (or general) dictionary, says this in a usage note:

“Historically, dice is the plural of die, but in modern standard English, dice is both the singular and the plural: throw the dice could mean a reference to two or more dice, or to just one. In fact, the singular die (rather than dice) is increasingly uncommon.”

However, other standard dictionaries are divided about the oneness of “dice” when the term is used in games. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “die” is the singular and “dice” the plural. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says either “die” or “dice” can be singular.

Usage guides are also divided. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rejects “dice” as “a false singular,” but Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says: “The small cubes with faces bearing 1-6 spots used in games of chance are the dice (pl.); and one of them is called a dice.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language sides with Fowler’s: “Dice is etymologically the plural of die, but the latter is virtually no longer in use (outside the fixed phrase The die is cast), with dice reanalyzed as the lexical base: another dice ~ a pair of dice.”

We agree with the OED, Oxford Dictionaries, Fowler’s, and Cambridge that “dice” now is both singular and plural. However, we also believe that when at the gaming table, do as the gamers do.

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