The Grammarphobia Blog

Yankees fleeced! Mets licked!

Q: These sentences appeared recently in a news roundup in the NY Times: “Red Sox fleece Yankees” and “Phillies lick Mets.” Are these poorly conceived puns by sportswriters?

A: Both “fleece” and “lick” are commonly used in a figurative way to describe getting the better of somebody. These usages are very common and we can’t blame baseball writers for them, since they’ve been in use for many centuries.

In fact, figurative uses of these two verbs probably preceded the literal ones—at least in written English. Here’s the story, beginning with “fleece.”

The verb was derived from the noun “fleece,” the word for an animal’s wooly pelt, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The noun descended from old Germanic terms and was first recorded in Old English sometime before the year 1000.

In its literal sense, of course, to “fleece” a sheep is to strip it of its wool, a meaning first found in writing in the 17th century—but even then it was used metaphorically.

In fact, OED’s earliest use of “fleece” in its sheep-shearing sense uses the word in a metaphor: “A Clergy, that shall more desire to fleece, Then feed the flock” (from George Wither’s long poem Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628).

And almost a century earlier the verb was used figuratively in the sense of “to obtain by unjust or unfair means” or “to take toll of, take pickings from.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a letter sent by King Henry VIII on Feb. 25, 1537, in which he chews out his Lord Deputy and Council in Ireland:

“Good counsailors shuld, before their oune private gaynes, have respecte to their princes honor, and to the publique weale of the cuntrey whereof they have charge. A greate sorte of you (We must be plain) desire nothing ells, but to reign in estimacion, and to flece, from tyme to time, all that you may catche from Us.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

And in the late 1500s, a figurative construction that’s common today showed up in English writing.

The OED defines this use of “fleece” as “to strip (a person, city, country, etc.) of money, property, etc., as a sheep is stripped of its fleece; to make (any one) pay to the uttermost; to exact money from, or make exacting charges upon; to plunder, rob heartlessly; to victimize.”

So the verb was practically made to order for sportswriters looking for more vivid words than “defeat” or “beat” or “rob of a victory.”

Why do figurative uses of the verb “fleece” predate and outnumber the literal senses of the word?

Our guess is that “shear,” a verb that’s been in English writing since the late 800s, has always been the more common literal term for removing a sheep’s wool.

Similarly, the verb “lick,” another word from old Germanic sources, has had both literal and figurative meanings since its first appearances in 10th-century manuscripts

The principal sense of “lick,” to pass one’s tongue over something, was first recorded in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s.

But figurative uses of “lick” are even older.

To “lick the earth (or ground)” was to suffer defeat, a usage first recorded in an illuminated manuscript believed to have been created some time in the early 900s.

Here’s the citation from the Paris Psalter: “His feondas foldan liccigeað.” (“His enemies licked the ground”).

The usage (similar to “bite the dust,” 1749) also shows up in John Wycliffe’s translations of the Psalms and Micah in the 1380s: “His enemys the erthe shul licken,” and “Thei shuln lick dust as the serpent.”

In other usages, to “lick one’s knife” (circa 1400) was to be parsimonious. To “lick one’s lips (or fingers)” (c 1500) was to display “keen relish or delighted anticipation of some dainty morsel,” the OED says.

And to “lick into shape,” meaning “to mould” or make presentable, alludes “to the alleged practice of bears with their young,” Oxford notes.

This expression could be as old as 1413, but the earliest definitive citation is from George Chapman’s comedy The Widdowes Teares (1612): “He has not lickt his Whelpe into full shape yet.”

Finally, the figurative usage we see in sports headlines, in which “lick” means to beat or punish, appeared in writing in the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example for this sense of the word comes from A Caueat for Commen Cursetors (1587), Thomas Harman’s pamphlet about tramps and vagabonds.

In the booklet, Harman defines the word “lycke” as meaning “to beate.”

So “lick,” like “fleece,” was a natural for sportswriters!

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Oust, ouster, oustered?

Q: I’ve read and heard the word “oustered,” but I can’t find it in dictionaries. Is this really a word? Enquiring minds want to know! (Ten bonus points if you know the reference off the top of your head.)

A: The word “oustered” isn’t in the six standard dictionaries we usually check. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

All seven references have entries for the verb “oust” and the noun “ouster,” but not for a verb “ouster,” let alone its past tense or past participle “oustered.”

Nevertheless, we’ve found examples for “ouster” used as a verb since the late 1960s and “oustered” used since the early 1970s.

A 1968 report by New York State investigators refers to getting councilmen “to ouster” an official in Troy, NY.

And a 1972 article in the journal Intellect says a university chairman “is elected, appointed, or roundly oustered, largely at the behest of his colleagues.”

Although the verbing of the noun “ouster” has increased somewhat in recent years (a Google search for “oustered” gets about 1,700 hits), the usage is still rare, which explains why you can’t find it in dictionaries.

Is “oustered” really a word? Well, it’s a word—a unit of written or spoken language—for the people who use it. But lexicographers don’t think it’s word-y enough to include in their dictionaries.

As for the etymology here, the verb “oust,” the oldest of these words, showed up in the early 1400s as a legal term meaning to eject or dispossess.

English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from obstare, Latin for to stand in the way of.

The earliest example in the OED is a 1420 entry from the records of the Court of Chancery, an equity court in England and Wales:

“We wol and charge you that … ye see and ordeyne that oure saide tenant … be not wrongfully ousted by maintenance of lordship ner other wyse.”

In the late 1700s, the verb took on its usual contemporary sense of “to expel or drive out from a place or position,” according to OED citations.

The first example in the dictionary for this sense is from an Oct. 8, 1787, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay: “”An intrigue is already begun for ousting him from his place.”

When the noun “ouster” showed up in the early 1500s, according to the OED, it referred to “ejection from a freehold or other possession; deprivation of an inheritance.” (A freehold is a lifetime possession of an estate.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1531 book by Christopher St. Germain, featuring a dialogue between a clergyman and a barrister about conscience and common law: “To saue them selfe fro confessynge of an oustre.”

In the late 1700s, according to Oxford citations, the noun came to mean “dismissal or expulsion from a position.”

The first citation given is from The Biographical History of Sir William Blackstone (1782), compiled by “a gentleman of Lincoln’s-Inn,” a k a “D. Douglas”:

“Whenever the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal is removed from his high office, be the same by resignation or ouster; that he should be immediately … created a peer of the realm.”

Now, according to Oxford, the noun is chiefly used to mean removal from a place or situation.

Here’s an example of this extended use from the Dec. 20, 1973, issue of the Listener, a defunct BBC magazine:

It is the hope … that enough damning evidence would be found to force the ouster of the President overnight—to make him resign.”

As for your pop quiz, hand over those 10 bonus points. We’re well aware that “Enquiring minds want to know” was a catchphrase used by the National Enquirer in TV ads in the 1980s.

The expression itself, as we found after making a few digital inquiries, is a lot older, and uses the more common spelling of the first word.

The earliest example we’ve found in online searches is from an Aug. 16, 1856, letter by Frances Baroness Bunsen:

“I rejoice in the accounts of your meeting people, and being stimulated the more to write what inquiring minds want to know.”

Note: Although “enquiring” shows up more in the UK than the US, three of the four British dictionaries we’ve checked list “inquiring” as the primary spelling for UK English.

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Turkey Day

(Note: This post originally appeared on the Grammarphobia Blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.)

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

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On tilling and tills

Q: Your post about “no money in the till” made me wonder whether “till,” the cash box, is related to “tilling” the fields to make money. Or perhaps not make money if the till is empty. 

A: No, the verb “till” (to cultivate land) and the noun “till” (a money box) aren’t related, though they both have ancient Germanic roots.

When the verb showed up in Old English (spelled “tilian”) in the late ninth century, it referred to “striving to obtain a goal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto explains that the Old English word is ultimately derived from a prehistoric Germanic term, reconstructed as tilam, meaning “aim, purpose.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I: “He sceal tilian ðæt he licige” (“He shall strive that he please”).

This sense of striving or exerting oneself toward a goal evolved over the next few centuries to mean to cultivate the land, according to citations in the OED.

By the 12th century, the citations show, the verb “till” was being used in the agricultural sense of “to bestow labour and attention, such as ploughing, harrowing, manuring, etc., upon (land) so as to fit it for raising crops.”

The OED’s first example for this sense is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Þat lond heo lette tilien” (“That land he delayed tilling”).

By the late 14th century, it was also being used specifically in reference to plowing the land. The first Oxford example is from William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (1377):

“My plowman Piers … for to tulye treuthe a teme shal he haue” (“My plowman Piers … shall have a team [of oxen] to plow true”).

Now for the cash box. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the noun “till” is derived from tylle, Anglo-French for a compartment, and tille, Old French for a compartment as well as a shelter on a ship.

In Old Icelandic, the dictionary notes, thilja meant a plank or floorboard, a usage that can be traced back to theljon, a reconstructed proto-Germanic term for a flat surface.

When the noun “till” showed up in English writing in the 15th century, it referred to a closed compartment located within a chest or cabinet and used for keeping all sorts of valuables, not just money.

The OED’s first citation is from Munimenta Academica (1452), a collection of documents relating to the University of Oxford that were compiled by the Rev. Henry Anstey. This example is primarily in Latin, with the Middle English “le tylle” showing its French origins:

“Prout patet in scriptis indenturis positis in ‘le tylle’ in studio meo Oxoniæ” (“Insofar as it can be seen in the written indentures placed in ‘the tylle’ in my Oxford study”).

In the late 17th century, the noun “till” took on its usual modern sense, which the OED defines as “a drawer, money-box, or similar receptacle under and behind the counter of a shop or bank, in which cash for daily transactions is temporarily kept.”

The first example of this usage in the dictionary is from a 1698 entry in the London Gazette: “Lost out of Mr. Wray’s Shop in Little-Britain, a Til.”

Getting back to your question, are the verb “till” and the noun “till” related?

No. While they both have prehistoric Germanic roots, the verb ultimately comes from a term for an aim or a purpose, while the noun comes from a word for a flat surface.

If you haven’t had your fill of “till,” you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2006 on “’til,” “till,” and “until.”

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Enniched, inurned, and entombed

Q: I beg to disagree with you about the use “inter” for ashes placed in a columbarium. Actually, the proper verb is “enniche” because “cremains” are placed in a niche. Just sayin’.

A: Our “Burial Ground” post was about whether the verb “inter” could be used for remains placed in a niche in a columbarium.

We also mentioned the verb “inurn,” a term favored by many in the funeral or cemetery business. Perhaps we should have mentioned “enniche,” another example of morticianese, and “entomb,” a more established term.

The four standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree that to “inter” means to place in the earth or a tomb (most add “or the sea”).

All four also have entries for “inurn” in the sense of to place cremated ashes in an urn. However, none of them have entries for “enniche,” and the verb barely exists in literary, news, and more general databases.

One of the few examples we’ve found is on a Toledo, Ohio, cemetery website that offers “The Right Place for the Right Price,” as well as this piece of advice:

“A common misconception that people often have when they purchase the right of internment [sic] in a cemetery is that they have purchased the land itself, when in fact what they have really purchased is the right to be interred (also referred to as buried, entombed, enniched or placed) on or in that particular piece of property.”

As we noted in our post, a tomb can be either above the ground or entirely or partly below. So there’s no contradiction in using “inter” for placing ashes in a columbarium.

These days, of course, the funeral industry, like so many other enterprises, has fancier terms for its services.

We suspect that “enniche” (to put remains—or “cremains,” as if we needed to be reminded of the method—into a columbarium) is simply trade jargon.

And we doubt that “enniche” will ever become a term in common usage. Two things should be noted about this verb.

(1) People would disagree on the pronunciation and look askance at one another. As we wrote on our blog in 2009 and 2010, the traditional pronunciation of “niche” is NITCH.

The industry, we’ll bet, prefers the newer, Frenchified NEESH. No funeral director wants to sound as though he’s saying “an itch.”

(2) There was once an old verb “enniche,” which the OED says is now obsolete and which was used in a different, semi-humorous way. The meaning of this now defunct verb was “to set up in a niche, as a statue.”

Oxford gives an example of the usage from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1761): “He … deserves to be en-nich’d as a prototype for all writers.”

Finally, in case you’re interested, we wrote on the blog a few year ago about why “bury” is pronounced like “berry.” It all began back in Anglo-Saxon times.

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On ignorance and stupidity

Q: As I understand it, “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge about something, while “stupidity” is doing something when you know it’s a mistake. I ascribe a sort of willfulness to “stupidity.” Is my view reasonable?  Is there a better word for this concept of stupidity?

A: Although the two words are often used interchangeably, standard dictionaries generally define “ignorance” as a lack of knowledge, and “stupidity” as a lack of intelligence.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, defines “ignorance” as “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education,” and “stupidity” as “the state of being foolish or unintelligent.”

Most of the five dictionaries we checked (including Merriam-Webster’s) add that “stupidity” can refer to a foolish action as well as foolishness, but we could find only one dictionary that defines the two terms somewhat as you do.

Oxford Dictionaries online says “ignorance” is “lack of knowledge or information,” while “stupidity” is “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment” or “the quality of being stupid or unintelligent.”

You could perhaps defend your view as reasonable by citing Oxford, but we think it would be more sensible to go with the majority on this. The point of language is communicating. Why choose a usage that may be misunderstood?

Is there a better word, you ask, for the quality that leads to willfully doing something stupid?

Well, words like “imprudence,” “incompetence,” and “ineptitude” come to mind, though none of them clearly indicate willfulness. “Rashness” and “recklessness” suggest willfulness but not necessarily lack of intelligence.

Etymology doesn’t help us here. When “ignorance” and “stupidity” showed up in English, they meant pretty much the same as they do today.

English borrowed the word “ignorance” from the Old French ignorance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the ultimate source is ignorantia, Latin for lack of knowledge.

When the word first showed up in Middle English in the early 13th century, the OED says, it meant “the fact or condition of being ignorant; want of knowledge (general or special).”

The earliest Oxford example is from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women: “Sunne & ignorance. þet [is] vnwisdom & unweotenesse” (“Sin & ignorance. That is, unwisdom and unwitnessing”).

As for “stupidity,” English adapted it in the 16th century from stupiditas, Latin for dullness or senselessness. The ultimate source is the verb stupere (to be stunned or benumbed), which also gave us the word “stupor.”

When “stupidity” first appeared, according to the OED, it meant “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Robert Copeland’s 1542 translation of a medical treatise by the French surgeon Guy de Chauliac:

“Nowe we must esteme the stupydyte or audacyte of the man. I say the stupidite yf he thynke to say well, and the boldnes yf he fele hym selfe culpable to saye nothynge.”

And here’s a shorter and wittier example from Every Man in his Humor, a 1598 play by Ben Jonson: “I forgiue Mr. Stephen, for he is stupiditie it selfe!”

We’re sorry to disappoint you, but none of the senses for “stupidity” in the OED suggest willfulness.

However, an obsolete sense that’s not applicable got our attention: numbness, as in “stupidity of the teeth,” an English version of a late Latin expression, stupor dentium.

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Brighton Rock fixes

Dear Readers,

There were several errors in today’s post about Brighton Rock slang. We fixed them in the late morning, so if you read an earlier version, check out the latest.

Pat and Stewart

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Brighton Rock slang

Q: In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s characters use “polony” and “buer” for a woman of loose morals, but I can’t find the terms in dictionaries. I know that if I use them in Scrabble I will get challenged!

A: You can find both words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “buer” as a woman, especially “one of loose character,” and “polony” (a variant spelling of “palone”) as “a young woman” or “an effeminate man.”

The OED has a citation from Brighton Rock (1938) that includes both of the words: “ ‘What about that polony he was with?’ ‘She doesn’t matter,’ the Boy said. ‘She’s just a buer.’ ”

The earliest Oxford example for “palone” (also spelled “paloni,” “pollone,” and “polone”) is from Cheapjack, a 1934 memoir by Philip Allingham, the brother of the mystery writer Margery Allingham:

“I’d rather ’andle a man any day than a lot of these silly palones.”

The dictionary describes “palone” as “slang (derogatory),” and most of the citations use the the term along the lines of such slang words as “broad,” “chick,” “doll,” and “dame.”

The OED says “palone” is of uncertain origin, but may be a variant of “blowen,” slang for a wench.

Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, cites theories that the term may have come from Italian words for a chick or a straw mattress.

As for “buer,” the OED describes the term (also spelled “bure,” “buor,” and “bewer”) as “north. dial. and Tramps’ slang” of unknown origin.

Green’s Dictionary suggests that “buer” might have originated as a word for “tramp” in Shelta, a language spoken by Irish Travellers (itinerants in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere).

The OED’s first citation for “buer” is from an 1807 poem by John Stagg: “A bure her neame was Meg, / A winsome weel far’ word body.”

We should mention here that “polony” has another meaning. In the UK, it may refer to a “Bologna sausage,” which Americans usually call “bologna” or “baloney.”

Oxford says “polony” in the sausage sense is “probably an alteration of Bologna.” John Camden Hotten, in The Slang Dictionary (1913), explains that it’s a Cockney version of “Bologna.”

The earliest citation in the OED for “polony” used in this sense is from a 1654 issue of a smutty journal, Mercurius Fumigosus:

“A Lady of Pleasure voiding a Worm in the Coach-box, bigger then a Polony Sassage.” (The term “Worm” here refers to a dildo.)

In researching your question, we came across a Brighton Rock glossary on the collaborative website Book Drum. However, the definitions for “buer” and “polony” differ somewhat from ours, and we can’t vouch for the rest of the entries.

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Is the “s” in “pants” out of style?

Q: I’ve been waging a losing battle over the creeping use of  “pant” vs. “pants.” As far as I’m concerned, “pant” is what a dog does on a hot day, not something I’d wear. If you feel I’m a cranky, persnickety nitpicker and should just start wearing skirts, I’ll abide by your ruling.

A: Keep your pants on. We’ve also noticed this use of “pant,” especially—perhaps exclusively—among people in the fashion world.

Anybody who shops, whether in stores or through catalogs or websites, will know what we mean. Apparently, plurals regularly drop when we shop. It’s enough to get one’s knicker in a twist.

And it’s not just a “pant” thing. Fashionistas are singularly using “jean” and “trouser” as well, along with “pajama,” “short,” “legging,” “brief,” “tight,” and “panty.”

Yes, “panty”! We’re reminded that we once answered a reader who asked why his wife put on a “pair of panties” but not a “pair of bras.”

Getting back to your complaint, this “s”-dropping tendency goes against the grain.

As we wrote on the blog in 2012, words for leggy items of clothing are generally plural—“pants,” “jeans,” “shorts,” “trousers,” “breeches,” “overalls,” “long johns,” “drawers,” “briefs,” “panties,” “jodhpurs,” etc.

The same goes for footwear, which more obviously comes in twos: “shoes,” “boots,” “slippers,” “espadrilles,” “sneakers,” “socks,” “moccasins,” and so on. All of these wearable plurals are accompanied by plural verbs.

So what’s up with the shift to the singular in reference to a pair?

It would appear that this is the fashion industry’s notion of creative marketing. An unusual word—like “pant” where the customer expects “pants”—is supposed to make us think the item so named is more stylish (or “on trend”).

In Fabulously Fashionable (2012), her novel spoofing the British fashion world, Holly McQueen comments on this linguistic tendency.

“These people do not speak about clothes the way ordinary people do,” she writes. A word like “pants” is, “more often, a pant. Similarly, shoes are always a shoe; jeans are usually a jean.”

And in 2013, Rachel Braier wrote about this singular trend in the Guardian. The letter “s,” Braier writes, “appears to have become redundant in the lexicon of fashion and style. It’s as if an edict has been issued from Vogue HQ banning its use.”

Does this usage have a future? Braier has this to say: “Well, you may think, what’s the problem? The world of fashion is all about novelty and affectation—this won’t filter down into everyday parlance.” But, she warns, “Don’t be so sure.”

As she explains, “The whole raison d’être of fashion is to influence—it’s why we no longer wear a boot-cut jean or a square-toed shoe (see how naturally I’m doing it). If fashion dictates that we no longer need plurals, ‘s’ will be condemned to the linguistic discount bin quicker than you can say ‘boho-inspired shrug.’ ”

In fact, the usage is beginning to influence some lexicographers.

Of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, three include entries for the singular noun “pant” for clothing, but they note that it’s “usually” or “often” used in the plural.

One of the three, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), adds this: “The use of the singular pant is largely confined to the fields of design, textiles, and fashion.”

The dictionary gives this example: “The stylist recommended that the model wear a pant with a checkered print.”

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the singular “pant” is largely confined to the rag trade. Its description says the singular is “in current sense chiefly used in the retail clothing industry.”

But, as OED citations show, this retail use of “pant” isn’t new. Apart from a lone sighting in 1832, the OED‘s examples begin with uses in the garment industry in the early 1890s.

Here’s a citation from Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi, an 1893 book by Hubert Anthony Shands:

“Pant … an abbreviation of pantaloons, used by clerks in dry-goods stores. They say: ‘I have a pant that I can sell you,’ etc. Of course, pants is a well-known abbreviation, but I think pant is rather a new word.”

From the late 19th century onward, the singular usage appeared steadily in retailing, as in this line from a 1962 L. L. Bean catalog: “A practical and well made pant for general sportswear.”

So in the case of “pant,” the use of the singular isn’t new to the clothing business—just perhaps more widespread lately.

And, as we’ve written before on the blog, the singular is commonly used in an adjectival way, as in “pantleg” and “pantsuit.”

As for the etymology, we can thank San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice, for the word  “pants,” according to the OED.

He was so identified with the city that Venetians came to be known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was a rich miser known as Pantalone.

This character typically wore “spectacles, slippers, and tight trousers that were a combination of breeches and stockings,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the 17th century, etymologists say, French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as pantaloons in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. The earliest Oxford example for the new usage is from an 1835 issue of the The Southern Literary Messenger:

“In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

Well, it’s time for us to walk our dogs, Pat in her flats and Stewart in his baggy pants.

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Plantation mentality

Q: After reading your post about the “master” controversy at Yale, I was shocked to be driving by an Ivy League campus in upstate NY and seeing a sign that pointed the way to “Cornell Plantations.”

A: It’s interesting that you should write to us about this, since Cornell University is even now reconsidering the name “Cornell Plantations” and may end up changing it.

More about that later, and about how Cornell’s arboretum and gardens got that name 70 years ago. But first let’s examine the word “plantation.”

To many Americans, this is a loaded word. In a country that still bears the scars of slavery, “plantation” evokes images of the antebellum South, whose economic system depended upon slave labor.

But even before its use in America, the word had meanings connected with colonialism and the domination of defeated countries. This is because from its earliest appearance in English, “plantation” has had dual meanings.

The ultimate source of “plantation” is the classical Latin plantātiōnem, propagation from cuttings, which was derived from plantāre, to propagate by cuttings.

In medieval Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, plantātiōnem came to mean “something that has been planted,” as in a plant, a foundation, an institution, a nursery, or a colony.

Meanwhile, plantāre gave early Old English the verb “plant,” which had two sets of  meanings: (a) to set a seed or plant into the ground; and (b) to found something like a colony or church, or to instill an idea, emotion, belief, etc.

These dual senses of the verb “plant” were first recorded at the same time, in King Ælfred’s 9th-century translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

When “plantation” appeared in English in the early 1400s, the OED says, it was a product of both the medieval Latin plantātiōnem  and the Old English verb “plant.” Consequently it had two broad meanings—the establishment of an institution or a colony, or the placing of a seed or shoot in the soil.

The sense of “plantation” that was recorded first, according to OED citations, was “something that has been founded, established, or implanted, as an institution, a religion, a belief, etc.”

This sense of the word first appeared in the Foundation Book of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Hospital and Priory in London, which the OED dates at around 1425. The manuscript refers to St. Bartholomew’s as “this new plantacioun.”

(Sir Norman Moore, who published a history of the 12th-century hospital in 1918, places the date of the manuscript at “about the year 1400.”)

The next recorded meaning of “plantation” is defined by the OED as “the action of planting seeds or plants in the ground.”

This sense first appeared around 1429 in an anonymous book, Mirour of Mans Saluacioune: “Aarons ȝerde [rod] fructified without plantacioune.” (In the biblical Book of Numbers, Aaron’s rod sprouted buds and produced almonds.)

Both of those early senses of “plantation” are now obsolete, the OED says, but they evolved into these later meanings in the 16th and 17th centuries:

(1) “A cultivated bed or cluster of growing plants of any kind,” or “an area planted with trees, esp. for commercial purposes.”

(2) ”A settlement in a conquered or dominated country; a colony.” This usage, the OED says, is found “chiefly with reference to the colonies founded in North America and on the forfeited lands in Ireland in the 16th-17th centuries; also with reference to the ancient colonies of Greece, etc.”

(3) “An estate or large farm, esp. in a former British colony, on which crops such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco are grown (formerly with the aid of slave labour).”

An extended use of that last meaning, the OED says, developed in the 1950s: “any institution regarded as exploitative or paternalistic, esp. in fostering an environment of inequality and servitude reminiscent of slavery.”

Oxford says this sense appears “chiefly in African-American usage,” and all of its citations are from African Americans. Among them is this one from Miles Davis’s Autobiography (1989):

“All the record companies were interested in at the time was making a lot of money and keeping their so-called black stars on the music plantation so that their white stars could just rip us off.”

This OED example appeared a decade later in the New York Times: “Civil rights groups advocated a boycott of Twins games and the future Hall of Famer Rod Carew said he did not want to keep playing for Griffith’s ‘plantation.’ ”

However, we’ve found many examples of “plantation” used pejoratively by whites as well as blacks, especially in politics.

In September 2014, a Republican Congressman, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, said that Democratic Senator Harry Reid “runs the Senate like a plantation.” Cassidy added, “It is his personal, sort of, ‘It goes if I say it does, if not it stops.’ ”

Cassidy was then running for a Louisiana Senate seat, and his rival, Rep. Rob Mannes, the Tea Party candidate, jumped all over him for using the word:

“Congressman Cassidy may not realize this,” Mannes said, “but the language he used included a term that is incredibly offensive to many Americans and he should immediately apologize.”

As many journalists noticed, the controversy was reminiscent of a similar remark by Hillary Clinton in 2006, when she was a senator. She accused Republicans of running the House “like a plantation … in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard.”

But she wasn’t the first. In 1994 Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, said the Democrats “think it’s their job to run the plantation” and “it shocks them that I’m actually willing to lead the slave rebellion.”

Black public figures have even used the term against one another. In 2013, the scholar Cornel West called the Rev. Al Sharpton “the bonafide house negro of the Barack Obama plantation.”

Similarly, the phrase “plantation politics” has been used since the early 1960s to describe the control that a small, select few can exercise over a much larger group.

The term was apparently coined by the sociologist and historian Timuel Black, who used it to describe how Chicago’s mayor used black ward bosses to control the black vote.

When Black ran for the Chicago City Council in 1963, he “took on the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, accusing him of ‘plantation politics’—a phrase that garnered national attention,” according to a page honoring him on the University of Chicago’s website.

While the OED has no entry for the phrase “plantation politics,” it does have one for “plantation mentality.”

Oxford describes this as a “derogatory” term for “an attitude likened to that which was prevalent on plantations operating with slave labour, esp. in accepting or condoning racial inequality or paternalism.” We’ll quote a couple of the citations, beginning with the earliest:

“The plantation mentality still prevails and policy tends too strongly toward rehabilitation of the bankrupt planter.” (From the Journal of the Royal African Society, 1936.)

“The continuation of the plantation mentality in both blacks and whites, the white student activists told us, has got to stop.” (From Black Power and Student Rebellion, 1969, by James J. McEvoy and Abraham H. Miller.)

The six standard dictionaries we’ve checked don’t mention slavery in their entries for the noun “plantation.” They use terms like “resident labor” or “resident workers” to describe the people cultivating crops on a large estate or farm.

Considering all the evidence, though, we believe that more Americans associate the word “plantation” with its slave past than with its purely horticultural meaning.

This brings us back to Cornell University, which named its vast complex of arboretum, gardens, and nature preserves “Cornell Plantations” in 1944. Why that name?

This use of “plantations,” according to university websites, was an attempt to cleanse the term and re-establish its purely horticultural sense.

Don Rakow, a former director of the Cornell Plantations, said the name “Cornell Plantations” was coined by the botanist and horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, the first dean of the Cornell College of Agriculture.

“We believe that Bailey purposely chose to dismiss older associations of the word ‘plantations’ with slavery in favor of its proper meaning: ‘areas under cultivation or newly established settlements,’ ” Rakow said in a 2011 interview with the Ithaca Times.

Bailey (along with his father) was named “Liberty” because his grandfather was “an ardent abolitionist, one of the earliest in Vermont,” according to a 2011 article in Verdant Views, the Cornell Plantations magazine.

“When it came time in 1944 for Bailey to name Cornell’s newly established botanical garden and arboretum,” the magazine says, “it was perhaps this history and his own passion for democracy and education that led him to choose Cornell Plantations. He purposely chose to dismiss old associations with slavery in favor of the proper meaning of the word.”

Apparently this linguistic rehabilitation never came to pass, at least not in the view of A. T. Miller, Cornell’s associate vice provost for academic diversity.

“There have been rather steady expressions of surprise and objections to the name by individuals since 1944 itself, when there were clearly misgivings,” Dr. Miller told us in an email.

We heard much the same thing from Prof. Edward E. Baptist.  “I have also noted the weirdness of this name in my own lectures,” said Dr. Baptist, who specializes in 19th-century American history, particularly the history of slavery in the South.

But as we mentioned above, change may be in the air.

Christopher P. Dunn, current director of the Cornell Plantations, said in an email that the institution has begun a process that “will determine if our current name does or does not support our brand, vision, mission, and values.”

He announced this “rebranding” in a column he wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun on Oct. 8, 2015:

“There is one key element that all botanic gardens have in common: celebrating, displaying and studying the rich diversity of the world’s plants,” he wrote. “Yet to be truly effective, this celebration of natural diversity must also embrace human diversity.”

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The thing about thing

Q: I’m accustomed to the use of “thing” with a modifier to mean a fad (“X is the next big thing” or “I’m sick of this X thing”), but now I’m seeing it used by itself in that sense (“X is now a thing”). Your thoughts?

A: We discussed the history of the word “thing” in a post a few years ago, but we didn’t mention the usage you’re asking about.

As far as we can tell, the use of “thing” by itself to mean a fad or trend cropped up in print in the mid-1980s. But before getting into all the trendy senses of “thing,” let’s look at the origins of this very adaptable word.

The noun “thing,” as we said in our earlier post, has roots that go back into pre-history, before written language, when a Germanic root reconstructed as thingam is believed to have referred to time.

In the Germanic languages, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, this ancient  term came to mean “appointed time” and then evolved into a “judicial or legislative assembly.”

That was the meaning of the word when it showed up in Old English, a sense that’s still seen in other Germanic languages. The Icelandic parliament, Ayto notes, “is known as the Althing (literally ‘general assembly’).”

“In English, however, it moved on through ‘subject for discussion at such an assembly’ to ‘subject in general, affair, matter’ and finally ‘entity, object,’ ” Ayto says.

All those senses—and many more—developed back in Anglo-Saxon times, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has Old English examples for “thing” as subject, business, concern, matter, affair, deed, circumstance, fact, event, experience, incident, statement, idea, object, and so on.

In short, “thing” can mean almost anything. And some of its trendy contemporary meanings sound similar to senses that were around in the days of Ælfred the Great, the scholar-king who used the word quite a few times himself.

We don’t have the time or the stamina to discuss all the meanings of “thing” (it takes us more than 60 screenfuls to scroll through the OED’s online entry).

So let’s begin with the first usage you mentioned, “the next big thing,” which the OED defines as “the latest popular sensation; the newest trend in a particular field.”

The earliest Oxford example for the expression used this way is from a July 9, 1977, issue of Sounds weekly: “Chelsea mainman Gene October sez that the next big thing will be up and coming band New Hearts.”

However, we’ve found examples for “the next big thing” dating back to the late 1800s, when it originally referred to an important theatrical production.

The earliest example in our searches of online databases is from the June 2, 1883, issue of Punch: “I promised to put him into my next big thing.”

The modern sense of “the next big thing” as a fad or trend first showed up, we’ve found, in an 1894 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

“The next ‘big thing’ to which I call attention, is the nostrum vendor. This dare-devil worries me; every mail brings some of his diabolical literature or some of his infernal stuff, ‘all free gratis and for nothing.’ ”

A 1912 article in the International Socialist Review, entitled “The Next Big Thing,” uses it to mean “big and important” campaigns that “chase each other off the stage of life” with “the speed of a quick change artist.”

And an April 24, 1922, article in the American Dyestuff Reporter describes radiotelephony as “beyond a doubt, ‘the next big thing.’ ”

In this phrase, the meaning of “thing” clearly has a lot in common with those Old English examples in the OED that we mentioned above.

And it brings to mind a sense of the word that appeared in the early 1700s—the use of the phrase “the thing” to mean “the embodiment or epitome of stylishness.”

The OED’s first citation for “the thing” is from a 1734 essay by Alexander Pope, but we prefer this example from Distress Upon Distress, a 1752 play by George Alexander Stevens:

“Cæsar had certainly something smart about him: Mark Anthony was a very jemmy Fellow, and Cleopatra quite the Thing to be sure.”

The OED also has citations dating back to the early 1900s for the colloquial use of “thing” after a noun, noun phrase, or adjective to mean “the matter or business which pertains to or is associated with the specified place, phenomenon, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Skidoo! (1906), a collection of comic sketches by Hugh McHugh, the pen name of George V. Hobart, a director, producer, and writer on Broadway:

When it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree.”

The OED’s most recent citation is from the March 2003 issue of the gadget magazine T3: “There’s an FM/MW tuner inside to pick up any slowcoaches who haven’t cottoned on to the digital thing yet.”

Contributors to the Language Log website pointed out in 2011 that “thing” here is sometimes used to dismiss the subject as unimportant. One example cited is a quote, attributed to former President George H. W. Bush: “Oh, the vision thing.”

However, this OED citation, from a May 18, 1955, letter by Flannery O’Connor, is a more clear-cut example of the term used dismissively: “I will be real glad when this television thing is over with.”

Finally we come to the use of “thing” by itself to mean a fad or a trend. The earliest example we’ve found is from an article in the November 1984 issue of Musician magazine.

In the article, Garry Tallent, the bassist for the E Street Band, comments on a People magazine piece that compared the “clean-living” band to the Hardy Boys.

“It’s true,” Tallent is quoted as saying, “but, especially since People magazine, it’s become a thing.”

Tallent was ahead of the curve, since most of the examples we’ve found for the usage are from the last few years, as in this May 5, 2015, headline from the Huffington Post: “If ‘Dadbod’ Is a Thing, What About Mombod?”

What, you ask, are our thoughts about all this thinginess?

Well, the word “thing” has been doing its own thing since Anglo-Saxon days. And the thing about “thing” is that the newest incarnations often aren’t all that new.

In fact, the modern-sounding expression “do your thing” (or “do your own thing”) first showed up in an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“But do your thing and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”

Emerson knew a thing or two.

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Can you listen askance?

Q: What’s the deal with “askance”? It’s invariably used with “look” (or “watch”), as in “They looked askance at her unorthodox proposal.” Would it be correct to say someone “listened askance”?

A: It’s possible to read too much into a word, as you’ve done here. In the case of “askance,” you’re taking a figurative usage a bit too far.

The adverb “askance” literally means sideways or obliquely or askew. So on a strictly literal level, to “look askance” means to look out of the corner of one’s eye.

Of course, we all know that a sidelong glance can express skepticism or mistrust. That’s why for nearly 500 years the expression “to look askance” has had the figurative meaning “to be skeptical or mistrustful.”

Because this figurative usage is so well established, dictionaries (though not the Oxford English Dictionary) now define “askance” as meaning with skepticism, suspicion, or disapproval.

What some standard dictionaries fail to say is that in modern English, “askance” is rarely used except with verbs of seeing—as in “look askance,” “view askance,” or “eye askance.”

Only about half the dictionaries we’ve checked say specifically that “askance” is used in describing a look or a glance.

However, all of them, both British and American, use verbs of seeing to illustrate the use of the word: “tourists are looking askance” … “they eyed the stranger askance” … “the company may view askance your plan for early retirement,” and so on.

So the answer to your question is no—“askance” is not normally used with a verb like “listen.”

Figurative usages generally retain some element of reality, and people generally don’t listen sideways. Modifying such verbs with “askance” would stretch the figurative usage all out of shape.

“Askance” is interesting to etymologists because nobody knows for sure where it came from. Most sources, including the OED, date “askance” from the early 16th century and say its etymology is unknown.

However it developed, etymologists agree that the adverb meant sideways or askew when it first showed up.

The OED’s earliest example (written as “a scanche”) appeared in a French-English dictionary published in 1530. The English “a scanche” was defined in French as “de travers, en lorgnant” (askew, eying).

Another early literal usage cited by Oxford is this one from a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, written sometime before his death in 1542: “For as she loked ascaunce, vnder a stole she spied two stemyng Ise [glowing eyes] In a rownde hed.”

While the adverb has been used throughout its history with verbs related to looking or viewing, it has occasionally been used with others, mostly in poetry. The OED has these examples, both from long poems:

“He bid his Angels turne ascanse / The Poles of Earth” (from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667).

“They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance” (from James Beattie’s The Minstrel, 1771).

And the OED has a lone example of the adverb used with “speak” to mean “with a side or indirect meaning.” It comes from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Erechtheus, 1876):  “Journeying to the bright God’s shrine / Who speaks askance and darkling.”

But these days, “askance” is used almost exclusively in figurative expressions that include verbs related to sight. This is how the OED explains the usage:

“In the fig. phrases to look, eye, view askance the idea expressed has varied considerably, different writers using them to indicate disdain, envy, jealousy, and suspicion. The last of these is now the prevalent idea, and to look at, eye, view askance = to look at with mistrust.”

The earliest example for the figurative use of “askance” is from Edmund Spenser’s poem The Shepheardes Calender (1579): “That scornefully lookes askaunce.”

And Ben Jonson used the expression in his comic play Every Man Out of His Humor (1600): “Nay boy, neuer looke askaunce at me for the matter.”

Not all of the figurative examples in Oxford come from literature, though. In his book The Life and Growth of Language (1875), William Dwight Whitney wrote about “words … which come to be looked askance at and avoided.”

We mentioned above that the origin of “askance” has never been pinned down with any certainty.

The OED mentions some suggestions by philologists over the years: that it comes from the Italian a schiancio (“bias, slanting, sloping or slopingly, aslope, across”); or the Old Norse á ská (“askew”); or the Jutlandish ad-skands or West Frisian skân, schean, which could have a connection with the Dutch schuin (“sidewise, oblique”).

As Oxford explains in a note, “there is a whole group of words of more or less obscure origin” beginning with “ask-,” including “askance,” “askant,” “askew” and others that are now long dead: “askie,” “askile,” “askoye,” and “askoyne.”

These “ask-” words are “more or less closely connected in sense,” they appeared “mostly in the 16th or end of the 15th” century, and they “seem to have influenced one another in form,” the OED says.

But none of them can be “certainly” traced back to Old English, Oxford says. And “though they can nearly all be paralleled by words in various languages, evidence is wanting as to their actual origin and their relations to one another.”

A dissenting view comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, which suggests that “askance” has a longer history.

Chambers maintains that the adverb developed from a late 14th-century conjunction found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—“ascaunce,” meaning “as if, pretending that.”

This word, Chambers says, “appears to be an alteration of earlier ase quances meaning ‘in such a way that, even as.’ ”

And Chambers traces “ase quances,” which appeared in the early 1300s, through Old French quances (as though) back to the Latin quasi (as if, as it were, almost).

While acknowledging that this explanation is “contrary to most sources,” Chambers says it “follows the semantic and structural evidence of the Middle English Dictionary.”

So “askance” may have originated as a 14th-century Latinate conjunction or it may have appeared as a 16th-century adverb traveling incognito. We’ll say only that etymologists disagree, and leave it at that.

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When a waiter waits

Q: Have you ever addressed the issue of “wait tables” rather than “wait on tables”? The dropping of the preposition gives me indigestion.

A: There’s no reason to get heartburn over this. The two versions showed up around the same time in the 19th century. And the one you prefer is itself a clipped version of a longer expression that appeared in the 1500s. Here’s the story

When the usage first showed up in English, it was “wait at the table” or “wait on the table,” according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example (with the preposition “at”) is from The Arbor of Amitie (1568), a collection of Thomas Howell’s poetry: “Yee and ich can, if neede be than, waight at the table well.”

The first “on” example is from Glasse of Governement, a 1575 play by George Gascoigne about the Prodigal Son: “Wee should haue beene fayne to wayte on the table, and to bee contented with their leauings after supper.”

By the early 1800s, the shortened version “wait at table” was being used. The first example in the OED is from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813): “She had not prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table.”

An even shorter, preposition-less version, “wait table,” appeared later in the 1800s. The earliest Oxford example is from St. Ives, a novel that Robert Louis Stevenson left unfinished when he died in 1894:

We had a good many pleasant passages as she waited table or warmed my bed for me.”

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of “wait table,” including this caption on an engraving in The Eccentric Traveler, an anonymous 1826 novel published in London: “James waiting Table at Don Gallina’s.”

Here’s another example, from The Laird of Fife, an 1828 novel by an anonymous author: “By the bye, didn’t you wait table there last Tuesday?”

And this one is from The Adventures of Barney Mahoney (1832), a novel written by Marianne Nicholson Croker and published under her husband’s name, Thomas Crofton Croker:

“Two maids an’ a man it is she keeps, an’ you’re to be the man, Barney,—that’s if yees gets it; an’ to clane plate, an’ knives, an’ shoes, an’ windy’s, an’ run errants, an’ wait table, an’ go out wid de carriage, an’ —”

All the examples we’ve seen so far—the longer as well as the shorter—use the singular “table,” probably because the expression had been used up until this time in reference to a domestic servant waiting at a single table in a home.

The two plural expressions you’ve asked about, “wait on tables” and “wait tables,” didn’t appear until well into the 1800s.

The earliest example we’ve found for “wait on tables” is in the transcript of an 1837 debate in Cincinnati between Alexander Campbell and the Rev. John B. Purcell about the Roman Catholic religion:

“The apostles exercised various functions—I admit it. But they substituted the deacons to wait on tables, and distribute the alms, so do their successors; Christ gave them powers adequate to every emergency.”

And here’s a more worldly example from an 1884 issue of New Peterson magazine, an American periodical intended for women: “How was I to know that gentlemen in white gloves ever wait on tables?”

Finally, this is from an 1894 issue of the Methodist Magazine: “Since you like so well to wait on tables, I’ll set you at that, though I doubt you are swift-footed enough for a waiter.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the “on”-less “wait tables” is from Memoir of Jane Martin and Her Little Brother (1843), a novel written anonymously by “A Lady”:

“She made no reply, but in answer to my asking what attendance I could have, she said that her daughter had been accustomed to attend her lodgers, and added in an under tone, ‘but perhaps she was too godly now to wait tables or tidy rooms.’ ”

This example comes from a July 3, 1879, advertisement in the New York Herald: “Smart boy—wait tables—make himself useful [in] restaurants, and old man to carry signs.”

And this one appeared in a help-wanted ad from the Feb. 7, 1895, issue of the Omaha World Herald: “Wanted—boys to wait tables for their board. Webster hotel, 16th and Howard.”

Nowadays, when waiters do their table-waiting in restaurants, the plural “tables” is more common.

Here are the results of a few Google searches: “wait tables,” 225,000 hits; “wait at table,” 77,900; “wait on tables,” 72,300; “wait table,” 28,900, and “wait at tables,” 23,100.

We’ve found examples for all these usages cited without reservation in the “wait” entries of standard dictionaries, though none of the dictionaries include all of them.

In Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2005), Christopher Davies describes “wait on tables” as American English and “wait at tables” as British. That’s generally true, but not always, especially in the UK.

This is from a Dec. 13, 2003, column in the Telegraph (London): “Ben hasn’t had to babysit for slave wages. Or wait on tables for even less.”

And this is from a June 27, 2014, article in the Times (London): “Waiting on tables may be a more lucrative career for the better looking, with 40 per cent of British diners admitting to tipping attractive waiting staff double what they normally would.”

As for the etymology here, the verb “wait” ultimately comes from old Germanic words meaning to watch or guard. When it first appeared in English writing around 1200 in Vices and Virtues, a Middle English religious treatise, it meant to spy upon or lie in wait for.

It took nearly two centuries for “wait” to take on the usual contemporary sense of to remain in place or delay doing something.

The earliest known example is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): Now certes lord, to abiden your persence / Heere in this temple of the goddesse clemence / We haue been waytynge al this fourtenyght.”

And as we’ve noted above it took almost two centuries more for the verb “wait” to mean, in the words of the OED, “To serve as an attendant at table; to hand food and drink to persons at a meal.”

The noun “waiter,” which has had a similar evolution, meant one who watches when it showed up in the Wycliffe Bible around 1382.

It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that it took on the sense of “a man employed, at inns, hotels, eating-houses, or similar places, to wait upon the guests (esp. during meals),” according to the OED.

We’ll end with this modern-sounding example from The Parson’s Wedding, a 1664 comedy by the English dramatist Thomas Killigrew: “The sum is six pounds, and be pleased to remember the Waiters.”

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A timely hyphen

Q: When we describe a range of time, we say “from 3 to 4 p.m.” or “between 3 and 4 p.m.” What preposition should we use when there’s a hyphen between the two numbers? For example, “Our shop is open from/between 1-2 p.m.”

A: This is a style issue, and our go-to source for a question like this is The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). The answer?

You don’t use either “from” or “between” when the two numbers are connected by a hyphen.

You use a preposition only when the numbers are connected by “to” or “and” (“open from 2 to 4 p.m.” … “open between 2 and 4 p.m.).

Here are additonal examples: “It was missing from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.” … “It was missing between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.” … “It was missing 10 a.m.-8 p.m.”

We should explain here that most people use a hyphen for this purpose, but a publishing house would prefer a mark called the “en dash.” It got that name in the 18th century because the piece of type used to print it was as wide as the letter “n.”

The en dash is a teensy bit longer than the hyphen but smaller than the usual dash, which is technically called an “em dash” because the type is as wide as the letter “m.” Oh yes, and there are also “2 em dashes,” and “3 em dashes.” Got that?

The Chicago Manual, which is a guide used by publishers, refers to the en dash, not the hyphen, in discussing how to connect numbers in a range:

“For the sake of parallel construction, the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.”

The book uses these examples: “Join us on Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m., to celebrate the New Year” … “She was in college from 1998 to 2002 (not from 1998-2002).”

When the en dash is used to connect numbers, according to Chicago, it signifies “to,” “up to and including,” or “through.”

Remember, where the Chicago Manual says “en dash,” mentally substitute the word “hyphen.” The average reader can’t tell the difference without a microscope, and frankly, life is difficult enough.

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Between two stools

Q: I’ve often wondered if there’s a connection between the “stool” one sits on and the “stool” one evacuates. So I’m asking.

A: The noun “stool” has referred to a toilet seat for hundreds of years. Hence, the use of “stool” for the fecal matter discharged while sitting on the toilet. Here’s the story.

When the word “stool” showed up in Old English in the late 800s, it could refer to “any kind of seat for one person,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s translation of a treatise by Pope Gregory I. The king uses “stole” (the objective form of the Old English “stool”) in translating cathedra, Latin for “chair.”

In case you’re curious, the English word “cathedral” is a shortening of “cathedral church,” which refers to the church housing a bishop’s throne, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED notes that “stool” was often used for “a chair of authority, state, or office; esp. a royal or episcopal throne,” though this sense is now obsolete.

However, a similar term, the noun “see” (from sedes, Latin for “seat”), is now used in reference to the Papacy. In church Latin, the Holy See is Sancta Sedes.

Getting back to that other throne, in the early 1400s, according to Oxford, the term “stool” took on the sense of “a seat enclosing a chamber utensil; a commode; more explicitly stool of ease”—in other words, a potty chair.

The dictionary cites James E. Thorold Rogers’s A History of Agriculture and Prices in England from 1259 to 1793, which includes two 1410 examples that refer to commodes as “close stoles.”

Although you don’t hear “stool” used much now for a commode, many standard dictionaries still include the usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says it can mean “a toilet seat” or “a commode.”

The OED notes that the “groom of the stole” originally oversaw “the room containing the king’s close-stool.” And the dictionary’s citations indicate that the position  was often referred to as the “groom of the stool.”

Oxford has examples for this royal usage going back to the mid-1400s, but we’ll skip ahead to this 1526 citation from a collection of royal household ordinances and regulations:

“It is the King’s pleasure, that Mr. Norres shall be in the roome of Sir William Compton, not onely giveing his attendance as groome of the King’s stoole, but also in his bed-chamber.”

And here’s a more interesting citation, from John Harington’s A New Discovrse of a Stale Svbiect, Called the Metamorphosis of Aiax (1596):

“A seuenth (whome I woulde guesse by his writing to be groome of the stoole to some Prince of the bloud in France) writes a beastly treatise, only to examin what is the fittest thing to wipe withall, alledging that white paper is too smooth.”

Over the years, the position of “groom of the stole” evolved to become what the OED describes as “a high officer of the king’s household … ranking next below the vice-chamberlain of the household.”

Although the word “stole” here is sometimes said to be a reference to the royal robe or a stole-like ornament, the dictionary pooh-poohs this “unauthenticated sense” and says “there seems to be little doubt” that “the word is properly a variant of stool n.”

Not surprisingly, the use of “stool” in the potty-chair sense led to the “stool” that means “a discharge of fæcal matter” or “the matter discharged,” as the OED puts it.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1598 translation of Jacques Guillemeau’s Frenche Chirurgie [Surgery]: “His vrine bloodye; his stoels like matter.”

Finally, if you’re wondering, the expression “to fall (or sit) between two stools” showed up in the late 1300s, meaning “to incur failure through vacillation between two different courses of action.”

We’ll end with this OED citation about the quandary facing Lily Dale in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), the final book in Anthony Trollope’s six Barsetshire novels:

“She was like to fall to the ground between two stools—having two lovers, neither of whom could serve her turn.”

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Hallowe’en be thy name

(Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween a year ago.)

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Mostly, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus. Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has  similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-1625), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that “eerie” came to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

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So … as, so … that, so what?

Q: I’m confused by the “so … as” and “so … that” constructions in these sentences: “The word is so rare as to be almost obsolete” and “The word is so rare that it is almost obsolete.” Are they both correct? Do they mean the same thing?

A: Your two examples are grammatically correct. The adverb “so,” used to modify an adjective or adverb, can be followed by either “as” or “that.”

These “so … as” and “so … that” constructions can be similar in meaning, though they aren’t identical.

For instance, (1) “Mites are so small as to be invisible” tells us much the same thing as (2) “Mites are so small that they are invisible.” But #2 is the stronger statement, as we’ll explain below.

The difference is clearer when the consequence or result is more stark, as in (3) “The dose was so large as to be fatal” versus (4) “The dose was so large that it was fatal.” Again, #4 is the stronger statement.

Why is this? Because the “so … as” constructions indicate extent or degree, while the “so … that” constructions indicate an actual consequence—in other words, a theoretical versus a real result.

There are grammatical differences as well. The two constructions, “so … as” and “so … that,” require different sentence endings.

In #1 and #3, the preposition “as” is followed by an infinitive phrase (“to be invisible” … “to be fatal”). In #2 and #4, ”that” is followed by a subordinate clause, complete with subject and verb (“they are invisible” … “it was fatal”).

It’s also important to note that in sentences like #1 and #3, “as” is necessary and cannot be omitted. But in #2 and #4, “that” is optional and can be omitted: “The mites are so small they are invisible” … “The dose was so large it was fatal.”

In the #2 and #4 examples, “that” is what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call “a marker of subordination.”

In other words, it marks the subordinate clause that follows. And subordinate clauses don’t always require such a marker.

Both of these “so” formulations are common in negative statements, as in this line from Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594): “No perfection is so absolute, / That some impuritie doth not pollute.”

Sometimes a single sentence combines the two: “It was so hot as to melt concrete, but not so hot that we stayed inside.”

We’ve used adjectival examples here but, as we mentioned above, “so” modifies adverbs as well: “She spoke so loudly as to embarrass us, but not so loudly that the maître d’ asked us to leave.”

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Words with a checkered past

Q: What is the difference between “plaid” and “tartan”? I’ve found many answers online, but they’re not consistent. Can you help?

A: We can see why you’re confused. The terms “plaid” and “tartan” are often used interchangeably, and the definitions in standard dictionaries differ in one way or another.

To confuse things more, the same design or fabric may be “plaid” in one place and “tartan” in another. The popular checked design called Buffalo plaid in the US, for instance, is Rob Roy tartan in Scotland.

Despite their differences, dictionaries in both the US and the UK generally describe “plaid” as a pattern or fabric with a crisscross motif that includes “tartan” designs associated with Scotland.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, broadly defines “plaid” (the fabric) as “Chequered or tartan twilled cloth, typically made of wool.”

Oxford defines “tartan” more precisely as “a woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of coloured checks and intersecting lines, especially of a design associated with a particular Scottish clan.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “plaid” broadly as “a pattern on cloth of stripes with different widths that cross each other to form squares.”

But Merriam-Webster’s defines “tartan” more narrowly as “a traditional Scottish cloth pattern of stripes in different colors and widths that cross each other to form squares.”

The two of us use “plaid” as a general term for a design or cloth with a criss-cross pattern of stripes of various widths. But we use “tartan” for a design or fabric in a Highland clan pattern or one that’s similar.

Interestingly, the “traditional” association of tartan patterns with specific Scottish clans isn’t all that traditional. We’ll have more to say about this later, but first let’s talk about what makes a “plaid” design “tartan.”

On House Beautiful magazine’s website, the designer Scot Meacham Wood provides an explanation for why “All tartans are plaid, but not all plaids are tartan.”

“All plaids and tartans are comprised of stripes (in varying sizes and colors) that meet at a 90-degree angle,” he says. “We start heading into ‘tartan’ territory by looking at the geometry on the pattern.”

With nearly every tartan, he writes, “the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly duplicated on the horizontal axis too. Basically, this matching pattern in both directions will create a grid.”

“When looking at a simple plaid,” he adds, “you’ll notice that the stripes—either in color, size, or pattern—are not the same in both directions.”

Although the “tartan” pattern is now associated with Scotland, cloth has been woven with similar designs for thousands of years, according to the textile archeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

In The Mummies of Ürümchi (1999), she discusses similarities between the tartan-like leggings on a 3,000-year-old mummy found in China and the plaid textiles produced in Central Europe some 2,500 years ago.

As for the etymology, “plaid” and “tartan” had overlapping meanings when they showed up in Scottish English in the early 1500s, much as the two terms do today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the origins of the words are uncertain, but “plaid” may perhaps be related to the verb “ply” (to bend or fold cloth or other material) and “tartan” to tiretaine, an Old French term for a cloth made of wool mixed with linen or cotton.

When “plaid” first appeared, the OED says, it referred to “a twilled woollen cloth, usually with a chequered or tartan pattern.” Later, the term could also mean “any fabric having a tartan pattern.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, from a 1510 entry in the accounts of the diocese of Dunkeld in central Scotland, refers to an expense of two shillings for dying four ells of “plaidis.” (In Scotland, an ell was a length of 37.2 inches.)

About the same time, Oxford says, a “plaid” could also mean a length of such material “worn in the north of England and all parts of Scotland, later mainly in the Scottish Highlands, and now chiefly as part of the ceremonial dress of the pipe bands of Scottish regiments.”

The dictionary adds that outside the Highlands the material was “worn as a shawl by women, and as a cloak or mantle by men, but in the Highlands also as the principal article of dress.”

The OED’s earliest example for this usage is from a 1512 entry in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland:

“Item, the vj day of Maij, in Air, for ane plaid to be the King ane coit” (“Item, the sixth day of May, in Ayr, for one plaid to be the King’s own coat”).

As for “tartan,” the OED defines it as a woolen cloth, associated with the Scottish Highlands, that is “woven in stripes of various colours crossing at right angles so as to form a regular pattern” or “the pattern or design of such cloth.”

Oxford has one questionable citation dating from sometime before 1500, but the first definite example is from a 1533 item in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: “For fresing of ane tartane galcot” (“For shearing of one tartan jacket”).

The dictionary notes that each Scottish Highland clan generally has a distinctive “tartan” pattern, “often preceded by a clan-name, etc. denoting a particular traditional or authorized design.”

However, the earliest example in the OED for a tartan pattern linked to a specific clan dates back only to the 19th century. Here’s the citation from David Stewart’s Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland (1822):

“The pipers wore a red tartan of very bright colours, (of the pattern known by the name of the Stewart tartan).”

The earliest known tartan in Scotland can be dated to the third or fourth century AD, according to the Scottish Tartans Museum.

“Originally, tartan designs had no names, and no symbolic meaning,” the museum says on its website.  “All tartan cloth was hand woven, and usually supplied locally.”

Although “certain colors or pattern motifs were more common in some areas than others, no regulated or defined ‘clan tartan’ system ever existed,” according to the museum.

“Tartan, in general, however came to be extremely popular in Scottish Highland culture,” the museum adds. “So much so that by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tartan clothing is seen to be characteristic of Highland dress.”

In fact, Britain briefly prohibited the wearing of tartan (except in British military uniforms) after defeating the Jacobite forces, primarily Scottish Highlanders, at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that specific tartan designs began to be associated with the various Highlands clans, thanks to the commercial production of tartan and the interest of expatriate Scots in preserving what they mistakenly thought of as an old tradition.

“In 1815 the Highland Society of London wrote to the clan chiefs asking them to submit samples of their clan tartans,” the museum says. “Many chiefs had no idea what ‘their clan tartan’ was supposed to be.”

So the clan chiefs “either wrote to tartan suppliers” for a design “or asked the older men of their clan if they recalled any particular tartan being worn.”

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When “for sale” isn’t “on sale”

Q: I am wondering why everything being sold is “for sale,” but only promoted items with special pricing are “on sale.” Can you help?

A: We’ve often wondered about this ourselves. As all shoppers know, everything that’s “on sale” is “for sale.” But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. How did this come about?

The explanation requires a detour into etymological history.

The noun “sale” first appeared in late Old English writing around 1050, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has ancient Germanic roots, and probably came into English by way of Old Norse.

It’s always meant more or less the same thing—the disposal of a commodity for a price. Here’s the OED definition:

“The action or an act of selling or making over to another for a price; the exchange of a commodity for money or other valuable consideration.”

Oxford’s citations include this one from a will written in 1411: “Þ’ forseyd sale of my londes and tenementes.” (“Th’ foresaid sale of my lands and holdings.”)

The phrase “for sale,” which dates back to Elizabethan times, has always meant “intended to be sold” or “with a view to selling,” according to citations in the OED.

The earliest example given in Oxford is from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (circa 1611): “The other is not a thing for sale.”

This later example is from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1863): “We went into a bookseller’s shop to inquire if he had any description of Boston for sale.”

Another phrase that’s just as old, “on (or upon) sale,” has meant the same thing as “for sale.” We’ll quote a pair of the OED’s modern English examples:

“A book which has been upon sale ever since it was published, twelve years ago” (from Robert Southey’s The Life and Works of William Cowper, 1835).

“The Times is on Sale for 3d. per Copy at all railway bookstalls in England and Wales” (from a 1901 issue of the Times, London).

So far so good. For hundreds of years, the noun “sale” and the phrases “on sale” and “for sale” were pretty straightforward.

But in the hubbub of the mid-19th century marketplace, as department stores began to flourish, “sale” took on another meaning—the selling of something at a discount.

Here’s the OED definition: “A special disposal of shop goods at rates lower than those usually charged in order to get rid of them rapidly, e.g. at the end of a ‘season.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an advertisement that ran in an 1866 issue of Chambers’s Journal:

“Enormous and incredible sale … for ten days only!!!” (As you can see, hyperbole and multiple exclamation marks are nothing new in advertising.)

Lady Laura Troubridge used “sale” this way in an 1875 entry in her journal, published in Life Amongst the Troubridges (1966):

“We … found a vague little shop where a sale was going on and everything was too ridiculously cheap. We bought some little silk scarves for a penny three farthings each.”

Standard dictionaries, as well as the OED, recognize that in modern English, a “sale” is a two-edged proposition. It means a disposal of goods, either at or below the usual price.

So things were becoming confused even before the phrase “on sale” took on a new sense: available for purchase at a discount.

The OED has no entries for this newer meaning of “on sale,” but standard dictionaries have taken notice of it.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) say “for sale” has only one meaning (available for purchase), but “on sale” has two (available for purchase or available at a discount).

Shoppers, of course, are good at translating the language of ads, so they’re aware of the difference. And as we all know, even a discounted “sale price” isn’t always a bargain.

(“Bargain,” by the way, has been around since Middle English and can be traced to the Old French verb bargaignier, “to haggle.”)

We can’t sign off without mentioning that the original meaning of “sell” was to give—a meaning that, needless to say, is now defunct! It was recorded that way in Beowulf, which probably dates to the mid-700s.

In the late 10th century, “sell” acquired another meaning—to give up or hand over someone to an enemy. This usage is still with us, generally in the verb phrase “sell out,” which developed in the 19th century.

The most common meaning of “sell,” to hand over something for a price, was first recorded around the year 1000.

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At the instance of a reader

Q: My boss and I have a disagreement about the phrase “at my instance,” which I think should be “at my insistence.” The first time he wrote “at my instance,” I thought it was an auto-corrected version of “at my insistence,” but he insists it’s a common phrase.  I’ve never heard it before, and to me, it grates. Who’s right?

A: Your boss is using “instance” correctly, though it’s not an everyday usage in American or British English.

The phrase “at the instance of” means something like “at the urging of,” “at the suggestion of,” or as you propose, “at the insistence of.”

Today, this sense of “instance” is found chiefly in legal documents, legislative transcripts, and formal business correspondence.

Oxford Dictionaries online includes this example: “In criminal causes, an appeal lies to the House of Lords at the instance of the defendant or prosecutor.”

Although four of the five standard dictionaries we’ve checked include “at the instance of,” the expression is no longer common in ordinary usage in the US or the UK. It still turns up, however, in everyday African and Indian English.

This meaning of “instance” has been in use since the 14th century. Here are a few representative examples of the exact phrase you asked about (“at my instance”) that we found in online searches:

1742: “It was at my instance that he was first made a page, then a querry [equerry], and afterwards groom of the bed-chamber to the Prince” (from a memoir by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough).

1852: “At my instance he called on me several times, and entered at length into the discussion of subjects on which he proposed to employ his pen” (from a Baltimore editor’s reminiscence of Edgar Allan Poe).

1886: “In 1878, at my instance and largely through my efforts, the present Trades Assembly of Chicago and vicinity was organized” (from Autobiography of Albert R. Parsons).

2006: “At my instance we did a reorganisation that improved matters but unfortunately did not eliminate delays completely” (from The Story of My Life, by the Nigerian novelist T. M. Aluko).

2013: “His vision had become impaired and only the day before, at my instance, he had got his eyes examined by Dr. B. S. Rathke” (from an interview in an Indian daily newspaper, The Hindu.)

So how did an “instance” come to mean an urging or an entreaty? The story begins with the Latin verb instare, which means to be present—literally to stand (stare) upon (in-).

By extension, the notion of being present, at hand, or on the spot came to imply urgency, as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Latin derivatives of instare reflect this complexity—like instantia (presence, urgency, a judicial pleading, an objection) and instantem (present, pressing, urgent).

In medieval times, Old French borrowings from the Latin included instancier (to plead), instant (imminent), and instance (eagerness, anxiety, solicitation, objection).

It was the Old French noun instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that gave us the English “instance,” meaning an entreaty or an “urgency in speech or action.”

This sense of the word is now archaic, the OED says, except in the phrase “at the instance of (a person),” which means “at the solicitation, suit, instigation, or suggestion of.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from Prose Treatise (circa 1340), by the Yorkshire hermit and mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole: “At þe prayere and instaunce of oþer.”

And here’s a 19th-century citation: “The Emperor, at the Pope’s instance summoned Flavianus to Rome” (from Robert Hussey’s The Rise of Papal Power, 1851).

As we said, the noun “instance” has died away except in such phrases. In fact, most senses of the noun are now obsolete.

A notable exception is the use of “instance” to mean an example or illustration, a sense that came into English writing in the late 16th century.

The earliest such usage in the OED is from Angell Day’s The English Secretorie (1592), a letter-writing manual: “I will but giue you an instance of the same.”

This is the noun we use in the phrase “for instance,” which dates from the mid-17th century.

(We wrote a post in 2012 about “for instance” versus “for example,” and a post in 2011 about “instance,” “incident,” “incidence.”)

Oxford’s first written example of “for instance” is from Richard Ligon’s A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657): “The proof of this I found, by looking on the Stars. … For instance; There is a little Star, called Auriga [etc.].”

As a verb, too, “instance” is all but dead. One sense of the verb, to urge or entreat, has died out; another, to cite as an example, is still with us though seldom used today.

Here’s a 19th-century illustration of the latter usage, cited in Oxford: “I may instance olive oil, which is mischievous to all plants” (from Benjamin Jowett’s 1871 translation of Plato’s Dialogues).

Finally, since your boss uses “at my instance” in his official correspondence, you may be interested in a related business usage that has a venerable history, but isn’t seen much these days.

Since the mid-16th century, the word “instant”—in this case meaning “present”—has been used by letter writers to mean “of the current month.” So, as the OED explains, “the 10th instant” means “the tenth day of the current month.”

When the usage is seen, it’s generally abbreviated (“I received your invoice of the 15th inst.”). Similarly, “ult.” (for “ultimo”) means “of last month” and “prox.” (for “proximo”) means “of next month.”

When we see these terms now, they evoke images of ink-stained clerks copying letters by lamp light.

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Spinning a yarn

Q: I assume the “yarn” one tells is somehow related to the “yarn” one knits with, but how are they related?

A: Terms from sewing, knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts have long been used in a literary sense, though the relationship between the “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with is somewhat murky. Here’s the story.

When the word “yarn” showed up in writing around the year 1000 (spelled “gearn”), it referred to spun fiber, as from cotton, silk, wool, or flax. (In Old English, “g,” before “e” “i,” or a diphthong, sounded like “y.”)

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that the Old English word and similar ones in other Germanic languages were ultimately derived form ghorna, a reconstructed Indo-European term for gut.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins adds that a sailors’ expression, “spin a yarn” (tell a story), “led in the 19th century to the use of yarn for ‘story, tale.’ ”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Hence yarn = a (long) story or tale: sometimes implying one of a marvellous or incredible kind; also, a mere tale.”

The earliest OED example for the expression is from a list of criminal slang in the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux (1819): “Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.”

OK, “spin a yarn” gave us the noun “yarn” used in the story sense, but how did the nautical expression come to mean “tell a tale”?

The OED, Chambers, and Ayto don’t offer an explanation, but one theory is that the expression evolved from storytelling by sailors while spinning yarn—for example, in rope-making.

As Eric Partridge writes in Origins, an etymological dictionary, the usage arose “from the sailors’ and deep-sea fishers’ practice of reminiscing and story-telling while they are sedentarily engaged, e.g. in yarn-twisting.”

That’s possible, though we haven’t seen any evidence to support it. It makes sense, however, since many textile terms have long been used figuratively in reference to writing.

In fact, the words “text” and “textile” come from the same Latin source, texere (to weave). In classical Latin, textus (literally that which is woven) could refer to the style or  texture of a literary work.

The verb “weave” has been used since the 1300s “in metaphorical expressions relating to the contriving of plots or deception,” according to the OED. And “a richly woven tapestry” is now considered a cliché of book reviewing.

Since the 1600s, the noun “thread” has referred to a narrative train of thought, according to OED citations. Here’s an example from James Howell’s Instructions for Forreine Travell (1642):

“If one read skippingly and by snatches, and not take the threed of the story along, it must needs puzzle and distract the memory.”

Indeed, the OED has an example for the expression “spin a thread” used as far back as the 1300s in the sense of “tell a tale.”

This citation is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance written sometime before 1400: “He hath y-sponne a threde, / That is y-come of eovel rede.”

Interestingly, the literary use of “thread” has adapted itself to the information age, where the term is now used for a linked series of posts or messages relating to the same subject.

As we wrote last year, the OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from a May 30, 1984, comment on a newsgroup for beta testers: “When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.”

And let’s not forget knitting! We’ve found examples of the terms “well knit” or “tightly knit” used since the early 20th century to describe literary works. Here’s an example from a 1910 article in The Bookman, an American literary journal:

“The conception of a well-knit plot without irrelevant characters and episodes and with the interest strongly focussed upon some one main issue is distinctly modern.”

(The author, Winston Churchill, was an American novelist, not the British statesman.)

Well, it’s time to wrap things up. Pardon us if we’ve left any loose ends.

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Laudy, Laudy!

Q: Which is correct: “lord it over” or “laud it over”?

A: The verb here is “lord” (to act in a lordly manner), not “laud” (to praise).

Interestingly, the two usages first appeared in writing in the same work, Piers Plowman (1377), a Middle English allegorical poem by William Langland, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the earliest OED example for the verb “lord” used to mean play the lord or act lordly: “Þe more he … lordeth in londes þe lasse good he deleth.” (“The more he lords in land the less he shares in good.”)

And this is the first OED citation for “laud” used in the sense of singing or speaking praise: “Neyther for loue laude it nouȝt ne lakke it for enuye.” (“Neither laud love naught, nor be troubled by its defects.”)

An early version of “lord it over” (minus the “over”) showed up in The Shepheardes Calender, a 1579 poem by Edmund Spenser: “They reigne and rulen ouer all, and lord it, as they list.”

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 (believed written in the early 1590s): “I see them Lording it in London streets.”

The earliest example in the OED for the full expression is from a Nov. 13, 1775, entry in the journal of the novelist Fanny Burney: “He disdains submitting to the Great, or Lording it over the little.”

And here’s a scenic American example from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, an 1819 collection of essays and short stories by Washington Irving:

“The Kaatskill mountains … are seen … swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country.”

As for the etymology, the verb “lord” is derived from the noun, which was spelled hláford when it showed up in Old English in the ninth century.

The Old English noun was a combination of hlaf (loaf or bread) and weard (keeper). Keeper of the loaf? Here’s how the OED explains the usage:

“In its primary sense the word (which is absent from the other Germanic languages) denotes the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread.’ ”

The Old English word for “lady,” in case you’re wondering, was hlæfdige, literally “kneader of the loaf.” And not surprisingly, the Old English word for a servant was hlaf-æta, literally “bread eater.”

As for the title of this post, the interjection “Lordy” (used to  express surprise, dismay, annoyance, and so on) showed up in the US in the mid-19th century, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The earliest example in DARE is from an 1853 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger: “On the sofa … you sank down and bounded up and said Lordy!”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “Lordy, Lordy” is from Ida Cox’s Lawdy, Lawdy Blues (1923), but we’ve used an Ida Cox recording of the song for this example:

Lord, Lord! Lordy, Lordy, Lord!
You know the man I love treats me like a dog.

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Where are all the apostrophes?

Q: I am directed to address my dental contract queries to an office in St Annes Road, Eastbourne (sic). Being a grumpy old pedant, I often insert an apostrophe as I understand “St Anne’s” to be genitive. Whilst I understand that “St Annes” is in common usage, surely frequency does not make it correct, or does it? Sent with a great big smile.

A: You are correct. “St. Anne’s” is a genitive usage and deserves the apostrophe. However, the use of apostrophes in place names is controversial.

As we wrote in a post last year, postal authorities and governmental agencies commonly eliminate apostrophes in place names and street names as a matter of policy.

They do this not because they believe the usage is grammatically correct, but for reasons of  efficiency.

Of course, such bureaucratic edicts fly in the face of grammatical correctness. In ordinary writing, this use of “St. Annes” would be considered an error.

So while governmental bodies may use “St. Annes” on street signs, maps, addresses, and in their own documents, that shouldn’t prevent you from including the apostrophe in your own writing.

We assume that the addition of an apostrophe won’t confuse a clueless postal computer.

In case you’re interested, we wrote on our blog last year about why schools named for saints employ the genitive (St. Mary’s Academy) rather than an ordinary attributive construction (St. Mary Academy).

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Happy quinquennial

Q: My wife and I belong to a group of 15 couples that celebrate each couple’s wedding anniversary divisible by five—the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and so on. Can you invent a word for this? My attempts include “cincoversary,” “quinqueversary,” and “cinqueversary.” Any clever ideas?

A: There’s already a word, “quinquennial,” which is both a noun (“we’re celebrating our quinquennial”) and an adjective (“our quinquennial celebration”).

This isn’t exactly a household word, so it’s understandable that you didn’t know it. Only three of the standard dictionaries we checked recognize both the noun and the adjective.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and the online Collins English Dictionary say the noun “quinquennial” can mean either “a fifth anniversary” or a period of five years.

The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary doesn’t use the words “fifth anniversary,” but it describes a “quinquennial” as “something that occurs every five years.”

All three say the adjective “quinquennial” means occurring once every five years or lasting for five years.

Some other dictionaries recognize the adjective but not the noun.

For instance, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) give the usual definitions for the adjective “quinquennial.”

Those two dictionaries don’t recognize the noun “quinquennial.” But they do have entries for “quinquennium,” a noun that came into English in the early 1600s and means simply a period of five years, not something occurring every five years.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a comprehensive dictionary that traces the historical development of the language, has examples for the adjective “quinquennial” dating back to the 15th century.

The earliest OED citations for the noun “quinquennial” are from the 19th century, but the dictionary has examples of a noun “quinquenal” dating back to the 15th century, when it meant “an ecclesiastical office held for five years.”

For a time in the 1500s and 1600s, an adjective spelled “quinquennal”  meant the same thing as “quinquennial”—that is, occurring once every five years or lasting for five years.

Eventually the “-ennial” spelling won out for both the noun and the adjective when used in the sense you’re asking about—a five-year anniversary.

The OED says the English word “quinquennial” is derived from Latin, either from quinquennalis (occurring every five years or lasting five years) or from quinquennis (of five years or five years old). The roots are quinque (five) and annus (year).

The OED’s many written examples of “quinquennial” extend well into modern English. However, most of the noun uses are described as “rare” today, including the one meaning a fifth anniversary. Here are two of the OED’s citations for that usage:

“The hospital only begs widely every five years, and this year is our quinquennial” (from the Westminster Gazette, 1903).

“She does not wait for quinquennials or decennials. She celebrates every anniversary with all the zest of a child” (from a Tennessee newspaper, the Kingsport Times, 1934).

For the most part, according to OED citations, “quinquennial” is used as an adjective to mean covering a period of five years, lasting for five years, or occurring every fifth year. Here are modern citations for each meaning:

“He was a realist. Quinquennial Plans, Personal Development Schemes, Bribes, marriage deals—the barbarians are vanquished” (from Andrew Waterman’s poetry collection The End of the Pier Show, 1995).

“Each of the 163 minority groups documented … was scored for the most widespread and intense event reported during each quinquennial period” (from the Journal of Peace Research, 2000).

“A quinquennial valuation of the ‘Royal’ life and annuity business was made at December 31” (from the Times, London, 1955).

Despite the “rare” label in the OED, “quinquennial” is listed without comment in American Heritage, Collins, and Random House as a noun for a five-year anniversary or occurrence. So you can certainly use it.

But this is your celebration—you invented it, and you can call it what you want (we rather like the sound of “cinqueversary”). Whatever you decide, here’s a toast to all 30 of you!

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Character analysis

Q: What do you call a character created to represent a class of people? I remember roaring with laughter many years ago when I read an article that referred to Marvin Moped, a generic rude moped rider. It doesn’t take much to make me crack up.

A: We don’t know of a technical term for such a character, but there are many common words or phrases with that sense: “stereotype,” “caricature,” “archetype,” “generic character,” “cartoon character,” “stock character,” and so on.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster says there are two basic character types, the flat character and the round character.

The flat character is the simple, two-dimensional stereotype you’re talking about, while the round character is a complex one with various characteristics.

Forster says a flat character, sometimes called a “type” or “caricature,” is “constructed round a single idea or quality.”

As an example, he cites Mrs. Micawber from Dickens’s novel David Copperfield. Her flat character, Forster says, can be described in one sentence: “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.”

Of the various terms for such a character, we find “stereotype” the most common in linguistic literature.

In “The Notion of Stereotype in Language Study” (an article posted to the Internet on May 22, 2013), the Russian linguist Elena L. Vilinbakhova notes “two major traditions” in linguistics for understanding stereotypes.

“The first approach defines stereotype as a fixed form, fixed expression, or even fixed text,” she writes. “According to the second approach, stereotype is seen as a fixed content, a fixed mental image of a person, an object or an event.”

Other linguists have referred to “formal stereotype” versus “semantic stereotype,” “‘stereotype of speech” vs. “stereotype of thought,” and “stereotype of language” vs. “stereotype of thought.”

Many writers have categorized character types, going back at least as far as the fourth century BC, when Theophrastus listed 30 types, including kolakeia (a sycophant), kakologia (a scandalmonger), and alazoneia (a braggart).

Interestingly, George Eliot borrowed his name for the scholarly narrator of her last published work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a meditation on life in the form of character sketches.

When the noun “character” showed up in English in the 14th century it referred to “a distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise made on a surface; a brand, stamp,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the OED indicates that the word was used from the start both in the literal sense of an actual mark and in the figurative sense of “the indelible quality which baptism, confirmation, and holy orders imprint on the soul.”

English borrowed the term from Middle French, where it was spelled caractere, carrectere, or charactere. But the ultimate source is the Latin noun character, which could refer to a branded or impressed letter or mark as well as a characteristic.

In the early 17th century, the English noun took on the sense of one’s individuality and personality. But it took a few decades more for it to develop the meaning you’re asking about—a fictional portrayal.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from The Rival Ladies, a 1664 play by John Dryden: “He may be allow’d sometimes to Err, who undertakes to move so many Characters and Humours as are requisite in a Play.”

As for “stereotype,” it showed up in the late 18th century as a noun for a method of printing in which a solid plate is formed from a mold of composed type. It’s ultimately derived from the classical Greek words for “solid” and “type.”

As we wrote in a May 8, 2013, post on the blog, the modern sense of a preconceived and oversimplified idea of someone or something showed up in the early 20th century.

When “caricature” appeared in the mid-1700s, according to the OED, it referred to “a portrait or other artistic representation, in which the characteristic features of the original are exaggerated with ludicrous effect.” That’s pretty much what it means today.

Is “caricature” derived from character, the Latin source of the English word “character”?

No, “caricature” comes from the late Latin carricare (to load) and the classical Latin carrus (wagon), the source of the English word “car.”

One might assume that “car” and “cart” are related. Not so. “Cart” comes from Germanic sources: cræt in Old English; cratto, Old High German; kart-r, Old Norse.

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On dogs and dogcarts

Q: In reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, I noticed several references to “dogcart,’’ a term I often see in 19th-century fiction. My dictionary defines “dogcart” as a horse-drawn cart, but I’ve always wondered whether these carts were ever pulled by dogs in England.

A: Yes, “dogcarts” were once pulled by dogs in England, but the use of dogs to draw carts was prohibited during the Victorian era.

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 barred the use of “any Dog for the Purpose of drawing or helping to draw any Cart, Carriage, Truck, or Barrow” in London. And an 1854 statute prohibited the practice “by any person on any public highway” in England.

By the time Trollope published his last Barsetshire novel in 1865, the light two-wheeled carriages known as “dogcarts” were pulled by horses, not dogs, as the context of the novel makes clear.

At one point, for example, Mrs. Grantly finds her son “settling himself in his dog-cart, while the servant who was to accompany him was still at the horse’s head.”

However, dogs were still pulling carts in much of Europe well into the 20th century. We came across a webpage with photos of dogs pulling carts carrying people, milk cans, artillery pieces, and so on.

In fact, dogs pull carts today in the US and the UK—as a competitive activity. Bernese Mountain Dog clubs, for example, consider carting and drafting canine sports.

When the term “dogcart” first showed up in the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a small cart drawn by a dog or dogs.” However, that sense of the word is now considered historical.

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a June 13, 1668, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys that describes the city of Bristol: “No carts, it standing generally on vaults, only dog carts.”

The latest example of the term used when canine dogcarts were still a common sight in England comes from the July 8, 1854, issue of the Illustrated London News: “The dog-cart nuisance … the use of carts drawn by dogs.”

The OED has a couple of recent examples, but they use the term in historical references.

In the late 18th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the term “dogcart” took on the sense of a horse-drawn cart with a box under the seat for a hunter’s dogs.

The OED’s earliest example for the new usage is from an Oct. 15, 1799, advertisement in the Times of London: “A neat modern built Chariot, by Hatchett, with patent wheels; a Gig, and a Market Cart, a Dog Cart.”

In later use, the dictionary says, the term referred to “an open carriage with two transverse seats back to back, the rear seat originally converting into a box for dogs.”

Here’s an example from The Romance of a Dull Life, an 1861 novel by Anne Judith Penny: “The closed carriage being better than the dog-cart, for the weather had changed, and it was cold.”

Finally, this is a contemporary example from a website that sells dogcarts to “exercise your pet and have fun with the entire family”:

“The K-9 Dog Cart is for you! Crafted with super-strong tubular steel framing and three-wheel construction for superior balance and ease of use. Your dog will love it!”

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A usage to diary for?

Q: Is “diaried” the past tense of the verb “diary”? Example: “I diaried a notation this morning that Ms. Heard did not show up for her Aug. 12th appointment.”

A: If “diary” is used as a verb, then “diaried” would be the expected past-tense form.

But there’s not a trace of the usage in standard dictionaries, though Internet searches turn up a few hundred examples.

The only source we’ve found is Wiktionary, which describes “diary” as an intransitive verb meaning “to keep a diary or journal.” An intransitive verb doesn’t have a direct object, as in “She diaries every evening before going to bed.”

Wiktionary lists “diarying” as the present participle and “diaried” as the past tense and past participle. It gives only one published example:

“As part of her mindful movement practise, diarying is important to Sarah,” from Mindful Walking (2015), by Hugh O’Donovan.

It’s difficult to tell how widespread the verb “diary” is, since misspellings get in the way of Internet searches. Many hits for “diarying” and “diaried” are in fact about milking cows.

However, we’ve found that “to diary” may mean different things to different people. That’s because the noun “diary” has different meanings, depending on where you live.

In American English, a diary is a personal journal of one’s reflections and experiences. But in current British English, it often means something else—an appointment book or datebook.

The differing uses of the noun “diary,” British versus American, are given in several dictionaries published in the UK—Cambridge, Longman, Macmillan, Oxford Dictionaries online.

And the linguist Lynne Murphy has discussed them on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

Consequently, it’s likely that an American using “diary” as a verb would mean it in the Wiktionary sense—to keep a diary or journal. But to a British speaker it would also mean to make a note in a calendar, appointment book, or business planner.

We’ve found the verb “diary” used both ways on British websites, but most often it’s used transitively in the business sense, as in “He diaried a sketch of the proposed tower.”

Some British commentators have said the verb “diary” is common in offices, but we’ve also found an online tutorial by a British video blogger on “How to diary”—that is, how to keep a personal journal of one’s “deepest hopes and fears.”

In your question, you use the verb in a transitive way—with a direct object (“I diaried a notation”). So you mean it in the sense of “make a note,” and you intend it in a businesslike way. (Perhaps you’re British?)

We’re in new territory here and we won’t speculate further.

As we mentioned above, none of the US or UK standard dictionaries we usually consult accept “diary” as a verb, and neither does the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a similar verb, “diarize,” has been around for a while.

The OED defines “diarize” as a verb meaning “to write a record of events in a diary.” However, it lists only a couple of intransitive examples from the 19th century.

Another source, Oxford Dictionaries online, labels that OED usage as obsolete now, and describes “diarize” (or “diarise”) as a transitive verb meaning to note an appointment in a diary. These are among the examples it gives:

“Mr Williams said he had diarised the invite and hoped to attend” … “He diarised them as recurring ‘team update’ meetings for 10:30 a.m. daily.”

The Cambridge Business English Dictionary gives this definition of how “diarize” is used today: “to write down your future ​arrangements, ​meetings, etc. in a ​diary” and “to ​record in a ​diary ​events that have ​happened during a ​period of ​time.”

The granddaddy of the verbs is of course the noun “diary,” which first appeared in English writing in 1581 as a borrowing from Latin. The Latin noun diarium, derived from dies (day), originally meant “daily allowance” and later “a journal, diary,” the OED says.

Many other English words can be traced back to the Latin dies. They include “diurnal” (daily); “sojourn” (etymologically, to spend a day in a place); “journey” (which once meant a day’s work or travel); “journeyman” (originally one qualified to do a day’s work); and even “journal” (daily happenings).

So how, you’re probably asking, did a Latin word beginning with “d” result in all those English words spelled with “j”?

The consonant change occurred as Old French was developing from Latin, according to August Brachet in An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language (3rd ed., 1882).

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the French began replacing some “d” words derived from Latin with “j” words, which eventually begat all those “j” spellings in English.

So “diary” and “journal” are related in their ancestry as well as in their meaning.

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Is a chant enchanting, or cant?

Q: After seeing a Puerto Rican license plate with the motto Isla del Encanto, a thought struck me: encantocantar, and that of course led me to “enchantment” … “chant.” Are all these words related?

A: Yes, they’re all ultimately derived from canere, a Latin verb meaning to sing, and its frequentative, cantare. A frequentative is a verb form indicating repeated action.

In Spanish, as you know, encanto means enchantment, while cantar means to sing, but let’s look at the two English words, “enchantment” and “chant.”

When “enchantment” showed up in the late 13th century, it referred to a magic spell. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Chronicle (1297), Robert of Gloucester’s account of British, English, and Norman history:

“A clerk þoru enchantement hym bi gan to telle” (in modern English, “A cleric through enchantment begins to tell him”).

The OED says English adopted “enchantment” from the Old French enchantement, but the ultimate source is the Latin incantare (in-, upon, plus cantare, to sing). With the addition of the prefix, the verb meant to chant a magic spell upon someone, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that the noun “enchantment” took on the figurative sense of “alluring or overpowering charm,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new usage is from Hudibras (1678), a satirical narrative poem by Samuel Butler: “Th’ Inchantment of her Riches.”

When the verb “chant” showed up in the late 14th century, it meant simply to sing. No magic here.

The earliest example in the OED is from “The Miller’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390):

Herestow noght Absolon / That chaunteth thus vnder oure boures wal” (“Don’t you hear Absalom chant this way under our bedroom wall?”).

The noun “chant” meant a song or melody when it showed up in Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671): Chaunt of tuneful Birds.”

It didn’t take on its religious sense of a simple melody in a psalm, canticle, or dirge until the late 18th century.

The OED‘s first citation is from Charles Burney’s General History of Music (1789): The Chants, or Canto Fermo, to some of the hymns of the Romish church.”

We have cantare and incantare to thank for many other terms, including “canticle” (1250), “enchantress” (about 1380), “incantation” (1390), “enchant” (bewitch, 1377; delight, 1593), “cantor” (before 1552), “enchanting” (magical, 1555; charming, circa 1607), and “cantata” (1724).

As for “cant,” in its jargony, insincere, or sanctimonious senses, the usage is probably derived from cantare, but the etymology is fuzzy.

Those senses of “cant” developed in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, first as a verb and later as a noun.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says, “It is usually assumed that the usage derives from an ironic transference of the singing of church congregations or choirs to the wheedling ‘song’ of beggars.”

The OED points out that the Latin cantare and its Romance offshoots “were used contemptuously in reference to the church services” as early as the late 12th century.

The dictionary notes that Thomas Harman, a 16th-century writer, suggested that the usage might have been influenced by the language of religious mendicants or the jargon of itinerants.

Oxford also cites theories that “cant” may be derived from the Irish and Gaelic word cainnt, or from the name of Andrew Cant or his son Alexander Cant, Presbyterian ministers in the 17th century.

However, the OED generally supports the idea that the noun “cant” comes from cantus, a derivative of cantare.

“This and its accompanying verb presumably represent Latin cantus singing, song, chant,” the dictionary says, but adds, “the details of the derivation and development of sense are unknown.”

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When Pomicide isn’t cricket

Q: England (Poms) recently “murdered” Australia (Aussies) on the cricket field. The response in the Australian press was to coin the word “Pomicide.” But surely, if we follow the pattern of “homicide,” “fratricide,” “matricide,” etc., this means the opposite of what was intended. So wouldn’t a better coinage be “Aussicide”?

A: Of course you’re right—those “-cide” formations are composed from the word for the victim.

“Fratricide” refers to the murder of a brother, “regicide” to that of a king, and so on. Logically, “Pomicide” would refer to a trouncing of the Poms, not by the Poms.  So the usage displayed in the Australian press just wasn’t cricket.

The word-forming element “-cide” (plus the connective “i”) is used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘the killing of (the person, animal, etc., indicated by the initial element),’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, such words have had dual meanings in the past, when “-cide” was used in reference to the slayer as well as the slaying.

Yes, the formation was once used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘a person who kills (the person, animal, etc. indicated by the initial element),’ ” the OED says.

In that sense, a person who killed a human being was a “homicide,” a person who killed his mother was a “matricide,” and so on.

But even with this interpretation, a “Pomicide” would be a killer of Poms, not a Pom who was a killer.

There are two sources of “-cide” in English: the classical Latin –cīda (for a cutter, killer, or slayer) and –cīdium (for the cutting or killing itself).

In classical Latin, Oxford says, the words “homicida, parricida, matricida, fratricida, sororicida, tyrannicida” meant the “slayer of a man, father, mother, brother, sister, tyrant.” And there were corresponding  words for the act itself: homicidium, parricidium, matricidium, etc.

Most of these Latin words—both sets of them—passed into French, then on into English, with the uniform ending “-cide,” whether they meant the slayer or the slaying.

For example, in the Middle Ages “homicide” was used to mean the killer as well as the killing of a human being.

We still sometimes refer to someone who takes his own life as “a suicide,” but today most of these words mean the act of taking life, not the responsible party.

Since the 16th century, similar English words have been created that use “Latin first elements,” Oxford says. The dictionary mentions “regicide,” from the Latin rex (“king”), and “suicide,” from sui (“of oneself”).

Here are some of the most common words of this kind, and the dates when they were first recorded in writing.

“homicide”: one who kills a human being (1382, used adjectivally); the act of killing a human being (circa 1386).

“fratricide”: one who kills a brother (c1450); the act of killing a brother (1569).

“parricide”: one who kills a near relation (perhaps 1545); the killing of a close relative (1559). Later used in reference to a father.

“regicide”: one who kills a king (1548); the killing of a king (1579).

“patricide”: one who kills his or her father (1593); the act of killing one’s father (1576).

“matricide”: one who kills his or her mother (1594); the act of killing one’s mother (1632).

“suicide”: one who takes his or her life (1727); the taking of one’s own life (1656).

“insecticide”: a person or thing that kills insects; the act of killing insects (both 1865).

“germicide”: something that kills microorganisms, especially bacteria (1870).

“fungicide”: something used to kill fungi (1889).

“herbicide”: something that kills weeds or other unwanted plants (1899).

“pesticide”: something used to kill pests, especially insects (1933). Some dictionaries also accept its use in the sense of “herbicide.”

“genocide”: the systematic killing of a national or ethnic group. The term was coined, probably in 1943, by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin and appeared in print the following year in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It incorporates the Greek genos (race or kind) and originally referred to the extermination of Jews by the Nazis.

In addition to the usual suspects, creative formations have been cropping up since the early 19th century. The OED has entries for inventions like “deericide” (1832), “suitorcide” (1839), “birdicide” (1866), and “verbicide” (1858), a coinage of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Holmes declared: “Homicide and verbicide—that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life—are alike forbidden.”

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Ing-lish spoken here

Q: What do you think of the recent Doonesbury strip on the use of present participles in TV talk? I’ve been foaming at the mouth over this for years.

A: We’re not foaming at the mouth, but too much of any trendy usage can be annoying.

The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who commented on this usage more than a dozen years before the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, has coined a term for the use of “-ing” participles in broadcasting: “ing-lish.”

In a Dec. 8, 2002, article in the New York Times, Nunberg notes that “the all-news networks have begun to recite their leads to a new participial rhythm.”

“Fox News Channel and CNN have adopted it wholesale, and it is increasingly audible on network news programs as well,” he says.

A sentence like “The Navy has used the island for 60 years but will cease its tests soon,” Nunberg explains, comes out in ing-lish as “The Navy using the island for 60 years but ceasing its tests soon.”

“What ing-lish really leaves out is all tenses, past, present or future, and with them any helping verbs they happen to fall on—not just be, but have and will,” he says.

Interestingly, Nunberg adds, this usage “doesn’t actually save any time—sometimes, in fact, it makes sentences longer. ‘Bush met with Putin’ is one syllable shorter than ‘Bush meeting with Putin.’ ”

If it doesn’t save time, why do broadcast journalists use ing-lish?

The linguist Asya Pereltsvaig suggests that it may be because the present progressive tense (“I am dancing”) denotes “something that happens at this very moment” while the simple present (“I dance”) refers to “a broader range of temporal points.”

In a Sept. 21, 2015, post on Languages of the World, she explains that the present tense (“I dance”) can refer to dancing “often/every day/from time to time” and so on.

The linguist Mark Liberman, in a Sept. 20, 2015, comment on the Language Log about the Doonesbury strip, says the “idea that short phrases convey urgency is a well-established principle of writing advice.”

“But it’s not obvious to me that either in headlines or in broadcast news, the use of present participles rather than tensed verbs is generally the more urgent-seeming choice,” he says.

Liberman gives these two examples to make his point: “The town reels, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!” versus “The town reeling, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!”

He also points out that “there are famous examples where a sense of urgency is associated with long run-on sentences,” like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

And yes we’ll end with the last few lines of the soliloquy: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

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When the present is past

Q: I’m trying to figure out this sentence: “Something Grandma let me do that my parents wouldn’t is/was eat cake.” Which is it? I spent an hour online looking for the answer, and now I’m more confused than before!

A: Let’s reduce your sentence to its relevant parts: “Something Grandma let me do was/is eat cake.” (The intervening clause, “that my parents wouldn’t,” does not affect the grammar here.)

Do we choose “was eat cake” because the principal verb (“let”) is in the past tense? Or do we choose “is eat cake” because at the time Grandma allowed it, the question of cake-eating existed in the present?

You might argue either way. But since you’re talking about something Grandma allowed in the past (and probably the distant past), we think “was” is the better choice: “Something Grandma let me do was eat cake.”

Note that we said “the better choice,” not “the grammatically correct choice.” In our opinion, “was” is more natural here, but we’ve found no hard-and-fast rule about this, at least not one that’s convincing.

A similar but harder question has to do with a situation that is relevant to the present, but is mentioned in the past tense because the sentence’s main verb is in the past tense. This is what we mean:

“Pasteur believed that intense heat was the key to killing bacteria” (it still is the key) … “Skeptics denied that the Earth revolved around the sun” (it still does) … “Claire didn’t know where Idaho was” (it’s still there).

The grammarian Otto Jespersen says that in this kind of sentence even an “eternal truth” may be expressed in the past tense. He cites the example “My father convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest.” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1931.)

And we find the linguist Renaat Declerck saying much the same 60 years later. “Contrary to what is sometimes claimed,” he writes, “the past tense can be used even if the complement clause expresses an ‘eternal truth.’ Using the present tense is never obligatory.” (Tense in English, 1991.)

In fact, the tense in the lesser clause is more likely to echo the past tense of the main clause. Or, as Declerck puts it, “temporal subordination is the default choice.”

Jespersen gives these examples of cases in which the situation in the second clause is still relevant to the present, and yet the past tense is used: “I tried to forget who I was” and “What did you say was your friend’s name?”

Obviously, the speaker could just as well have used the present tense, but didn’t. Why not?

Jespersen suggests that frequently the use of the past tense here “is due simply to mental inertia: the speaker’s mind is moving in the past, and he does not stop to consider whether each dependent statement refers to one or the other time, but simply goes on speaking in the tense adapted to the main idea.”

“A typical example,” Jespersen writes, “is found when the speaker discovers the presence of someone and exclaims, ‘Oh, Mr Summer, I didn’t know you were here.’ ”

Jespersen, Declerck, and others suggest that this sort of tense adaptation is especially common in indirect or reported speech—that is, a second-hand report of what someone said.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that in the following examples of reported speech, the choice of tense in the second clause is optional:

“Jill said that she had too many commitments” … “Jill said that she has too many commitments.”

Both sentences are correct, though the first suggests that Jill had too many commitments in the past, while the second suggests that she may still have too many.

As the Cambridge Grammar says, “the two reports do not have the same meaning, but in many contexts the difference between them will be of no pragmatic significance.”

However, in the sentence “Jill said she had/has a headache,” the book notes that “Jill’s utterance needs to have been quite recent for has to be appropriate.”

Declerck says the decision about the tense of the secondary clause “will generally be based on pragmatic considerations.” For instance, a speaker might shift to the present tense to indicate he thinks the situation is still valid or relevant.

He uses the example “He said that Betty is a very clever girl.” This shift “from a past to a present domain,” Declerck says, “is optional, since the speaker could also have chosen to keep the domain constant,” as in “He said that Betty was a very clever girl.”

As you can see, the choice here isn’t always clear.

It’s safe to say that when we speak of the immediate or recent past, we’re more likely to use the present tense in the lesser clause (“He learned that he has cancer”).

But when a shift to the present would be jarring, we stick to the past tense even when the situation is still true (“She knew Wednesday was his poker night”).

We can think of further examples in which the tense is optional but the choice of one over the other makes a difference, as in this sentence:

“He said on the Today show that gluten is becoming a national obsession.” (The use of “is” stresses that the situation is still unfolding.)

And in the next two sentences, the differing tenses indicate differing views of an event:

“Did you know that what you were doing is wrong?” (The speaker is stressing that it’s still wrong.)

“Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?” (The speaker is emphasizing what the person knew at the time.)

Finally, we’ll end this post with an example in which the secondary verb is clearly better in the present tense.

We were just thinking that it’s time to sign off.

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Do we doff only hats?

Q: Why is the verb “doff” almost exclusively linked to hats of one sort or another? It’s a great word and I was wondering about its history.

A: The verb “doff” has been used with all sorts of clothing since it showed up in English in the 1300s.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “doff” as “a literary word with an archaic flavour,” and defines it as “to put off or take off from the body (clothing, or anything worn or borne); to take off or ‘raise’ (the head-gear) by way of a salutation or token of respect.”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from The Romance of William of Palerne, a poem written around 1375 and edited in the 19th century by the English philologist Walter William Skeat:

“Dof bliue þis bere-skyn” (“Doff quickly this bearskin”). The reference here is to a wrap made from the skin of a bear; the term “bearskin” didn’t refer to a hat until the 19th century.

In fact, most of the citations for the verb in the OED refer to doffing items of clothing other than hats.

In the history play King John (believed written in the 1590s), Shakespeare refers to a cloak of lion’s hide: “Thou weare a Lyons hide! doff it for shame.”

And in the epic poem Marmion (1808), Sir Walter Scott uses the term for both outerwear and headgear: “Doffed his furred gown, and sable hood.”

There are even examples for doffing things other than clothing. Shakespeare’s Macbeth (late 1500s to early 1600s) refers to making Scottish women fight “to doffe their dire distresses.” And in Romeo and Juliet (1590s), Juliet says, “Romeo doffe thy name.”

As for today, the verb “doff” is often associated with hats, but not “almost exclusively,” as you seem to believe. Here are the results of two Google searches: “doffed his hat,” 41,100 hits; “doffed his shirt,” 26,600.

We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all but one say “doff” may refer to any type of clothing. However, most of them note its specific use for tipping or removing a hat in greeting or to show respect.

Etymologically, the word “doff” is a “coalesced form of do off,” according to the OED. It’s derived from the expression “to do off,” meaning “to put off, take off, remove (something that is on).”

Similarly, the verb “don” (to put on), which dates from the 1560s in written English, is a contracted form of “do on.”

Oxford says the expression “do off,” which dates from early Old English, is now archaic. However, it has a recent example from The Sharing Knife: Legacy, a 2007 fantasy novel by Lois McMaster Bujold: “She wriggled up to do off her boots and belt.”

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Instead of … what?

Q: I recently came across this headline online: “Here’s What Happens When You Color Instead of Watch TV for a Week.” I thought we have to use a gerund (“watching”) after the preposition “of.” Isn’t there something wrong here?

A: Cortney Clift’s article about the adult coloring-book trend, published on the website Brit + Co, is interesting, but that headline is debatable.

The compound preposition “instead of” is usually followed by a noun or noun surrogate, as in this example with a gerund, a verb form that acts like a noun:

“Here’s What Happens When You Color Instead of Watching TV for a Week.”

The original headline might perhaps be defended as an elliptical way of saying “Here’s What Happens When You Color Instead of [When You] Watch TV for a Week.”

In fact, a majority of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) considers a similar sentence acceptable English: “We would have liked to buy instead of rent, but prices were just too high.”

However, the dictionary’s editors note that this usage “is somewhat informal” and would “seem a grammatical error” under the traditional usage.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (by Randolph Quirk et al.) defends another nontraditional usage—following “instead of” with an infinitive to maintain parallelism in a sentence.

The authors argue that “instead of may be classified as a marginal preposition … since it can have an infinitive clause as a complement.”

They give this example of the infinitive usage from A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), Margaret Drabble’s first novel: “It must be so frightful to have to put things on in order to look better, instead of to strip things off.”

“Although instead of + infinitive has been attested in good written English,” the authors explain, “many would here prefer ‘… instead of stripping …’ (which, however, would spoil the parallelism with to put that may have motivated the use of to strip here).”

George O. Curme, in A Grammar of the English Language, goes a step further and says “instead of” can sometimes act as a conjunction when two verbs are contrasted.

Curme gives this example from Shadows Waiting, a 1927 novel by Eleanor Carroll Chilton: “I saw that you were the real person; someone I admired as well as loved, and respected instead of—well, patronized.”

What do we think? If we were writing the headline you cited, we’d use “watching.” But if we wanted to keep the verbs parallel (“color” and “watch”), we’d replace the preposition “instead of” with “rather than,” a compound conjunction with a similar meaning:

“Here’s What Happens When You Color Rather Than Watch TV for a Week.”

We should mention here that even the traditional usage allows some exceptions to the use of a noun or noun-like wording after “instead of.”

“Instead of,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “may also be used elliptically before a preposition, adverb, adjective, or phrase.” Here are several OED citations, dating back to the early 1800s:

“People … called upon to conform to my taste, instead of to read something which is conformable to theirs.” (An 1834 citation from the Autobiography of Henry Taylor, published in 1885.)

“The Law was to be written on the hearts of men instead of on tables of stone.” (From The Jewish Temple and the Christian Church, 1865, by R.W. Dale.)

“I found the patient worse instead of better” … “You should be out instead of in, on such a fine day” … “I found it on the floor instead of in the drawer.” (Examples from A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the original title of the OED’s first edition, published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

The compound preposition “instead of” showed up in the 1200s, meaning “in place of, in lieu of, in room of; for, in substitution for,” according to OED citations.

The dictionary says the phrase was sometimes written as three words (“in stead of”) and sometimes as four (“in the stead of”). In Old English, a stede was a point or place.

The adverb “instead” was “rarely written as one word before 1620,” Oxford says, and “seldom separately after c1640, except when separated by a possessive pronoun or possessive case, as in my stead, in Duke William’s stead.”

Finally, you mentioned gerunds in your question. As we’ve written on the blog over the years, a gerund can be a subject (“skating is restful”); a complement (“her hobby is skating”), a direct object (“she enjoys skating”), or the object of a preposition (“she has no interests apart from skating”).

We could go on, but instead we’ll conclude with a few lines from the “winter of our discontent” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III:

And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

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Master piece

Q: Yale is in an uproar about the use of “master” for the head of a residential college, given the term’s historical ties with slavery.  I wonder what you usage experts think of this. If you defend the usage, the PC/Language Police will jump all over your insensitivities.

A: We’ll try to be sensitive as well as sensible in writing about “master,” a term whose association with education dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

But first let’s look at the story behind your question. Although abolitionists at Yale vigorously opposed slavery, the university relied on slave-trading money in its early days and later named many buildings after slave traders or defenders of slavery.

In fact, the university’s namesake, Elihu Yale, had ties to the slave trade. And in the 20th century, Yale named several of its 12 residential colleges after slave owners, including John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician and white supremacist.

Since the mass shooting last June at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol, students, alumni, and faculty have pressed Yale to rename Calhoun College.

And Stephen Davis, the master of another residential college, Pierson, has asked that his title be dropped, saying no African American “should be asked to call anyone ‘master.’ ”

Now let’s look at the history of “master,” a word that by itself or in compounds has been used in an educational sense since the early days of Old English—many hundreds of years before the word showed up in reference to slavery in the US.

The term (spelled “mægster,” “magester,” or “magister” in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others; a director, leader, chief, commander; a ruler, governor.”

Oxford adds that “its meaning has been extended to include women (either potentially or in fact) in many of the senses illustrated.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

The use of “master” for a teacher showed up around the same time in Ælfred’s translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae, by Boethius. We’ve expanded this OED citation to give it context:

“Hwæt, we witon ðæt se unrihtwisa Neron wolde hatan his agenne magister, his fostorfæder ácwellan, þæs nama wæs Seneca; se wæs uðwita, þa he þa onfunde þa he dead bion.”

(“Do we not know that the wicked king Nero was willing to order that his own teacher and foster father, whose name was Seneca, a philosopher, be put to death?”)

Although the term usually referred to a man in Anglo-Saxon days, one of the earliest OED examples uses a feminine version for a woman who teaches.

The citation, using “magistra” for “magister,” is from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People that many scholars believe was sponsored, though not written, by King Ælfred.

In Middle English, the term’s meaning as well as spelling evolved to include scholar (early 1200s), holder of a senior degree (late 1300s), and presiding officer of a society, institution, college, etc. (late 1300s).

And in the 20th century, a “master teacher” came to mean one who was highly skilled or experienced.

(We’ve written posts in 2012 and 2015 about pluralizing “master’s degree,” and a post in 2010 about whether a woman is a “mistress of ceremonies” or a “master of ceremonies.”)

The OED’s earliest citation for the college sense of “master” that you’re asking about is from The Way to Wealth (1550), by the Protestant clergyman Robert Crowley: “A maister of an house in Oxforde or Cambridge.”

And its earliest example for “master” used to mean the owner of a slave is from an 1833 work by John Greenleaf Whittier: “A majority of the masters … are disposed to treat their … slaves with kindness.”

However, we’ve found several examples from the late 1700s for “master” used in reference to American slavery, including this one in Notes on the State of Virginia (1794), by Thomas Jefferson:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

Getting back to your question, we don’t see any reason to avoid using “master” in such academic terms as “schoolmaster,” “master teacher,” “master’s degree,” “master of arts,” and “master” to mean the head of a college in the UK.

Should “master” also be used for the head of a residential college in the United States, a country that still bears the scars of its slave past?

Though etymologically blameless, the use of “master” for a college head may be hurtful to African Americans at Yale.

But Jonathan Holloway, an African American and the dean of Yale College, found it “deliciously ironic” when he served as the master of Calhoun.

“I worry about historical amnesia,” Holloway said in an article earlier this month in the New York Times. “But in the wake of the Charleston shooting, I found myself disillusioned.”

Should Yale give up its name because of its namesake’s profiting from slavery? “History is filled with ugliness,” he said, “and we can’t absolve ourselves of it by taking down something that offends us.”

What do we think? We agree with Holloway. We worry about etymological amnesia. Yale may be blamed for its past associations with the slave trade, but not for the use of “master” at its residential colleges.

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Are these dates of-putting?

Q: I’ve been reading a book that often uses this construction: “in April of 1887.” The “of” strikes me as superfluous, but is it wrong, as an editor I knew used to insist? I can’t find a rule in the usual publishing stylebooks.

A: Yes, this “of” isn’t necessary, but it isn’t necessarily wrong either, despite criticism from some usage authorities.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd. ed.), for example, considers the preposition “superfluous in dates.”

Garner’s suggests that “December of 1987 should be December 1987,” and that “February 2010 is better than February of 2010.”

We aren’t told why the “of”-free version is better, however. Apparently the judgment is based on conciseness—if a word can be dispensed with, it should go.

But we disagree. While it’s true that “of” isn’t required here, we don’t think it’s incorrect—and we’ve found no good reason to think it is.

Both The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style and Usage (16th ed.) say that where only the month and year are given, no comma is used between them. But they don’t say that “of” can’t be used.

In our opinion, this isn’t a matter of right or wrong. A writer’s decision to use “of” in a date or leave it out is simply a style choice.

For instance, “of” inserts a rhythmic beat that can give a measure of dignity to a sentence. Here’s what we mean:

“The images, sounds and stories of the second Tuesday in September of 2001 will be seared forever in the nation’s memory” (from Sept 11, 2001, an anthology compiled by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies).

And sometimes adding “of” to a date can make a sentence sound informal or conversational: “Aggressive stocks have really tanked since June of 1983” (from the New York Times, 1984).

The usage is found in literary writing as well: “In June of 1845 Emerson was writing to Elizabeth Hoar about a new enthusiasm” (from The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph L. Rusk, 1941).

For one reason or another, writers often choose to insert “of” between the month and the year. All of these examples appeared in the news during the first couple of weeks of August 2015:

“This isn’t the first time something heartwarming has happened at the restaurant that opened in December of 2013” (the Fresno Bee).

“In December of 1988, this culture of violence came to my very doorstep” (Huffington Post).

“The government had a deficit of $94.6 billion in July of 2014” (Reuters).

“Durham wrote that, in April of 2010, the FBI ‘tasked’ a mob  informant ‘to go see Gentile and engage him in general conversation’ ” (Hartford Courant).

A usage like “April of 2010,” with “of” preceding the year, may be a clipped version of older formulations:

“in March of the year 1781” … “in February of the year 1742” … “in the August of 1750” … “in December of the year 1832.” (All examples are taken from searches of 18th- and 19th-century literature.)

And “of” has long been used before the month in day/month formulations:

“the fifth day of May next”  … “on the 15th day of September last”… “the 22nd of October”  … “the 14th of this month.”

So all things considered, we see no reason to avoid “of” in dates, unless you want your writing to be clipped and fat-free—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Speaking of dates, you may be interested in a 2012 post of ours about how to punctuate them with commas, and a 2009 post on the use of the suffix “-th” in dates (as in “September 6th”).

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