The Grammarphobia Blog

A hamlet by any other name

Q: Did the word “hamlet” mean a town in Shakespeare’s day?

A: The noun “hamlet” referred to a small village in Elizabethan times. But that sense of the word probably had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s naming of the title character in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

English adopted “hamlet” in the 1300s from Old French, where hamelet was a diminutive of hamel (village), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers notes that hamel itself was a diminutive of ham, a word for home in many old Germanic languages, including Old English. (No, it’s not related to the cut of meat.)

Interestingly, the Old English sense of ham as home survives in such place names as Birmingham and Nottingham, where the term originally referred to a manor.

The two earliest examples of “hamlet” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng. Here’s one citation: “He died at a hamelette, men calle it Burgh bisandaes.”

And here’s an example written in Shakespeare’s day (from The View of Fraunce, 1604, by the travel writer Robert Dallington): “One hundred thirtie two thousand of Parish Churches, Hamlets, and Villages of all sorts.”

As for the title character of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, scholars believe it’s ultimately derived from a legend in Gesta Danorum, a history of the Danes composed in Latin around 1200 AD by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus.

The protagonist of the legend is Amleth, whose father and uncle are joint rulers of Jutland, the peninsula that forms the mainland portion of Denmark.

In Saxo’s tale, Amleth’s father is killed by his uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother. Amleth feigns madness to keep from being murdered by his uncle, but he eventually avenges his father’s killing and becomes king of the Jutes.

Saxo’s Latin version of Hamlet was printed in Paris in 1514. François de Belleforest translated it into French in 1570 as part of his collection Histoires Tragiques. Both works were available when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600.

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Full, fuller, fullest

Q: I heard a comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential. How can this be correct?  If I pour water into a glass until it’s “full,” how can I make it “fuller” or “fullest”? There’s no entry for “fuller” or “fullest” as an adjective in my old Webster’s Second (my back still hurts from lifting it). What’s up?

A: We don’t want you to get a hernia, but if you check the entry for the adjective “full” in your unabridged Webster’s Second, you’ll find that the comparative “fuller” and the superlative “fullest” are listed as inflected forms.

You apparently think that “full” is an “absolute adjective,” which is what some usage writers call a modifier that shouldn’t be used in the comparative (“fuller”) or the superlative (“fullest”), or with other qualifiers (“very full”).

So something can be “full,” in your opinion, but not “fuller” or “fullest.” However, some so-called absolute adjectives are routinely used as comparatives and superlatives, and “full” is a good example.

A glass that’s half full, for example, is obviously “fuller” than one that’s a third full. And a glass that’s filled to the brim is the “fullest” of the three.

Yes, “full” generally means containing as much as possible, but the adjective has many other senses, as in “full of energy,” “full of himself,” “full-fledged,” “a full heart,” and so on.

And some standard dictionaries define “full” in its primary sense as something less than full. Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, says it means “holding or containing as much as possible or a lot.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about absolute adjectives, including a post in 2008 that briefly discusses such phrases as “a more just society” and “a more perfect union.”

Getting back to your question, we see nothing wrong with that comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential.

Technically, “full” would be the proper adjective. The comparative “fuller” would be used to compare two things of varying degrees of fullness, and the superlative “fullest” to compare three or more.

But “fullest” is often used idiomatically as an emphatic version of “full.” The expression “to the fullest extent of the law,” for example, is notably more popular than “to the full extent of the law,” according to Google searches.

In fact, we’ve found many early examples of “fullest” used in this sense. State papers from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I concerning Scotland, for example, contain a March 1, 1564, comment by guests at a banquet that they “were merriest when the table was fullest.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield defends the idiomatic use of superlatives:

“Use of the superlative is idiomatic in such phrases as Put your best foot foremost; May the best man win; Mother knows best. And who would wish to introduce a comparative into Milton’s Whose God is strongest, thine or mine?”

When the adjective “full” first showed up in Old English, according to the OED, it meant (as it does today) “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

But for centuries, writers have felt the word needed something extra—using it, as Oxford says, “often with intensive phrases, as full as an egg, full to the brim, full to overflowing, full up (colloq.), etc.”

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To honor or to celebrate?

Q: Already this season, I’ve heard three people who ought to know better “celebrate” the retirement of treasured old guys. They meant to “honor” the guys, not “celebrate” their retirements. But maybe I’m the only one who notices.

A: For hundreds of years, the verb “celebrate” has meant to observe or acknowledge a significant event—such as a retirement—as well as to honor or praise someone or something.

In our opinion, not many people would construe the celebration of a retirement as a backhanded way of saying, “Good riddance. We’re better off without him.”

Readers can tell the difference between celebrating (that is, applauding) the overthrow of a tyrant in Mitteleuropa and celebrating (that is, publicly acknowledging) the retirement of a “treasured old guy” at the Booth School of Business.

The word “celebrate” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb celebrare, which originally meant to attend in great numbers, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Latin verb is also the source of such English words as “celebrity” (about 1380), “celebration” (1539), and “celebrant” (1839).

When “celebrate” first showed up in English in the mid-1500s, it meant (among other things) to observe with solemn rites or to honor with religious ceremonies.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible: “From euen to euen shall ye celebrate your Sabbath.”

In a little more than a century, however, writers were using “celebrate” for more secular observances.

In The Conquest of Granada, a 1672 play by Dryden, the King of the Moors says: “With pomp and Sports my Love I celebrate.”

Finally, here’s an updated example of the usage from the 1937 first edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Celebrate, v.i., to drink in honour of an event or a person; hence, to drink joyously.”


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A happy ending

Q: I’m Dutch and I recently read (from someone claiming to be a native English speaker) that the use of “happy end” is a common mistake made by those not intimately familiar with the language. Instead “happy ending” should be used. Can you enlighten me?

A: In the phrase “happy ending,” as you know, “ending” is a gerund, an “-ing” word that’s formed from a verb but functions as a noun.

Both the noun “end” and the gerund “ending” mean, among other things, a conclusion. So “happy end” and “happy ending” would seem to mean the same thing.

Although both are technical correct, “happy ending” is the idiomatic phrase (the one used naturally by a native speaker) when referring to the happy conclusion of a novel, play, movie, and so on.

The earliest example of the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Memorable Conceits, a 1602 translation of a book by the French writer and printer Gilles Corrozet:

“A good entrie or beginning is not all, without it haue a happie ending.” (In the original French, “happie ending” is heureuse issue.)

And here’s a citation from a May 10, 1748, letter by Samuel Richardson in which he discusses a scene from his recently published novel Clarissa:

“The greater Vulgar, as well as the less, had rather it had had what they call, an Happy Ending.”

The OED defines “happy ending” as “an ending in a novel, play, etc., in which the plot achieves a happy resolution (esp. by marriage, continued good health, etc.), of a type sometimes regarded as trite or conventional.”

The dictionary adds that in the US the phrase is also used for “an orgasm, esp. one experienced by a man after sexual stimulation given after (or during) a massage.”

The OED doesn’t have an example of this usage, but the comedian Jim Norton uses the phrase in the sexual sense in the title of his 2007 book, Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch. The cover shows him lying on a massage table.

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A first-generation American?

Q: As an immigrant and an American citizen for nearly 70 years, I have always considered myself a “first-generation American,” and I dislike seeing the term applied to the first generation born in the US. If you haven’t addressed this, would you, please?

A: Your usage is fine, but so is the one you dislike. “First generation” can mean either the first to arrive in a new country or the first to be born there. Here’s the story.

When the noun “generation” showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant offspring or family as well as the descendants of one family or one period of time.

English borrowed the term from the Old French generacion, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is generare, Latin for to bring forth.

Chambers says all these early senses of the English noun were first recorded in Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325.

The use of the adjectival phrase “first-generation” to describe the first “generation of a family to do something or live somewhere”—showed up in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a September 1896 letter by Cannon Samuel Barnett, Warden of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London.

In the letter, Cannon Barnett writes of meeting an American who described himself as a “first-generation man.”

Oxford has only one citation for the phrase you’ve asked about, but it’s a relatively recent example. It comes from Then We Came to the End, a 2007 novel by Joshua Ferris that describes “first-generation Americans” power-spraying the asphalt at a loading dock.

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of the usage, including one from Descendants of Aaron and Mary (Church) Magoun, of Pembroke, Mass., an 1891 book of genealogy.

Aaron’s great-grandfather, John Magoun, who came from Scotland to Massachusetts in 1670, is described in the book as “the first generation, American.”

This would support your use of the expression to describe an immigrant who becomes a US citizen. However, we’ve found another 19th-century example that uses the phrase “first-generation” to describe American-born citizens.

In No Enemy (but Himself), an 1895 book, Elbert Hubbard writes that only foreign women were willing to work in the cornfields in Indiana: “The first generation American-born, go on a strike.”

In fact, the OED says the phrase “first-generation” can be used to designate “a naturalized immigrant or a descendant of immigrant parents, esp. in the United States.”

So it’s correct (at least in the opinion of Oxford’s editors) to refer to a naturalized American citizen like you as well as an American-born child of immigrants as a “first-generation American.”

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Did Stella die?

Q: Two dinner companions recently got into a spirited debate about using “died” in referring to a euthanized pet. Leaving aside the general advisability of being specific, is there any authority for characterizing “died” as incorrect or misleading here?

A: As two long-time owners of Golden Retrievers and Labs, we’ve had to put down several ailing dogs over the years.

If someone asks about them, we usually say they died. In the rare instances when we have to be specific, we’ll say we put them down or we euthanized them.

If a friend were to ask whether our debilitated, 12-year-old Labrador Retriever Stella died a natural death, for example, we’d say she was put down. In speaking to a vet, we might say she was euthanized.

If there’s no reason to be precise, however, we aren’t. If a friend were to ask if Stella is still alive, for example, we’d simply say, “No, she died.”

Is this use of “die” incorrect?

No. The primary meaning of the verb “die” in standard dictionaries is to stop living. And that’s what Stella did (with a little help from her best friends).

Is the usage misleading? Yes, but English speakers are often deliberately imprecise or misleading.

The usual answer to the question “How are you?” is “fine” or “OK” or “good” or something similar. Only rarely is precision expected: “the CT scan was negative” or “the stitches are coming out tomorrow.”

If someone dies, is it really necessary in casual conversation to mention that he was wearing a “Do not resuscitate” band or that his family had ended life support?

In other words, if it’s relevant, add the painful details. If not, don’t. Save yourself and others the discomfort.

Interestingly, the verb “die” doesn’t generally appear in Old English literature. Instead, an Anglo-Saxon might have said someone “is dead” (wesan déad ) or “was dead” (wæs déad).

However, “die” does exist in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and other early Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb “is generally held to have been early lost in Old English” and “re-adopted in late Old English or early Middle English from Norse.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb (deȝen in Middle English) is from the History of the Holy Rood, a Christian manuscript written around 1135 about the Cross.

We’ll end with an example of the verb “die” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 68:

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before the bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow.

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Out of the question

Q: Every once in a while an expression that I’ve heard all my life suddenly sounds strange. Why, for example, do we refer to something unthinkable or impossible as “out of the question”?

A: When the word “question” showed up in English in the early 1200s, it meant (as it does today) something that’s asked about, discussed, or debated.

English adopted the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from Latin. In classical Latin, a quaestio was, among other things, a subject for discussion, which is a clue to the expression you’re asking about.

When “out of the question” first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not relevant to the matter under discussion.”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from a 1607 religious tract in which the English Puritan clergyman Robert Parker argues that the effective use of the sign of imposing hands (that is, the laying on of hands) “is out of the question.”

And here’s an example from A Defence of the Right of Kings, a 1642 tract in which Edward Forest attacks the writings of the Jesuit priest Robert Persons:

“This cunning and curious Composer of Bookes, and Contriuer of cases, doth in this his chiefe proposition, worke himself quite out of the question.”

Over the years, according to the dictionary, the expression came to mean “not to be considered or countenanced; impossible.”

This is an example of the new usage from The History of Betsy Thoughtless, a 1751 novel by Eliza Haywood: “A marriage with miss Betsy was, therefore, now quite out of the question with him.”

The OED’s latest citation is from James Ryan’s 1997 novel Dismantling Mr Doyle: “And the yellow and red checkered head scarf Mrs Doyle produced as a possible necktie was, he insisted, out of the question altogether.”

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Is ubiquitousness ubiquitous?

Q: The question herein to be addressed centers around the so-called word “ubiquitousness” (I frankly contest its claim to the title). Do you agree with the editor who changed my use of “ubiquity” to “ubiquitousness”?

A: We prefer the simpler “ubiquity.” It’s more ubiquitous than the clunky “ubiquitousness.”

You can find “ubiquitousness” in a few standard dictionaries, but “ubiquity” appears in more. And the people who use the English language clearly prefer the shorter word.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “ubiquity,” 5.4 million hits; “ubiquitousness,” 90,000.

When the noun “ubiquity” showed up in English in the early 1570s, it referred to the omnipresence of God.

The word comes from ubiquitas, post-classical Latin for “the omnipresence of Christ or of his body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, ubique meant  anywhere, everywhere, wherever.

The OED’s earliest citation for “ubiquity” is from A Booke of Christian Questions and Answers, Arthur Golding’s 1572 translation of a work by the French Protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze:

“The Vbiquitie or Eueriwherbeing of Christs manhod mainteined by Brentius and certeine others.”

By the late 1500s, according to Oxford, the term “ubiquity” was being used secularly to mean “the ability, or apparent ability, to be everywhere at once.” Today that sense generally refers to “being seen or encountered everywhere.”

By the early 1600s, the term had widened to mean the state of “being present everywhere or apparently everywhere; widespread presence; prevalence, pervasiveness.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked now define “ubiquity” loosely as the fact that someone or something is widespread or seems to be everywhere.

This is an example of the freer usage from Oxford Dictionaries online: “I heard more gnatcatchers, but I never did see one, which was a bit surprising given their general ubiquity.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines it loosely as the “existence or apparent existence everywhere.”

American Heritage has this example from the 20th-century critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno: “the repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture.”

The adjective “ubiquitous” showed up two centuries after the noun “ubiquity,” with a similar theological sense: “Of God, Christ, the soul, etc.: present in all places; omnipresent.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Remarks on an Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1772), by the Scottish writer James Macpherson:

“When we think him [sc. God] in some matter straitned, or abdridged of room, for his Omnipresence, on the supposition of his essence not pervading this ubiquitous nothing, we seem to forget who he is.”

By the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the adjective was being used more generally in reference to a person, thing, quality, and so on that’s widespread, predominant, very common, popular, or omnipresent.

The first OED example is from an 1802 survey of Londonderry by G. V. Sampson: “The almost ubiquitous and perennial daisy, bellis perennis.”

The latecomer in this lot, the noun “ubiquitousness,” was coined in the 1850s by adding “-ness” to the adjective. (The suffix “-ness” is used with adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and some other terms to form abstract nouns.)

The dictionary’s first example of the usage is from the April 1852 issue of Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal:

“In vain you would track their course … and cry ‘Eureka’, at each bend, fancying you have at length found it [sc. a winding river]. Hopeless delusion! You have yet to learn the ubiquitousness of its character.”

The most recent OED example—from the April 10, 2009, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London—refers to the ubiquitousness of unavoidable ‘musak.’ ”

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An anonymous artery?

Q: I’m puzzled about why the “brachiocephalic artery” is commonly referred to as the “innominate artery.” In other words, why is an artery with a precise name vaguely referred to as an anonymous artery?

A: Let’s first look at the adjective “innominate,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “not named, unnamed, anonymous.”

English adapted the term in the 17th century from the late Latin innominatus, which was used in the writings of the early sixth-century philosopher Boethius.

The earliest example in the OED is from Some Yeares Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and Afrique (1638), by Thomas Herbert: “Zeyloon … was not innominate to the Antients.” (Zeyloon, once an alternate spelling of Ceylon, is now known as Sri Lanka.)

By the 19th century, the term was being used, sometimes in English and sometimes in Latin, to refer to various bones, arteries, and veins in the human body.

The first Oxford example is from Phillips’s New World of Words, a 1706 edition edited by John Kiersey: “Innominata Ossa … the Nameless Bones, two large Bones plac’d on the sides of the Os Sacrum.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “innominate artery” is from George Rolleston’s Forms of Animal Life (1870): “The aorta [in birds] divides after a very short course into three great trunks, by giving off two subequal innominate arteries.”

Interestingly, the term “brachiocephalic artery” appeared in print dozens of years before “innominate artery,” according to OED citations.

The Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology (1836-39), edited by Robert Bentley Todd, has an entry for the “brachio-cephalic artery.”

So the term that you consider more precise apparently showed up before the one that you consider fuzzier. Hmm!

So why is the “brachiocephalic artery,” which supplies blood to the right arm, the head, and the neck in humans, commonly referred to as the “innominate artery”?

Mosby’s Medical Dictionary (8th ed.) says the term “innominate” is sometimes used for body parts that have descriptive names rather than precise ones (like the aorta, the femur, or the tibia).

“The term is traditionally applied to certain anatomic structures, often identified by their descriptive name, such as the hip bone and brachiocephalic artery,” the medical dictionary explains.

In other words, the “brachiocephalic artery” is referred to as nameless because “brachiocephalic” here merely indicates that the function of the artery involves the arm and head.

We can understand if you’re still puzzled by all this. The idea of a descriptive name being nameless strikes us as odd too. But who are we to complain, no matter what it’s called—as long as surgeons can find it?

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Judgment (or Judgement) Day

Q: I’ve noticed that you spell “judgment” without the extra “e” in the middle. I use the same spelling, but “judgement” is increasingly popular. During my law school days, I encountered the word with no small regularity, and both American and English texts used “judgment.” If I never saw the written word, though, I would assume “judgement” was correct. It seems right. Could you shed any light on the situation?

A: The word “judgment” has been spelled many different ways since it showed up in Middle English in the 1200s, sometimes with an “e” and sometimes without.

Here’s a small sampling of early spellings: “gogement,” “gugement,” “iugegement,” “iuggyment,” “iugment,” “iugumen,” “jugment,” “judgment,” and “jugmente.”

The word initially had an “e” when it was adapted from Anglo-Norman, where it was variously spelled judgement, jugemen, juggement, juggment, jogement, jougement, jujement, and gugement.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “e”-less spelling with “dgm” in the middle appeared in the early 16th century, “and by the late 17th cent. judgment had become the prevailing spelling, although judgement  was still commonly found.”

During the 19th century, the OED adds, “the form judgement gained in frequency in British contexts, and is now the usual spelling in general British use.”

However, the dictionary notes that “judgment  has remained the standard spelling in British legal contexts when used to refer to a judicial decision, as well as in U.S. usage.”

No doubt the version of the word with “e” in the middle looks right to you because it begins with “judge,” the spelling of the verb and noun.

However, the word “judge” didn’t give us the word “judgment.”

The noun “judge” didn’t appear until a century after “judgment,” while the verb “judge” showed up for the first time in the same manuscript as “judgment.” All the early spellings were in Middle English.

So what, you’re wondering, is the situation today?

Well, standard dictionaries in the US and the UK generally include both “judgment” and “judgement” for the non-legal usage. But “judgment” is more popular in the US and “judgement” in the UK.

So the two spellings are standard English on either side of the pond, though the presence of “e” might raise a few eyebrows in the US while its absence might raise some in the UK.

We’re not aware of an increase in the popularity of “judgement” in American English, but given the word’s shifting history, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the “e” become fashionable in the US one day, as it did in the UK during the 19th century.

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Up and at ’em!

Q: The phrase “up and at ’em” is older than you suggest—at least in Spanish. Is it borrowed? The Spaniards who conquered the New World used arriba y a ellos as a battle cry.

A: Although “up and at ’em” has a Spanish equivalent—arriba y a ellos—we’re doubtful that the English expression came from Spanish. In fact, the English version apparently appeared first.

In our 2010 post, we mentioned an Oxford English Dictionary citation (“the up-and-at-’em aspect of things”) dating from 1909.

In addition, the OED has examples like this one, found in a letter written by Katharine Mansfield in 1919: “Lets up and at em this winter.”

Oxford also has examples of “up and at” from the late 19th century that are followed by other pronouns, like “up and at it” and “up and at him.”

But in our own searches, we’ve found published examples of the uncontracted “up and at them” from early 19th-century England. And while Americans borrowed language from Spanish in the early 1800s, the British generally did not.

The earliest examples we’ve found appeared in 1815 in hastily published accounts of the Battle of Waterloo, which had been fought in June of that year.

The Duke of Wellington, according to these sources, used the expression as a war cry on the famous battlefield. This example is from The Battle of Waterloo (1815), written “By a Near Observer”:

“The Duke, who was riding behind us, watched their approach, and at length, when within a hundred yards of us, exclaimed, ‘Up, Guards, and at them again!’”

Another, from A Short Detail of the Battle of Waterloo (1815), was said to have been “collected on the spot” (apparently by a British officer). It has this passage:

“ ‘Up, Guards, and at them,’ cried the Duke of Wellington, who was then with a brigade of the Guards. In an instant they sprung up, and, assuming the offensive, rushed upon the attacking columns with the bayonet.”

But while Wellington’s words were indeed published in 1815—and in different accounts—he denied late in life that he’d said them.

In an 1852 letter to his friend John Wilson Croker, a former Secretary to the Admiralty, Wellington wrote:

“What I must have said, and possibly did say was, Stand up, Guards! and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack.” (Published in The Croker Papers, 1884.)

Whether authentic or not, the battle cry became instantly famous and was widely quoted from 1815 on. It was popular on playing fields, in the streets, and in sporting circles.

Christopher North’s novel Winter Rhapsody, serialized in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, describes a schoolboys’ game in which a character shouts, “Guards, up and at them!” (From the February 1831 issue.)

This example is from an eyewitness account of a riot that occurred on March 18, 1833, in the Irish city of Newry:

“Again these poor fellows came to the charge, ‘up and at them,’ and routed the mob completely.” (The testimony was published in the papers of the House of Commons in July 1835.)

And this sporting example is from a description of a four-mile steeplechase in Shropshire in December 1837:

“Tarporley, again all right, was up and at ’em across the ploughed field.” (The report was published in the January 1838 issue of a British magazine, the Sportsman.)

As for the Spanish phrase, arriba y a ellos, it seems to have originated later.

The earliest example we’ve been able to find is from an Oct. 10, 1889, speech by the Cuban national hero José Martí at Hardman Hall in New York.

In the speech, commemorating Oct. 10, 1868, the beginning of the Cuban wars of independence, Martí quotes “almirante Nelson” (not the Duke of Wellington) as using the battle cry:

Y el almirante le dijo, de una buena tronada de la voz: “¡Al diablo las maniobras: arriba y a ellos!” (“And the admiral told them, in a thunderous voice, ‘The hell with maneuvers, up and at them!’ ”)

We haven’t been able to find any examples of arriba y a ellos from the days of the Conquistadors—at least not in Spanish.

But it appears that the Aztecs who resisted the Spanish conquest may have used a version of “up and at them” as a battle cry in their native language, Nahuatl.

In The Human Record: Sources of Global History (4th ed.), Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield provide firsthand accounts of the events that made history.

One of these is the battle for Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1519, as Cortés and his forces set out to conquer Mexico.

The account the authors quote, compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary, was written in Nahuatl and Spanish some 25 years after the battle.

Sahagún mastered Nahuatl and collected oral histories from Aztec survivors of the battle.

This is from Sahagún’s account in La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva Espanã, translated into English from Nahuatl:

“When they [the Spaniards] got to Tlilhuacan, the [Aztec] warriors crouched far down and hid themselves, hugging the ground, waiting for the war cry, when there would be shouting and cries of encouragement. When the cry went up, ‘O Mexica, up and at them!’ the Tlappanecatl Ecatzin, a warrior of Otomi [elite] rank, faced the Spaniards and threw himself at them, saying, ‘O Tlatelolca warriors, up and at them, who are these barbarians? Come running!’ ”

(We searched the Spanish text in various versions of Sahagún’s account and couldn’t find the expression arriba y a ellos.)

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Are two head better than one?

Q: No grammarian I/me, but why is “head” singular as well as plural when referring to cattle?

A: In both the singular and the plural, the noun “head” has long been used numerically.

It’s used for a number of animals (“twenty head of cattle,” “each head of sheep”) as well as measuring (“two heads taller,” “leading by a head,” and so on).

The earliest written example of “head” used for a number of animals comes from an Old English land charter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The document contains the phrase “mid xii heafdon sceapa” (“with 12 head of sheep”).

This sense of “head” is defined in the OED as “an individual animal, esp. a herd animal.” And Oxford notes that the word is used “usually with plural unchanged after a numeral or other quantifier.”

Here are a couple of 19th-century examples in which “head” is used in reference to singular or plural animals:

“The low grounds were laid under water, and many head of cattle drowned” (from The Annual Register for the year 1772).

“Every head of cattle about the place had died” (from Anthony Trollope’s novel The Belton Estate, 1866).

But “head” isn’t used for animals exclusively. In English writing, the phrase “a head” has meant “per person” since at least as far back as the 900s, according to citations in the OED.

And this usage is still with us. A report in a British newspaper, the Independent, noted in 2000: “Delegates will start the day with a ‘coffee, tea and danish’ at £5.95 a head.”

The English word “head” has ancestors in more than a dozen old Germanic languages.

It can “probably” be traced, according to the OED, even further back to a prehistoric Indo-European root that means “cup” or “vessel.” Oxford draws a comparison to the Sanskrit noun kapāla (“cup,” “skull”).

The “shift of meaning from ‘vessel’ to ‘skull, head’ ” is in fact “quite common” in other languages, the linguist Winfred Philipp Lehmann writes in A Gothic Etymological Dictionary (1986).

Lehmann points out, for instance, that the semantic resemblance between a skull and a vessel can be seen in the nouns tête in French and kopf in German. They once meant something like “bowl” or “vessel” but today only the meaning “head” has survived.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ancient Indo-European root of “head” (kauput- or kaupet-) “probably had connotations of ‘bowl’ … as well as ‘head,’ although which came first is not clear.”

Ayto says kaput-, a variant of the Indo-European root, “seems to be responsible for the Latin word for ‘head,’ caput (source of a wide range of English words).”

Thus, our word “head” is distantly related to such English words as “capital,” “captain,” “capillary,” “chief” and (yes!) “cup.”

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The rub of the green

Q: In golf, the expression “rub of the green” basically means bad luck—as when a putt for a birdie is knocked off line by a dive-bombing red-winged blackbird. Does “rub” in this case have any link to Shakespeare’s “Aye, there’s the rub”?

A: When the noun “rub” showed up in regional English in East Anglia in the early 1500s, it referred to a stone used for sharpening a scythe—that is, a whetstone.

But by the 1570s, the noun was being used to mean an unevenness of the ground in the game of bowls, or lawn bowling.

In the 1580s, “rub” came to mean “an obstacle, impediment, or difficulty of a non-material nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shakespeare was using “rub” in that sense in the early 1600s when he wrote Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, which includes “there’s the rub.”

Is there a link, you ask, between Shakespeare’s use of “rub” and the golfing expression “rub of the green”?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the early sense of an obstacle in the game of bowls gave us the “extended sense of any obstacle or hindrance (as in Hamlet’s there’s the rub).”

We’d add that the usage in lawn bowling no doubt gave the golfing world the expression “rub of the green,” which showed up in the early 1800s, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the golfing usage is an 1812 entry from The Story of R & A (1956), J. B. Salmond’s book about the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews:

“Whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green.”

The OED says the expression has two meanings, the one you’re asking about and a wider one: “a) Golf an accidental interference with the course or position of a ball; (b) fig. good (also bad) fortune, esp. as determining events in a sporting match.”

Here’s an example of the wider sense from the Dec. 31, 1931, issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

If he is unfortunate in having finished his task before his problem was knocked completely out of shape by England’s suspension of the gold standard, that is just the ‘rub of the green.’ ”

By the way, when the expression “aye, there’s the rub” first showed up in Hamlet, the interjection “aye” was spelled “I.”

The expression doesn’t appear in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest print edition of Hamlet. (Some scholars consider the abbreviated text in the First Folio unreliable.)

But in the Second Quarto (1604), the expression is written as “I there’s the rub,” and in the First Folio (1623), it’s “I, there’s the rub.”

In fact, the word “aye”was spelled “I” when it suddenly showed up around 1575, according to the OED, and it appeared that way well into the 1600s.

The dictionary discusses several theories about the source of the word “aye,” but ultimately describes it as “origin unknown.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online says that “aye” is “probably from I, first person personal pronoun, expressing assent.”

The online Collins Dictionary agrees that it’s “probably from pronoun I, expressing assent.”

And we’ll add our aye.

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My foot!

Q: Can you please tell me the origin of the expression “my foot!”?

A: The word “foot” has traveled quite a bit since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon days as a noun for the part of a leg, below the ankle, that a person stands on.

It has meant a foot in measurement (since sometime before 1000), a foot of verse (around 1050), the foot of a bed (sometime before 1400), the bottom of a page (1669), a presser foot on a sewing machine (1877), and so on.

In the early 20th century, it showed up in “my foot!” (or “your foot!”), a colloquial expression of “contemptuous contradiction,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Mary the Third, a 1923 play by Rachel Crothers:

“Mother: She was honest enough to tell me that—and I could have persuaded—

“Father: Honest your foot! She’s fooled you—deceived you.”

And here’s a “my foot!” example from Hay Fever, a 1925 comedy by Noël Coward:

“Judith: It’s so silly to get cross at criticism—it indicates a small mind.

“David: Small mind my foot!”

Jonathon Green, writing in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, describes the phrase as a euphemistic variation on “my arse!”

The earliest example of the usage in Green’s Dictionary is from the April 1, 1905, issue of the Sporting Times. In the item cited, one man apparently corrects another for using “my hat!” instead of “my foot!”

“Said No. 2: ‘My hat! this is a really nice girl!’

“Said No. 1: ‘She is a nice girl, old chap, but that was
my foot!’ ”

(The phrase seems to be used here as a mild version of “my God!”)

The next example in Green’s (from The Harvester, a 1911 novel by Gene Stratton-Porter), clearly uses the phrase to suggest contemptuous rejection:

“ ‘She can’t leave her people. Her grandmother is sick.’

“ ‘Grandmother your foot!’ cried the old woman.”

In looking into your question, we came across a related exclamation that might interest you. Chaucer uses the oath “Christ’s foot!” in “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of the Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“Ey, Cristes fote! what wil ye do therwith?”

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Can “since” mean “because”?

Q: In your “disrupter”/“disruptor” post, you use the word “since” in the sense of “because.” To me, “because” indicates cause and effect, while “since” indicates time. Am I being hypercritical?

A: Yes, you’re being hypercritical. The word “since” has been used as a conjunction in the sense of “because” for hundreds of years.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1593): “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere, to see if they’ll disdain me.”

Bryan A. Garner, one of our more traditional grammarians, says it’s a “canard that the word properly relates only to time.”

“In modern print sources, the causal sense is almost as common as the temporal sense,” he writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.).

We’d caution, however, that the use of “since” for “because” can be ambiguous if both causal and temporal readings are possible.

As Pat writes in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage guide, “Just be sure the meaning can’t be confused, as in, Since we spoke, I’ve had second thoughts. In that case, since could mean either ‘from the time that’ or ‘because,’ so it’s better to be more precise.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that “since” may be “a bit less emphatic” than “because” when used in the causal sense. Perhaps, but that’s for the writer to decide.

The word “since” has been an adverb, adjective, preposition, and conjunction since it showed up in Middle English in the 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It had various early meanings (then, thereupon, immediately afterward, etc.) before the modern temporal and causal senses showed up in the 1500s.

The earliest “because” example in the OED is from The Comedye of Acolastus, a 1540 translation by John Palsgrave of a Latin play about the Prodigal Son by the Dutch writer Gulielmus Gnapheus: “Go to, let it be … syns it lyketh so.”

We’ll end with this example from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766):  “Then what signifies calling every moment upon the devil, and courting his friendship, since you find how scurvily he uses you?”

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We have some ideas to share

Q: How about the use of the word “share” to mean communicate, as in “I want to share my concerns with you”?

A: People have been sharing opinions and feelings since Shakespeare’s time, but the more personal sense of sharing that’s common today dates from the 1930s. Here’s the story.

When the verb “share” showed up in the mid-1500s, it meant to cut into parts or cut off, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s ultimately derived from scearu, an Old English term for cutting.

By the late 1500s, according to the OED, “share” was being used in the sense of dividing something into portions or shares.

And by the start of the 1600s, the dictionary says, the verb had taken on the sense of sharing “an action, activity, opinion, feeling, or condition.”

Oxford’s earliest example for this sense, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), refers to “all the counsell that we two haue shar’d.”

The contemporary sense you’re asking about (to share one’s personal experiences or feelings with others) dates from the early 1930s.

The first example in the OED is from Arthur James Russell’s For Sinners Only (1932), a book about the Oxford Group, a Christian organization founded by the American missionary Frank Buckman:

“They [the Oxford Group] defined Sharing as meaning two distinct things—further definable as Confession and Witness.”

And here’s an example from The Challenge of the Oxford Groups (1933) by S. A. King: “What does the Bishop think a man feels when he has ‘shared’ for ‘witness’ and finds that God has used that ‘sharing’ to bring a brother out of … bondage?”

The Oxford Group evolved in the late 1930s into Moral Re-Armament, a moral and spiritual movement headed by Buckman.

In “the language of Moral Re-Armament,” according to the OED, the verb “share” had the sense of “to confess one’s sins openly; to impart to others one’s spiritual experiences.”

However, the verb was soon being used loosely to describe the sharing of quite secular feelings and experiences.

The dictionary cites two early nonreligious examples from Going Abroad, a 1934 novel by Rose Macaulay:

“She would, thought he, be able to share with another girl in a way she could not with him.” And this one, from later in the book: “I must say, I did annoy my father a bit by sharing with him a few things I’d thought about him.”

We’ll end with an example from Your Eyelids Are Growing Heavy, a 1982 crime novel by Barbara Paul:

“She ‘shared’ with the group the fact that she’d begun to have severe bouts of depression.”

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Why “disastrous” isn’t a disaster

Q: When did the “e” disappear from “disastrous”? In other words, why don’t we spell it “disasterous”?

A: English borrowed both the noun and the adjective from French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source of the noun was désastre while the source of the adjective was désastreux (masculine) and désastreuse (feminine)

However, both “disaster” and “disastrous” are ultimately derived from astron, Greek for star and the source of the English word “astronomy.”

Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the underlying meaning of the adjective is ill-starred and of the noun a “malevolent astral influence.”

The adjective, which showed up in the late 1500s, was originally spelled “desastrous” or “dysastrous.” Although an “er” version, “disasterous,” showed up briefly in the early 1600s, it didn’t catch on.

The earliest example in the OED is from Ciuile Conuersation, a 1586 translation of a work by the Italian writer Stefano Guazzo about economics and society:

“If she aford mee but one sparkle of hope and favour, she doth it to no other ende, but to make mee more desastrous.”

The noun, which first appeared in the early 1600s, was spelled “disaster” from the beginning. Shakespeare, who used it in seven of his plays, was probably responsible for popularizing the Anglicized spelling of the French noun.

The OED’s earliest example is from Hamlet (1604): “Starres with traines of fier and dewes of blood / Disasters in the sunne; and the moist starre, / Vpon whose influence Neptunes Empier stands, / Was sicke almost to doomesday with eclipse.”

Why, you ask, is the “e” in “disaster” missing from the modern adjective “disastrous”?

We suspect that the pronunciation of the adjective in French may have influenced its spelling in English. And Shakespeare’s decision to Anglicize désastre as “disaster” probably influenced the spelling of the noun.

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Not every “uu” is a “double-u”

Q: I’ve read your article about why a “w” is called a “double-u.” What puzzles me is why we still have words with “uu”—i.e., “vacuum,” “continuum,” and “triduum.” And why the “w” in “weltanschauung” is pronounced like a “v.” Just curious.

A: As we said in that 2011 post, English words were written in runic letters until the seventh century, when the Latin alphabet was introduced.

But the Latin alphabet of that time had no symbol for the sound of “w,” so such a symbol had to be invented.

At first the symbol used was “uu” or “double u.” But in the eighth century the runic letter ƿ (called a “wyn”) was borrowed for this purpose and was used in English writing for several centuries.

In the meantime, the old “uu”, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “was carried from England to the continent.”

There, the OED explains, it was used to represent the “w” sound “in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin.”

It was Norman scribes who introduced a ligatured version of the old “uu,” forming the letter “w.” This new letter traveled from France to England in the 11th century, and by about 1300 it had replaced the old rune ƿ in English writing.

Although this new “w” was probably regarded as a single letter from the beginning, “it has never lost its original name of ‘double U,’ ” the OED says.

Now for your question about why some English words continue to be written with “uu.” The reason is that they have retained the “uu” spellings they had in Latin.

For example, “vacuum” is from the Latin noun spelled the same way: vacuum.

However, the “uu” combination in English does not sound like “w.” In the case of “vacuum,” it can sound like “yoo” or like “yoo-uh.”

The latter pronunciation is a diphthong—two syllables merged into one sound. This double sound is observable in the spelling of the word in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese: vacuo.

A handful of similar words spelled with “uu” also come from Latin words with identical spellings. And in these the “uu” is pronounced as a diphthong: “continuum,” “residuum,” and the uncommon “triduum,” meaning three days (or specifically the last three days of Lent).

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Happy hour

Q: I noticed a sign yesterday outside a bar that listed “Happy Hour” as being from 4 to 7. Besides wondering about the oddity of describing a three-hour-period as an hour, I became curious about the history of “happy hour” as an expression. Any ideas?

A: The phrase “happy hour” showed up in the early 20th century as a US Navy term for a period of entertainment offered the crew on a ship.

Interestingly, the earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary describes this nautical happy hour as lasting several hours.

Here’s the citation from the May 8, 1914, issue of the Day Book, a short-lived Chicago newspaper whose most famous reporter was Carl Sandburg:

“The happy hour is really several hours set apart three nights a week for the entertainment of the crew. … The entertainment consists of moving pictures, boxing bouts … and dramatics from vaudeville to tragedy.”

The OED defines the sense of the phrase you’re asking about as “a period of time (originally hour, now often longer), usually in the early evening, during which drinks are served in a bar or other licensed establishment at reduced prices.”

The dictionary’s first example for this modern sense—from the Nov. 26, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times—describes “the stampede at a Valley tavern during its ‘Happy Hour’ from 5 to 6 p.m. when all drinks are 25 cents.”

Here’s a more recent citation, from the March 24, 2011, issue of Time Out New York: “You can … indulge in the anytime happy hour—just drop $20 to drink as many beers and bottom-shelf mixed drinks as you’d like for two full hours.”

English borrowed the word “hour” from Old French in the mid-1200s, but it’s ultimately derived from hora, Latin for “hour” and Greek for “season” or “time of day.”

The OED says the English word originally meant—as it does now—“a space of time containing sixty minutes; the twenty-fourth part of a civil day.”

But by the early 1300s, according to the dictionary, the word “hour” was being “used somewhat indefinitely for a short or limited space of time, more or less than an hour.”

Oxford’s first citation for this usage, from a Middle English manuscript written around 1325, refers to “Þis hure of loue” (“this hour of love”).

So it’s not at all surprising that the Happy Hour sign you saw at a bar referred to three hours. Time passes quickly when you’re drinking.

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A bad yegg

Q: Would you be able to help? I’m trying to find the origin of the word “yegg.” It seems to be an Americanism, but so far all I’ve been able to learn is that its origin is unknown.

A: Yes, standard dictionaries generally say the origin of “yegg” (or “yeggman”) is uncertain or unknown, but there are several theories about where the term comes from.

The most common suggestion is that this slang term for a burglar or safecracker is derived from John Yegg, the name or alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as we can tell, the name “John Yegg” appeared in this context for the first time in an account of the annual convention of the American Bankers’ Association on Oct. 2-4, 1900, in Richmond, VA.

A report on crimes involving banks describes how “$540 stolen from the Scandinavian American Bank (member A. B. A.), St. Paul, Minn., on August 9, 1899, by professional sneak thieves, was returned to the bank in an express package.”

A letter accompanying the money, signed “JOHN YEGG & CO.,” reportedly said, “having been hounded by the detectives all over the country, we concluded the wisest thing to do was to make restitution.”

The account adds that “Wm. Barrett, one of the thieves believed to have been concerned in this robbery, was arrested at Milwaukee, Wis., on August 26, 1899, for this and another crime.”

This story about fearful outlaws returning their loot sounds too good to be true. We suspect that Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which handled security for the ABA, may have embellished it.

However, Pinkerton’s is probably responsible for popularizing the use of the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” for a burglar or bank robber, especially one who roams the country and cracks safes with explosives.

In a Sept. 15, 1901, interview with the New York Times, Robert Pinkerton, who ran the detective agency’s New York office, said, “This class of men have become very expert in the use of explosives.”

“The stuff for blowing open safes is carried from place to place in rubber bottles or hot water bags, and if they are discovered by the police, the ‘Yeggs’ claim that they are lung protectors,” Pinkerton added.

He noted that “many of the banks robbed are in small towns, where there is no police protection, and mostly in towns where lights are turned out at midnight or before.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang cites several other theories, including one that traces the term to “John Yeager who led a gang of tramps who robbed the Reading railroad,” and another that says it’s a corruption of “yekk,” a word for beggar “from one of the many dialects spoken in Chinatown” in San Francisco.

We lean toward the “John Yegg” theory. The Oxford English Dictionary appears to lean that way too. It describes the usage as an Americanism and adds: “Said to be the surname of a certain American burglar and safe-breaker.”

The earliest example of “yegg” in the OED is from the June 23, 1903, issue of the New York Evening Post: “The prompt breaking up of the organized gangs of professional beggars and yeggs.”

However, we found this earlier example in the February 1901 issue of McClure’s Magazine. Josiah Flynt, writing about the criminal population in Chicago, said the “great majority are what certain detectives call ‘Yegg-men.’ ”

You don’t see the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” much nowadays. They rose in popularity during the early 1900s, reached a peak in the ’20s, and then quickly fell out of favor, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

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When “stay” means stop

Q: Why does “stay an execution” mean stop it, rather than “stay with it” or “stay the course” or “stay put”?

A: Phrases like “stay an execution” or “stay one’s hand” make sense once you know that the original meaning of “stay” was to halt or stop.

“Stay” can be traced by way of Old French back to the Latin verb stare (to stand).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the earliest meaning of the English verb, recorded in writing around 1440, was “to cease going forward; to stop, halt; to arrest one’s course and stand still.”

That sense of the word is now defunct, but “stay” soon evolved into related meanings that are still in use today.

For example, several uses of “stay” in the sense of stopping an activity emerged in the 16th century. One of these meant to cease, delay, or prevent an action or a process, a usage that’s often found in legal terminology, according to the OED.

The earliest recorded examples are from the papers of King Henry VIII in the 1520s to 1540s. This one dates from 1542-43: “Item that no execucion of any iudgement geuen … be staied or deferred.”

This later example, also cited in the OED, is from Edmund Burke’s last writings on the French Revolution (often called Letters on a Regicide Peace, 1796):

“When a neighbour sees a new erection, in the nature of a nuisance, set up at his door … the judge … has a right to order the work to be staid.”

We also mentioned the phrase “stay one’s hand,” a usage that the OED describes as “somewhat” archaic.

The dictionary says it literally means “to cease or cause to cease from attack,” though it’s chiefly used figuratively in the sense of to restrain someone from doing something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Daniel 4:35): “And none can stay his hand, nor say vnto him, What doest thou?”

In short, “stay” originally meant to stop. The sense of remaining in place or being stationary—today’s more common meaning—evolved in the 16th century from the earlier one.

Here’s an example of the new usage from The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare wrote in the early 1590s: “Your ships are stay’d at Venice.

And here’s one from Romeo and Juliet, which may have been written around the same time: “Upon a rapier’s point: stay, Tybalt, stay!”

Those three expressions you mentioned—“stay with it,” “stay the course,” and “stay put” showed up in the 19th century.

Before we sign off, a couple of side issues that you might find interesting.

You’ll notice that in his quotation, Edmund Burke used the past participle “staid,” a common spelling of “stayed” in the 16th through 19th centuries.

This is the source of the 16th-century adjective “staid,” which we use for people who are steady or sedate—or, as the OED says, “free from flightiness or caprice.”

Finally, there’s an entirely different verb “stay,” which is Germanic instead of Latin in origin and means to secure by ropes or “stays.”

The source of this verb is the 11th-century noun “stay” (stæg in Old English), originally a thick nautical rope for supporting a mast.

A related word is the 14th-century noun that means a prop or support, as in the stiff whalebone or metal “stays” (early 1600s) that ladies once laced themselves up in.

A more distant relative is “steel,” a Germanic noun that was recorded as far back as 725 in Old English (stæli).

The ancient ancestor of “steel” as well as these two “stays” (the rope and the support) is a prehistoric Germanic base, stagh or stakh (“be firm”), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

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Participial physics

Q: Driving myself nuts over this sentence: “Not having heard of it, I was confused.” What is “having”? We have a present participle followed by a past participle! Please help this struggling English grammar teacher.

A: In that sentence, “having” is an auxiliary verb (sometimes called a “helping verb”). When combined with a past participle—like “heard”—it forms what’s called a perfect participle: “having heard.”

You may be puzzled because you’re trying to figure out what tense this is. In fact, we aren’t dealing with tenses here but with participial phrases. And participial phrases act as adjectives, not verbs.

In your sentence—“Not having heard of it, I was confused”—the phrase “not having heard of it” modifies the subject, “I.”

This might be better explained with a simpler sentence: “Stopping to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “stopping” is a present participle, and the participial phrase “stopping to chat” modifies the subject, “Tom.”

If we use a perfect participle instead of a present participle, the sentence looks like this: “Having stopped to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “having stopped” is a perfect participle, and the participial phrase “having stopped to chat” again modifies “Tom.”

You can use either version, of course—with a present participle or a perfect participle. So why use a construction that sounds more complicated?

A perfect participle, as in “having stopped to chat,” serves to emphasize not only the sequence of events but also their causal relationship. The “having” part underscores the fact that Tom’s stopping to chat not only preceded but also caused his being late for work.

Verbal phrases that include some form of “have” are called “perfect” because their action is complete rather than ongoing. This is true whether the verbal phrase functions as a verb (“have heard”) or as a modifier (“having heard”).

The perfect tenses of the verb “hear” are “have heard” and “has heard” (present perfect); “had heard” (past perfect); “will have heard” (future perfect); and “would have heard” (conditional perfect).

The perfect infinitive is “to have heard,” and the perfect participle is “having heard” or, in its negative form, “not having heard.”

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How French is your onion soup?

Q: Can you shed some light on the origin of the term “French onion soup”? A colleague of mine claims that the word “French” refers not to the origin of the soup but rather to the manner in which the onions are chopped (“frenched”).

A: Well, the onions in French onion soup are often frenched—that is, cut into thin lengthwise strips. And some people add “frenched” to the name of the dish.

But as far as we can tell the name of the soup originally referred to its place of origin, not the way the onions were sliced.

That’s not surprising, since the adjective “French” usually refers to France, its people, its culture, or its language, according to standard dictionaries.

In fact, English speakers were eating “French onion soup” for dozens of years before the term “frenched” was used to describe vegetables cut into thin strips.

The earliest example for the soup that we could find—from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1828), by Christian Isobel Johnstone—refers to Potage à la Clermont as “a French Onion Soup.”

The recipe doesn’t include cheese, one the typical ingredients today in French onion soup. More to the point, it calls for the onions to be “cut in rings,” not frenched.

In Dinners at Home: How to Order, Cook and Serve Them (1878), the recipe for “French Onion Soup” is also cheese-less. And the pseudonymous author, referred to as “Short,” says the onions should be cut “crossways,” not frenched.

The earliest English example we could find for a “French onion soup” recipe similar to the modern one—with cheese, butter, bread, flour, broth, and so on—is from Every-Day Helps (1892), a collection of household tips published by Wells, Richardson & Co.

However, the recipe, which calls for pouring the onion broth over a slice of fried bread and sprinkling grated cheese on top, makes no mention of how—or even if—the onions should be sliced.

The use of the term “frenched” to describe thinly sliced veggies first showed up in the early 20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary describes the usage as chiefly North American. The earliest example is from the Feb. 25, 1903, issue of the Ottumwa (Iowa) Daily Courier: “Dinner … Frenched Potatoes with Parsley.”

Here’s a more recent citation from the Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun: “Blanch cut or frenched beans for 1½ minutes, whole beans for two minutes.”

Interestingly, the word “soup,” like its cousin “sop,” originally referred to a “piece of bread soaked in liquid,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

English borrowed the word from the French soupe, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb suppare (“soak”).

“One way of making such sops was to put them in the bottom of a bowl and pour broth over them,” Ayto writes, “and eventually soupe came to denote the ‘broth’ itself—the sense in which English acquired it.”

The term “onion” has a somewhat fuzzy etymology. It’s derived from unio, a Latin word for a single large pearl, but Roman farmers also used the term for a variety of onion without shoots.

The OED speculates that the use of unio for a single pearl may be traced to unus, Latin for “one,” or that it may come from the pearl’s similarity in shape to an onion.

Ayto suggests that the use of unio for an onion may be the result of “a proud onion-grower comparing his products with pearls” or “an allusion to the ‘unity’ formed by the layers of the union.”

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Plovers lane

Q: I was at a loss to explain the pronunciation of “plover” to the son of a friend. Some sources say it rhymes with “lover” and others with “rover.” A poll of birders indicates that PLUH-ver is favoured over PLOH-ver by a small majority. I bet there’s a worthwhile post lurking here.

A: You betcha! Both the PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver pronunciations are listed in standard dictionaries. Some have one, some the other, and the rest include the two of them.

So both pronunciations are standard English, though the eight dictionaries we’ve checked usually give only PLUH-ver for an online audio pronouncer.

(Some British dictionaries describe PLOH-ver as an American pronunciation, but the three US dictionaries we consulted include both PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver.)

Interestingly, the common name of the shorebird was spelled all sorts of ways  for hundreds of years after it showed up in English in the early 1300s. Those spellings undoubtedly reflected different pronunciations.

In fact, the first syllable was spelled—and pronounced—two different ways (plo- and plu-) in medieval Latin, the source of the English word. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes several theories about the origin of “plover,” a collective name for any of various wading birds of the family Charadriidae.

One theory is that the name was influenced by the classical Latin word for rain, pluvia, because plovers arrived with the rainy season, or were active then, or were easily hunted in the rain.

Another theory is that the upper plumage of some plovers appears to be spotted with raindrops.

However, the OED leans toward the theory that the name “plover” is simply imitative of the cries of various plovers.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “plover” is a reference to “pluvers” from a manuscript, dated 1304-05, in the British Museum.

Over the next three centuries, the word was spelled in dozens of ways, including plouier, ploware, plowere, pluwer, plovere, plower, pluuer.

Here’s an example from The Unfortunate Traveller, a 1594 novel by Thomas Nashe: “As fat and plum euerie part of her as a plouer.”

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that English speakers settled on “plover” as the proper spelling of the bird’s name.

For example, Robert Lovell’s 1661 translation of a Greek work on zoology and mineralogy has an entry for “plover” with this description: “The flesh is very pleasant, and better than the green Lapwing.” (The feathers were also used in hats.)

Plover populations were devastated by hunting in the 19th century, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects them in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

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Well, look

Q: I’ve been driven crazy from listening to Josh Earnest, Marie Harf, and Jen Psaki answer questions by beginning with the words “Well, look,” as if the listener was a moron who needs further simplification. Is this something new or am I late to the game again?

A: No, this isn’t something that began with officials in the Obama Administration. People have begun sentences and clauses that way—or very similarly—since Anglo-Saxon days.

In Old English, for example, the interjection wella was used to introduce a remark or statement, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “Oh!”

The OED’s first citation is from a damaged early Old English manuscript, but let’s skip ahead to an example from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ of Boethius:

“Wella wisan men, wel, gað ealle on þone weg” (“Well Oh, wise men, well! Go you all on the way”).

If one “well” wasn’t enough at the beginning of a remark, two or three would be used: “well, well” or “well, well, well.” The OED says this “reduplicated” usage expressed “surprise, anticipation, resignation, or acquiescence.”

The dictionary has an Old English example of a double “well” from the Lambeth Psalter (circa 1015), but we prefer this one from a 15th-century translation of Aesop’s fable of the two mice: “ ‘Weil, weil, sister,’ quod the rurall mous.”

Similarly, the Old English version of the imperative “look” was used with adverbs and pronouns for emphasis much the way we use it now. The phrase lōca nu, for example, was the Anglo-Saxon version of “look now.”

Here’s an example from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s 897 translation of Cura Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Lociað nu ðæt ðios eowru leaf ne weorðe oðrum monnum to biswice” (“Look now, lest this liberty of yours turns into a stumbling block to other men”).

Getting back to your question, we hadn’t noticed the overuse of “Well, look” among Obama Administration officials, but we suspect that you’re reading too much into their words.

We’d guess that the phrase is similar to “you know,” “I mean,” and other fillers that speakers use when pausing to consider their next words.

Try not to let the usage get on your nerves. It too shall pass. When a usage is overused, a fresher one is sure to come along—and eventually be overused and drive you crazy!

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“Threap” show

Q: For many generations, my family has used the word “threap” as a mild threat, as in “If you don’t eat that, I’ll threap it down your throat.” This comes down through my Scots and Irish side of the family. Can you tell me of its origin?

A: The verb “threap,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says is “of uncertain history,” dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, when it was spelled ðreapian in Old English. (The letter ð, or eth, was an early version of “th.”)

The OED says “threap” originally meant to rebuke, scold, or blame. The earliest example in the dictionary is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s 897 translation of Cura Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Ðonne he to suiðe & to ðearllice ðreapian wile his hieremenn” (“When he reproves his subjects too severely”).

The OED lists many other meanings for “threap,” including to argue (1303), to insist obstinately on something (circa 1386), to fight (c 1400), to prod someone to give up something (1677), and to persuade someone to believe something (c 1440).

The sense of “threap” that you’re asking about—“to thrust, obtrude, press (something) upon a person”—showed up in the 16th century, according to citations in the dictionary.

The earliest example is from a 1571 English translation of Calvin’s Latin commentary on the Book of Psalms: “If Sathan threpe any feare uppon us, it may be kept farre of from enterance.”

And here’s another religious example, from A Compleat History and Mystery of the Old and New Testament (1690), by Christopher Ness: “Araunah had a princely spirit … but generous David threaps upon him fifty shekels.”

The OED says “threap” now occurs in Scottish and northern English dialects, which supports the idea that Scots may have brought the usage into your family.

Although some standard English dictionaries have entries for “threap,” they generally agree with Oxford that the usage is Scottish or northern English dialect.

The Scots Language Centre has an example of the word in action, Daena threap doun ma thrapple, which it defines as “Don’t try and dictate to me.” (A thrapple is a throat in Scots; an American might say, “Don’t shove it down my throat.”)

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Is your spouse possessed?

Q: I am concerned about the possessive connotation of referring to one’s spouse as “my wife.” Is there a reasonable substitute for “my” in this context? I am curious as to your views.

A: We could come up with some clunky substitutes, but we don’t see any reason for avoiding the word “my” in referring to a spouse.

In fact, we wouldn’t describe the pronoun “my” as a possessive in phrases like “my wife” and “my husband.”

A better term would be “genitive,” a case that includes the possessive as well as many other kinds of relationship, as we’ve written before on our blog.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would label “my” in the phrase “my wife” as a “genitive pronoun” rather than a “possessive pronoun.”

In such a phrase, according to Cambridge, the genitive “my” acts as a “determiner,” a word or phrase that determines the context of the noun that it modifies.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, the Cambridge authors, say that in the sentence “My father has arrived,” the word “my” is a “subject-determiner,” a genitive construction that gives the subject context—that is, it describes whose father has arrived.

Huddleston and Pullum suggest that in a sentence like that, the word “my” may combine both “the syntactic functions of determiner and subject”—that is, it may be acting as a subject as well as a modifier.

The authors add that this analysis is “justified by a significant structural resemblance” between such genitives and the subjects of clauses.

We could go on, but the Cambridge Grammar is heavy going. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t  worry about referring to your spouse as “my wife.” Yes, she’s yours, but you don’t possess her—genitively speaking.

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A lowering sky

Q: How is “lowering” pronounced when used to describe a threatening sky? And is this usage related etymologically to things descending?

A: The “lowering” that we use to describe a threatening sky is not related to the “lowering” that means descending. It’s a different word entirely, with a different origin and a different traditional pronunciation.

The word found in expressions like “lowering clouds” or “a lowering sky” traditionally rhymes with “flowering,” “towering,” and “showering.” It was originally spelled “louring,” with the “our” pronounced as in “hour” or “sour.”

Its source was the verb “lour,” which was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This verb initially meant “to frown, scowl; to look angry or sullen,” the OED says.

The earliest example Oxford cites is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a chronicle of the lives of the saints:

“He … lourede with sori semblaunt: and þeos wordes out he caste.” (“He loured with an angry countenance and these words he cast out.”)

By the late 16th century, people were using “lour” and “louring” in reference to menacing skies as well as to menacing looks. The OED’s earliest examples are from the stage:

“O my starres! Why do you lowre vnkindly on a King?” (from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, written sometime before 1593).

“The cloudes that lowrd vpon our house” (Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1597).

Note that by this time a “w” had crept into the spelling, and the old “lour” became “lower.” But thanks to poets and to early pronouncing dictionaries, we know that its pronunciation stayed the same.

For example, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer rhymed “loured” and “devoured” in The Hous of Fame (circa 1384). Centuries later, John Milton rhymed “hour” and “lowre” in Samson Agonistes (1671).

And in the 19th century, a satirical poet known only by the pseudonym Quiz wrote these lines in The Grand Master (1816): “His tone of insolence and pow’r, / Made all the passengers to low’r.”

Even today, the original pronunciation is the only one recognized by the OED and some standard dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

But some others, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), say this sense of “lower” now has two acceptable pronunciations. It can rhyme with “flower” or with “knower.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that with two words spelled “lower,” the more common one would influence the pronunciation—and even the meaning—of the lesser-known word.

As the OED notes, “The spelling lower (compare flower) renders the word identical in its written form with lower v., to bring or come down, and the two verbs have often been confused.”

In speaking of clouds, Oxford says, the “lower” that means to look threatening “has some affinity in sense” with the “lower” that means to descend, “and it is not always possible to discover which verb was in the mind of a writer.”

In fact, pronunciation may be a moot point here. It’s been our experience that the threatening sense of the word is seldom if ever used in speech. Most of the time we encounter it in writing—and rather elevated writing at that.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English describes “lower” or “lour” as a literary term in British English. Longman gives as examples “lowering clouds” and “The other driver lowered at us as we passed him.”

As for its origins, the verb “lower” (to look threatening) has corresponding forms in old and modern Germanic languages. These words, the OED says, mean to frown, knit the brows, watch stealthily, spy, or lie in wait.

The other “lower”—the verb and adjective referring to height or position—comes from the adjective “low.” This word, the OED says, is descended from early Scandinavian, where it meant short, near to the ground, humble, or muted in voice.

Finally, a little detour to the barnyard.

That last sense of “low,” descriptive of a quiet or muted voice, may lead you to think of the “lowing” of cattle. But that’s another “low” entirely; it has nothing to do with the “low” that’s the opposite of “high.”

The “low” that refers to the sound of cattle (it rhymes with “toe”) was recorded in Old English (hlowan), but is much older. It’s been traced back to proto-Germanic (khlo) and to an even more ancient Indo-European root (kla), according to etymological dictionaries.

As you might suspect, the Old English hlowan and its predecessors were imitative in origin—they mimicked the resonant moo of a cow. As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Indo-European root, kla, was onomatopoeic.

That ancient root was also the origin of noise-making words in Latin and Greek, specifically the verbs that mean something like “call”—clamare and calare in Latin, kalein in Greek.

Ayto says the Indo-European root that gave us the bovine “low” also produced these words: “Latin clarus (which originally meant ‘loud’ and gave English clear and declare), clamare ‘cry out’ (source of English acclaim, claim, exclaim, etc.), and calare ‘proclaim, summon’ (source of English council).”

But getting back to the barnyard, the old Germanic verbs corresponding to “low” meant “to moo, bellow,” the OED says. But nowadays, Oxford says, the English word represents “a more subdued sound than bellow, being roughly equivalent to moo but somewhat more literary.”

So now we know. Ordinary cows “moo,” but literary ones “low.”

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A disruptive spelling

Q: Is “disruptor” emerging as an alternative spelling for the traditional “disrupter”? Or do the editors at Forbes and Vanity Fair err when they spell it with an “o” instead of an “e”?

A: Dictionaries give “disrupter” as the usual spelling, but some do give “disruptor” as an acceptable variant.

You can find the variant spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), and the Collins English Dictionary online.

No matter how you spell it, this is a relatively recent agent noun (agent nouns represent doers—people or things that do something).

It was first recorded in the late 19th century and is defined in the OED as “one who breaks up” or “one who causes disruption.”

Agent nouns, which we’ve written about on our blog, usually end in either “-or” or “-er.” As a general rule, the “-er” nouns come from Germanic sources while those ending in “-or” come from Latin.

But there are many exceptions, and some agent nouns (like “advisor” and “adviser”) come in both forms. Apparently “disrupter”—when it’s spelled like that—is one of the exceptions.

The noun is ultimately derived from the Latin verb disrumpere, which means to break into pieces or burst asunder, as the OED says. And since it comes from Latin, one would expect it to have an “-or” ending in English.

But the noun had strayed far from its Latin roots when it arrived in the 1880s. That may explain why there was apparently some confusion as to its spelling early on.

Here are the two OED citations from that time, and you’ll note that the spellings differ:

1881: “These eminent Disrupters had been passionate advocates for the nationality of the Church.” (From the Saturday Review.)

1886: “They denounced Mr. Gladstone as a betrayer of his country and a disruptor of the Empire.” (From the Pall Mall Gazette.)

We wouldn’t worry too much about the different spellings. The editors at Forbes and Vanity Fair apparently don’t, since you can find many examples of the word spelled both ways in each magazine.

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“Hunker” or “bunker” down?

Q: I keep hearing the phrase “bunker down” during storms. Shouldn’t it be “hunker,” not “bunker”?

A: If your meaning is to settle in for a long time or wait for a difficult situation to end, the customary verb phrase is “hunker down.”

The verb “bunker” (minus the adverb “down”) usually means to hit a golf ball into a sand trap or to store fuel in a tank.

We checked the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as six standard dictionaries, and didn’t find a single entry for “bunker down” used to mean “hunker down.”

As you’ve noticed, however, a lot of people do indeed use “bunker down” in the sense of “hunker down,” never mind the dictionaries.

Here’s an example from New Moon (2006), the second novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romance series: “The skies had a ferocious plan in store for today. The animals must be bunkering down.”

Language types have been discussing the usage since it showed up in an October 2003 article in LA Weekly that described how liberals ended up on the losing side when Gov. Gray Davis lost a recall election in California:

“By bunkering down with the discredited and justly scorned Gray Davis, they wound up defending an indefensible status quo against a surging wave of popular disgust.”

Within a few days, contributors to the Linguist List forum were discussing whether “bunker down” was a syntactic blend or an eggcorn.

A syntactic blend is an unusual combination of two similar constructions (“it’s not rocket science” + “it’s not brain surgery” = “it’s not rocket surgery”). An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution (like “egg corn” for “acorn”).

In 2004, the linguist Arnold Zwicky included “bunker down” in a list of “fresh eggcorn candidates” that he submitted to the Language Log in a post entitled “Postcards From Eggcornea.”

In 2008, Greg C. Clarke explained the usage this way on the Eggcorn forum: “A bunker is a place you hunker down in to protect yourself, so I think it’s pretty clear how the substitution came about.”

When the verb “hunker” showed up in English in the early 18th century, according to the OED, it meant (and still means) to “squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.”

Oxford says “hunker” is of unknown origin, but it notes similar verbs in other Germanic languages, such as húka in Old Norse, hucken in Middle Dutch, and hûken in Middle Low German.

The dictionary’s first English example is in Streams From Helicon: or, Poems on Various Subjects, a 1720 collection by the Scottish physician and poet Alexander Pennecuik: “And hunk’ring down upon the cald Grass.”

In the early 20th century the verb phrase “hunker down” took on new, figurative meanings, the OED says: to “concentrate one’s resources, esp. in unfavourable circumstances; to dig in, buckle down.”

Oxford says the phrase, which appears chiefly in American English, is frequently used in military contexts in the sense of “to shelter or take cover, lie low.”

The dictionary’s first example for the new meanings (used here in the buckling-down sense) is from a 1903 issue of Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society:

“Hunker or hunker down, v.i. To squat down. To get down to one’s work.” (We’ve expanded the citation from Dialect Notes.)

The word “bunker” first showed up in the 18th century as a noun meaning a seat or bench, according the dictionary. In the 19th century, it came to mean a sand trap in golf as well as a receptacle for coal on a ship.

The military sense didn’t appear until the 20th century. The first Oxford citation is from the Oct. 13, 1939, issue of War Pictorial: “A Nazi field gun hidden in a cemented ‘bunker’ on the Western front.”

When the verb “bunker” (also of uncertain etymology) showed up in the 19th century, it meant either to hit a golf ball into a bunker or to fill the bunkers on a ship with coal or oil.

In the late 19th century, according to the OED, the verb took on a colloquial sense similar to the one you’re asking about: “To be placed in a situation from which it is difficult to extricate oneself. Also, to place in such a situation.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for this sense is from the Sept. 6, 1894, issue of the Westminster Gazette: “The Liberal peers were powerless. To use a golfing simile, they were bunkered.”

Did the golfing “bunker” or the military “bunker” give us the eggcorn “bunker down”? We don’t know. We’re bunkered!

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Round about sennight

Q: In my readings of older material, I often see the word “sennight” (a k a, a week). Is it still used in British English, like “fortnight” (two weeks), or is “sennight” now archaic?

A: The word “sennight,” an old construction meaning “seven nights,” is now archaic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So you wouldn’t use it today unless you were writing historical fiction or drama.

In the OED’s definition, it means “a period of seven (days and) nights; a week.” So a “sennight” is the same thing as a week.

The term is derived from the Old English words seofon (seven) and nihta (nights), and it was originally written as two words. Some early forms recorded in the OED are “VII nihta” (800s), “sefenn nahht” (circa 1200), and “seuen nyght” (c 1386).

The first one-word version in the OED, “seoueniht,” may date from the late 1100s. It’s from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Seoueniht he wes þære.” (“Seven nights he was there.”)

Other one-word (or sometimes hyphenated) versions followed, and they continued to show up in English writing into the 19th century. Here, for example, are some widely separated sightings:

“A sefenneghte after that Murdok of Fyche was take away” (from 43rd Reports of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records, dated 1414).

“The crosse windes … held him in the Downes almost a seavennight before they would blow him over” (from Sir John Finett’s Finetti Philoxenis, recollections written sometime before 1641).

“My love for Nature is as old as I; / But thirty moons, one honeymoon to that, / And three rich sennights more, my love for her” (from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Edwin Morris, 1851).

The word was also used to mean “a week from” or “a week ago” in constructions like these: “this day sennight” (a week from today); “Tuesday sennight” (a week from Tuesday); “Friday come a sennight” (a week from Friday); “Monday was a sennight” (a week ago Monday).

The OED’s first known example of this usage is also from Layamon’s Brut. Here’s the Middle English: “Ȝif ȝe spekeð mid rihte comeð to-dæi a seouen-nihte.” (“If you speak with right, come today sennight.”)

As you might expect, just as a “sennight” meant seven nights (one week), “fortnight” means fourteen nights (two weeks).

The OED explains that “fortnight,” which dates from the late 900s, is a “contracted form of Old English feowertyne niht” (fourteen nights).

“Fortnight,” unlike “sennight,” has survived into our own time and is a household word in Britain, where it’s found every day in news reports. In the US, however, “fortnight” is much less common and conveys an air of quaintness.

You may be wondering why these words used “nights” instead of “days” as a measurement of the passage of time. This is a remnant of a tradition that was observed in many ancient civilizations.

Max Müller, a 19th-century philologist and a renowned Sanskrit scholar, wrote that “time was measured by nights, and moons, and winters, long before it was reckoned by days, and suns, and years” (Lectures on the Science of Language, 1861).

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Something shocking

Q: A colleague recently emailed that he was “shocked and saddened” to hear of the death of an 83-year-old. How can one be “shocked” at the death of someone who’s 83?  Saddened, yes. Surprised, maybe. But shocked? I wonder. Ever since Casablanca, the word “shocked” seems to have become diluted.

A: Yes, the adjective “shocked” isn’t as shocking as it used to be, but its dilution began long before Captain Renault said, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

When “shocked” showed up in English in the 17th century, it meant “shaken violently,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1642 poem in Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England (1864-66), edited by William C. Hazlitt:

“The women did stand by and quake, / As did the people, in old Æsops time, / At the shockt mount, whereforth a Mouse did clime.” (The reference is to “The Mountain of Labor,” an Aesop fable in which a mountain violently gives birth to a mouse.)

By the 19th century, the adjective “shocked” had weakened to mean “scandalized, horrified,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the more temperate usage is from a Jan. 21, 1840, letter from Queen Victoria to her Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston:

“The Queen also sends a letter which she found in a box which had been put by, and which she has kept near three years, she is shocked to say.”

The meaning of the adjective has weakened even more in some modern standard dictionaries.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, defines it as “feeling very upset or surprised,” and gives this example: “He was shocked to discover that he had no money left in his account.”

However, the online Macmillan Dictionary sounds quite Victorian in its definitions: (1) “very surprised and upset by something bad that happens unexpectedly,” and (2) “very offended or embarrassed by something that you consider immoral.”

The source of the violent beginnings of “shocked” was the verb “shock,” which the OED says meant “to come into violent contact, to collide, clash together; esp. to encounter in the shock of battle” when it first showed up in the 16th century.

In the late 17th century, the verb took on its sense of to offend, scandalize, and horrify. And in the 18th century, it came to mean to give someone an electric shock.

We’ll end with a few electrifying lines from “Anything Goes,” one of our favorite Cole Porter songs:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, Heaven knows,
Anything goes.

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Fish or cut bait

Q: In a New Yorker article about Google, Nicholas Lemann writes: “The company is built to launch new products very quickly and to cut bait right away if they aren’t working.” Is this use of “cut bait” fishy? It seems to imply merely abandoning something. But I always thought it meant, metaphorically, something like “put up or shut up.”

A: You seem to think that this use of “cut bait” in the New Yorker has strayed too far from the original sense of the full expression, “fish or cut bait.”

Should Lemann have used an expression like “cut its losses”? Or has the meaning of “cut bait” changed? Before answering, let’s look at the history of “fish or cut bait.”

Interestingly, both the literal and the figurative uses of the phrase showed up at about the same time in 19th-century American writing, as far as we can tell from searches of news and literary databases.

In fact the earliest example we’ve found uses the expression in its figurative sense, meaning more or less what you suggest, “put up or shut up.”

However, we expect that even earlier examples of the usage, both literal and figurative, will emerge as more books and periodicals are digitized.

The earliest example we’ve found is this figurative version from the July 31, 1837, issue of the Oneida Observer in Albany, NY: “Politicians cannot shilli-shalli along now. They must either ‘fish, cut bait, or go ashore.’ ”

We found another early metaphorical example in a letter written in 1846 by a Wisconsin judge, Levi Hubbell, who said the wife in a divorce case “will neither fish nor cut bait”— that is, she would neither live with her husband nor agree to divorce him.

On a literal level, the phase means something like this: If you don’t intend to fish, go cut up bait and let someone else do the fishing.

The first example we’ve found for the literal usage is from a letter published in the July 25, 1845, issue of the Boston Courier. The writer joked that “Antihookarians,” people opposed to using hooks to catch fish, “would neither fish nor cut bait.”

This more straightforward example of the literal meaning comes from Joseph Warren Smith’s book Gleanings From the Sea (1887). In describing how large fishing trawlers operate in the waters around Boston, Smith wrote:

“The men are never idle. All either fish or cut bait, and, soon as free from any special toil, over go their lines to see what response may come from below.”

It’s clear that in the 19th century, “fish or cut bait” had two either/or meanings. Literally, it meant do one fishing job or the other. Figuratively, it meant act or let someone else act in your place.

So is there something fishy about the use of “cut bait” in reference to Google’s abandoning unsuccessful products?

Well, the newer usage strikes us as awkward, but the “fish or cut bait” entries in some standard dictionaries seem to support it.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “fish or cut bait” is an informal idiom meaning “to proceed with an activity or abandon it altogether.”

And Oxford Dictionaries online says it’s an “informal North American” expression meaning to “stop vacillating and act on something or disengage from it.”

Finally, we’ve seen a lot of speculation that “cut bait” originally meant to cut your fishing line—hook, bait, and all. We haven’t found a shred of evidence to support this theory. Toss it back.

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Why is the color green off-color?

Q: There’s a dictionary of slang in which the word “green” is said to mean sexual intercourse.  Ever heard of this usage?

A: Yes indeed.

You must have heard Pat when she spoke on WNYC in March about the arrival of spring, a season that’s always been associated with the color green.

As Pat said on the Leonard Lopate Show, green has other associations as well. We think of it in connection with youthful inexperience, newness, freshness, naiveté, gullibility, envy, and jealousy. It’s also the color of money (“greenbacks”), and of marijuana.

Then there’s sex.

Centuries ago, to “give someone a green gown” was to have sex outdoors. Why? Just imagine frisky wenches rolling in the meadow and getting grass stains on their dresses.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “green gown” as an archaic and historical term for “a dress stained green from rolling in grass.”

The phrase is found, the OED says, “chiefly in to give a woman a green gown: to engage in amorous play with a woman; (euphem.) to deflower, deprive a woman of her virginity.”

An early example of this usage is cited (appropriately!) in Green’s Dictionary of Slang. A 1351 indictment for rape in the county of Nottingham, written in Latin, includes the phrase induentes eam robam viridem (“giving her a green gown”).

The OED’s earliest sighting in English is from Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, written sometime before 1586: “Then some grene gowns are by the lasses worne / In chastest plaies, till home they walke a rowe.”

This blunter example is from the playwright Anthony Munday’s 1596 translation of Palmerin of England: “At length he was so bolde as to giue her a greene gowne, when I feare me she lost the flower of her chastitie.”

By the 19th century, “green” (or “greens”) was a slang term for “sexual activity, esp. intercourse,” the OED says.

The term frequently appeared in the phrase “to get one’s greens and variants, with implication of something which is (like vegetables in the diet) needed regularly,” Oxford explains.

The OED’s earliest example of this usage is from a suggestive poem in Swell’s Night Guide (1846): “She kept the greens, for very few she sold; / And, as her customers, the greens refuse, / Why, then, the greens gave this fair maid the blues.”

Green’s Dictionary mentions a few other uses of “green” in relation to sex. In 1773, Green’s reports, “greengrocer” was a euphemism for a prostitute. And in the 1960s, “green thumb” was gay slang for the penis.

Before we close, a note about the long association of “green” with envy.

Shakespeare did coin the expression “green-eyed monster” (Othello, circa 1603), but he was not the first to link the color with envy.

The English poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, and Stephen Scrope made the connection in the 14th and 15th centuries, according to the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary.

The MED notes that the color green (written as grene) was “symbolic of inconstancy or envy” in Middle English, the language of those earlier poets.

Why? It’s been suggested that a greenish complexion, thought to be caused by an excess of bile, was indicative of “fear, envy, ill humour, or sickness,” according to the OED.

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Seoul searching

Q: Why is there an “e” in Seoul? What’s it for, anyway?

A: Europeans are responsible for putting the “e” in “Seoul.” This spelling represents the commonly accepted transliteration of the word from the Korean alphabet into the Roman.

We’ve found mentions of the name “Seoul” or “Séoul” dating from the 1840s in French, German, Italian, and English writing.

The spelling was considered an approximation of the way native Koreans pronounced the word, which means “capital” in their language.

The first Europeans in Korea were French Roman Catholic missionaries who arrived in 1836, according to the Korea scholar James Huntley Grayson. (We’re citing a chapter he wrote in the anthology Christianity in Korea, 2006.)

It’s probable that these French priests were the first to spell “Seoul” with an “e.” We say this because the earliest example we’ve found is from a letter written in Italian on July 18, 1846, by a French priest, Antoine Daveluy, a missionary in Korea at the time.

In naming the provinces of “la Corea,” Father Daveluy gives the fifth province as “Kiang-kè, capitale, Han-iang, o Seoul, che è pure capitale di tutto il regno.” (Translation: “Kiang-kè, capital Han-iang or Seoul, which is also the capital of the entire kingdom.”)  His letter was published in a Catholic periodical in Italy in 1848.

British missionary publications—the Rambler (1849) and the Gleaner in the Missionary Field (1850)—used nearly identical language, though in English, to describe this province of “Corea,” except that they reversed the accent in “Kiang-ké.”

The Korean Repository, an English monthly published in Seoul in the 1890s, printed an exchange of letters in 1892 about the spelling “Seoul.”

One letter-writer expressed the opinion that “the transliteration Syoul as given in the Dictionnaire Coréen-Français is probably nearer correct than Seoul.”

Another correspondent said that attempts to reproduce the word in Roman letters had produced “kaleidoscopic variations that are as curious as they are perplexing.”

He mentioned “Seoul,” “Söul,” “Sowl,” “Sôwl,” “Sool,” “Sole,” “Sau-ull,” “Saw-ool,” “Sye-oul,” and “Syö-ul.”

He gave his own preference: “Söul, not a perfect medium it is true, but an intelligible and practical rendition, and one which will at least leave the public in the neighborhood of the correct pronunciation.”

The editor of the Korean Repository replied: “The word Seoul means Capital to the Koreans and is used as the name of the capital of Korea by foreigners. It is, as all admit, a word of two syllables, commonly transliterated Sye-oul. Unfortunately this does not help those who do not study the language to anything like a correct pronunciation because it does not spell it phonetically any more than Séoul, Sool, Soul &c.”

“Any attempt however to pronounce it as a monosyllable must necessarily lead astray and is as unintelligible to the uninitiated Korean as N’jork would be to the mass of the people in New York,” he added.

After discussing the word’s history as rendered in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing, the editor noted that “the populace said Syeoul” at a time when the only writing “used in the peninsula was the Chinese ideogram, and it is probable that the word was not written as it had long been spoken until the general adoption of the Korean alphabet, with its phonetic spelling.”

He insisted that “the pronunciation of the word as a monosyllable is not like that of the Koreans ‘who speak the dialects’ nor, for that matter, like that of any Koreans.”

Foreigners, he added, usually stress the first syllable, with “the o as in long, or aw in law.” This vowel sound, he said, might be written with an “ó” (Sóul).

That rendering “would probably come nearest the native sound,” he said, “but there is always the danger of these top-knots [i.e., accent marks] being discarded after a brief season’s handling by the busy public, in which case we should have Soul left, than which nothing could be farther from the correct pronunciation. We have seen the name of our city written in this way by advocates of the ö (Söul) having ‘forgotten the umlaut’ and we fear Sóul would fare no better.”

The editor’s conclusion: “We are therefore inclined to think it just as well to continue to write Seoul, though Sóul is nearer the native pronunciation.”

Despite the 19th-century admonitions against a monosyllabic pronunciation, English speakers today pronounce the name of the capital like “soul” or “sole.”

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