The Grammarphobia Blog

Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

Q: Where do you stand on the debate in academia over whether Jane Austen winkingly used the name “Fanny Price” for her Mansfield Park heroine?

A: There’s no chance that Jane Austen was slyly winking at her readers when she used that name in Mansfield Park (1814).

The British use of “fanny” to mean the female genitalia (here in the US it means the buttocks) didn’t appear until Austen had been dead for 20 years.

And if she had been familiar with this use of “fanny,” she wouldn’t have used it for such a shy, upright, and conscientious character as Fanny Price.

The feminine name “Fanny,” a diminutive of “Frances,” was very common in England at the time Austen was writing. Before the slang usages came along, “Fanny” was no more suggestive than “Annie.”

“Frances” was the feminine version of the men’s name “Francis,” and it used to be very popular in both Britain and the United States.

Many famous and admired women were officially named “Frances” and known by the pet name “Fanny” from the 16th through the early 20th centuries.

Popular authors included Fanny Burney (1752-1840), and Fanny Trollope (1779-1863), Anthony’s mother. Well-known actresses included Fanny Kemble (1809-93) and Fanny Brice (1891-1951).

All of them had been given the formal name “Frances” except for Brice, who was originally named Fania Borach.

However, “Fannie” was the original name of the American cooking expert and food writer Fannie Farmer (1857-1915). Her name was borrowed with a different spelling in 1919 by the candy company Fanny Farmer.

In his book Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700, Scott Smith-Bannister writes that “Frances” held a mean ranking of 17.8 in a selected list of women’s names that were popular during that 162-year period.

At its peak during that period, “Frances” was ranked 13, Smith-Bannister says. (In case you’re interested, the names generally ranked ahead of Frances in Smith-Banister’s statistics were Elizabeth, Mary, Anne, Margaret, Jane, Alice, Joan, Agnes, Catherine, Dorothy, Isabel, Elinor, and Ellen.)

In “New Influences on Naming Patterns in Victorian Britain,” a 2016 paper, Amy M. Hasfjord classifies “Frances” and “Fanny” among England’s “classic” names.

Her statistical ranking places “Frances” 13th among names given to girl babies born between 1825 and 1840.

However, Hasfjord says both “Frances” and “Fanny” dropped in popularity during the period from 1885 to 1900.

In the United States, meanwhile, surveys of the popularity of “Fanny” show that the use of the name dwindled from a peak in 1880 to relatively uncommon in 1940.

In both cases—British and American usage—it seems that the name “Fanny” dropped in popularity just as the slang word “fanny” increased in common usage.

In British English, “fanny” was first used in writing to mean “the vulva or vagina” in the late 1830s, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Jonathan Lighter, author of the slang dictionary, cites a collection entitled Bawdy Songs of the Music Hall (1835-40): “I’ve got a little fanny / That with hairs is overspread.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1879 issue of a pornographic magazine published in London, The Pearl: “You shan’t look at my fanny for nothing.”

And a British slang dictionary published in 1889 defined “fanny” as “the fem. pud.” (the female pudenda).

This genital usage is “always rare” in the US, Random House says. As an exception, both the OED and Random House cite the American writer Erica Jong, who used it in her novel Fanny (1980):

“ ‘Madam Fanny,’ says he, obliging me, but with the same ironick Tone. ‘D’ye know what that means in the Vulgar Tongue? … It means the Fanny-Fair … the Divine Monosyllable, the Precious Pudendum.”

However, Jong’s novel is an inventive retelling of John Cleland’s bawdy English classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-49), popularly known as Fanny Hill after its main character.

We suspect that Jong’s imaginative take on Fanny Hill as well as speculation, since debunked, by the slang etymologist Eric Partridge may be responsible for the myth in academia that “fanny” meant the vagina in Cleland’s time.

In the original, 1937 edition of his slang dictionary, Partridge wrote that the use of “fanny” for the “female pudenda” was from “ca. 1860,” but was “perhaps ex Fanny, the ‘heroine’ of John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill [sic], 1749.”

However, the 2015 edition of Partridge’s dictionary notes that Fanny Hill’s “publication in 1749 is about a hundred years before ‘fanny’ came to be used in this sense.” (From The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor.)

Two other slang dictionaries—those by Lighter and Jonathon Green—call the reader’s attention to Fanny Hill but date the slang usage from the mid-1830s or later.

So why mention Fanny Hill in connection with the usage? The only apparent reason is that the novel’s leading character is promiscuous and is named “Fanny.” Cleland might just as well have called his protagonist “Eliza Hill.”

Nevertheless a handful of academic writers have strained to establish an 18th-century history for the usage, based on guesswork or intuition from hindsight. Their claims have been often repeated, despite the lack of any direct evidence.

A pair of literary scholars demolished their case piece by piece in 2011.

“In fact the evidence is to the contrary,” Patrick Spedding and James Lambert write in their paper “Fanny Hill, Lord Fanny, and the Myth of Metonymy,” published in the journal Studies in Philology.

They write, for example, that the terms “Fanny Fair” and “Fanny the fair” were used in 18th-century songs, “but never in an obscene context or as a synonym for vagina.”

We won’t detail their arguments, but they painstakingly document actual historical uses of the term and conclude that “fanny” was not used as a sexual term until 1837, citing the same book of music-hall songs mentioned above.

“Consequently,” they write, “it is highly unlikely that any of the fictional Fannys were named with the intention of suggesting the female sexual organs, however specified or identified (vagina, genitalia, pudenda, vulva, mons veneris, or mons pubis), or the male or female buttocks.”

“Current usage rather than eighteenth-century usage is the basis of the interpretation of fanny as a sexual term,” they write.

The milder, American sense of “fanny,” meaning the derrière, apparently dates from World War I, according to Random House. Here is the slang dictionary’s earliest example:

“They made us all get in a circle and stoop over while a guy ran around and hit us on the—never mind where—with a strap—I believe they call the game ‘Bat the Fanny’ and they sure did bat me.” (From a diary entry in a regimental history, 12th U.S. Infantry, 1798-1918, published in 1919.)

The OED’s earliest example is from the hit Broadway play The Front Page (1928), by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur. Here’s the OED citation, which we’ve expanded for context:

“KRUGER. (To MOLLIE, who is in the swivel chair in front of the desk) What’s the idea, Mollie? Can’t you flop somewhere else?

“MURPHY. Yah, parking her fanny in here like it was her house.”

This milder usage soon caught on in Britain. The term was used in the same way by the British playwright Noël Coward in Private Lives (1930): “You’d fallen on your fanny a few moments before.”

Subsequently, the OED has examples of the “buttocks” sense of the word by both British and American writers.

Here’s the American poet Ezra Pound in The Pisan Cantos (1948): “And three small boys on three bicycles / smacked her young fanny in passing.”

And here’s the British novelist Nevil Shute in Trustee From the Toolroom (1960): “I’d never be able to think of John and Jo again if we just sat tight on our fannies and did nothing.”

In short, although there are exceptions, the OED still characterizes the “fanny” that means genitals as “chiefly British English” and the one that means the butt as “chiefly US.”

In case you’re wondering, the OED also labels the noun “fanny pack” (first recorded in 1971) as a North American usage, the equivalent of the British “bumbag” (1951).

Oxford’s definition, found under “bumbag,” is “a small bag or pouch incorporated in a belt worn round the waist or across the shoulder (orig. designed for skiers and worn at the back).”

A similar term, “fanny belt” was in American use almost a decade before “fanny pack” and today means the same.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from the journal American Speech in 1963, when the term had a more limited definition: “Fanny belt … slang for the belt on which ski patrol men carry their first aid kit. A term used by ski patrols.”

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Like a death’s head at a feast

Q: My mother used to use the expression “like a death’s head at a feast” to describe a particularly disagreeable person at a social function. I use it myself, from time to time, much to the amusement of my adult children. Can you shed any light on the origin of this expression?

A: A death’s head, as you’re undoubtedly aware, is a representation of the human skull that’s a symbol of mortality. The symbol has embellished jewelry, paintings, sculpture, tombstones, and so on since the Middle Ages.

In fact, people have worn death’s head rings since at least the 1500s as a reminder of mortality, or memento mori.

As far as we can tell, the expression used by your mother first showed up in writing in the early 1700s, but it hasn’t shown up very often. We’ve found only a few dozen examples in our searches of literary archives.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from an amusing anecdote about a fancy-dress, or costume, ball, in the Sept. 7, 1713, issue of the Guardian, a short-lived newspaper founded by Richard Steele:

“In the middle of the first Room I met with one drest in a Shrowd. This put me in mind of the old Custom of serving up a Death’s Head at a Feast. I was a little angry at the Dress, and asked the Gentleman whether he thought a Dead Man was fit Company for such an Assembly; but he told me that he was one who loved his Mony, and that he considered this Dress would serve him another time.”

And here’s an example from Denis Duval, an unfinished novel that William Makepeace Thackeray was working on when he died in 1863: “His appearance at the Count’s little suppers was as cheerful as a death’s-head at a feast.”

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the Thackeray citation in its discussion of “death’s head,” but the OED doesn’t explain the origin of the full expression. And we couldn’t find anything about it in any of the reference works, online or off, that we usually consult.

However, the expression has clearly been used the way your mother used it—to describe a killjoy at a social event—as in this example from Lodore, an 1835 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley:

“She looked strangely grim and out of place among all those merry young people at the wedding breakfast—like death’s head at a feast, as they say, and she had a certain dignified air of disapprobation at times on her countenance, when she  looked at my dear, sweet Miss Thornhaugh, which made me hate her—such a contrast to her brother!”

The OED does discuss the origin of two similar expressions, “a skeleton at the feast” and “a skeleton at the banquet,” which the dictionary defines as “a reminder of serious or saddening things in the midst of enjoyment; a source of gloom or depression.”

Oxford describes the “skeleton” versions as an “allusion to the practice of the ancient Egyptians, as recorded by Plutarch in his Moralia,” a collection of writings about morality.

In “The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men,” a section in the Moralia, the first-century Greek scholar writes:

“Now the skeleton which in Egypt they are wont, with fair reason, to bring in and expose at their parties, urging the guests to remember that what it is now, they soon shall be, although it is an ungracious and unseasonable companion to be introduced at a merry-making, yet has a certain timeliness, even if it does not incline the guests to drinking and enjoyment, but rather to a mutual friendliness and affection, and if it urges upon them that life, which is short in point of time, should not be made long by evil conduct.”

(We’ve used the Loeb Classical Library’s translation of the Moralia.)

The earliest OED example for a “skeleton” expression is from Guy Livingstone, an 1857 novel by the British writer and barrister George Alfred Lawrence: “The skeleton of ennui sat at these dreary feasts; and it was not even crowned with roses.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from A Lonely Girl, an 1896 novel by the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: “To give him leisure to act the skeleton at the feast.”

We’ll end with a more recent example from The Masters, a 1951 novel by C. P. Snow about the contested election for a new head at a Cambridge college:

“I don’t want to be a skeleton at the feast, because I’ve been feeling very gratified myself, but I think it would be remiss not to remind you that the thing’s still open.”

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Elder vs. older: an eald story

Q: The NY Times recently referred to Ivanka Trump as Donald Trump’s eldest daughter. Why do we have two sets of words—“elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest”?

A: More than a thousand years ago, the Old English versions of “elder” and “eldest” were the original comparative and superlative forms of “old.”

They meant the same thing as the later forms “older” and “oldest,” words that didn’t come along until centuries after “elder” and “eldest.”

English tends to shed words it doesn’t need. But as the language developed, it retained both sets of adjectives—”elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest.”

Why did all of them survive? Probably because in modern English, as we’ll explain later, we now use the two sets of adjectives—the “eld-” forms and the “old-” forms—for different purposes.

That’s the short answer. Now for some etymology.

This all began in writing back in the 700s with eald, the word for “old” in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This word was inherited from Germanic sources but can be traced even further back to prehistoric Indo-European.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots identifies the ultimate source of “old” as a verb root, al-, meaning to grow or nourish.

That same Indo-European root, the OED says, is also the source of the classical Latin verb alere (“nourish”) and adjective adultus (“adult “).

So the word for “old” in ancient Germanic “thus apparently originally meant ‘grown up, adult,’ corresponding in form to classical Latin altus (high, deep),” Oxford says.

(This sense of “high” in the Latin altus can be interpreted as “grown tall,” American Heritage says.)

When the adjective “old” first appeared in Old English writing 13 centuries ago, it was written mostly as eald or ald.  (The spelling “old” didn’t appear until the 1200s, perhaps earlier, but alternative spellings existed for centuries.)

The OED’s earliest examples include this one from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. “Þær Hroðgar sæt eald ond anhar” (“There Hrothgar sat, old and gray-haired”).

And an early Old English glossary dating from around 800 translates the Latin word senex (“old”) as ald.

At that time, the adjective meant what it still does today: “Having lived or existed a long time; not young or new,” in the OED’s words.

Early on, a form of “old” was also used in Old English as a noun. It could mean an old person, a use that’s now rare. Or it could mean aged people or things in general, a use that has survived (“the young and the old” … “the new and the old”).

In the 800s, the comparative and superlative forms of “old” first appeared in writing—as early spellings of “elder” and “eldest.” As the OED says, they were derived from the Old English ald, or “old.”

In this example, ieldran, Old English for “elder,” is used without “than.” It comes from Consolation of Philosophy (circa 888), King Alfred’s translation of a work by Boethius:

“Ic ðe geongne gelærde swelce snytro swylce manegum oþrum ieldran gewittum oftogen is” (“I taught thee in thy youth such wisdom as is hidden from many elder wise men”).

And in this example “elder” (yldra) appears after “than” (þonne) in the predicate of a sentence. It’s from an Old English riddle in a collection known as the Exeter Riddles, perhaps from the late 900s:

“Ic eom micle yldra þonne ymbhwyrft þes oþþe þes middangeard meahte geweorþa” (“I am much elder than the world or the earth might ever become”).

In both of those cases, the word used today would be “older.”

The noun “elder” that means an older person—generally used in the plural, “elders”—appeared soon afterward, in the 900s, according to OED citations.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this “elder” a “converted noun” derived from the adjective “elder.” This is the noun that we still use in phrases like “mind your elders” and “village elders.”

(In fact, “alderman” is a modern descendant of the Old English noun for an “elder,” ealdor; an ealdorman in Anglo-Saxon times was a high-ranking leader.)

The superlative adjective “eldest” was first recorded around 897 in King Alfred’s Pastoral Care, a translation of a work by Pope Gregory:

“Ðæt we gemyndgiað ðære scylde þe ure ieldesta mæg us on forworhte” (“That we renew and recall to mind the sin wherewith our eldest kinsman [that is, Adam] ruined us”).

Meanwhile, the now archaic noun “eld” appeared (written as ǣld or eld) in the late 900s. It was derived from early forms of “old” and once meant either “the age, period of life, at which a person has arrived,” or “old age, advanced period of life,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Blickling Homilies (c. 971): “Se wlite eft gewiteþ & to ylde gecyrreþ” (“That beauty afterwards departs and turns to eld [old age]”).

And this example uses “eld” in the more generic sense of “age.” It is from a life of St. Guthlac of Mercia, written sometime near the year 1000:

“Se halga wer in þa ærestan ældu gelufade frecnessa fela!” (“The holy man had loved many wicked things in his early eld [age]!”).

In the Middle Ages, there was even a verb, to “eld.” The verb, written around 1200 as ælden or elden, meant to grow old. This passage is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Thou hast eeldid, and art of loong age.”

And around 1300, “eld” acquired other uses. The phrase “within eld” meant underage, and “of eld” meant “of age” or “of legal age.”

But “of eld” also meant “of old,” as in “men of elde” (c. 1540) and “times of eld” (1640).

The phrase was used poetically into the 19th century. If you’ve read Longfellow’s poem Evangeline (1847), you may remember its dramatic opening lines:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.

The adjective “eld” (meaning “old”) was not recorded until the late 16th century, and the OED now labels it archaic or poetic.

Here Sydney Thompson Dobell uses it in his 1854 poem Balder: “Ye eld / And sager gods” (less poetically, “The old and wiser gods”).

Now let’s get back to those comparatives and superlatives, and how they’re used today.

“Older” and “oldest” came along in the 15th century, some 700 years after “elder” and “eldest.” And in modern English, they’ve mostly replaced their predecessors.

While “elder” and “eldest” have remained part of English, they now have very narrow uses. Some grammarians classify “elder” and “eldest” as “limiting adjectives.”

As George O. Curme writes, “limiting adjectives do not indicate degrees, but merely point out individuals” (A Grammar of the English Language, Vol. 1, 1935).

Otto Jespersen notes: “Elder and eldest have been largely supplanted by older and oldest, and are now chiefly used preceded by some determining word (genitive, possessive pronoun or article).” He adds that “they generally refer to persons connected by relationship” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1933).

In practice, this means that as an adjective, “elder” is used for people and not things. So we use phrases like “the elder sister” and “an elder statesman” (in which the adjective is a term of respect), but not “the elder chair” or “an elder vintage.”

In addition, the adjective “elder” is generally not used in the predicate—that is, after the verb. We don’t say “he is elder now” or “he is elder than Susan.”

In the predicate, however, “elder” may be part of a noun phrase (“he is the elder brother”), and it may be used in a construction like “he is the elder,” short for “the elder of the two.”

“Older,” however, can be used as a predicate adjective: “he is older now” … “he is older than Susan.”  And either adjective can be used as a pre-modifier: “older brother” … “elder brother.”

One final note. “Elder” is traditionally used in reference to two and “eldest” to three or more. If you don’t want to raise any eyebrows, this is a safe rule to follow. But as we wrote on the blog in 2010, not all language authorities agree.

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Scratch made

Q: I’ve heard several commercials referring to “scratch-made” baked goods. The usage makes my skin crawl. Is this an acceptable alternative for “made from scratch” or just an annoying bastardization?

A: The expression “scratch made” is, as you suggest, a variation on the more common and somewhat older idiom “made from scratch.”

However, both are relatively new culinary expressions that mean made from original ingredients, rather from a mix or other partly prepared products.

As far as we can tell, the longer version (“made from scratch”) showed up in its culinary sense in the mid-20th century.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from an Aug. 22, 1940, article in the Chester (PA) Times that refers to soups that “may be made from scratch in your own kitchen or may be prepared in a hurry by a twist of the can opener.”

The shorter version (“scratch made”) showed up in print a few decades later, according to our searches.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an Aug. 27, 1981, ad in the Defiance (OH) Crescent News that refers to “scratch-made or preformed shells” for tacos.

And a March 23, 1982, notice in the Galveston (TX) Daily News publicizes a bake sale with “delicious scratch made items.”

Two other adjectival terms—“scratch” and “from scratch”—also came into use in the 20th century to describe a dish made from its individual ingredients.

In Home Made Bread (1969), Nell Beaubien Nichols writes that “from-scratch biscuits are particular favorites, and many women bake them for special occasions.”

And in Living Poor With Style (1972), Ernest Callenbach writes that a “scratch cake will contain no preservatives or other suspect chemicals.”

The use of these culinary terms increased in the second half of the 20th century as cake mixes, frozen dinners, and similar products grew in popularity.

When the word “scratch” showed up in English—as a verb in the 15th century and a noun in the 16th—it referred to the wound created by running fingernails or claws across the skin.

The source of the word is fuzzy, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but it’s “no doubt related to German kratzen ‘scratch,’ and both probably had their origins in imitation of the sound of scratching.”

Interestingly, the culinary use of “scratch” originated in the sporting world, not the kitchen, as we explain in a 2011 post.

The oldest sports usage, dating back to the 18th century, meant “a line or mark drawn as an indication of a boundary or starting-point,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In boxing, for example, “scratch” was the line drawn across the ring where the boxers would first meet.

When “from scratch” first showed up in the 19th century, the OED says, it meant “from a position of no advantage, knowledge, influence, etc., from nothing.”

Getting back to your question, “scratch made” often shows up these days in cookbooks and other books about food as well as in food magazines.

For example, there’s a recipe for “Scratch-Made Sausage” in a new cookbook called Breakfast in Texas (2017), by Terry Thompson-Anderson.

To give a few more examples, Bren Herrera writes in Modern Pressure Cooking (2014): “This will get you started and keep you excited about boasting a true ‘scratch-made’ recipe.”

Pittsburgh Chef’s Table (2013), by Sarah Sudar, Julia Gongaware, Amanda Mcfadden, and Laura Zorch, mentions one restaurant’s “impressive sandwiches and scratch-made soups.”

And Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2014, by the editors of Cooking Light Magazine, says it includes “a delightful recipe for scratch-made ‘candy-wrapped’ tortelli—a blissful Saturday project.”

We’ve used only a few of the many examples we’ve found. Who are we to argue with so many food writers?

In fact, we see nothing wrong with “scratch made.” Its development seems parallel to “homemade” (“made at home”) and “handmade” (“made by hand”).

When used as modifiers, the longer versions generally follow (or post-modify) a noun: “pie made from scratch,” “a dress made at home,” “a sweater made by hand.”

But the shorter versions enable the speaker or writer to drop the preposition and pre-modify the noun: “scratch-made pie,” “homemade dress,” “handmade sweater.”

Like “scratch made,” the terms “homemade” and “handmade” began life as two words. If enough people use “scratch made,” it may become a single word too.

We think “scratch made” is pretty handy, and it’s probably here to stay. Sorry it makes your skin crawl.

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A mite interesting?

Q: I’m curious about this Bloomberg sentence: “Finding twice as many old regulations to cut may be a mite challenging—less so at first, more so as time goes by.” Is the word “mite” a typo?

A: No, “mite” in that Bloomberg opinion piece isn’t a typo. It’s part of the idiom “a mite,” which means “somewhat,” “rather,” or “slightly.”

Some dictionaries consider the usage informal or old-fashioned, though most of the ones we’ve seen list it without comment—that is, acceptable in formal as well as informal English. In fact, we use it a mite ourselves.

Interestingly, English has two versions of the word “mite,” one referring to a bug and the other to something small, though both are probably derived from the same reconstructed prehistoric Germanic root, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

When the first “mite” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, inherited from Germanic sources, it referred to “any of various very small arachnids and insects,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It still has that bug sense.

The OED’s first example is from the Antwerp Glossary, a Latin-Old English lexicon dating from the early 11th century: “Ta[r]mus, maþa mite.” (In that citation, the Latin for “woodworm” is defined as “maggot mite” in Old English.)

Oxford says English borrowed the second “mite” in the 14th century from Middle Dutch, where a similar term had the literal sense of a small copper coin (apparently worth a third of a Flemish penny) and the figurative sense of a small amount of something.

Ayto, in his etymological dictionary, says both versions of “mite” can probably be traced back to mītǭ, a prehistoric Germanic root “meaning ‘cut’ (hence ‘something cut up small’).”

When the second “mite” showed up in English, according to the OED, it could refer to “any small coin of low value,” or it could be part of various sayings meaning “a small or insignificant amount.”

The dictionary’s earliest examples for both senses are from a translation, dated sometime before 1375, of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale also known as William and the Werewolf:

“Non miȝt a-mand a mite worþ” (“None mght command the worth of a mite”). Oxford includes this citation among examples of the coin sense.

“Al þe men vpon mold it amende ne miȝt … half a mite” (“All the men upon the earth might not be improved … half a mite”). Oxford includes this citation among examples for proverbial sayings such as  “not worth a mite,” “not care a mite,” and “a mite’s worth.”

At about the same time, “mite” took on the more general sense of “a very small amount.” The first OED citation is from Piers Plowman (c. 1378), the allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Surgerye ne Fisyke May nouȝte a myte auaille to medle aȝein elde” (“Surgery and medicine are nothing but a mite in the battle against age”).

The term “widow’s mite” (a small contribution by a poor person) showed up in the late 16th century.

The first (and only) OED citation is from a 1595 translation of the French romance about Blanchardine and Eglantine: “Crauing your acceptance of this pore widowes mite.”

As the dictionary notes, the usage comes from Mark in the New Testament. Here’s the passage in the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“And there came a poore wyddowe, and put in two mytes, which make a farthinge.”

In the mid-19th century, the word “mite” came to be used in the sense you’re asking about—as an idiom used adverbially to mean “somewhat, slightly, a little bit.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes the usage as colloquial, or informal, though, as we’ve said, many standard dictionaries consider it acceptable in formal as well as informal English.

The first Oxford example for the idiomatic usage is from the January 1852 issue of Punch: “Wearing shoes that were not a mite too big for her.”

And here’s an example from the Christmas 1897 issue of the Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper: “I wonder whether you will help me a mite to-day.”

The latest example in the dictionary is from Pepper, a 1993 novel by Tristan Hawkins about a hard-drinking advertising executive in London: “All evening he’s seemed a mite awkward.”

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An adverb, forsooth!

Q: Your post about “needs must” is very interesting, but try as I might I find it hard to construe “nights” and “days” as adverbs in “She works nights and sleeps days.” They just feel too like nouns, being the object of “works.” Can you give any other examples of “-s” and “-es” adverbs in Old English?

A: Let’s begin with a brief overview of how adverbs were formed in Old English.

Some began life as adverbs, including a few that still look much as they did in Anglo-Saxon days:

hér (“here”), oft (“often”), sóna (“soon”), þæ’r (“there”), þonne (“then”), hwílum (“sometimes”), and so on. (The þ, or thorn, and ð, or eth, were Old English versions of “th.”)

But the majority of adverbs were formed by adding the suffix -e to adjectives, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.), by the linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

So déop (“deep”) became déope (“deeply”), wid (“wide”) became wide (“widely”), fæst (“fast”) became fæste (“fast,” adv.), and so on. However, most of these -e suffixes disappeared by the 14th century.

Many other adverbs were formed by adding the suffix -líce to adjectives:

beald (“bold”) became bealdlíce (“boldly”), swét (“sweet”) became swétlíce (sweetly”), and so on.

Over the years, the -líce adverbs evolved into the modern “-ly” ones. And as the -e suffix died out, “-ly” became the usual suffix for turning adjectives into adverbs.

Still other Old English adverbs—the ones you’re asking about—were formed by adding the suffix -s or -es to nouns: þanc (“a kindly thought”) became þances (“thankfully”), for example, while sóþ (“truth”) became sóðes (“truly” or “forsooth”), and endebyrd (“arrangement”) became endebyrdes (“in an orderly manner”).

(The -es suffix here is the same as the genitive singular ending on many neuter and masculine nouns in Old English. The genitive, as you know, is a case expressing possession and similar relationships.)

An interesting example is the Old English term word, which inspired the adverb wordes (“verbally” or “orally”). Although the noun word has survived intact in modern English, the adverbial sense of wordes seems to have died out in Old English. (“Verbally” comes from verbum, classical Latin for “word,” while “orally” comes from ōs, classical Latin for “mouth.”)

Pyles and Algeo, in their comments on -s and -es adverbs in Old English, also cite hámweardes (“homewards”) and tóweardes (“towards”), and note that the “same ending is merely written differently in oncetwicethricehence, and since.”

Some Old English and early Middle English adverbs with -s or -es suffixes adopted –st endings in Middle English, according to the OED. The Old English ongegnes, for example, eventually became “against.” A similar process occurred with “amidst,” “amongst,” and “betwixt.”

We should mention here that this is a highly simplified description of a very complicated and messy process.

For instance, many adverbs had all three suffixes (-e-es, and -líce) in Old English. And “against,” “amidst,” “amongst,” and “betwixt” were originally compounds. For example, “amidst” began as a + midde + -s. And many Old English adverbs looked the same as adjectives and prepositions.

We see your point about “nights” and “days,” but the OED and most standard dictionaries we’ve checked classify them as adverbs when used to modify verbs.

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Here’s to hoppiness

Q: I’ve noticed that “hop” and “hops” seem to be used interchangeably. Thus the “Hop Growers of America” have a report entitled “USA Hops.” And “hopped” and “hopping” appear on beer menus regularly, as well as expressions like “a high-hops pale ale.” I  would be interested in your take on the “hop” family.

A: As any brewmaster can tell you, the noun “hop” can refer either to the plant Humulus lupulus or to the greenish conelike flower it produces. And the plural “hops” can mean multiple plants or multiple flowers.

But the flowers, which are dried and used in making beer, are generally referred to in the plural, “hops,” because we seldom have occasion to refer to only one.

So “hops” are what grow on the plant known as a “hop,” just as “roses” grow on on the plant known as a “rose.”

The noun “hop,” in its botanical sense, came into English in the 1400s from the term for it in Middle Dutch (hoppe), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. No history of the word is known before medieval times, and its further origin is obscure, the OED says.

However, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology points to a prehistoric Proto-Germanic source, a word reconstructed as hup-nan, ultimately from an Indo-European base, keup– or kup-.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says this base meant “cluster, tuft, hair of the head,” and identifies it as the source of the English “sheaf” as well as “hop,” a plant having a “tuftlike” flower.

The word appeared in Middle English not long after the large-scale use of hops as a beer flavoring was perfected and had spread to England’s trade partners Holland and Flanders, according to A History of Beer and Brewing (2003), by Ian Spencer Hornsey.

People had been making beer since ancient times, but it probably wasn’t flavored with hops until the Middle Ages, according to evidence cited by Hornsey and others

“Certainly by 1300, hops were widely cultivated in northern Europe,” Hornsey writes, “and it is almost impossible to imagine that, with the level of trade between English and the Low Countries the knowledge of their usefulness in brewing was not appreciated by English brewers, even though they did not encompass their use immediately.”

The first uses of “hop” and “hops” in written English are references to the flowers.

The OED’s earliest known example is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary from around 1440, which renders the plant humulus as “Hoppe, sede [seed] for beyre.”

All the dictionary’s later references to the flower are in the plural, as in this poem from as early as 1500: “When I was a brewer longe / With hoopes I made my ale stronge.”

This 1503 example gives proportions for making beer from malt, wheat, oats, and hops: “x. quarters malte, ij. quarters wheet, ij. quarters ootes, xl. ll weight of hoppys. To make lx. barellz of sengyll beer.” (From the Chronicle of Richard Arnold, a merchant.)

But this example from 1542 has a slightly different recipe, along with an editorial comment. It comes from a physician who recommended ale (which at that time was made without hops) but opposed beer:

“Ale for an Englyssheman is a naturall drynke. …  Barly malte maketh better Ale than Oten malte or any other corne doth. … It maketh a man strong. Bere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water, it is a naturall drynke for a doche [German] man. And nowe of lete dayes it is moche vsed in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men. … It doth make a man fatte, and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appere by the doche mennes faces and belyes.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation, from A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Helth by Andrew Borde or Boorde.)

References to the plant “hop” began to appear in English in the 16th century. As the OED says, “The plant is believed to have been introduced into the south of England from Flanders between 1520 and 1524.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from William Turner’s Libellus de re Herbaria Novus (1538), a botanical work that uses the plural “hoppes.”

But the OED’s other citations are mostly singular, especially when the noun is used in a generic way:

“To choose your Hoppe. Ye shal choose your roots best for your Hop, in the Sommer before ye shall plant them.” (From Leonard Mascall’s A Booke of The Arte and Maner How to Plant and Graffe All Sorts of Trees, 1572.)

“A hop, for want of a strong pole, will wind it self about a thistle or nettle or any sorry weed.” (From a 1647 collection of sermons by Robert Sanderson, bishop of Lincoln.)

“The planting of hops increased much in England during this reign.” (From David Hume’s The History of Great Britain, 1754.)

“The Hop … is remarkable amongst the Nettle Family for its twining stem.” (From Daniel Oliver’s Lessons in Elementary Botany, 1872.)

The word “hop” is also a verb meaning to flavor with hops. It’s often used in the passive, as when a beer or other malt liquor is said to be “well hopped,” “highly hopped,” “over-hopped,” and so on.

The OED’s earliest reference is dated 1572: “Ale, neyther to new, nor to stale, not ouerhopped.” (From The Benefit of the Auncient Bathes of Buckstones, by John Jones, a physician.)

And the noun “hop” is also used attributively as an adjective, generally in the singular: “hop growers,” “hop plants,” “hop industry,” “hop cultivation,” “hop harvest,” “hop flavor,” and so on.

Though the OED doesn’t say so, related adjectives have sprung up to describe the degree to which a beer tastes of hops.

Any connoisseur of craft beers is familiar with the terms “hoppy,” “hoppier,” and “hoppiest.” Merriam-Webster’s online says “hoppy” was first recorded around 1889 and means “having the taste or aroma of hops—used especially of ale or beer.”

However, “hoppiness” is in the eye—or the tastebuds—of the beholder. It’s a strong, biting flavor that’s sometimes described as bitterness.

In late 19th-century America, “hop” acquired another meaning, “a narcotic drug; spec. opium,” in the words of the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a New Orleans magazine, the Lantern, in May 1887: “As long as a smoker can obtain his ‘hop.’”

The word “hophead” was used to mean an opium smoker or drug addict since as far back as 1895 in San Francisco, according to research by contributors to the ADS List, the discussion group of the American Dialect Society.

Similarly, according to OED citations, a “hop-pipe” (1887) meant an opium pipe, and a “hop-dream” (1896) was an opium stupor.

Of course, there’s a shoe waiting to be dropped here. What about the other “hop,” the noun and verb corresponding to “jump”?

It’s tempting to think that there’s a connection and that, etymologically speaking, “hopped” beer has been given an extra “jump” or “spring” that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Unfortunately, the two kinds of “hop”—the plant and the jump—aren’t related, as far as we know.

The verb “hop” that means “to spring a short way upon the ground or any surface with an elastic or bounding movement, or a succession of such movements,” was first recorded in Old English as hoppian around the year 1000, the OED says.

The corresponding noun “hop” (a spring or leap), which was derived from the verb, came along some 500 years later, in 1508.

This “hop,” like the botanical one, is Germanic in origin. Chambers says the source is again Proto-Germanic, a verb reconstructed as hupnojanan, ultimately from an Indo-European base, keub- or kub-. 

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Arrival time

Q: Reading “arrived to” drives me nuts. Why not “arrived at”? When did this start?

A: People used to arrive “at,” “in,” “into,” “on,” “to,” and “upon” their destinations. It wasn’t until the 1700s that language commentators began expressing preferences for one preposition over another.

Today, we usually arrive “at” or “in” when we’re referring to the literal arrival at a destination, though “on” and “upon” are often seen.

And literary writers routinely use a wide variety of prepositions when the verb “arrive” is used figuratively or to emphasize something other than the point of arrival.

We may arrive “by” boat or c-section, “from” Kalamazoo, “out of” the hinterlands, “on” the dock, “upon” the scene, and so on. Here’s the story.

English adapted the verb “arrive” in the 12th century from the Old French ariver, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin phrase ad rīpam (to the shore).

When the verb showed up in Middle English, it reflected its Latin origin and meant to bring a ship to shore or come to shore by ship, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Nu beoð of Brutaine beornes ariued” (“Now are the barons of Britain come to shore”).

The next citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “Þat folc of Denemarch …. aryuede in þe Norþ contreye” (“That people of Denmark came to shore in the North country”).

It wasn’t until the late 1300s that the verb “arrive” broke free of its nautical roots and meant “come to the end of a journey, to a destination, or to some definite place; to come upon the scene, make one’s appearance.”

The earliest example in the OED is from The House of Fame (circa 1384), a Middle English poem by Chaucer: And with this word both he and y / As nygh the place arryved were / As men may casten with a spere.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Around the same time, the verb “arrive” came to mean to reach a position or state of mind, as well as to gain or achieve something.

The earliest OED citation for these wider senses is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower (note the preposition “to”):

“When the tirant Leoncius / Was to thempire of Rome arrived, / Fro which he hath with strengthe prived / The pietous Justinian.” (Leontius overthrew Justinian in 695 to become the Byzantine emperor. We’ve expanded the OED’s citation.)

The verb has taken on several other senses over the years, including “to come to pass” (1633, as in “misfortune arrived”), “to be born (1761, as in “the baby arrived), and “to be successful” (1889, as in “with the Oscar, she finally arrived”).

The OED considers the use of “into” and “to” with “arrive” obsolete now, but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites modern literary examples for both prepositions, especially in figurative senses. Here are a few citations:

“Neighbors arrive into what is already a madhouse scene” (Elizabeth Bowen, in the March 9, 1953, issue of the New Republic).

“Power arrived to them accidentally and late in their careers” (from Hilaire Belloc’s 1930 biography of Cardinal Richelieu).

As we’ve said, “at” and “in” are the two most common prepositions when “arrive” refers to reaching a literal destination.

The online Cambridge Dictionary explains that “at” is used for reaching a specific point, while “in” is used for reaching a larger area.

Cambridge cites two examples from English Grammar Today (2016), by Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy, Geraldine Mark, and Anne O’Keeffe:

We arrived at the art gallery just as it was closing. (The gallery is seen as a point.)”

Immigrants who arrived in the country after 2005 have to take a special language test. (The country is seen as a larger area.)”

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Why surgery is an operation

Q: My wife and I were talking about the way the word “operation” seems associated most often with surgery. Do you have any idea how this came about?

A: Why does the word “operation” often call up images of surgery? Perhaps because the surgical sense is one of the oldest meanings of the word.

For nearly 600 years, English speakers have used “operation” to mean “a surgical procedure performed on a patient,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Early on, the word often appeared as part of the phrase “operation of hand” (or “hands”).

The oldest examples in English come from translations of French medical books. The French had been using their word operation to mean a surgical procedure as early as 1314, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest English example, probably dating from before 1425, is found in Grande Chirurgie, a translation of a work by Guy de Chauliac:

“Cyrurgie [surgery] is a party of Cerapeutici, i. of curing, heling men by inscisions & adustions & articulacions of bones … and by oþer operacioun of handes.”

Another translation, entitled Surgery, done around 1475 from a book written 150 years before by Henri de Mondeville, has this example:

“Smal woundis þat neden not to be sewid schal be left to þe worchinge of kynde, for operacioun of hond profitiþ not to hem.”

And The Frenche Chirurgerye; or, All the Manualle Operations of Chirurgerye, translated in 1598 from a book by Jacques Guillemeau, has this definition:

“This worde operatione is an artificialle and normaticke applicatione wrought by the handes on mans bodye, wherwith the decayed health is restored.”

By the mid-17th century, English physicians were using “operation” for “surgery” in writing originating in English. This example is from Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physitian Enlarged (1655): “Manual operations, or chyrurgery.”

However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century that the English verb “operate” (as well as the French operare) meant to perform surgery.

The OED‘s earliest English example is from Robert Godfrey‘s Various Injuries and Abuses in Chymical and Galenical Physick Committed Both by Physicians and Apothecaries, Detected (1674):

“I by diligent observance, by Operating … having gain’d the knowledg of some Injuries in Physick.”

This much later example is from the Westminster Gazette (1874): “The phrase ‘When in doubt, operate,’ was, I believe, first made use of by Sir William Lawrence with regard to the methods to be adopted in treating cases of strangulated hernia.”

The medical term “operating room” came into use in the early 19th century. Oxford‘s earliest example is from an 1831 issue of the New England Magazine:

“An infant … was brought into the operating room, a short time since, to be cured of a very common deformity by the knife of the surgeon.”

Getting back to the noun “operation,” its surgical sense is derived from the medical usage in French, but it ultimately comes from the classical Latin opus (work), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The English word “operation” has other meanings too, all of them ultimately derived from opus, though some came into English from French and some from medieval or classical Latin.

The other meanings include activity or working (before 1393); an act of a technical nature (circa 1395); a particular kind of activity, as in “the operation of drilling” (1562); a mathematical process (1713); a strategic military movement (1749); the condition of being active (1792); a business transaction (1832); the action of operating a machine, business, etc. (1872); a criminal enterprise (before 1902).

As Ayto notes, the Latin noun opera, originally a plural of opus, “came to be regarded [in Latin] as a feminine singular noun meaning ‘that which is produced by work.’ Italian gave it its musical sense, and passed it on into English.”

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When “and that” means “etc.”

Q: I hear people say things such as “We need to get hot dogs, buns, and that.” Where does this use of “and that” come from? Is it regional?

A: The phrase “and that” in your example (“We need to get hot dogs, buns, and that”) is another way of saying “and so forth” or “and so on.”

The usage dates back to the early 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it shows up “now chiefly in substandard speech or representations of it.”

The word “that” here is a shortening of “all that,” a much older usage that’s standard English today. The OED defines “all that” as “all that sort of thing; that and everything of the kind.”

The earliest written example for “all that” in the dictionary is from Jacob’s Well, an anonymous collection of sermons written around 1440 and edited in 1900 by Arthur Brandeis:

“Ȝitt for all þat, manye of þe iewys haddyn gret indignacyoun of hem.” (“Yet for all that, many of the Jews had great disdain for them.”)

The dictionary defines the full phrase “and all that” as “and so forth, et cetera,” and says it often suggests “a diffident or dismissive attitude on the part of the speaker.”

The first example of the expanded usage is from Mouse Grown a Rat, a 1702 political tract by the English journalist John Tutchin:

“My mighty Bulk does even elevate and surprize, and all that.” (The title is a play on the Aesop fable about the town rat and the country mouse.)

The shortened version of the expression that got your attention (“and that”) showed up in print a century later. The earliest example in the OED is from “The Cross Roads, or the Haymaker’s Story,” an 1821 poem by John Clare:

“For she was always fond and full of chat, / In passing harmless jokes ’bout beaus and that.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

And here’s an example from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1848): “Dob reads Latin like English, and French and that.”

The most recent written citation for the usage in the dictionary is from a May 19, 1977, issue of the Listener, a former BBC magazine: “They wait outside the pubs for them, and that.”

All the OED examples are from British sources, but the Dictionary of American Regional English has several 20th-century examples of the usage from the Midwest and Eastern US.

In the late 1960s, DARE field workers tape-recorded one example from an informant in Michigan (“Most of the time I’d be guiding for hunters that was from some of the bigger cities like Detroit and that”) and one example from Wisconsin (“That’s mostly like for fishing off piers and that”).

The dictionary also cites a written example for “and this” used like “and that” (from Appalachian Speech, a 1976 book by Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian):

“And there’s alot of them don’t like the mines and they’ll go somewhere and work at different jobs, construction working, factories and this.”

Finally, the OED includes two American variations on “all that,” dating from the 20th century: “and all that jazz” and “to be all that.”

The dictionary defines “and all that jazz” as “and all that sort of thing; and stuff like that; and so on; et cetera.” The earliest example is from the June 3, 1929, issue of the Washington Post:

“Combined with what threatekned [sic] to be merely another exploitation of the recklessness of modern youth there is a bit of high-power police stuff that partialy [sic] takes the curse off all that jazz.” (The bracketed insertions are in the citation.)

Oxford describes “to be all that” as US slang of African-American origin. The expression is defined as “to be great; to be particularly impressive or attractive,” but “often in negative contexts.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 3, 1989, issue of Jet: “There’s … all kinds of great singers that deserve a lot more credit than they’re getting right now. I don’t think I’m all that.”

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“Mammalogy” or “mammology”?

Q: I’m perplexed by the spelling of “mammalogy.” Shouldn’t it be “mammology” or “mammalology,” as per “biology,” “neurology,” and other subjects of study with an “-ology” suffix?

A: You’re not the first person to question the legitimacy of “mammalogy.”

People began complaining about it soon after the word showed up in English in the 19th century, but primarily for a different reason. They were bothered that it combined a noun of Latin origin, “mammal,” with a suffix of Greek origin, “-logy.”

The English word was inspired by the French term for the study of mammals, mammalogie, which appeared in 1803, three decades before the Anglicized version made it into print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest English example for the word in the OED is from the first volume of the Penny Cyclopaedia, published in 27 volumes from 1833 to 1843:

“The following table exhibits the peculiar characters of American mammalogy, the manner in which the different orders are distributed … and the relative proportion which the number of American species bears to the whole number in each order.”

The next Oxford citation is from the third volume of the encyclopedia, which appeared in 1835: “Fischer, the most recent writer upon mammalogy, enumerates eleven different species of baboons.”

However, the third  example (from the 14th volume of the encyclopedia, published in 1839) contains criticism of the usage:

“Vicious however as the word is, the term mammalogy is in such general use by the zoologists of England and France, that it seems to be less objectionable to retain it.”

And an 1857 citation from An Expository Lexicon of the Terms, Ancient and Modern, in Medical and General Science (1860), by Robert Gray Mayne, is also critical:

“Mammalogy, an imperfect term for a treatise or dissertation on, or a description of the Mammalia.” (The treatise sense of the term is now rare.)

The OED explains that the 1839 and 1857 citations “refer critically to the word’s formation from a prefix of classical Latin origin and a suffix of ancient Greek origin, and perhaps also to its coalescence of the last syllable of mammal with the first of -ology.”

The dictionary adds that the terms “mastology n., mastozoology n., mazology n., and therology n. were all proposed as substitutes in the 19th cent.”

Getting back to your question, why is the word “mammalogy” rather than “mammology” or “mammalology”?

Well, “mammology” would be confusing and might suggest the study of breasts (“mammo-” is a combing form for breast). And “mammalology” is awkward and a bit of a mouthful.

The word that caught on, “mammalogy,” is similar to “mineralogy” and “genealogy.” In all three words, the “a” is pronounced “ah,” so the “-alogy” ending sounds the same as “-ology.”

By the way, the OED has entries for both “-logy” and “-ology” as suffixes used to form “nouns with the sense ‘the science or discipline of (what is indicated by the first element).’ ”

The initial “o” in “-ology” words is generally considered a connective, or combining vowel. And this “o” often originates in the first element of the word rather than in the suffix.

The subject of study in “theology,” for example, is theos, Greek for God. The English word combines “theo-” and “-logy.” Similarly, the subject in “mythology” is mythos, Greek for story, and the subject in “biology” is bios, Greek for life.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, “the -o- is considered a connective, though in many instances it belonged to the preceding element as a stem-final or thematic vowel.” So the “o” in many “-ology” words evolved from the last letter or the key vowel of the subject of study.

In a 2014 post on the blog, we note that the ultimate source of “-ology” and “-logy” is the “Greek logos (variously meaning word, speech, discourse, reason). Added to the end of a word, -logos means one who discourses about or deals with a certain subject, as in astrologos (astronomer).”

We should also mention that the suffix is often used to form humorous nonce words, terms created for one occasion.

Here’s an 1820 example from William Buckland, an English theologian and Dean of Westminster: “Having allowed myself time to attend to nothing there but my undergroundology.” (From an 1894 biography of Buckland by Elizabeth Oke Gordan, his daughter.)

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Why the racket sport is “squash”

Q: I know “squash,” the food name, comes from a Native American word that sounded like that to the Pilgrims. How did “squash,” the sport, get its name?

A: We’ve written on the blog about the “squash” that’s a vegetable and the “squash” that means to crush. As we say in a 2012 post, the two words aren’t even remotely related.

The word for the gourd is a short form of asquutasquash, a term for the vegetable in the Narragansett language, spoken by indigenous people in what’s now Rhode Island.

The verb “squash,” on the other hand, ultimately comes from exquassare, a derivative of quassare, Latin for to shake off or drive away. An etymological relative is “quash.”

As for the “squash” that’s a sport, it has nothing to do with the vegetable. It’s “related to, or directly from” the verb that means to crush, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The game of “squash,” played with rackets and a small rubber ball in an enclosed court, was invented by English schoolboys at Harrow in the mid-19th century.

As James Zug writes in his book Squash: A History of the Game (2007), it developed as a gentler version of a much rougher sport, “rackets” (or “racquets”), in which a hard ball was hit against a wall with what “looked like an elongated tennis bat.”

To play their new game, Zug says, Harrow boys used a special, thick rubber ball punctured with a hole, and a sawed-off racquet.

“This bastardized version of racquets was called ‘baby racquets’ or ‘soft racquets’ or ‘softer,’ ” he says.

The rubber ball (originally called a “squash”) and the shorter racket were easier for the younger and weaker boys to play with.

The new game quickly became popular, and the first “official” game of squash was played at Harrow in January 1865, according to Zug.

As we mentioned, the noun “squash” as a sports term originally referred to the ball, according to the OED, while the game itself was “squash rackets.”

Zug quotes a Harrow alumnus who wrote a letter to the editor of the Times (London) in 1923, recalling the sport’s earliest days: “Our old squashes were rather smaller than a Fives [handball] ball. They used to make splendid squirters in the early ’sixties.”

The game itself is still sometimes called “squash rackets,” but today it’s generally just “squash” while the ball is a “squash ball.”

The OED’s earliest citations are from an 1886 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette: “The game in question, termed ‘squash’ rackets at Harrow if my memory serves me. … There are the ‘squashes’—that is, soft indiarubber balls—to be purchased.”

Since the game was played at Harrow in the 1860s or earlier, the sports terms “squash” and “squash rackets” were obviously in use long before the OED indicates. Older examples may eventually turn up in mid-century letters, journals, and school publications.

Meanwhile, we’ve found a few examples that are older than the OED’s, along with indications that “squash” may have been used as a sports term at Harrow in the late 1850s.

For example, in 1875 an anonymous writer recalled, “looking back to twenty years ago (ah! if it were only that),” an occasion when he played in “an open Racquet court.” He writes: “We played in this court with an india-rubber ball, since designated by the euphonious name ‘squash.’ ”

The passage is from the “Racquets” column of the December 1875 issue of the Newtonian, the magazine of Newton College, a boys’ public school in England.

The contributor may have been the school’s headmaster at that time, George Townsend Warner. He was educated at Harrow, leaving in 1858 and going on to Cambridge University. Later issues of the Newtonian identify the headmaster as an enthusiastic player of racket sports.

Another hint that squash may have been played at Harrow in the 1850s (though perhaps not yet known by that name) comes from the writings of Sir Douglas Straight.

Straight, another product of Harrow, wrote books for boys in the Victorian era, sometimes anonymously and sometimes under the pen name “Sidney Daryl.” He left the school in 1860, and went on to become a barrister, a judge, and finally the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

One of his books is about a fictional boy, Hugh Russell at Harrow: A Sketch of School Life (1880), and it makes two references to “squash”:

“Another pastime in which he indulged a good deal was ‘squash-rackets.’ There was a very good ‘squash-court’ attached to the house, and whenever, he could get a ‘place,’ Russell was to be seen there.”

A glossary at the end of the book has this definition: “Squash—(1) Rackets played with a soft india-rubber ball. (2) A ‘scrimmage’ at football.”

No dates are given for the fictional Hugh Russell’s tenure at Harrow. But if Straight was recalling his own school days, perhaps the term “squash” was used there when he was a student in the late 1850s.

The OED treats the sports use of “squash” as a descendant of the verb meaning to crush. Other uses of the noun “squash” have similarly referred to soft or crushable things and are also related to the old verb.

In the 1600s, for example, a “squash” could mean an unripe pea pod or a variety of pear.

Since the late 19th century, Oxford citations show, “squash” has also meant a drink made of crushed fruit. The word is either used alone or with an adjective, as in “lemon squash,” “orange squash,” and so on. This usage is more common in Britain than in the US.

And in another usage dating from the late 19th century, “squash” can mean “a crush or crowd of persons, etc.,” Oxford says. Not unlike that use of “squash” to mean a “scrimmage” on the playing field.

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Needs must when the devil drives

Q: What is the grammar of “needs must,” as in “needs must when the devil drives”? I’ve seen online discussions of the etymology, but not the grammar.

A: The word “needs” here is a very old adverb meaning “of necessity,” “necessarily,” or “unavoidably.”

It’s considered obsolete now except in the idiomatic expression “needs must” (or “must needs”), where “needs” is an intensifier emphasizing the must-ness of the verb “must.”

The two-word idiom, meaning “it’s necessary” or “it’s unavoidable,” is probably a shortening of the proverb “needs must when the devil drives,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, “needs must” appeared in writing a century before the proverb, according to citations in the dictionary, though apparently not yet as a fixed expression.

The proverb itself, the OED says, means “he must whom fate compels.” In other words, we must do what fate demands of us.

So how did “needs” become an adverb? In early Old English, nouns could be turned into adverbs by adding the suffix “-s” or “-es,” so ned (the Anglo-Saxon version of the noun “need”) became the adverb nedes.

In fact, some of those old “-s” adverbs have survived into modern English. For example, “nights” and “days” are adverbs in “She works nights [at night] and sleeps days [in the daytime].” In Old English, the noun/adverb pairs were nihte/nihtes and dæge/dæges.

The first OED example for the adverb “needs” is from an early Old English manuscript in the Parker Library at the University of Cambridge. The adverb means “of necessity” in the citation:

“Se ðe hine þonne nedes ofsloge, oððe unwillum oððe ungewealdes” (“Yet he who kills him of necessity or unintentionally or unwillingly”).

The dictionary has sections on “needs” used as an intensifier within clauses and with modal auxiliaries, or helping verbs, like “will,” “would,” “must,” and “mote” (an archaic verb that shared some of the senses of “must”).

The OED has several examples for “needs must” from the early 1300s. The earliest may have been from a lullaby in The Kildare Lyrics, written in an Irish dialect of Middle English. Here’s an expanded version of the citation, though it’s still only two lines of a long lullaby:

“Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore? / Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iyarkid the yore” (“Lollai, lollai, little child, why do you weep so sore? / You needs must weep; it was ordained in days of yore”).

In working on our translation, we came across a sad, beautiful reading of the lullaby by a medievalist at the University of Oxford who blogs as A Clerk of Oxford.

If you’re puzzled by “lollai,” it seems to be an onomatopoeic predecessor of the verb “lull” (circa 1386) and the noun “lullaby” (1588).

The OED says “lull” and “lullaby” are derived from sounds used to sing a child to sleep. The dictionary cites similar terms in Germanic languages as well as the Latin verb lallāre (from singing “la la” to a baby).

Shakespeare uses the noun “lullaby” as well as lulling sounds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600):

Sing in our sweete Lullaby,
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby,
Neuer harme, nor spell, nor charme,
Come our louely lady nigh.
So good night, with lullaby.

Getting back to your question, “needs” usually appears in front of “must,” but the OED has many examples with their positions reversed, including this early citation from Guy of Warwick, a medieval romance written in the early 1300s: “He most nedes opon men go.”

The earliest Oxford example for a version of the full proverb is from The Assembly of Gods, a 15th-century religious poem that the dictionary attributes to John Lydgate, though some scholars list the author as unknown: “He must nedys go that the deuell dryues.”

The dictionary notes a similar proverb, minus the devil, that showed up a century earlier: “needs must that needs shall.” This example, circa 1330, is from a Middle English version of the Seven Sages story cycle: “O nedes he sschal, þat nedes mot.”

The first OED example for “needs must” used as a fixed expression meaning “it’s necessary” or “it’s unavoidable” is from A True Historie of the Memorable Siege of Ostend, a 1604 book by Edward Grimeston:

“We beleeue them no more then needs must.” (Grimeston’s True Historie translates a French account of how the Spanish defeated an English-Dutch force in Flanders.)

And here’s an example from Balaustion’s Adventure (1871), Robert Browning’s imaginative rumination on Euripides’s tragedy Alcestis: “She shall go, if needs must : but ere she go, See if there is need!” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The most recent OED example is from Little Triggers, a 1999 mystery by Martyn Waites: “ ‘I’m pleased you have adapted yourself to our work ethic so readily.’ Larkin shook his head. ‘Needs must.’ ”

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When “we” is “you”

Q: It bothers me to be addressed by a clerk or server as “we” instead of “you.” For example, “Are we enjoying our meal?” or “Are we ready to check out?” I find this a putdown. It reminds me of how some people speak to a child. I know the server means no offense, but I am bothered. Am I unreasonable? Is this usage new? I can’t find it on your blog.

A: We’ve written about this usage, but it’s at the end of a post about the various singular uses of the pronoun “we.” Your question gives us a chance to expand on the subject.

You’re not the only person bothered by this. Anthony Bourdain, the chef, author, and TV personality, was asked a few months ago about things he loves and hates. Among the hates: Servers who say, “How are we enjoying our food?” His response: “Leave me alone.”

We find the usage annoying too, though it’s far from new. The pronoun “we” has been used for “you” since the early 1700s—confidentially, humorously, cheerfully, amiably, mockingly, or reproachfully, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The False Friend, a 1702 comedy by the English dramatist John Vanbrugh. “Don John: ‘Well, old acquaintance, we are going to be married then? ’Tis resolved: ha!’ / Don Pedro: ‘So says my star.’ ”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage refers to two of the most common versions of the usage as “the kindergarten we (We won’t lose our mittens, will we?)” and “the hospital we (How are we feeling this morning?).” Merriam-Webster’s attributes the two terms to the Writer’s Guide and Index to English (1972), by Porter G. Perrin and Wilma R. Ebbitt.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, don’t use those terms, but they give examples of the medical usage (“How are we feeling feeling this morning? Have we taken our medicine?”) and the schoolhouse usage (“teacher to pupil: We need to practice our scales”).

The Cambridge Grammar notes that the usage “runs the risk of being construed as patronising,” and is sometimes intended “to convey mockery,” as in “Oh, dear, we are a bit cranky this morning, aren’t we?”

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), cites a “playful use of this convention” in response to an annoying use of it.

We’ve expanded the citation, from Vacant Possession, a 1986 novel by Hilary Mantel:

“ ‘Don’t you wear a bra?’ she said. Muriel shook her head. The nurse smiled. ‘We don’t want to droop, do we?’

“ ‘I don’t know what we’re talking about,’ Muriel said. ‘Our head hurts.’ ”

Burchfield also has citations for a hairdresser speaking to a customer (“Do we have the hair parted on the left as usual, sir?”) and for an army officer addressing a recruit (“Not quite professional soldier material, are we?”)

Sidney Greenbaum notes in the The Oxford English Grammar that “we” and “us” are sometimes used in place of “I” or “me” in “situations of unequal relationship; for example, a doctor or dentist speaking to a patient or a teacher speaking to a student. The intention is to display a friendly tone, although it is increasingly regarded by some as patronizing.”

Greenbaum gives several examples of the usage, including these: “Well we’ll just check your blood pressure” … “Let’s have a look at your throat just now.”

Is it unreasonable for you to be bothered when clerks and servers use “we” instead of “you”?

No, but there’s not much you can do about it other than to respond rudely to someone’s misguided attempt at friendliness.

As we’ve said, the usage has been around for quite a while in one form or another. And it’s probably here to stay.

We’ll end with an OED example from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “ ‘Well, my dear ma’am, and how are we?’ inquired [Doctor] Wosky in a soothing tone.”

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Keeping up with the Joneses

Q: I read an article by John Updike in an old New Yorker that says the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is believed to come from the lavish lifestyle of the family of Edith Wharton (née Jones). Is that true?

A: No, Edith Wharton’s family is not responsible for the expression. In fact, that erroneous belief is relatively new and apparently didn’t show up in print until dozens of years after Wharton died.

The earliest citation for the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the April 1, 1913, issue of the Globe and Commercial Advertiser, a New York City daily better known as the Globe: “(Comic-strip title) Keeping up with the Joneses—by Pop.”

The comic strip, created by Arthur R. Momand, known as “Pop,” ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1940. It features the McGinnis family’s efforts to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses, who never actually appear in the comic.

Momand based the Joneses on his neighbors in Cedarhurst, NY, when he and wife were newlyweds living beyond their means in one of Long Island’s upscale Five Towns, according to Robert Hendrickson, author of The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.

Hendrickson quotes Momand as saying that he first thought of calling the strip “Keeping Up with the Smiths,” but “finally decided on ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ as being more euphonious.”

As for Edith Wharton (1862-1937), she was the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. Her father’s family, especially two of her aunts, was indeed rich and had lavish homes in Manhattan and upstate New York.

However, we couldn’t find a single written example published during Wharton’s lifetime for the expression used in reference to her Jones relatives.

In fact, the earliest example we’ve found is in “Of Writers and Class,” an article by Gore Vidal in the February 1978 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

“The Joneses were a large, proud New York family (it is said that the expression ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ referred to them).” An edited version of Vidal’s article appeared later that year as the introduction to The Edith Wharton Omnibus, a selection of her works.

Interestingly, the name “Jones,” especially the plural “Joneses” (often misspelled as “Jones’s”), has been used since the 1870s “to designate one’s neighbours or social equals,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example of the name used in this generic sense is from Ernest Struggles (1879), a memoir of life as an English station master written anonymously by Ernest J. Simmons:

“There is a considerable amount of importance attached to this public place of meeting—the railway station. The Jones’s [sic] who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr. Jones would not like the station master to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice.”

Note: Simmons’s qualifications for his first railway job included the ability to translate 50 lines of Ovid, speak French, carry a sack of beans, break a horse, and write a tolerable hand.

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The light and dark of language

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

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

A: This is a tall order!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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Breaking the ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drones, bees and otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does a doorway need a door?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How French is “Des Moines”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When “old chestnut” was new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pablo. (Eagerly.) Chesnut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is red beautiful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting to the bottom of pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pay her a call? Or call her up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does your sweetheart stink?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toothsome dishes

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

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

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

Here’s how all these meanings evolved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Isn’t that a coinkydink?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How hip is a hippie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The whole nine yards, again

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

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

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

Now for a few facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The circularity of dials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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December nine: A cardinal sin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How the C-section got its name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Off-putting and down-putting

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

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

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

We’ll begin at the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dictionary has these among its other examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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