The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is “have to” so needy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A guerrilla of France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A reactionary usage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The singular life of “they”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The press release says “they” was long used as a singular by writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

(We could add Byron, Thackeray, Goldsmith, Swift, Wharton, Orwell, Auden, as well as the King James Version of the Bible, all cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.)

In its announcement, the society noted that in 2015 the “singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide,” but we think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

The Post style guide says that it’s “usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural” and that the singular “they” should be used only in “the rare case when such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward.”

Commenting in the ADS press release, the linguist Ben Zimmer said: “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

Recent scholarship has shown that the use of “they” in a singular sense is not just an aberration but an expected development in a language that has a hole in it.

“In truth, the English language lacks a gender-neutral (sex-indefinite) pronoun for third-person singular,” Darren K. LaScotte wrote in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech.

Since the 14th century, he wrote, “they” has been used to fill the gap. And it’s still in use, despite generations of advice to the contrary.

LaScotte conducted a study to determine “which pronouns native English speakers use when writing about a genderless person,” and found that “they” was the overwhelming choice.

In using a pronoun to refer back to a single person of no particular sex (“the ideal student”), 71 percent of the participants chose “they.” The other alternatives, including the combination “he or she” and the generic masculine “he,” trailed far behind.

Those results came from a question that did not call the participants’ attention to the pronouns they used. But the results were slightly different later in the survey, when they were specifically asked about pronoun use in reference to a single, genderless person.

When asked which pronoun was appropriate in a formal context, 55 percent chose the combination “he or she” and 25 percent chose “they.”

When asked which pronoun was appropriate for informal use, 74 percent chose “they.” Another 18 percent chose “he or she,” and 10 percent chose “he.”

We’re not surprised by these results. In informal writing or conversational English, “they” is used as a singular by even educated people today. And in such informal usages it doesn’t seem to call attention to itself.

But formal English is another matter, and here a singular “they” looks like a mistake, in our opinion. Few scholarly writers, even those who pride themselves on their descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) attitudes, would deliberately refer to a single student as “they.”

So we’ll stick with what we’ve written before. Singular “they” is fine in informal usage, but we don’t advise it in formal English.

LaScotte’s conclusion was different. He says that “writers of handbooks should be less timid in offering singular they as a strategy for solving the singular, generic antecedent problem in academic writing.”

Call us timid if you like, but we don’t think the singular “they” has fully arrived in formal use. We’d be surprised if academic writers began consciously using it any time soon, and if the editors of scholarly journals began accepting it.

One final word. The use of “they” to refer to someone clearly identified as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is indefensible (“a man in their prime” … “a woman knows their own breasts”).

There’s certainly no point in being gender-neutral when there’s no question about gender.

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When “bourgeois” became bull

Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense?

A: We don’t want to shock you, but our best guess is that your father was using “bourgeois” as a euphemism for “bullshit,” a term he didn’t want to inflict on your tender ears. ­­

A ­similar-sounding word, “bushwa,” has been a euphemism for “bullshit” for more than a century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says “bushwa” was “probably” derived from the French “bourgeois, as popularized by the radical movement, esp. in the early 20th C.”

The dictionary says the word is “now taken as a euphem. for bullshit,” in the sense that one would use “nonsense” or plain “bull.”

Random House’s earliest example of “bushwa” is from a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette: “ ‘Bushwa,’ … a term of derision used to convey the same comment as ‘hot air,’ drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives.”

The reference may have been to language popularized by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”), formed in Chicago in 1905.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that “bushwa” (also spelled “bushwah”) is “apparently a euphemism for bullshit.” But it doesn’t suggest that it was derived from “bourgeois.”

However, “bourgeois” was apparently the source. This passage from the historian Dorothy Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded (2009) describes members of the “Overalls Brigade” of the IWW in 1908:

“They bellowed out revolutionary songs, scorned the niceties of ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) society, and made a point of dressing in the workingman’s garb that eventually became the Wobblies’ trademark uniform.”

And in this passage another historian, Bruce Watson, discusses popular terms used by the Wobblies in the first decade of the 20th century:

“A ‘scissor-bill’ was an unenlightened worker, some ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) who still believed in ‘Pie in the Sky,’ i.e., capitalist promises of a better life ahead.” (From Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2006.)

Several histories of the Wobblies were published during the 1960s, and in reviewing one of them for the Journal of Southern History in 1970, George T. Morgan Jr. wrote:

“IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as ‘bushwa’ society.”

So it seems that “bushwa” was a pronunciation—perhaps a deliberately dismissive one—of “bourgeois,” a term that was hateful to early 20th-century labor activists.

Over the years, many American authors have used the term in hard-boiled fiction. A couple of citations from the OED:

“Looks to me like it’s all bushwa.” (From a novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921.)

“If you’re a detective, what was all that bushwa about Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard?” (From Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, 1960.)

As for “bourgeois,” English borrowed it from the French bourgeois in the early 1600s, when the two words had the same meaning: an inhabitant of a town or borough in France.

(In French, bourg was a walled settlement or market town. The term comes from burgus, Latin for castle or fort. But the ultimate source, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is bhergh, a prehistoric root meaning high.)

Over time, the English noun “bourgeois” broke from its original ties to France and took on three primary senses that could be applied to people or things anywhere in the world:

(1) the middle class or a member of the middle class, (2) someone or something that’s conventional, unimaginative, or materialistic, and (3) in Marxist theory, a capitalist exploiter of the working class. The adjective adopted related senses.

It’s unclear from OED citations when each of these meanings developed, but the dictionary has examples for all three dating from the 1800s.

The pejorative sense of “bourgeois” used by your father apparently evolved from the Marxist meaning of the word, which Oxford defines as “a person who upholds the interests of capitalism, or who is considered to be an exploiter of the proletariat.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the “capitalist” sense of the word is from an 1850 translation of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in German in 1848:

“Bourgeois and Proletarians. Hitherto the history of society has been the history of the battles between the classes composing it.”

(The original German: “Bourgeois und Proletarier. Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen.”)

The OED also cites this passage from a work of Engels: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money.” (From an 1886 translation of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from 2010: “By forcing workers to work for money, the bourgeois transformed workers into commodities.” (From Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. ed., edited by  Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy.)

It’s that “exploiter of the proletariat” element of “bourgeois,” built into the word by Marx and Engels, that inspired the “bullshit” sense of the word and the “bushwa” pronunciation.

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When out of your home is in it

Q: Why is it that when I say I’m working out of my home, I’m actually working at an office in my home?

A: The compound preposition “out of” usually refers to moving from, or being away from, something, and it’s had that meaning since Anglo-Saxon days.

In early Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “out of” was the opposite of “into.”

The first example in the OED is from a translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the early medieval theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Hie aforan ut of þære byrig hiora agnum willan.” (“They went out of the city of their own accord.”)

In the 20th century, according to Oxford citations, “out of” developed a new sense: working “from (a base or headquarters)” or “using (a place) as a centre of operations.”

The earliest OED example (from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run?) refers to a prostitute working out of a different kind of house than the one you’re asking about:

“ ‘She’s turned pro,’ I said. ‘She’s working out of Gladys’.”

Most of the OED citations use “out of” in the sense of using a place as headquarters but working elsewhere at least some of the time.

It’s easy to see, though, how the place in question evolved from a headquarters to a primary workplace, as in this example:

“The miscellaneous radio amateurs and visionaries who worked out of shacks and garages.” (From the June 25,1976, issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)

Here are the dictionary’s other examples:

“We were going to run away together. … I could always get work out of Miami.” (From Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, 1960, an “87th Precinct” novel by Ed McBain.)

“Goodall had now started to work out of Devon Concrete to all parts of the South West.” (From a 1993 issue of Vintage Roadscene magazine.)

Finally, here’s a recent example that we found in the June 18, 2016, issue of the New York Times: “My wife and I still work out of our home in South Portland; I’m a writer and she’s a digital strategist for a software company.”

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Shining a light on candles

Q: I have wondered how “chandler,” the word for a candle-maker, came to mean a supplier of ship’s provisions.

A: Originally, a “chandler” was someone who made or sold candles. Later on, the word was used more generally for a retailer of groceries and other goods, and eventually it came to mean a supplier specializing in grain or ships’ provisions.

That’s the short answer to your question. For the longer answer, we have go much further back and start with “candle,” one of the oldest words in the language.

“Candle” is interesting because of its great age. It’s as old as Christianity in England, making it one of the oldest Latin-derived words in English.

Candēla (from candēre, to glow or shine) is Latin for “candle” and the source of the English word.

“It probably arrived with Christianity at the end of the sixth century,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That would mean “candle” was in use during the 500s, a century before it was recorded in English writing.

Because of its association with the new religion, “candle” had an air of sanctity to the Anglo-Saxons.

As “one of the Latin words introduced at the English Conversion,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “long associated chiefly with religious observances.”

It first appeared in English writing in the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written somewhere in Southumbria during the last quarter of the 7th century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for a pair of snuffers into Old English: “Emunctoria, candelthuist.” (A candlethuist was a scissor-like device for snuffing, or extinguishing, candles.)

In Beowulf, which may have been composed as early as 725, the word appears in a passage referring to the sun as “roderes candel” (“candle of the firmament”).

The OED notes that other terms for the sun in Old English poetry included “dæg candel” (“candle of the day”), “heofon-candel” (“heaven’s candle”), “woruld-candel” (“candle of the world”), and “Godes candel” (“God’s candle”).

But “chandler,” the word for a candle maker or seller, was a much humbler term. It came into English hundreds of years later than “candle” and from a different source—which explains its “ch-” spelling.

First recorded in the late 14th century, “chandler” came from the Anglo-Norman chandeler, derived from the Old French chandelier, meaning a candlemaker or a candlestick. (Yes, the Old French term gave us our word “chandelier,” but not until the 18th century.)

The ultimate source of “chandler” was Late Latin—the terms candēlārius (candlemaker) and candēlāria (candlestick), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Sometimes the word was used in a compound (“wax-chandler,” “tallow-chandler”) to specify what the candles were made of, beeswax or tallow (animal fats).

Oxford‘s earliest example is in a passage, dated 1389, from ordinances of early English craft guilds: “Yei shul bene at ye Chaundelers by pryme of ye day.” (“You shall be at the chandlers by early morning.”)

However, the word was already in use as an occupational surname, “Shaundeler,” as early as 1332, Chambers says.

The wider sense of “chandler” as a dealer in groceries and other provisions came into use in the late 16th century. The OED’s earliest citation, a snatch of dialogue by an Elizabethan pamphleteer, amply illustrates the meaning:

“Theodorus: Be there any Chandlers there? … What do they sell for the most part? / Amphilogus: Almost all things, as namelie butter, cheese, fagots, pots, pannes, candles, and a thousand other trinkets besides.” (From Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses, Part II, 1583.)

As the OED notes, use of the term was “often somewhat contemptuous,” as in this line from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by “Boz” (1839): “The neighbours stigmatized him as a chandler.”

More to the point, “chandler” was also used in combination with another term to show a tradesman’s specialty. And this explains terms like “corn-chandler” (grain dealer) and “ship-chandler,” both dating from the 17th century.

Oxford defines a “ship-chandler” as “a dealer who supplies ships with necessary stores.” It’s a term that has survived into modern times.

The dictionary’s earliest example is an order by the House of Lords in 1642, authorizing inspectors to examine “what Quantities of Gunpowder is, or shall be, in the Hands of any Merchants, Ship-chandlers, Grocers, Societies, or Companies.” (We’ve expanded the quotation to provide context.)

Sometimes, when the “ship-” designation isn’t necessary, a maritime supplier is referred to simply as a “chandler.”

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Unconsciously? Subconsciously?

Q: I’ve just read Pearl Buck’s final novel, The Eternal Wonder, which was discovered dozens of years after her death and may have been a first draft. At one point, she describes a character who scarcely listens while “storing away unconsciously” the conversations around him. Do you think she meant—and would eventually have used—“subconsciously” instead of “unconsciously”?

A: Both “unconsciously” and “subconsciously” can describe doing something without being aware of it—the way Pearl Buck is using “unconsciously” in that paragraph in The Eternal Wonder:

“People were talking again, accustomed now to her presence, but he scarcely listened, except as he always listened, saying little himself but storing away unconsciously the sound of these voices, the changing expressions of their faces, their postures, their ways of eating, all details of life while though useless, it seemed, in themselves, he could not help accumulating because it was how he lived.”

So either word is fine as far as meaning, but would Buck have eventually changed “unconsciously” to “subconsciously”? Perhaps, if she had done a lot of tinkering with the manuscript. Then again, perhaps not.

The decision would probably have depended on rhythm. If she had ultimately broken up that long paragraph or replaced one of the pronouns with a noun, “subconsciously” might have sounded better to her ear than “unconsciously.”

However, it’s silly to pick apart a single paragraph of a work by a major writer. An “improvement” or two in one paragraph might weaken the work as a whole.

As for the etymology here, “unconsciously” is the older of the two adverbs, showing up in the early 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “in an unconscious manner; without conscious action, effort, thought, or awareness; unknowingly.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Death’s Vision, a 1709 poem by the Presbyterian minister John Reynolds about the relationship between philosophy and poetry:

“But Pardon that I thus / Unconsciously Accuse! / How much more Cruel have I been to Thee?”

“Subconsciously,” which appeared in the mid-19th century, means “in a subconscious manner; without conscious perception of control; (also) by means of the subconscious,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from The Logic of Political Economy, an 1844 treatise on economics by Thomas de Quincey:

“But there is still a final evasion likely to move subconsciously in the thoughts of a student, which it is better to … strengthen until it becomes generally visible.”

The two adverbs are derived from the earlier adjectives “unconscious” and “subconscious.”

When “unconscious” first showed up in the late 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “not having knowledge or awareness of a fact or circumstance; unaware, heedless; unwitting.”

The first Oxford citation is from an anonymous 1678 translation of De Mirabilibus Pecci, a Latin poem by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes about the wonders of the Peak District in Derbyshire:

“It moves in haste … it flies. / (Unconscious of its Fault which tortur’d cries).” We’ve gone to another source and expanded the citation to give it context.

When “subconscious” appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it meant “operating or existing (just) below the level of conscious perception” or “not clearly perceived” or “instinctive, unwitting.”

The earliest example in the OED is from an essay by De Quincey in the June 1834 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine:

“The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not … without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.”

Both words, “unconscious” and “subconscious,” showed up in 19th-century psychological terminology, first as nouns and then as adjectives.

The OED defines “the unconscious” used in the psychological sense as “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the consciousness; spec. an aspect of the mind containing material repressed from and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from 1818 lecture notes by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “As in every work of Art the Conscious, is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it … so is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.”

The OED defines “the subconscious” as “an aspect of the mind containing material not immediately available to the consciousness,” specifically “that containing material of which a person is not currently aware, but which can readily be brought back into the consciousness” or “that containing material repressed from, and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The first clearcut Oxford citation is from a July 1878 issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “We are at each successive moment elevating one impression or group of impressions after another into clear consciousness, while the rest fall back into the dim regions of the sub-conscious.”

“Although Freud used the term subconscious (Unterbewusstsein) in his early writings, he later rejected it in favour of the less ambiguous terms preconscious (Vorbewusstsein) and unconscious (Unbewusstsein),” the OED explains.

But in 1920, the dictionary notes, Freud replaced those terms “with his system of idego, and superego,” and “subconscious is not therefore used as a technical term in psychoanalysis.”

“In Psychology more generally subconscious is sometimes used as a synonym for preconscious, but the latter term is preferred in more precise or technical writing,” the OED adds.

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Watkins, catkins, and other kin

Q: Is the “kin” in words like “pumpkin,” “catkin,” and “Watkins” related to the “kin” that are your relatives? I’m guessing it’s not.

A: You’re right. The noun “kin” that means your relatives is no relation to the suffix we see in words like “catkin.”

The noun “kin” has conveyed the same general notion—roughly, a group of connected people—for about 1,200 years. But the suffix “-kin” is a diminutive that came into English some 400 years later.

The earlier “kin” was first recorded in Old English around the year 825 in the sense of a group “descended from a common ancestor,” as well as a people, a nation, or a tribe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

By as early as 875 “kin” was used in writing to mean what it chiefly does today—“the group of persons who are related to one; one’s kindred, kinsfolk, or relatives, collectively.”

Ultimately, however, “kin” comes from an ancient prehistoric root meaning knowledge or kind.

The Indo-European root gn– or gno-, which gave Greek the word gnosis (knowledge), is also the source, through proto-Germanic, of “kin” as well as “kith” (which originally meant friends and neighbors), “kind” (the noun), “know,” “knowledge,” “ken,” “cunning,” and others.

(As we wrote in 2011, some other descendants of this prehistoric root came into English through Latin and Greek: notice, notion, cognition, recognize, ignore, noble, gnostic, diagnosis, narrate, normal, and many more.)

As for the other “-kin,” which conveys the notion of smallness, we haven’t found any etymological explanations for it.

But it does correspond to diminutive suffixes in the historical as well as modern Dutch and German languages: –kijn, –ken, kîn, chîn, and chen. Oxford mentions the modern German nouns kindchen (little child) and häuschen (little house).

This “-kin” didn’t come into English right away. As the OED remarks, “No trace of the suffix is found in Old English.”

Instead, it began cropping up in the mid-13th century in men’s nicknames, which the OED says “were either adoptions or imitations of diminutive forms current in Flanders and Holland.”

Thus first names like “Jankin” (an affectionate diminutive of John), “Watkin” (a pet name for Walter), and “Wilkin” (a familiar form of Will or William) began appearing in Middle English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Other such pet names, spelled a variety of ways, included “Perkin” (a diminutive of Per or Peter), “Filkin” (for Philip), “Simkin” (for Simon), “Timkin” (for Timothy), “Dawkin” (for David), and “Hawkin” (perhaps a diminutive of Hugh or Henry).

As first names for men, these “seem to have mostly gone out of fashion shortly after 1400,” the OED says. But most of them “survived as surnames, usually with the addition of -s or -son, as JenkinsWatkinsWilkinsonDickensDickinson, etc.”

So while the suffix hasn’t been used much to form nouns in English, it’s still alive in the names of countless people.

The few diminutive common nouns that end in “-kin” may have been influenced by the personal names, Oxford suggests.

These diminutive forms, and the dates they were first recorded, include “napkin” (1384-85), “bodkin” (a small dagger, 1386), and “firkin” (a small cask, 1423).

As for “catkin” (1578), it’s a genuine diminutive but it wasn’t formed in English. It was taken from katteken, Dutch for a little cat as well as a catkin (one of the fuzzy things hanging from willows, birches, and other trees).

However, there’s nothing diminutive about the big orange squash that we call a “pumpkin,” though the OED says the spelling was influenced by the “-kin” suffix in other words.

The spelling “pumpkin” was first recorded in 1647. Before that, the vegetable was referred to as a “pompion” (1526) or “pumpion” (1599). The word had been adopted from pompom, Middle French for a melon or squash.

Perhaps English speakers found the “pumpkin” spelling more natural, since they were already familiar with the “-kin” ending in such words as “jerkin” (the garment, 1519); “bumpkin” (1570); “pipkin” (drinking vessel, 1554), and “gherkin” (the pickle, 1661).

We can’t close without mentioning a much later, genuine diminutive—“Munchkin,” which L. Frank Baum invented for the little people in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

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Does “concertize” sound odd?

Q: In an NPR piece, the owner of a violin business in Chicago plays a Stradivarius violin worth millions and says, “Joshua Bell has concertized with it on three occasions.” Turning the noun “concert” into a really odd-sounding verb stopped me. Is this just a classic case of trying to use fewer words by inventing an unusual term?

A: Is the verb “concertize” legit?

Well, the US and UK versions of Oxford Dictionaries online describe it as a North American usage—that is, seen in the US and Canada, but not in the UK.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary (a different entity) says “concertize” first showed up in a British publication and has appeared in print in both the US and the UK for more than a century and a half.

(Oxford Dictionaries is a standard, or general, dictionary that focuses on the current meaning of words while the OED is a historical dictionary that chronicles the evolution of words.)

Despite the history, “concertize” seems to be more at home now in the US than in the UK. Only two of the four British standard dictionaries we searched include the word, while all four American dictionaries searched have entries for it.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the largest current American dictionary, describes “concertize” as an intransitive verb (one without an object) that showed up in the 1840s.

Merriam-Webster, the updated online version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, gives this contemporary example from Consumer Reports: “only 20 years old, yet he has been concertizing … for about a half a dozen years.”

The OED has citations for the word used intransitively (“to sing or play in concert; to perform in concerts”) as well as transitively (“to adapt or make suitable for concert performance”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which uses the verb intransitively, is from a March 1840 issue of the Theatrical Journal in London: “Which will take us into May, which month we shall very probably end by concertizing somewhere.”

And here’s an example from the Feb. 21, 1888, issue of the Pall Mall Gazette in London: “ ‘I cannot concertize any more. I am tired.’ So says little Hofmann.”

The dictionary’s most recent intransitive citation is from the September 1998 issue of the Strad, a British classical music magazine focusing on stringed instruments:

“I bought a Joseph Curtin violin in 1995 and concertized on it for two years.”

Four of the dictionary’s six intransitive examples are from British sources, but all four transitive examples are from American publications.

The OED’earliest transitive citation is from the Jan. 8, 1859, issue of the New York Musical Review and Gazette:

“A trained choir may so operatize, and dramatize, and concertize the closing hymn … as to divert the attention wholly from the hymn.”

This one is from A History of Jazz in America (1952), by Barry Ulanov: “The Rhapsody in Blue … represented the most serious attempt to concertize jazz.”

The most recent transitive example is from Zimbabwe Dance, a 2000 book by Kariamu Welsh Asante: “Newly liberated African nations began to concertize the dance.”

The verb “concertize” is derived from the much older noun “concert,” which the OED says meant “agreement or harmony between things” when it showed up in the 16th century.

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Historie of Man (1578), by John Banister: “An orderly consert of Ueynes [veins], and Arteries.”

By 1600, according to the dictionary, it was being used in the musical sense of “a harmonious combination of sounds produced by a number of performers singing or playing together.”

And in the late 1600s, “concert” took on its modern sense of “a (usually public) musical performance, typically consisting of a series of separate songs or pieces.”

The OED’s first example is from a 1689 issue of the London Gazette: “The Concerts of Musick that were held in Bow-street and in York-Buildings, are now joyn’d together.”

We’ll end with this June 8, 2016, example that we found on Vanity Fair’s website: “Beyoncé Sneezed During a Concert, and Fans Lost Their Minds.”

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When a contraction won’t do

Q: I’m a non-native English speaker from Hong Kong. I read the following online: “Had I not had you in my life, I would not be who I’m today.” Is it correct? Wouldn’t it be better to begin with “If I had not had you in my life”?

A: The problem with that sentence is at the end, not the beginning.

So let’s start with the last part of the sentence (“… I would not be who I’m today”).

The contraction here isn’t idiomatic. The author should have written “who I am today.”

A native English speaker would hear what’s wrong. Spoken aloud, the contraction “I’m” is weak in that position because the important part, the verb, is swallowed up.

A weakened verb is all right if it leads to something stronger—say, another verb, as in a construction like “that’s where I’m going.”

But a contracted verb isn’t idiomatic when it’s the star attraction, which is why we say, “that’s where I am [not I’m] now.”

This is the reason why contractions of subject and verb—like “I’ve,” “he’s,” “they’ll,” “Jane’s,” and so on—generally appear toward the beginning rather the end of a sentence or clause.

We don’t say, “Yes, I’ve.” Or, “That’s what he’s.” Or, “They insist they’ll.” Or, “Bob’s not going but Jane’s.”

In those cases we use uncontracted forms: “I have” … “he is” … “they will” … “Jane is.”

There are exceptions of course, as when the final word is a strong adverb like “not” (‘Harry’s going, but I’m not.”)

And the contraction can go last if the subject isn’t part of it. This often happens with negative contractions:

“No, I haven’t” … “That’s one thing he isn’t” … “They insist they won’t” … “Bob’s going but Jane isn’t.”

Ultimately, this is a matter of phonology and how things “sound”—even when our English is written, not spoken.

Now let’s return to the first part of the sentence you asked about (“Had I not had you in my life …”).

There’s nothing wrong with that, though “If I had not had you in my life” is a more common way of saying the same thing.

The past perfect tense (as in “had had”) is often used, with or without “if,” to express a supposition, as we wrote at greater length in a post last year.

So “had I had breakfast,” for example, is comparable to “if I had had breakfast.”

This is easier to see with other verbs, since “have” uses forms of itself in the compound tenses and we get those confusing “had had” pileups.

Using the past perfect of “go” as an example, “had I gone there” is a slightly more literary way of saying “if I had gone there.”

Similarly, “had I seen him” is another way of expressing “if I had seen him,” and “had I known that” is a different version of “if I had known that.”

In the “had I gone” and “had I seen” and “had I known” forms, the subject and verb are reversed and there’s no “if.”

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Ye olde bookshoppe

Q: I assume that shopkeepers who refer to their shops as “shoppes” are trying to add a patina of Old English tradition to their establishments. But was “shop” really spelled “shoppe” in Anglo-Saxon times?

A: No, the Old English word was “sceoppa,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was rarely used.

In fact, it showed up in writing only once, the OED says, in an Old English version of the Gospel of Luke, where the term referred to the temple treasury where visitors left their gifts.

In Middle English (roughly 1100-1400), the word was spelled many different ways, including “ssoppe,” “schopp,” “shope,” “shoppe,” “schoop,” “shoope,” and “shop.”

The earliest example in the OED is a 1297 entry from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history:

“Þe bowiares ssoppe hii breke & þe bowes nome echon” (“They broke into the bow maker’s shop and took all the bows”).

The OED defines “shop” here as a “house or building where goods are made or prepared for sale and sold.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the “shoppe” spelling is from “The Cook’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“He loued bet the Tauerne than the shoppe” (“He loved the tavern more than the shop”).

A survey of the OED’s citations suggests that “shop” has been the most popular spelling over the years, from the Middle Ages until modern times.

The use of “shoppe” that you’re asking about is a relatively recent phenomenon that the dictionary defines as “an archaic form of shop n. now used affectedly (as in the names of tea-shops, etc.) to suggest quaint, old-world charm.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say “shoppe” is pronounced th same as “shop,” but the OED, a historical dictionary, says it can also be pronounced as if it were spelled “shoppee.”

The OED’s earliest example for this quaint usage is from Ghastly Good Taste: Or, a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, a 1933 book by the poet John Betjeman, a preservationist who helped save the St Pancras railway station in London:

“Arts and Crafts. Gentle folk weaving and spinning; Modern Church Furnishing; Old Tea Shoppes.”

But the affectation had attracted comment earlier. [See the update at the end of this post.] For example, we found this anonymous plaint in a 1925 issue of the Inland Printer, an American typesetters’ journal:

“Shoppe! Radio shoppe and beauty shoppe, candy shoppe and music shoppe, barber shoppe and bobber shoppe, men’s shoppe and women’s shoppe — shoppe, shoppe, shoppe! My stars, the pain! Who started this shoppey business?”

And in 1926 the “shoppe” trend was satirized by a poet in the Saturday Evening Post:

“Ye gods! Where’er I move or stoppe / I see a sign that marks a Shoppe — / A Beautie Shoppe, a Shoppe for food, / A Booke Shoppe, for the reading mood, / A Notion Shoppe, a Shoppe for gowns, / A Mappe Shoppe — guides for roads and towns.”

As for “olde,” the OED has an entry for its modern use “as an archaism, originally commercially, later also freq. ironically, for old” and “sometimes with other words spelt archaistically, as Olde English(e).”

The first example—from the March 1852 issue of the United States Democratic Review, a political and literary journal—comments on “the character of ‘the old fogy,’ or ‘ye olde fogie,’ as he at present exists.”

The OED doesn’t have an entry for the similar use of “ye,” but Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity) defines it as a “pseudo-archaic term for the, and gives this example: Ye Olde Bookshoppe.”

“Pseudo” is right! Although “ye” was one of four old forms of the pronoun “you,” it was not an old form of the article “the” in either Old or Middle English.

As we wrote in a 2009 post, the modern use of “ye” in quaint names of businesses is the result of a mistaken interpretation of Old English writing.

The article “the” was originally “se” in Old English, but the “s” began to be replaced in the 10th century with an old Anglo-Saxon rune called the thorn (þ), which represented a “th” sound.

This þ, resembling a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem, was replaced by “th” in the 13th century.

So where did the “y” come from? Here’s how we explain it in our olde poste:

“Over the years, the thorn’s upper stem became less pronounced as it was copied by scribes, and the letter came to resemble a backward ‘y.’

“Even after the thorn was replaced by ‘th,’ the old letter was sometimes used in abbreviations. But it wasn’t available in printer’s fonts, so printers used ‘y’ instead. Thus ‘ye’ got its undeserved reputation as a defunct Old English article.”

[Update, June 26, 2016. A reader writes: “Since you are P. G. Wodehouse fans, you’ll be pleased to discover his early uses of the humorous ‘shoppe’ and ‘ye olde.’ ” He sent along two examples that appeared in serializations of Wodehouse novels.

This one is from an episode of The Adventures of Sally that was published in Collier’s Weekly, Nov. 5, 1921. Here young Sally is in search of a way to invest a legacy:

“What she had had in view, as a matter of fact, had been one of those little fancy shops which are called Ye Blue Bird or Ye Corner Shoppe, or something like that, where you sell exotic bric-à-brac to the wealthy at extortionate prices. … Ye Corner Shoppe suddenly looked very good to her.”

And this is from an installment of A Damsel in Distress that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on June 28, 1919:

“Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who know their London, is a tea shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed—which she seems to do on the slightest provocation—she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak-Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbor, according to personal taste.”

As the reader notes: “It’s not surprising to find Wodehouse completely on top of fads in language usage.”]

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What with one thing and another

Q: What’s up with “what” in the following sentence? “What with two jobs, enormous debt and an unhappy marriage, he just could not cope.” And what part of speech does it play here?

A: What with one thing and another, we haven’t written about this age-old use of “what.” So what better time?

This construction has a folksy, contemporary sound, but it’s neither. It’s been around since the Middle Ages and appears in the most elevated writing.

Here “what” is used to introduce an adverbial phrase that starts with a preposition, and the preposition is generally “with.”

The resulting “what with,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, implies “in consequence of, on account of, as a result of,” or “in view of, considering (one thing and another).”

This use of “what” has been around since the 1100s, the OED says, although in the very earliest examples the preposition was “for,” as in this quotation from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175), a collection of Old English sermons:

“Alle we beoð in monifald wawe ine þisse wreche liue, hwat for ure eldere werkes, hwat for ure aȝene gultes” (“We are all in manifold woe in this wretched life, what for our elders’ deeds, what for our own guilts”). We’ve expanded the citation.

The “what with” construction began showing up in English writing in the 15th century, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1476 letter that John Paston wrote from Calais to his family back home in Norfolk: “I ame some-whatt crased [ill], whatwyth the see [sea] and what wythe thys dyet [diet] heere.”

In earlier uses, the “what with” is repeated with each phrase, but later it appears only once, at the head of a series. Here are a few more examples:

“What with the war; what with the sweat, what with the gallowes, and what with pouerty, I am Custom-shrunke.” (From Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, possibly written in 1603 or ’04.)

“Alas the Church of England! What with Popery on one Hand, and Schismaticks on the other; how has she been Crucify’d between two Thieves.” (From Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters, 1702.)

“So that what with one thing and another, when Mustapha came to review them afterwards … he found he had lost 40000 Men.” (From David Jones’s A Compleat History of the Turks, 1718.)

“What with hunting, fishing, canoe-making, and bad weather, the progress of the august travellers was so slow.” (From Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867.)

So you can see that “what with” has been a useful and natural part of English down through the centuries.

As for the role played by “what,” the OED lists it as “adv. or conj.”

But we like the explanation in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). M-W calls this “what” an adverb introducing a prepositional phrase that “expresses cause and usually has more than one object.”

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Did you vigil for Orlando?

Q: I got an email the other day from Corey Johnson that said: “I hope to see you tonight at the Stonewall Inn as we vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando.” Could this be the first instance of “vigil” used as a verb? Sounds terrible to me, but who am I?

A: No, the New York City Council member did not coin the usage. The word “vigil” has occasionally been used as a verb since the late 19th century.

Although standard dictionaries don’t recognize this usage (at least not yet), the Oxford English Dictionary does.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the verb as “to keep a vigil or vigils,” but adds that the usage is “rare.”

The dictionary records only a handful of published examples, all of them poetic usages. Here they are, in order of appearance.

“So I’ve claim to ask / By what right you task / My patience by vigiling there?” (From Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898.)

“Two days and two nights has he vigiled—the doctor dozes and blinks.” (From Gilbert Frankau’s 1914 novel in verse Tid’apa.)

“We vigil by the dying fire, / talk stilled for once.” (From John Montague’s book of lyric verses A Slow Dance, 1975.) 

Obviously, examples from poetry do not suggest that “vigil” is commonly used as a verb by English speakers. But it does turn up in ordinary usage as well.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, for example, the Press-Republican, a newspaper in Plattsburgh, NY, reported that several churches “planned to vigil” in honor of the victims and their families.

A local online news outlet in Ipswich, MA, quoted an organizer as saying, “We gather to vigil on Thursday night, grounded in the fundamental premise that everybody should feel safe where they live.”

In Kansas City, MO, a television reporter interviewed a transgendered man and commented: “When crime scenes like this come on the screen, he says it’s hard to keep faith. That’s why he came to vigil with his mom hoping to renew it.”

And a Topeka, KS, television reporter said, “Topeka resident and activist Mary Akerstrom says she came to vigil to help raise awareness about the need to educate today’s youth.”

We’ve also seen “vigiling,” the present participle of the verb, in news reports and on websites (“vigiling against climate change” … “vigiling for dying patients”).

Why use “vigil” as a verb? Perhaps because no other single word fits the bill, only verb phrases: “hold a vigil,” “keep vigil,” and so on.

People are often startled when nouns become “verbed,” but this is a normal characteristic of English and it’s one that has given us countless new words.

As we’ve written before on the blog, English acquired verbs like “cook,”  “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm” by adapting them from the earlier nouns.

(This works the other way, too. We’ve made nouns from the verbs “run,” “walk,” “worry,” “call,” “attack,” and others.)

The noun “vigil” has been around since the Middle Ages, though it developed its modern sense—as in a peaceful demonstration—only about 60 years ago.

The word came into English from Anglo-Norman and Old French (vigile) around the early 13th century.

But its ultimate source, as the OED says, is Latin: the noun vigilia (wakefulness, watchfulness, or a watch), derived from the adjective vigil (awake, alert).

When first used in English, “vigil” was a term in the medieval Christian Church for “a festival or holy day, as an occasion of devotional watching or religious observance,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ancrene Riwle, a guide for female religious recluses, believed to date from the early 1200s or possibly before:

“Ȝe schulen eten … eueriche deie twie bute uridawes and umbridawes and ȝoingdawes and uigiles.” (“You shall eat … twice each day except on Fridays and ember days and procession days and vigils.”)

This religious sense of “vigil” soon evolved into a new one, says the OED: “a devotional watching, esp. the watch kept on the eve of a festival or holy day,” as well as “a nocturnal service or devotional exercise.”

The religious meanings led to a secular usage in the 18th century, when a “vigil” came to mean “an occasion or period of keeping awake for some special reason or purpose,” in addition to “a watch kept during the natural time for sleep.”

That sense had no religious overtones and merely meant staying up late, as you can see from the OED’s citations:

“There is nothing that wears out a fine Face like the Vigils of the Card-Table.” (Joseph Addision, writing in the Guardian in July 1713.)

“With Studies pale, with Midnight Vigils blind.” (From Alexander Pope’s poem The Temple of Fame, 1715.)

“Soft airs, nocturnal vigils, and day dreams … Conspire against thy peace.” (From William Cowper’s poem Retirement, 1781.)

“He hath pursued long vigils in this tower.” (From Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, 1817.)

As we mentioned, the modern sense of “vigil” as a peaceful demonstration is relatively recent.

The OED’s first example in from an April 1956 issue of the Times (London):

“When [the South African] Parliament reassembled to-day … members found 300 black-sash women lined up in the grounds of Parliament House in renewed protest against undemocratic legislation…. A vigil of four black-sash members at a time will be maintained till the end of the session.”

The latest example is from a July 1985 issue of Peace News: “On the day of the air fair, around 40 people took part in a vigil at the main gate, giving out leaflets to incoming cars.”

Here’s the OED‘s definition for this newest sense of the word: “A stationary and peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause, often lasting several days, which is characterized by the absence of speeches or other explicit advocacy of the cause, and freq. by some suggestion of mourning.”

That definition, drafted in 1993, could use an update.

Today’s vigils sometimes include speeches and “explicit advocacy.” And they can take place at any time. They don’t necessarily involve staying up late, though they’re often held in darkness and by candlelight.

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Why is it “went,” not “goed”?

Q: Why is “went” the past tense of “go”? I don’t see the connection. Am I missing something?

A: The connection is another verb that means to move along—the old “wend,” which we don’t often hear today.

English speakers adopted “went,” the past tense of “wend,” because they apparently felt that “go” didn’t have a satisfactory past tense of its own.

In Old English the verb gān (“go”) had a past tense that didn’t come from its own stem. The past tense was completely unrelated: ēode (in Middle English, it was yode).

Even in the West Germanic languages it came from, “go” lacked a past tense based on itself. The reasons for this aren’t known, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Some authorities have suggested that the old past tense, ēode, has a prehistoric ancestor in common with the Latin ēo (go, leave). Others have speculated about a connection between ēode and iddja, the Gothic past tense of a similar verb.

But the OED is doubtful, saying only that the Old English past tense of “go” was formed from a base that is “of uncertain and disputed origin.”

No matter how it developed, English speakers apparently weren’t comfortable with ēode (later yode) as the past tense of “go,” because over the course of the 1400s they replaced it with “went.”

This was originally the past tense of wendan (to go, proceed, make one’s way), another Old English verb inherited from Germanic. By the 15th century the verb had long since been shortened to “wend.”

Through much of the 15th and 16th centuries, “go” and “wend” shared the same past tense, “went.” Eventually “wend” developed one of its own, “wended,” at the end of the 1500s.

Today “wend” is no longer used in the sense of “go.” As the OED notes, “wend” and “wended” in modern usage “often imply an indirect or meandering course.”

In this sense, “wend” today resembles another early meaning of the verb, one that’s now lost—to turn or twist. In fact, “wend” is a distant cousin of the verbs “wind” and “wander.”

“The semantic development from ‘to turn’ to ‘to go,’ ” the OED says, “was probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ It is clear that already in Old English the original idea of turning could sometimes be negligible or lost entirely (a prerequisite for the later use of the past tense went as a suppletive past tense of go).”

(The word “suppletive” refers to an unrelated word that’s used to replace a missing form.)

It’s interesting to note that the verbs “go” and “do” developed along similar lines: “go,” “goes,” and “gone” are parallel to “do,” “does” and “done.”

But “do” had a reasonable past tense from the start, “did” (dyde in Old English), which at least starts with the same letter as “do.”

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Bombshells, blonde & otherwise

Q: I was on a political website when up popped a hyperlink to “25-year-old blonde bombshell.” I resisted infecting my computer, but began thinking about “bombshell.” For the first time, a search on your blog did not yield a single hit!

A: Thanks for pointing out this deficiency and giving us a chance to remedy it.

Not surprisingly, “bombshell” literally meant a bomb—a container filled with explosives—when it showed up in English in the early 1700s. Today, we’d refer to such an explosive device as a “bomb” or a “shell” (as in “artillery shell”).

The earliest example of “bombshell” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1708 issue of the London Gazette: “Kill’d … by a piece of Bomb-Shell.” (The OED says “bombshell” here means “bomb,” but we think it could also mean shrapnel.)

The word “bomb” itself showed up a few decades earlier, in a 1684 issue of the London Gazette: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece.”

As you point out, the word “bombshell” is generally used figuratively today to mean a shocking or unwelcome surprise, as well as a very attractive woman, especially a blonde.

In fact, “bombshell” has been used figuratively for more than 150 years, and only one of the OED’s nine citations (the one cited above) uses it literally.

The first figurative example in the dictionary, from the American writer John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (1860), refers to a “letter, which descended like a bombshell, in the midst of the decorous council-chamber.”

The earliest OED example for “bombshell” used in the hottie sense is from The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “Blonde Bombshell (as a nickname).”

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, has an earlier citation, from the title and screenplay of the 1933 Jean Harlow movie Bombshell: “I see Lola Burns, the bombshell herself.”

And here’s a colorful OED example from We Are Public Enemies, a 1949 book by Alan Hynd about famous American criminals: “Bonnie Parker was a rootin’, tootin’, whisky-drinking blonde bombshell.”

(“Blond” or “blonde”? We discussed this in a 2014 post.)

We’ll end with a more cerebral Oxford citation, from the Nov. 25, 1965, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “The bombshell effects … of the intellectual and social crises of late antiquity.”

[Update, June 23, 2016:  A reader suggests that we should have used “bomb fragment” instead of “shrapnel” above, since “shrapnel” wasn’t used in that sense until Word War I. As we mentioned in a 2014 post, the original “shrapnel,” named for Henry Shrapnel, was an explosive projectile filled with bullets. However, that sense is now considered historical, according to the OED, and today the word usually refers to bomb or shell fragments.]

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A lexical epidemic

Q: Why has “epidemic” become so widespread? I understand its metaphorical use (“an epidemic of Elvis impersonators in Vegas”), but now all sorts of medical “conditions” are being termed epidemics—obesity, drug abuse, even chronic pain.

A: The word “epidemic” is used so often to describe so many things that it’s lost much of its force.

The news is full of “epidemics” of football injuries, drug overdoses, mortgage fraud, accidental shootings, narcissism, loneliness, and cellphone thumb.

But to be fair, the word was never very specific, even in its medical sense. So while “epidemic”—both adjective and noun—is undoubtedly overused and suffering from exhaustion, it’s not being misused.

When “epidemic” entered English as an adjective in the early 17th century, it had a strictly medical meaning, but figurative uses soon appeared.

A disease was “epidemic,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, if it was “prevalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.”

(The OED takes its definition from The New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, 1879.)

The OED says the adjective was first recorded in 1603, as “epidemick” and “epidemich,” in A Treatise of the Plague, by Thomas Lodge, an Elizabethan physician:

Popular and Epidemich, haue one and the same signification; that is to say, a sicknesse common vnto all people, or to the moste part of them.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The adjective was borrowed from the French épidémique, which in turn was derived from the French noun form, épidémie.

English had long had a noun form “epidemy,” borrowed from French in the late 1400s, but it was replaced by the modern noun “epidemic” in the late 1700s.

The French took the noun from the late Latin word epidemia, which came from the ancient Greek epidemios, whose roots are epi– (among, upon) and demos (people).

Interestingly, the Greeks didn’t originally use epidemios in a medical sense. It first meant something like “in one’s country” or “among one’s people.”

In the Odyssey, probably composed near the end of the 8th century BC, Homer used epidemios to mean “who is back home” and “who is in his country,” according to two French scholars, Paul M. V. Martin and Estelle Martin-Granel.

In their essay “2,500-Year Evolution of the Term Epidemic,” published in 2006 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the authors note that Plato, Xenophon, Demosthenes, and Socrates later used epidemios “for almost everything (persons, rain, rumors, war), except diseases.”

The physician Hippocrates, writing in the 5th century BC, was the first to adapt it as a medical term, according to the essay. He used the adjective “to mean ‘which circulates or propagates in a country.’ This adjective gave rise to the noun in Greek, epidemia.”

Since the mid-20th century, the authors write, the English word “epidemic” has been applied to both infectious and noninfectious diseases that affect “a large number of people.”

And it’s also used by journalists, according to the essay, “to qualify anything that adversely affects a large number of persons or objects and propagates like a disease.”

But this use of “epidemic” is nothing new. The OED’s examples of figurative uses date from the mid-17th century, beginning with “the Epidemicke trouble of our age” (from Edmund Waller’s A Vindication of the King, 1642).

And here’s another early example, from Nicholas Rowe’s tragic drama The Fair Penitent (1703): “Some Foe to Man / Has breath’d on ev’ry Breast Contagious Fury, / And Epidemick Madness.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The OED also has early examples for the figurative use of the noun, including this one from Sir Benjamin Brodie’s Psychological Inquiries (1856): “There are epidemics of opinion as well as of disease.”

And as we all know, there are lexical epidemics as well.

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A hole that swallows things

Q: Soon after we had a sinkhole fixed on our street in Grand Rapids, an author friend asked for help on Facebook about the origins of the term. Some people thought it was a US version of the UK term “swallow hole.” Bring in the scholars.

A: This is a timely question for us, since we’ve just updated the sinkhole coverage in our home insurance policy.

Is “sinkhole” an Americanism? No, it dates back to an abbey in northwest England in the mid-1400s, and it’s the usual term today in both the US and the UK for that hole in the ground.

Several other terms, including “swallow hole,” “swallow pit,” and “swallow,” have shown up over the years, especially in the UK.

Why “swallow”? Because the word meant a gulf or an abyss in late Old English, where it was spelled geswelswelg, or swell.

Similar words in other old Germanic languages referred to a throat, a swallower, a devourer, a glutton, and a whirlpool—in other words, someone or something that swallows stuff.

All six of the standard American and British dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “sinkhole,” but only one has an entry for “swallow hole,” and none include “swallow pit” or “swallow” used in this sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary, includes all four terms, and hyphenates “sink-hole.” However, none of the standard dictionaries use hyphens.

Searches of book and news databases indicate that “sinkhole” is overwhelmingly more popular than “swallow hole.” In searching the archive for the UK edition of the Guardian, for example, we got thousands of hits for “sinkhole” and only two for “swallow hole.”

When the term “sinkhole” showed up in the 15th century, according to the OED, it meant “a hole or hollow into which foul matter runs or is thrown.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1456 document in the Chartulary of Cockersand Abbey, a collection of papers about the abbey’s founding and legal rights:

“Following the said strind [stream] to the Sinkehole, and fro Sinkeholl ye water running one while aboue the Earth and other while under ye Erth, into the Black polles [pools].” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

By the late 18th century, the OED says, the term was being used in the modern sense of a “hole, cavern, or funnel-shaped cavity made in the earth by the action of water on the soil, rock, or underlying strata, and frequently forming the course of an underground stream.”

The earliest example is from a March 20, 1780, diary entry in Travels in the American Colonies, a collection of 18th-century journals edited by Newton Dennison Mereness:

“Springs … appear again either in Sink holes immediately vanishing or bursting out.”

Oxford describes the newer usage as “chiefly U.S.,” but notes that its “entry has not been fully updated (first published 1911).”

As for “swallow hole,” the OED’s first citation is from Britannia Baconica (1660), by Joshua Childrey, who used the Baconian method to study scientific curiosities in Britain:

“About Badminton also are several holes (called Swallow-holes) where the Waters … fall into the bowels of the earth, and are seen no more.”

The OED doesn’t define “swallow hole” but says it’s derived from the now-obsolete Old English use of “swallow” to mean “a deep hole or opening in the earth; a pit, gulf, abyss.”

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Mixed feelings

Q: People seem to use “ambivalent” to mean not feel strongly about something, as in “I’m ambivalent about spinach.” But I was taught that it meant having strong feelings both for and against something, as in “I’m ambivalent about riding horses—I like riding but I hate saddle sores.” Can you shed some light?

A: The adjective “ambivalent” and the noun it came from, “ambivalence,” were borrowed a century ago from German psychiatric terminology.

But over the years, as the words moved into literary and general usage, they outgrew their original meanings. So it’s no surprise that the meanings are now often less than clear.

Today, someone who’s “ambivalent” can either (1) have conflicting or uncertain feelings about a single thing; or (2) be uncertain about choosing between two conflicting things. Those, more or less, are the meanings recognized in standard dictionaries.

We’ve noticed that people occasionally use “ambivalent” when they mean they don’t care. But if they simply lack interest in a subject—say, spinach—then we would call them “indifferent,” not “ambivalent.”

Your example about horseback riding falls under meaning No. 1, since it involves conflicting attitudes toward a single subject.

An illustration of meaning No. 2 would be indecision about choosing between two opposing things—like using an English versus a Western-style saddle.

The noun “ambivalence” (or “ambivalency” in early usage), came into English before the adjective.

As a psychological term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ambivalence” originally meant “the coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from the December 1912 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“ ‘Ambivalency,’ a condition which gives to the same idea two contrary feeling-tones and invests the same thought simultaneously with both a positive and a negative character.”

But “in literary and general works,” the OED says, “ambivalence” has taken on diverse meanings, including “a balance or combination or coexistence of opposites,” and “oscillation, fluctuation, variability.”

Here’s one example of these wider (and vaguer) meanings, which Oxford quotes from a 1953 issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

“What social anthropologists call ‘plural belonging,’ what literary critics call ambivalence of attitude, and what the proverb calls having your cake and eating it, is a common human phenomenon.”

The adjective “ambivalent” has had a similar evolution.

It meant “entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing” when first recorded in English in a 1916 translation from a paper on analytical psychology by Carl Jung, according to the OED.

But “ambivalent” has also came to mean “equivocal,” or “acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites,” Oxford says.

Here are OED citations that exemplify both uses of “ambivalent.” The first illustrates conflicting feelings about one thing, the next a hesitation between two conflicting things:

“A second case where the falsehoods were … the result of ambivalent desire for and fear of the erotic life.” (From Phyllis M. Blanchard’s book The Adolescent Girl: A Study From the Psychoanalytic Viewpoint, first published in 1920.)

“Our deeper urges are strangely ambivalent, ready to spend themselves on love or hate, altruism or destruction.” (From a 1955 issue of the Listener, the former BBC magazine.)

As we mentioned, the source of these English words is German: the noun ambivalenz. It was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and first appeared in a long essay of his, published in the journal Psychiatrisch-Neurologisch Wochenschrift in 1910-11.

Bleuler formed ambivalenz from Latin elements, the prefix ambi– (around, both, or in two ways) and valentia (power, strength).

The new word was modeled, according to the OED, after “equivalence,” which has the etymological sense “equal in value or strength.”

It was Bleuler, by the way, who redefined the mental illness “dementia praecox” and renamed it schizophrenie (“schizophrenia”) in 1908.

He also coined the term autismus (“autism”) in 1910, but early on it had a different meaning (self-absorption) than it does in modern medicine.

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When “it” isn’t fit

Q: If I start a plant indoors and then move it outside, I can say either “I will harden off the plant” or “I will harden the plant off.” But if I use a pronoun, I can only say “I will harden it off,” not “I will harden off it.” What’s going on here?

A: Your question illustrates a characteristic of many phrasal verbs. By “phrasal verbs” we mean those consisting of a verb plus an adverb (like “bring in”), a preposition (“jump over”), or both (“watch out for”).

The phrasal verb in your example, “harden off,” is one of the verb-plus-adverb kind, a very common type that includes “bring up,” “give up,” “look up,” “hand out,” “take off,” “sort out,” “put on,” “put away,” and many others.

When this kind of phrasal verb has an object, and the object is a noun, the noun can go either in the middle of the phrase (“harden the seedlings off”) or at the end (“harden off the seedlings”).

But if the object is a personal pronoun, it has to go in the middle (“harden them off”), not at the end (“harden off them”).

You can see how this works with similar phrasal verbs. The first three versions are acceptable, the fourth is not idiomatic English:

“Bring in the mail” … “Bring the mail in” … “Bring it in.” But not: “Bring in it.”

“Put out the cat” … “Put the cat out” … “Put her out.” But not: “Put out her.”

“Give up desserts” … “Give desserts up” … “Give them up.” But not: “Give up them.”

(We should add that while personal pronouns can’t go at the end, demonstrative pronouns can: “this,” “that,” “these,” “those.” Nobody blinks when we say things like “Did you harden off those?” or “Please hand out these.”)

Here you may be wondering why the little words in those phrasal verbs (“in,” “out,” “up,” and so on) are adverbs and not prepositions. (Many linguists would call them “adverb particles” or simply “particles.”) Here’s why they aren’t prepositions in these usages.

In sentences like “Bring in the mail” and “Put out the cat” and “Give up desserts,” it’s obvious that “in the mail,” “out the cat,” and “up desserts” are not prepositional phrases.

On the contrary, each of those little words modifies a verb (“bring in,” “put out,” “give up”). And the objects (“the mail,” “the cat,” “desserts”) are objects of a verb, not objects of a preposition.

However, the kind of phrasal verb that consists of a verb plus a preposition behaves differently. (Many linguists would call this construction a prepositional verb to distinguish it from the verb-plus-adverb type.)

Examples of the verb-plus-preposition variety include “look through,” “listen to,” “jump off,” “go around,” “look for,” and others.

This kind of phrasal verb can’t be split by an object. When there’s an object—whether noun or pronoun—it goes afterward.

In this case, the addition of an object (as in “Jump off the bridge” … “Go around the pothole”) creates a prepositional phrase (“off the bridge” … “around the pothole”).

Finally, the third kind of phrasal verb combines the other two—verb plus adverb plus preposition. (This one is sometimes called a “phrasal prepositional verb.”)

Examples include “sit in for,” “put up with,” “watch out for,” “look forward to,” “get on with,” and “bear down on.”

With most of these three-part phrasal verbs, the object, whether noun or pronoun, follows the entire phrase: “A guest host sat in for Dr. Phil” … “He can’t put up with her.”

But a few of these three-part constructions, like “take out on,” “let in on,” and “fix up with,” have two objects, one after the verb part and one after the preposition:

“Take it out on him” … “Fix the couple up with an apartment” … “Let Harry in on the secret.” Again, the objects can be nouns or pronouns.

So that’s the story with phrasal verbs and how they work with objects.

But getting back to “harden off,” it’s a term that dates from the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the OED’s definition, to “harden off” means “to acclimatize (a plant) to cold or outdoor conditions by gradually reducing the temperature of a greenhouse, cold frame, etc., or by increasing the time of exposure to wind and sunlight.”

This phrasal verb is also used without an object (that is, intransitively). Here it means “to become acclimatized through this process.”

So you can say either “I’ve hardened off the plant,” or “The plant has hardened off.”

The verb was first used in writing, the OED says, in Robert Sweet’s book The British Flower Garden (1827):

“When rooted, the glass should be removed from them altogether, to harden them off for transplanting.” Here the verb is used transitively, with the object (“them”) inserted within the phrasal verb.

In the next citation, the phrasal verb has no object. This is from Edward Sayers’s book The American Fruit Garden Companion (1839): “As the weather grows warm … the plants should be placed into a separate frame to harden off.”

Happy gardening!

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Why “lucky me,” not “lucky I”?

Q: Why does the expression “lucky me” have an object pronoun?

A: Yes, it’s always “lucky me,” not “lucky I.”

But why is the pronoun in the objective (or accusative) case rather than the nominative?

The short answer is that a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t a subject or an object—is generally in the objective case.

As the linguist Arnold Zwicky explains, the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.”

(A finite clause is one with a subject and a tensed verb, as in “I feel lucky.”)

“This rule has to be understood literally,” Zwicky adds, “only subjects of finite clauses; things understood, or interpreted, as subjects of such clauses don’t count.”

In a Dec. 28, 2004, post on the Language Log, he writes, “So free-standing pronouns are accusative, even when they’re interpreted as subjects: Who did that? Me.”

This is especially true in speech or informal writing.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1972), Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik write:

“The objective case form is preferred in familiar style in verbless sentences, e.g., ‘Who’s there?’ — ‘Me.’ ”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says this practice and similar ones “are generally accepted by commentators as historically justified.”

The usage guide adds that “they are most likely to be found in speech and writing of a relaxed personal or conversational style.”

Merriam-Webster’s gives several examples from 20th-century authors, including this one from a letter written by the poet Robert Frost on July 15, 1941: “Me, I am in transition from one college to another.”

Linguists and grammarians often refer to these free-standing pronouns as unmarked, undifferentiated, or default pronouns.

The objective case is generally used whether the verbless pronouns appear alone, as in the examples above, or with an adjective, like “poor me,” “lucky him” or “silly them.”

In the 1500s the pronoun “me” began showing up in various uses “without definite syntactical relation to the context,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from the Earl of Surrey’s translation (sometime before 1547) of the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Aime [Ay me], wyth rage and furyes.”

And here’s an example from an exchange between Duke Frederick and Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (believed written in 1599):

“Duk: And get you from our Court. / Ros: Me Vncle.”

Around the same time, according to the OED, “me” showed up in phrases “premodified by an adjective.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Thomas Phaer’s 1558 translation of the first seven books of the Aeneid: “Where now away withdraw you wery me?”

This clearer example is from a 1580 translation by Philip Sidney of the Psalms of David: “How many ones there be / That all against poor me / Their numerous strength redouble.”

And here’s a citation from Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which the OED attributes to Shakespeare and dates to 1609: “To … make a conquest of vnhappie mee.” (Some scholars believe the play was co-written by Shakespeare and George Wilkins.)

As for “lucky me,” the OED says it expresses, “often ironically, acknowledgement of one’s own good fortune.”

The earliest Oxford example is from an 1821 issue of the Port Folio, a Philadelphia magazine: “I have seen, lucky me, what you all want to see.”

The most recent cite is from Paradise, a 1995 novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian writer living in the UK:

“As if your noisy dreams are not enough, you now hear music as well. I have two crazies on my hands, lucky me.”

Getting back to the technical side, the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says the objective case “is the default in English, and can be used anywhere except in the subject of a tensed verb.”

In The Sense of Style (2014), Pinker gives many examples of usage, including “What, me get a tattoo?” and “Molly will be giving the first lecture, me the second.”

The linguist David Denison, agrees, saying, “In general the objective forms have become the unmarked choice for personal pronouns, now used by default unless the pronoun has a particular syntactic function.”

In a 1996 paper, “The Case of the Unmarked Pronoun,” Denison gives as an example this exchange between Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley in Jane Austen’s novel Emma:

“ ‘You seem determined to think ill of him.’

“ ‘Me! – not at all,’ replied Mr. Knightley, rather displeased.”

And, as Denison points out, “Anything Mr. Knightley says (I feel) must have been fully standard for Jane Austen.”

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From “housewife” to “hussy”

Q: As you may know, the word “housewife” refers (in addition to a June Cleaver wannabe) to a sewing kit, also called a “hussif” or a “hussy.” But how did “hussy” come to mean a woman of some flamboyance (my definition)?

A: Yes, “housewife” is (or rather was) another word for a sewing kit. (Our acquaintance with such domestic trivia is what comes of reading old British novels.)

The sewing-kit sense of “housewife,” a meaning that originated in the mid-18th century, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a small case or pouch for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.”

This often took the form of “a length of soft fabric, divided into pockets, that may be rolled up when not in use,” the OED adds.

There’s no explanation as to why a sewing kit was called a “housewife,” but the answer seems obvious—it contained items used by a housewife.

Perhaps for a similar reason, another word for the mistress of a household, “chatelaine,” was used in the 19th century to mean a bunch of decorative chains worn at a woman’s waist, for holding things like keys, ornaments, a watch, and small sewing articles.

The OED’s earliest citation for “housewife” to mean a sewing kit is from Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), a compendium of true-crime stories.

In this passage, a thief has surreptitiously cut the pocket from a woman’s skirts: “Upon turning the Pocket out, he found only a Thread Paper, a Housewife, and a Crown piece.”

The word for the sewing kit, as well as for the woman who used it, was also written as “huswife,” “hussive,” “hussif,” and even “hussy,” spellings that reflected alterations in the pronunciation.

Oxford provides an example of “hussy” used this way in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740): “So I … dropt purposely my Hussy.”

And here’s a citation for “hussif,” from a 19th-century collection of regionalisms:

Hussif, that is house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread.” (From Edward Peacock’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, 1877.) 

You asked how “hussy” got its bad reputation. It’s a long story, so we’ll begin at the beginning.

The word “housewife” was spelled “husewif” when it showed up in Sawles Warde, an early Middle English homily written around 1200:

“Inwið beoð his hinen in se moni mislich þonc to cwemen wel þe husewif aȝein godes wille” (“Indoors, both his servants have a great many miserable thoughts about how to please the housewife against God’s will”).

The OED says “housewife” originally meant pretty much what it does today: “A (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household, such as caring for her family, performing domestic tasks, etc.”

However, the dictionary has this interesting note: “There is some evidence that in Middle English the word housewife in the general sense ‘housekeeper’ could be applied to both men and women.”

For example, a 1416 description of the duties of the housekeeper at a poorhouse, the OED notes, refers to the “husewyfe, man or woman.”

And the word was apparently used as a surname too, Oxford adds, pointing to names like “Richard Husewif” (1192), “Richard Huswyf” (1302), and “Johannes Hosewyfe” (1327).

But getting back to the feminine sphere, we mentioned earlier that “housewife” was spelled and pronounced many different ways, including “hussif,” “hussive,” and “hussy.” And for centuries the variations generally meant the same thing, the female head of a household.

For example, when when “hussy” first showed up in the early 1500s, it meant the “mistress of a household” or “a thrifty woman,” according to the OED. The first citation is from a 1530 entry in the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh:

“Na seruandis [shall] tak vther clathis than thar masteris and husseis and thar houshaldis clathis to wesche” (“No servants shall take other clothes to wash than the clothes of their masters and hussies and households”).

But in the mid-16th century, “housewife” (in various spellings and pronunciations) took on an additional, pejorative meaning: a “frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable” woman or girl, according to the OED.

Here’s a negative example from a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood: “Ye huswife, what wind blowth ye hyther.”

And here’s one from a 1599 letter by Hugh Broughton: “Sampsons heyfer was his wife, a skittish huswife.”

“Hussy” first took on this pejorative sense in the 1600s, when it came to mean a disreputable woman.

The OED’s earliest negative example is from the writings of the English clergyman and theologian John Trapp (1647): “Such another hussy as this was dame Alice Pierce, a concubine to our Edward III.”

The development of positive and negative senses for “housewife” and its variations led to differences in how these words were pronounced and spelled.

When using the words in a pejorative sense, English speakers frequently pronounced the first syllable as HUSS, the OED says.

As a result, the dictionary suggests, speakers using the words positively began pronouncing the first syllable as HOWSE to differentiate between the positive and the negative meanings.

It took several hundred years, but when the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings sorted themselves out, English had two words: “housewife” (a female head of a household) and “hussy” (a brazen or promiscuous woman).

It wasn’t until the 19th century, the OED says, that the modern HOWSE pronunciation of “housewife” became the norm in pronouncing dictionaries and its derogatory meanings became extinct.

By that time, “housewife” and “hussy” had gone their separate ways. “Housewife” retained the purely domestic meanings while “hussy” had all the fun, keeping only its disreputable character.

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Participle physics

Q: What parts of speech are the present participles in these sentences? (1) “He saw his sister walking along the road.” (2) “I go running once a week.”

A: First, a little background. A present participle, the “-ing” form of a verb, can play many different roles in a sentence—verb, adjective, adverb, and noun.

As verbs, present participles are used in the progressive tenses: “is walking,” “were running,” “will be driving,” and so on. We ran posts about the progressive tenses in 2015 and 2016.

Present participles can also be modifiers. They’re used as adjectives (“walking stick,” “running shoes”) and as adverbs (“Weeping, she walked along,” “He injured himself running”). We wrote about participial modifiers in a post earlier this year.

Finally, these “-ing” words can function as nouns (“She prefers walking,” “Running is his passion”), in which case they’re called gerunds. We wrote a post about participles and gerunds in 2012.

Now, on to your questions.

In your first sentence, “He saw his sister walking along the road,” the “-ing” word is a participial adjective.

It introduces a participial phrase (“walking along the road”) that functions adjectivally, since it modifies “his sister.”

In a simpler sentence with no phrases, this is easier to see: “He saw Phoebe walking.”

In sentence #2, “I go running once a week,” the “-ing” word complements, or completes, the verb. But what is it?

Traditionally, many authorities would have called this a gerund; some others would have said a participle.

But linguists these days are less definite. They prefer terms like “gerund-participle” or “participle construction” or just “-ing form.”

The waffling is understandable, since these forms have something in common with both nouns and verbs.

Like a noun, “running” functions here as the object of the verb “go.” But unlike a noun, “running” can itself have an object (“he goes running his legs off,” “don’t go running the company into the ground”), which is a characteristic of verbs.

Whatever they are, these “-ing” terms are often seen with the verb “go.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say that “go” can be used transitively (that is, with an object) to mean “to engage in.” The examples given include “went skiing” and “don’t go telling everyone.”

The Oxford English Dictionary regards these “-ing” words sometimes as participles and sometimes as gerunds.

The verb “go,” the OED says, is commonly used with a “participle indicating a concomitant action or activity.”

Oxford’s examples include “go walkyng” (1493); “go begging their bread and singing” (1615); “went looking” (1658), and “went sprawling” (1988).

Elsewhere in its entry for “go,” however, the OED says the verb is complemented by gerunds, and its examples include “go listening,” “go analysing,” and “go asking too much.”

The dictionary also says that in a now archaic usage, “go” was followed by the old preposition “a” (as in “go a courting,” “goes a begging,” “went a hunting”). In those usages, the “-ing” term is a gerund or “verbal noun,” the OED says.

But in modern usages without the prepositional “a,” Oxford considers the “-ing” term a participle.

Other verbs besides “go” are commonly accompanied by “-ing” terms. They include “sit” (“sat knitting”); “stand” (“stood watching”); “lie” (“lay dying”); “stop” (“stopped working”); “continue” (“continue eating”); “come” (“came pouring”); “keep” (“keep moving”); “begin” (“begin writing”); and “start” (“start ringing”).

The OED mentions the use of “-ing” terms with only four of those verbs. It says that in the phrases “came pouring” and “keep moving,” the “-ing” terms are present participles. But in the phrases “begin writing” and “start ringing” it says that the “-ing” words are “verbal nouns”—that is, gerunds.

It’s true that in those examples “writing” and “ringing” are noun-like because they could be replaced by nouns. But they’re also verb-like because, like verbs, they can have objects themselves: “begin writing a novel,” “start ringing the bell.”

We can see why many linguists believe that in some usages it’s impossible to make a clear or useful distinction between a gerund and a participle.

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Sex, gender, and rock ’n’ roll

Q: When I was a law student at Columbia, Prof. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she used “gender” in Supreme Court briefs because the (all male) justices might be uncomfortable hearing a woman lawyer use “sex.” Is she responsible for this usage shift?

A: No, she’s not responsible for the shift from “sex” to “gender” in referring to someone’s sexual identity, though she may have helped it along.

As we noted in a 2007 post, both “sex” and “gender” have been used for hundreds of years in reference to maleness and femaleness.

Interestingly, the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse is a relatively recent phenomenon that didn’t show up until the 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the increasing use of “sex” for intercourse over the last century has led many to prefer the use of “gender” for maleness and femaleness. We’ll have more on this later.

Although Ginsburg isn’t responsible for the shift, she may have helped popularize this use of “gender” when she was a law professor and argued cases before the Supreme Court.

In 1993, a few months after becoming an associate justice on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg spoke about the usage on a visit to Columbia Law School to receive an award and take part in a panel discussion.

During the discussion, she said her decision to use “gender” for “sex” in Supreme Court briefs was the result of advice from her secretary at Columbia, where she taught from 1972 to 1980.

“I owe it all to my secretary at Columbia Law School, who said, ‘I’m typing all these briefs and articles for you and the word sex, sex, sex is on every page. Don’t you know that those nine men—they hear that word, and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking? Why don’t you use the word gender? It is a grammatical term and it will ward off distracting associations.’ ”

It’s true that “gender” began life as a grammatical term, but it’s been used since as far back as the 15th century in reference to sexual identity.

The earliest example in the OED is from the 1474 will of Thomas Stonor: “His heyres of the masculine gender of his body lawfully begoten.”

Oxford defines this sense of “gender” as “males or females viewed as a group” as well as “the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.”

The dictionary says it means the same as the word “sex” used for “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”

The earliest OED example for “sex” used this way is from the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382:

“Of all þingez hauyng soule of eny flesch: two þou schalt brynge in to þe ark, þat male sex & female: lyuen with þe.” (“Of all things having soul of any flesh, you shall bring into the ark that of the male sex and female living with that male.”)

As we’ve said, the noun “sex” (from the Latin sexus) wasn’t used in the sense of sexual intercourse until the early 20th century. The first example in the OED is from Love and Mr. Lewisham, a 1900 novel by H. G. Wells:

“We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.”

The next example is from “Pansies,” a satirical 1929 poem by D. H. Lawrence: “If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust / At the core of your heart, the other creature.”

And this more recent example is from the Oct. 16, 1971, issue of the Spectator: “Not for nothing is the youth culture characterized by sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

Getting back to “gender,” the OED says its sense of sexual identity comes from its grammatical use to describe how some languages categorize words (masculine, feminine, neuter, common).

The noun “gender” in its original, grammatical sense dates from the late 1300s, according to the dictionary, and is ultimately derived from genus, classical Latin for race, kind, or grammatical gender.

The dictionary notes that the use of “gender” for sexual identity grew in popularity over the last century as the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse became more common.

“In the 20th cent.,” the OED says, “as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse, gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females.”

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“Word” is a word is a word

Q:  “Word” is a word, so it’s an instance of itself. And “noun” is a noun. Since “noun phrase” is itself a noun phrase, it’s a third example. Can you think of any other terms like these? And is there a name for the phenomenon?

A: You’re talking about terms that describe themselves. Like the word “short,” which itself is short. And “unhyphenated,” which has no hyphen. Also “adjectival,” an adjective that’s accordingly adjectival. And “prefixed,” with “pre-” as its own prefix.

Words like these are called “autological” or, less commonly, “homological.”

Most words aren’t, as you put it, instances of themselves. The word “fat,” for instance, isn’t fat; as words go, it’s on the lean side. The word “big” isn’t big; it’s small. And the word “shrinking” isn’t shrinking; it’s the same size as always.

So, to use your examples, “word” is autological because it’s a word; “noun” is autological because it’s a noun; and “noun phrase” is autological because it’s a noun phrase.

The adjective “autological” originally had to do with self-knowledge when it entered English in the 18th century. It came from the rare 17th-century noun “autology” (self-knowledge or the study of oneself), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a new meaning emerged in the early 20th century, the OED says, when “autological” was used to describe a word, especially an adjective, “having or representing the property it denotes.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from a paper by F. P. Ramsey published in 1926 in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society: “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short,’ autological; others heterological.”

As we suggested above, most words are heterological—their meanings don’t apply to them. As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1940: “‘Long’ is heterological because it is not a long word.”

Because autological words are rarer, they’re more interesting, and it follows that they have a devoted fan base. Just google “autological words” and you’ll find lots of websites devoted to them.

The linguist Arika Okrent has written about them on the Mental Floss website. In an article published on Sept. 27, 2013, she notes that most words “have a rather abstract connection to the things they describe. The word ‘yellow’ is not actually yellow. The word ‘square’ is not a square.”

“But some words do embody the properties they denote,” she writes. “We call them autological words, and they are a self-centered, self-referential bunch.” (We’ve used many of her examples here.)

For some reason, it’s difficult to come up with many autological nouns. The noun “buzzword” is sometimes called autological, since it’s an instance of a buzzword—but we aren’t hearing it much lately, so perhaps it’s losing its buzz and someday will no longer qualify.

Autological adjectives are more plentiful. For example, the word “terse” is terse, “erudite” (scholarly) is erudite, and “twee” (sickeningly sweet) has itself become twee.

Along these same lines, “magniloquent” (highfalutin) is magniloquent, “readable” is readable, “recherché” (affected) is recherché.

Similarly, “sesquipedalian” (which describes a long word) is sesquipedalian; “polysyllabic” is polysyllabic; “descriptive” is descriptive, and “common” is common.

Finally, “useful” is useful, which is how we hope you find this post.

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A slave named Smith

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations?

A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US, according to the 2010 census. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,”  “Weaver,” and so on?

Well, the word “smith” has been used in the occupational sense since Anglo-Saxon days, far longer than “cooper” (circa 1415), “potter” (c.1200), and “weaver” (1362) have been used in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several Old English citations for the word “smith,” including this one from the epic poem Beowulf, which scholars say may have been written as early as the 700s:

“Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið” (“As it was made for him by a weapon smith in days of old”).

In addition to being old, “smith” has referred to a wider variety of jobs than those other terms.

When it showed up in Old English, the OED says, a “smith” was someone who worked “in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman.” It was also used in compounds like “coopersmith,” “goldsmith,” “gunsmith,” “locksmith,” and “silversmith.”

“Smith” may have been used as a family name before any of those other occupational words even showed up in English.

A document from the late 900s granting freedom to a slave named “Ecceard smith” may be the earliest example.

A slave? Yes, there was slavery in medieval Britain.

In Cartularium Saxonicum (Vol. 3, 1887), a collection of charters relating to Anglo-Saxon history, the British historian Walter de Gray Birch includes a section on manumissions, documents granting formal release from slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from a manumission that the author dates from the late 10th century:

“Geatfleda geaf freols for Godes lufa & for heora sæpla,  þæt is Ecceard smið, & Ælstan  & his wíf & eall heora of sprinc boren & unboren. & Arcil, & Cole, & Ecferð,  Aldhunes dohter, & ealle þa men þe heo nam heora heafod for hyra mete on þam yflum dagum.”

(“For the love of God and for the need of her soul, Geatfleda has granted freedom to Ecceard smith, and AElfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter, and all those people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days [and all those people she bought in the evil days].”)

In transcribing the Old English above, we’ve replaced the Anglo-Saxon symbol for “and” (it looks like a 7) with an ampersand, and modified some of the punctuation to make the Old English more readable.

Some scholars have translated the Old English “Ecceard smið” as “Ecceard smith,” treating “smith” as a surname, while others have translated it as “Ecceard the smith,” treating “smith” as an appositive that refers to Ecceard by his occupation.

We lean toward considering “smith” a surname here, though surnames weren’t generally passed on from generation to generation until well into the Middle Ages.

Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, authors of A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed., 1991), note that surnames were constantly changing in the Middle Ages.

“Today, surnames mean an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name and it is used in that sense in this book,” the authors write.

In The Birth of the West (2014), Paul Collins provides additional details about the freeing of the slaves mentioned above, noting that a great famine in 975 forced some Anglo-Saxons to sell themselves into slavery to keep from dying of hunger.

“Geatfleda, a wealthy woman in Durham, heard that a group of people with children had sold themselves into slavery to survive,” Collins writes. “She then bought them and granted them freedom when the famine had ended.”

In The Old English Manor: A Study in English Economic History (1892), the historian Charles McLean Andrews says that “in cases of great poverty and distress it was not uncommon for freemen to sell themselves into slavery.”

“Frequently it might happen that violence or fraud would force a freeman into slavery, an enforcement, which, while not legally recognized, would become practically a fact, and of legal importance in relation to the posterity of the unfortunate freeman, for of course all children of slaves remained slaves,” Andrews writes.

We could speculate more about the popularity of the name “Smith,” but it would be mere conjecture.

As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990), a lot of medieval genealogy is guesswork:

“It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

You may also be interested in a post we wrote about colors used as surnames, as in “Mr. Gray” and “Ms. White.”

We’ll end with these anonymous lines that we came across in our readings for this post:

“From whence came Smith, all be he Knight or squire
But from the Smith, that forgeth at the fire?”

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A midwife’s tale

Q: As my wife was telling me about a study of midwives in the early Dutch Reform Church, it dawned on me that the term “midwife” has always seemed an odd descriptor for what a midwife does.

A: The word “midwife” is deceptive because its parts are survivals from the Middle Ages, when the word was midwif.

In Old English, mid meant “with” and wif meant “woman.” So when midwif came along in the Middle English period (1100-1400), its literal meaning was “with-woman”—someone (usually a woman, but not always) who was “with” a mother giving birth.

Today we think of “mid” as middle point. But in Old English and Middle English, “mid had approximately the same range of senses as modern English with,” says the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the end of the 1300s, the old preposition mid had been displaced by “with,” the OED says, though the old usage “probably survives as the first element of the compound midwife.”

A good example of an old use of “mid” that disappeared is the Old English mid ealle (literally “with all”), which later became “withal” (meaning “altogether” or “entirely”).

Another example is the Old English term for pregnancy, mid childe. Over the course of the 1300s, mid childe was superseded by “with child.”

The OED’s last citation for the older term is dated 1340: “Þe wyfman grat myd childe” (“The woman great with child”), from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a Middle English translation of a French treatise on morality.

In modern English, “mid” has lost its “with” sense and now is mainly used as an adjective or prefix meaning middle, halfway, and so on. The only prepositional use that survives is the poetic “mid” that’s short for “amid” or “in the midst of” (as in “mid storm and strife”).

However, the old English preposition that meant “with” is still alive in the other Germanic languages: met in Dutch, mit in German, með in Icelandic, and med in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.

As for “wife,” which we’ve written about on our blog, it meant a woman, not necessarily a married one, in Old English.

“The Old English general sense of woman,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “survives in fishwife, midwife, and old wives’ tales.”

In its etymological notes on “midwife,” the OED says “the original sense seems to have been ‘woman who is with the mother at childbirth.’ ”

While the “midwife” was usually a woman, this wasn’t always the case. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition of the word: “A woman (or, rarely, a man) who assists women in childbirth.”

In more recent times, the OED notes, the word has come to mean “a nurse trained and qualified to do this and to give antenatal and post-natal care.”

This is Oxford’s earliest citation, from a Lives of the Saints composed around 1300: “Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”).

And this much less dramatic example illustrates the modern usage: “The doctor or midwife will issue the woman with Form MATB1 at about the 26th week of pregnancy.” (From Ian Hunter’s book The Which? Guide to Employment, 1998.)

Of course we use “midwife” figuratively, too, to mean one who helps bring something into being.

The OED’s earliest example of the figurative usage is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, thought to have been written about 1595: “So Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe, / And Bullingbrooke my sorowes dismall heire.”

The most recent figurative example in Oxford is from a 1998 issue of the British music magazine Record Collector: “Brian had retired to his Hollywood mansion, only emerging sporadically when Carl acted as midwife to one of his new compositions.”

Finally, as big fans of amphibians in general, we can’t pass up a chance to mention the “midwife toad,” so named because the male carries the fertilized eggs around on his back legs.

When the eggs are ready to hatch, he enters the water and releases the new tadpoles.  This toad’s taxonomic name: Alytes obstetricans.

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Are two hoods better than one?

Q: Does the “hood” in “neighborhood,” “falsehood,” “childhood,” “hoody,” and Little Red Riding Hood come from the same source?

A: No, these words are derived from two distinctly different sources. One gave us the word for a head covering while the other gave us the suffix for a quality of being.

Two “hoods” may not be better than one, but they make for a more interesting post. Let’s begin with the “hood” that one wears.

The clothing sense of “hood” was first recorded sometime before the year 700, the Oxford English Dictionary says, when it appeared in The Epinal Glossary as a Latin translation: “Capitium, hood.”

The ultimate source is a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kadh-, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This kadh– meant to shelter or cover, and it’s also the source of the English verb “heed” and the noun “hat,” as well as words for “hat” in other Germanic languages.

The oldest English sense of “hood” is still alive today. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition: “A covering for the head and neck (sometimes extending to the shoulders) of soft or flexible material, either forming part of a larger garment (as the hood of a cowl or cloak) or separate.”

In later years this noun took on many related senses. It came to mean the helmet for a suit of armor (before 1200); various kinds of caps (circa 1430); a leather head cover for a bird used in falconry (c.1575); and finally other kinds of protective coverings or projections, whether on plants and animals (18th to 19th centuries), or on inanimate things like chimneys (1750), baby buggies (1866), and cars (1904 to mean the roof, 1929 for the engine covering).

In reference to automobiles, by the way, Americans now use “hood” for the engine cover, but the British still use “hood” to mean the roof or top of the car. (For the engine covering, since 1902 the British have used another old word for a head-covering, “bonnet.”)

The clothing word “hoody,” sometimes spelled “hoodie,” has been used to mean a hooded garment like a jacket or sweatshirt since 1990, according to OED citations. Oxford says the word is derived from the adjective “hooded.”

A related word for a juvenile delinquent in colloquial British and Irish English is “hoodie,” which the OED dates from 1991, and defines as “a young person who wears a hoodie and is typically regarded as socially disruptive. Hence also: a hooligan, a thug.”

However, two similar-sounding words meaning a tough and violent criminal are entirely unrelated to the garment: “hoodlum” and its slang abbreviation, “hood.” These got their start in the US and later made their way into British English.

The OED says “hoodlum” originated “in San Francisco about 1870-2, and began to excite attention elsewhere in the U.S. about 1877, by which time its origin was lost, and many fictitious stories, concocted to account for it, were current in the newspapers.”

(Prominent slang authorities like H. L. Mencken and Peter Tamony have made a case that it comes from a Bavarian dialect of German, where a word spelled hodalum or huddellump means “hoodlum.” Germans were the largest foreign-language group in San Francisco in 1870.)

The “hood” that’s short for “hoodlum” first appeared, according to Oxford, in the December 1930 issue of the American Mercury: “None of those St. Louie hoods are going to cut in here, see?”

Another American slang use of “hood,” this time as a short form of “neighborhood,” was first recorded in the 1960s, according to the OED. The abbreviation sometimes appears with an apostrophe: “the ’hood.”

In Oxford’s words, “the ’hood” (generally used with the article) means “a neighbourhood or community, usually one’s own; esp. an inner-city area inhabited predominantly by non-whites.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which appears complete with definition, is from the February 1969 issue of an American publication, Trans-action: Social Science and the Community: “He come back over to the hood (neighborhood).”

This slang word from the 20th century brings us to the rest of the words in your question, and to a usage that that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

In “neighborhood,” “childhood,” “falsehood,” and many other words, as we’ve said, the suffix “-hood” refers to a state or quality of being.

This suffix, the OED tells us, was –hád in Old English and –hod in Middle English, as well as –hêd in Old Saxon and –heit in Old High German.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots gives an older prehistoric source, (s)kai- (“bright,” “shining”), which in ancient Germanic came to mean “bright appearance,” “quality,” or “condition.”

In English, the OED says, the suffix originally was a separate noun with the general meaning “person,” “personality,” “sex,” “condition,” “quality,” or “rank.”

This noun was “freely combined” with others, Oxford says, as in cild-hád (“child-condition”), mægð-hád (“maiden state”), and pápan hád (“papal dignity”).

Eventually it stopped being a separate noun and became a suffix, spelled “-hood.” Here are some of the more familiar formations, spelled the modern way and in the order of appearance:

“childhood” (around 715);  “widowhood” (c. 897); “priesthood” (900s); “maidenhood” (perhaps late 900s); “manhood” (c. 1225); “falsehood” (c. 1290); neighborhood” (late 1300s); “likelihood” (1398 to mean similarity, c. 1449 for probability); “womanhood” (c. 1405); “boyhood” (possibly 1577, but rare before the 1700s); “girlhood” (1748); “adulthood” (1850).

In modern English, “-hood” is what’s called a “living suffix,” meaning that people are still using it to make new words.

It can be “affixed at will to almost any word denoting a person or concrete thing,” Oxford says, as well as to “many adjectives, to express condition or state.” Consequently, “the number of these derivatives is indefinite.”

Sometimes they’re also humorous, as in this 19th-century OED citation: “Believing in the white Aylesburys … as the final expression of duckhood” (from the Daily News, London, 1883).

A historical aside: The OED notes that “-hood” once had a parallel suffix, “-head,” from the same root (Old English hád) and with the same meaning (condition, rank, person, etc.).

So we once had “childhead,” “falsehead,” “priesthead,” and “widowhead” in addition to the “-hood” versions. The “-head” in most of these old words has been displaced by “-hood,” though we’ve kept “godhead” and lost “godhood.”

We still sometimes see the archaic “maidenhead.” This originally meant the same as “maidenhood” (the condition of being a virgin), and was applied to women and occasionally to men.

But in later centuries, according to the OED, “maidenhead” was also used to mean the hymen, “esp. considered as the mark of a woman’s chastity.”

We don’t hear either “maidenhead” or “maidenhood” much these days, though you can find both in standard dictionaries.

In general, “maidenhead” now refers to either virginity or the hymen, while “maidenhood” refers to either virginity or the state of being unmarried.

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Passive resistance

Q: I’m puzzled by these two sentences: “The robbers broke into the bank” and “The bank was broken into.” In the active sentence, “bank” isn’t a direct object. Why then is it possible to make it a subject in the passive sentence?

A. Normally, a sentence in the active voice can be made passive by turning the object of the verb into the subject. So “A pickpocket stole his wallet” becomes “His wallet was stolen.” (You can add “by a pickpocket” if you want to say whodunit.)

But you’re right that “bank” in the first sentence isn’t the object of the verb. The word “bank” here is the object of a preposition. And the object of a preposition can be turned into the subject of a passive sentence.

What confuses you here is the word “into.” It’s actually a compound that combines the adverb “in” and the preposition “to.” For purposes of illustration, let’s divide it—“in” (adverb) + “to” (preposition)—to show how its parts function.

Why do this? Because the verb here is not “break.” It’s “break in,” a phrasal verb that incorporates the adverb “in.” And the following “to” introduces the prepositional phrase “to the bank.”

So, with “into” separated, our sentence now looks like this: “The robbers broke in + to the bank.”

In its felonious sense, the phrasal verb “break in” is intransitive—that is, it doesn’t need a direct object. All it needs is a subject to be complete: “Robbers broke in.”

We can’t add a direct object here, because robbers can’t “break in the bank.” If we want to mention the bank, we have to add a prepositional phrase: “break in + to the bank.”

This is true of many phrasal verbs that are intransitive. They don’t have direct objects, so if there’s a complement at all it’s likely to be a prepositional phrase. A few examples of such verbs:

● “look in” (to make a short visit). We don’t “look in the baby” (direct object); we “look in on the baby” (prepositional phrase).

● “make up” (to reconcile). We don’t “make up Gerald”; we “make up with Gerald.”

● “speak out” (to talk forcefully). We don’t “speak out injustice”; we “speak out against injustice.”

● “check in” (to register at a hotel). We don’t “check in the hotel”; we “check in + to [or at] the hotel.”

Usually the adverbial part of a phrasal verb isn’t combined with the following preposition. We don’t “look inon the baby” or “make upwith Gerald.”

But when the parts are “in” and “to,” they’re often combined. (This isn’t always the case, as we’ve written on our blog: “We went in to dinner” … “They tuned in to the program.”)

Which brings us—in a roundabout way—back to your question about how an intransitive verb becomes passive.

With an intransitive verb, as we’ve said, the object of the preposition, not the object of the verb, becomes the passive subject.

You were confused by the phrasal verb “break in.” This is easier to see with an ordinary intransitive verb, like “shout.” It too needs only a subject (“They shouted”), and requires no direct object.

But if there’s a complement in the form of a prepositional phrase (“They shouted at the dog”), we can construct a passive version.

The object of the preposition (“the dog”) now becomes the subject, and the preposition is retained at the end (“The dog was shouted at”).

Sometimes passives derived from intransitive verbs are not idiomatic English: “Gerald was made up with” … “The hotel was checked in at.”

But others are normal and acceptable, like “The baby was looked in on.”

These are sometimes called  “prepositional passives.” And as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “they are not admissible in all cases.”

Cambridge gives these examples of acceptable ones: “This bed has been slept in” … “Her book was referred to” … “These matters must be seen to.”

And it gives these as unacceptable: “Boston was flown to next” … “Such principles were stood for” … “Some old letters were come across.”

This is not a new concept. Nearly two centuries ago, the American grammarian Goold Brown wrote about passive forms of intransitive verbs in his book The Institutes of English Grammar (1823):

“An active-intransitive verb, followed by a preposition and its object, will sometimes admit of being put into the passive form.” The object of the preposition becomes the subject, he wrote, and the preposition is “retained with the verb, as an adverb.”

His example: “They laughed at him” (active) becomes “He was laughed at” (passive).

As we said on our blog in 2014, a verb can be both transitive and intransitive. In fact, the phrasal verb “break in” can be both. Sometimes it’s transitive and requires an object; sometimes it’s intransitive and doesn’t.

For example, “break in” is transitive when it means to tame or train something like a horse. A direct object is required, as in “He broke in the colt.” In the passive, this becomes “The colt was broken in.”

But “break in” is intransitive when it means to forcibly intrude or to interrupt, as in “When the conversation got heated, Suzanne broke in.” No object is required.

If we add a prepositional phrase—“When things got heated, Suzanne broke in + to the conversation”—then we can make a passive sentence, though an awkward one: “When things got heated, the conversation was broken in + to.”

We’ll leave it to the reader to mentally rejoin “into.”

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He should’ve stood in bed

Q: The principal at the school where I teach disagrees with me about this sentence: “I was too sick to go to the party, so I just stood home.” I think it’s flat-out wrong. “Stood” is the past tense of “stand,” not “stay.” But she defends it as a regional usage. Does she stand corrected?

A: The verbs “stand” and “stay” have many meanings in common, and “stood,” the past tense of “stand,” is sometimes used in the same way we use “stayed,” the past tense of “stay.” (Example: “And so things stood for many years.”)

But the specific usage you’re asking about (“I just stood home”) is not considered standard English.

In fact, it’s not mentioned at all (not as standard, nonstandard, regional, or dialectal) in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the Oxford English Dictionary, the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked, or our other language resources.

Nevertheless, the usage is out there, as you’ve observed, and it’s close in meaning to several standard usages, including some that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the verb “stand” showed up in the mid-900s, according to the OED, it meant to “assume or maintain an erect attitude on one’s feet (with distinction, expressed or understood, from sit, lie, kneel, etc.).”

The first Oxford citation is from the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that the OED dates from about 950 (some scholars date it from around 700): “gesæh ðone hælend stondende” (“Jesus Christ the Savior standing”).

The erect sense of “stand” is the most common meaning today, but over the years the verb has taken on several senses in which “stay” could replace “stand,” including these: to stand fast (circa 888), to stand still (c. 888), to  stand about (1390), to stand apart (1538), and to stand pat (1882).

Although DARE doesn’t have an entry for “stood” used as the past tense of “stay,” we suspect the usage may have originated as a New York regionalism. The earliest examples we’ve found are in New York State court transcripts from the 1920s

The first example is from testimony filed in a 1921 case before the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court: “Several times she came, and a few times she stood home.”

And this is from a 1924 appeal before the court: “The reason why she stood home a couple of days every week, you know, I told him because I have to report when the girls go in and out. He wanted to know why she was home. I says, ‘I think her knee is hurted.’ ”

Here’s an example from the transcript of a 1941 case tried before the New York State Court of Appeals: “Q. Dilla remained home doing the cleaning, isn’t that correct? A. Yes, sir. Yes, she stood home.”

Finally, this is from the questioning of a witness in a 1955 wrongful-death case tried before the New York Supreme Court: “Q. As far as you know, did he go to work steadily? A. Well, he stood home— Q. Outside of a cold, he worked steadily? A. Yes.”

The lexicographer Robert W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), cites a couple of dialectal usages in England that are somewhat similar to the one you’re interested in.

Burchfield says “stood” has been used in parts of England as a present participle to mean “standing,” but the usage “seems to have gone unrecorded in the OED.”

He cites a few examples, including this one from Yorkshire: “She was stood in front of the mantelpiece trying to think of the name for the clock.”

“Its existence in modern regional use is not in question,” Burchfield adds, “but its precise distribution has not been established.”

However, he says the distribution is presumably similar to that of “sat” used in the sense of “sitting,” a dialectical usage heard in northern and western England.

Burchfield gives this example from Difficulties With Girls, a 1988 novel by Kingsley Amis: “I can’t help thinking of that Tim sat there juddering his leg up and down.”

He says the usage “was once standard but has gradually become regionally restricted over the centuries.”

In “English Worldwide,” a 1989 paper by the linguists Jenny Cheshire, Viv Edwards, and Pam Whittle, the authors suggest that the uses of “stood” for “standing” and “sat” for “sitting” are evolving and “are now becoming characteristic of a general non-standard or semi-standard variety of English.”

“Their occurrence in written English points once again to the difficulty of identifying clearly the features that are characteristic of non-standard English rather than standard English,” the authors add.

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Follows the subject

Q: While I was watching TV with my wife, a commercial came on for the movie When Calls the Heart. It reminded me of another corny title, Comes a Horseman. What makes an author choose this syntax?

A: Authors use unusual wording because it’s often more effective and attention-getting than the routine syntax one would expect.

The wording “when calls the heart,” with its poetic and archaic flavor, stands out more than “when the heart calls.”

And “comes a horseman” is more noticeable than “a horseman comes” or “a horseman is coming.”

But a usage that some readers find catchy may seem corny or pretentious to others.

What’s attention-getting about these constructions is the word order—verb before subject instead of the other way around.

In some English sentences, a verb-before-subject arrangement is so common that we don’t even notice it. For instance, verbs routinely come first in questions, in statements starting with “here” or “there,” and in others that we’ll mention later.

But in more straightforward declarative sentences, we expect to find the subject before the verb. Reversing them can make a sentence sound literary, even stirring (or pretentious if overdone).

For effectiveness, you can’t beat the verb-before-subject placement in these examples:

“Male and female created he them” (King James Bible) … “So have I a noble father lost” (Shakespeare) … “Into the Valley of Death / Rode the six hundred” (Tennyson) … “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’ ” (Poe).

Today we associate subject-verb inversions with poetry and with the writings of an older time, though even now we may find them used for effect: “What care I for fame and fortune?” … “Then sings my soul” … “In a hollow lived three little pigs” … “Come Sunday, you’ll be a married man.”

But as we said before, inverted word order goes unremarked in some kinds of sentences, like these (again, we’ll underline verb and subject).

● Sentences starting with “there,” “here,” and “then”: “There comes a time when one must face facts” … “Here lurked the answer we’d been waiting for” …“Then came the startling news.”

● Questions: “Am I right?” … “When is the party?” … “Finished, are you?” … “How goes it?” … “Where were you?” … “Pretty, aren’t they?”

● Questions with auxiliary verbs only: “May I?” “Do you?” “Shall we?” (We aren’t including sentences in which the subject follows the auxiliary but comes before the main verb, as in “Never have I seen such a day,”  “Had I known … ” and so on.)

● With “neither” and “nor”: “We aren’t going, nor is Sally” … “He isn’t upset and neither am I.”

● With “say” and other quoting verbs: “ ‘Holy cow!’ said Pete” … “ ‘The butler didn’t do it,’ concluded the detective” … “ ‘Call me Ishmael,’ wrote Melville.”

● With “do” as an auxiliary: “We own a dog, as do our neighbors” … “He went to the movie, as did Mom.”

● With “so”: “And so say all of us” … “She has seen Venice and so have you.”

● In lists of subjects headed by one verb (common in news reporting): “Injured were the bus driver, eight passengers, and the driver of the car” … “In the lineup were eight felons, none of whom were identified as the perpetrator.”

● After adverbs or adverbial phrases: “Steadily onward plodded the wagon train” … “Just inside the door stood a hat-rack.”

● After adjectives or adjectival phrases: “Happy was the man who won her hand” … “Great was his respect for my father” … “Gone forever was the day” … “Many were the times ….”

● After a participial phrase: “Taking home the trophy in the pie-baking contest was a seven-year-old boy” … “Lying in a pool of blood was Colonel Mustard.”

● After a prepositional phrase: “In the threatened wetland are three species of rare orchid” … “Through the mist shone an eerie light.”

Saving the subject for last can almost make it a punch line. But sometimes it’s placed at the end because it’s less urgent. This is a common practice in sports broadcasting, as we wrote on our blog a couple of years ago.

The linguist Georgia M. Green discusses this kind of inversion in her paper “Some Wherefores of English Inversions.”

“Perhaps the most striking demonstration of this pragmatic exploitation of syntax,” she writes, “is the use of inversions in the play-by-play broadcast of sports events.” (From the journal Language, September 1980.)

Some of her examples, taken from TV and radio: “Underneath the basket is Barbian” … “High in the air to get the ball was Jim Brady” … “Now way out front with the ball is Brenner” … “At the line will be Skowronski” … “Stealing it and then losing it was Dave Bonko” … “Coming back into the game for New Trier West will be Kevin Jones.”

As she notes, inversion lets the speaker mention the action first, followed by the player’s name.

Finally, a historical note about why subject-verb inversions like “comes a horseman” carry a whiff of antiquity.

The regular word order in a typical declarative sentence today is subject-verb-object, as in “I lost it.”

Old English had both patterns—verb first as well as verb second. However, verb-before-subject constructions were more common in Old English than they are today.

Placement of the object, as well as the subject and verb, added to the complexity of Old English.

“Old English had many SVO [subject-verb-object] word orders like those in Modern English, but at least as many SOV word orders, or orders that seem to be a mix” of those, according to The Syntax of Early English (2000).

The authors—Olga Fischer, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van der Wurff—note that a number of changes in word order came about over the course of the Middle English period (about 1150-1500).

That was when the relative position of the verb and the direct object shifted in English.

More relevant to our discussion, the use of verbs before subjects in declarative clauses “rapidly declined in the course of the last part of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth century, and saw a revival in the literary language in the sixteenth century,” write the authors.

[Update, May 9, 2016: Several readers have pointed out that odd syntax is what  makes Yoda’s speech so odd. The great Jedi master of the Star Wars series favors such constructions as “Do it you must.” The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote about Yoda talk on the Language Log in 2005.]

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Unimagined and unimaginable

Q: I edit writing about crime and justice. I recently scrubbed a piece that used the word “unimagined” instead of “unimaginable” to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison. Is the former term acceptable in this case?

A: The online Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary gives “unimaginable” as one of the definitions of “unimagined,” but three other standard dictionaries that include the two terms define them somewhat differently.

The entries in the online versions of Oxford Dictionaries, Collins, and Macmillan indicate that “unimagined” refers to something that hasn’t been imagined, while “unimaginable” refers to something that’s hard or impossible to imagine.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines “unimaginable” as “difficult or impossible to imagine or comprehend,” and offers this example: “lives of almost unimaginable deprivation.”

The dictionary defines “unimagined” as “not having been imagined or thought of as possible,” and gives this example: “a previously unimagined degree of economic and social freedom.”

Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary and a different entity from Oxford Dictionaries) defines “unimaginable” as incapable of being imagined, and “unimagined” as not imagined.

The examples for the two words in the OED suggest that they have been used differently since “unimaginable” showed up in the early 1600s and “unimagined” in the mid-1500s.

The earliest citation for “unimaginable” is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave: “Inimaginable, vnimaginable, vnconceiuable.”

The OED’s first example for “unimagined” is from The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall: “A thyng discended from heauen, of theim vnsought, vnimagined and not deuised.”

Getting back to your question, we think either word would be acceptable to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison, but the meanings would differ.

The term “unimagined” would describe abuse that hadn’t been imagined before, while “unimaginable” would describe abuse that’s difficult or impossible to imagine.

As Angelica sings in the musical Hamilton, “We push away what we can never understand / We push away the unimaginable.”

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Scales get in your eyes

Q: When “the scales fall from one’s eyes” to suddenly reveal the truth, are they the scales of justice?

A: No, the “scales” here are etymologically related to the ones on fish, reptiles, and insects.

The Oxford English Dictionary has three major meanings for the noun “scale,” with many related senses: (1) a device for weighing things; (2) one of the thin, overlapping plates protecting the skin of animals; (3) a graduated system of measurement.

When English borrowed “scale” from Old Norse in the 1100s, it meant a bowl or cup to drink from. The Old Norse skál is also the ultimate source of the drinking toast “skoal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED’s earliest example for “scale” is from Layamon’s Brut, written sometime before 1200: “Heo fulde hir scale of wine” (“He filled her cup with wine”).

In the early 1400s, this cup-like sense of “scale” evolved to mean a device for weighing—that is, “the pan, or each of the pans, of a balance,” according to Oxford.

The earliest example in the OED for “scale” used in the weighing sense is from An Alphabet of Tales (circa 1440), a collection of moral stories:

“And when it was put In þe to skale it weyed more þan all þat evur þai cuthe put in þe toder skale” (“And when it was put into the scale, it weighed more than all that ever they could put in the other scale”). We’ve expanded the OED citation for clarity.

The dictionary’s first citation for “scales” used in the justice sense is from Christ’s Victory and Triumph (1610), an allegorical poem by Giles Fletcher: “In one hand a paire of euen scoals [even scales] she weares.”

The amphibian sense of “scale” is ultimately derived from skaljō, the ancient German source for the word “shell.” The earliest OED citation is a reference to the scales on a dragon, from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Þe smallest scale þat on him is No wepen no may atame” (“No weapon may cut into the smallest scale that’s on him”).

And here’s a piscine example from the Chaucer poem Parlement of Foules (circa 1381): “Smale fischis lite / With fynnys rede & skalis syluyr bryȝt” (“Skinny little fishes / With red fins and bright scales”).

The OED’s earliest example for the expression you’ve asked about is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “And anon ther felden from his yȝen as scalis, and he receyuede siȝt” (“And anon there fell scales from his eyes, and he received sight”).

Think of the expression as a metaphorical way of describing something akin to the sudden clearing of the cloudy layer on the lens of someone with cataracts.

The measurement sense of “scale” is derived from the classical Latin scāla (ladder) and scālae (flight of stairs). In the late 1300s and early 1400s, “scale” was used literally for a ladder and figuratively for a stair-like series of gradations for measuring things, according to OED citations.

It’s used literally in John Lydgate’s poem Troy Book (1412-20), where Diomedes says the Trojans fortified their walls while the Greeks delayed attacking “and ageyn oure skalis … made gret ordinaunce” (“and against our ladders … assembled a great defense”).

in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a 1391 how-to manual about the astrological instrument, Chaucer uses the word figuratively: “Next the forseide cercle of the A. b. c., vnder the cros-lyne, is Marked the skale, in Maner of 2 Squyres or elles in Manere of laddres.”

Over the years, the noun “scale” has taken on many other meanings derived from the “ladder” sense of the word, including a “scale” in music (1597), doing something on a large or small “scale” (1785), a wage “scale” (1921), and economies of “scale” (1944).

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