The Grammarphobia Blog

Why the dead are “late”

Q: Why do people refer to a deceased person as “late”? I googled the question, but found no satisfactory answers.

A: To begin at the beginning, the adjective “late” meant “slow,” “sluggish,” “idle,” or “negligent” when it showed up in Old English and other Germanic languages, including Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Old High German.

It ultimately comes from lad-, an ancient Indo-European base that gave Latin lassus (weary), source of the English words “lassitude” and “alas,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest example of “late” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s translation of a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Sie æghwelc mon suiðe hræd & suiðe geornful to gehieranne, & suiðe læt to sprecenne” (“Let every man be very ready and eager to hear, and very late [that is, “slow”] to speak.”

The OED’s first example for the usual modern sense of “late” (“that occurs, comes, or happens after the proper, right, or expected time”) is from the Catholic Homilies of the Benedictine monk and scholar Ælfric of Eynsham, probably written between 990 and 995:

“Hi behreowsodon þæt hi ele næfdon, ac heora behreowsung wæs to lætt” (“They repented that they had no oil, but their repentance was too late”).

Since then, the adjective “late” has taken on many other senses, as in “a late winning goal,” “the late Elizabethan era,” “my late profession,” “sorry to call so late,” “it comes late in Hamlet,” “a late flowering perennial,” and so on.

The sense you’re asking about (“designating a person recently deceased”) showed up in the early 15th century, according to the OED. The first known example in writing is from a petition dated sometime before 1422: “Elizabeth, ye Wyfe of ye seid late Erle.”

The dictionary’s next example is from William Caxton’s 1490 Middle English translation (by way of French) of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Her swete and late amyable husbonde.”

The OED says the “recently dead” sense of “late” was apparently influenced by the use of the adverb “late” to mean “not long ago (but not now); recently, but no longer.”

Here’s an adverbial example, from a 1435 will, that hints at the adjectival usage: “Thys is the will o Isabell Dove, lat [that is, “formerly”] the wyf of Thomas Dove.”

The adverb also apparently led to the use of the adjective “late” to mean “former,” as in “my late profession” or “his late residence.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from a 1446 document about the finances at the Cistercian abbey in Cupar-Angus, Scotland:

“Item the … altarage of the Kyrk of South Alveth to our laeyt tenand Johne Wil[ȝ]amson for all the dayis of hys lyfe.” (The term “altarage,” which is now historical, refers here to the former tenant’s income from the offerings at a church altar.)

We’ll end with the use of the expression “the late lamented” in reference to someone who has recently died. The first OED example is from Uncle Silas, an 1864 thriller by the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Here’s an expanded version:

“I beg pardon, Miss Ruthyn; perhaps you would be so good as to show to which of the cabinets in this room your late lamented father pointed out as that to which this key belongs.”

Note: We wrote a post in 2012 on an unusual use of “late” for “deceased” in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: English words from Native American languages.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Graphic language

Q: I had to unsubscribe to your emailed posts after receiving one at work that discussed certain masturbatory terminology. I strongly suggest that you stop emailing such unprofessional content or notify people signing up for email delivery that some content may not be appropriate for the workplace. Should you choose to keep PG-13 rated material on your website and only email G-rated material, I’d happy return as a subscriber.

A: We’re sorry to see you go, but we object to your description of our “Jerk, jerky, and jerking off” post as unprofessional. We work hard on our posts, and our readers generally appreciate them, judging from the many kind responses and donations we receive.

We write a language blog, and some language is labeled vulgar, offensive, or impolite by standard dictionaries. Nevertheless, those dictionaries discuss such terms, and so do we when asked about them.

We don’t go out of our way to write about language that some readers might find offensive, but we don’t shy away from it either.

We imagine that many of our readers get the blog at work by email or RSS feed. You’re the only one who has raised concerns about receiving the occasional discussion of a graphic term at work—a term that’s probably in your office dictionary.

You suggest that we should warn people as they sign up for email delivery that some posts may be inappropriate for the workplace. We think our readers would be offended by such a warning and its implication that there’s something wrong with a scholarly discussion of a vulgar term.

In fact, not all standard dictionaries consider the phrasal verb “jerk off” vulgar. Here’s what the Collins English Dictionary has to say in a usage note on the subject:

“The term jerk off was formerly considered to be taboo, and it was labelled as such in older editions of Collins English Dictionary. However, it has now become acceptable in speech, although some older or more conservative people may object to its use.”

We don’t necessarily agree with Collins. We would indeed describe “jerk off” as vulgar, as we would a couple of the terms that the linguist John McWhorter cites in a July 1, 2013, article on Slate about the evolution of profanity:

Damnhellshit, and fuck are not what an anthropologist observing us would classify as ‘taboo.’ We all say them all the time. Those words are not profane in what our modern culture is—they are, rather, salty. That’s all. Anyone who objects would be surprised to go back 50 years and try to use those words as casually as we do now and ever be asked again to parties.”

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower says in that Slate article that words once considered taboo or offensive can over time become moderate oaths for various reasons.

“The entire category can change, so that, for example, words insulting one’s parentage, such as bastard or whoreson, are now relatively mild curses because we no longer place a particularly high value on such things.”

Sheidlower adds that the words “bastard” and “damn” were so offensive in the 18th century that “they would frequently be printed b–d or d—n.” But sensitivities change, he says. “Now, they are relatively mild oaths for most English speakers.”

In other words, language changes. And it’s the job of language writers to discuss its evolution.

Again, we’re sorry to see you go. If you don’t want to receive the blog by email at work, perhaps you can get it at home.

[Update: A few hours after this was posted, an I.T. person who reads the blog pointed out that it’s a “recipe for disaster” to get personal email at work, and that all email received at work is the property of the employer.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Relational therapy

Q: Could one use either “related” or “relayed” in the following sentence? “Scott had already related to Ivan what Russ had said in Baton Rouge about the gathering at Fred’s apartment.”

A: Yes, both verbs, “relate” and “relay,” can be used in that sentence, though “relay” is more precise.

“Relate” means, among other things, to tell something to someone, while “relay” here means to pass information from one person along to another.

These are the relevant definitions from Oxford Dictionaries online, one of the standard, or general, dictionaries we regularly consult:

Relate: “Give an account of (a sequence of events); narrate,” as in “various versions of the chilling story have been related by the locals.”

Relay: “Receive and pass on (information or a message),” as in “she intended to relay everything she had learned.”

In your sentence, Scott does both—he tells something to someone, as well as passing along something said by someone else. In other words, he “relates” something and “relays” it.

Either verb is correct, but “relay” would emphasize the “passing along” sense.

Both “relate” and “relay” showed up in the 15th century, but it took hundreds of years for “relay” to take on the sense we’re talking about, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that traces the evolution of words.

The OED says “relate” is derived from the Middle French relater (to report or recount) and the classical Latin referre (to bring back, report, recall, and other senses). The Latin verb combines re- (back) and ferre (carry).

When “relate” showed up in English in the late 1400s it meant “to be brought or put between two things,” but that sense is now considered rare or obsolete, according to the OED.

The verb soon took on the sense we’re discussing: “to recount, narrate, give an account of (actions, events, facts, etc.”), Oxford says.

The earliest known citation, the OED says, is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I wolde nat relate the mater otherwyse than I herde it for all the good in the worlde.”

The verb “relay” is an adaptation of the Middle French relayer, meaning to change hounds during a hunt. When it appeared in English in the early 15th century, the OED says, it meant to “release a set of hounds in a chase, esp. after a previous set has passed.”

The dictionary has several examples of this now-obsolete usage from Master of the Game (circa 1425), a book about hunting by Edward, Duke of York. All the citations refer to deer hunting, including this one: “Digby relaye his houndes vpon þe fues” (“Digby relayed his hounds upon the scent”).

The sense of “relay” that you’re asking about showed up in the mid-19th century.

The earliest example in the OED is from My Thirty Years Out of the Senate (1859), a collection of fictional letters written by Seba Smith, a New England newspaper publisher and political satirist: “A young boy stands by the table relaying a message to the man.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

When chairmen carried chairs

Q: I came across an old penny dreadful online that refers to one of the bearers of a sedan chair as a “chairman.” Is that the original meaning of the term?

A: No, the word “chairman” meant pretty much what it means today when it showed up in the mid-1600s. However, the use of the term for one of the bearers of a sedan chair appeared a few decades later.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the term, a “sedan chair” was a fashionable form of transportation in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. The enclosed chair for one passenger was carried on poles by two bearers, one in front and one in back.

(Similar wheelless vehicles carried by humans have been used around the world since ancient times.)

When the word “chairman” showed up in the mid-17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to the “occupier of a chair of authority,” especially someone “chosen to preside over a meeting.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1654 commentary on the Book of Job by John Trapp, a Church of England clergyman: “I sate chief, and was Chair-man.”

The dictionary’s next example (which we’ve expanded) is from a Jan. 22, 1661, entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys:

“It pleased me much now to come in this condition to this place I was once a petitioner for my exhibition in Paul’s School; and where Sir G. Downing (my late master) was chaireman.”

Interestingly, the use of “chairwoman” for a “woman who occupies the chair of presidency at a meeting” is almost as old, though it wasn’t used much until the 19th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for “chairwoman” is from the English poet Thomas Brown’s 1699 translation of seven colloquies of Erasmus: “We ought to have … four Chairwomen of our four Committees.”

The use of “chair” by itself for the occupant of the seat of authority dates from the mid-1600s. The earliest Oxford citation is a 1659 entry in the diary of Thomas Burton:

“The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many schoolboys … and takes a little too much on him.” (The word “Busby” is apparently being used here figuratively for a soldier who wears a busby, a tall fur hat.)

Now, the dictionary says, “chair” is used “an alternative for ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman,’ esp. deliberately so as not to imply a particular sex.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the gender-neutral “chairperson” is from the September 1971 issue of Science News: “A group of women psychologists thanked the board for using the word ‘chairperson’ rather than ‘chairman.’ ”

Getting back to “chairman,” in the 18th century the term took on the sense of a “member of a corporate body appointed or elected to preside at its meetings, and in general to exercise the chief authority in the conduct of its affairs; the president.”

The OED’s first citation is from Ephraim Chambers’s 1782 Cyclopædia: “The directors are twenty-four in number, including the chairman and deputy-chairman.”

Backing up a bit, the word “chairman” was first used in the late 17th century for someone “whose occupation it is to carry persons in chairs or chair-like conveyances; spec. the two men who carried a sedan-chair,” according to Oxford.

The first example given is from a 1682 issue of the London Gazette: “A tall Blackamore … in a Green Doublet and Breeches, with a large Chairmans Coat of the same colour.”

And here’s a 1703 example from the Gazette: “Twenty Chairmen, with Sedans.”

A “sedan chair” was originally called a “sedan” when the term appeared in the mid-17th century. The OED’s first citation is from The Sparagus Garden, a 1640 comedy by the English dramatist Richard Brome:

“Shee’s now gone forth in one o’ the new Hand-litters: what call yee it, a Sedan.”

The earliest OED example for the full term “sedan chair” is from a 1750 will cited in John Orlebar Payne’s Records of the English Catholics (1889): “My sedan chair.”

The dictionary says the belief that the usage was derived from “the name of Sedan, a town of NE. France, has nothing to support it, and seems unlikely.”

It notes a report that the original sedan chair was imported from Italy, adding that it’s “therefore natural to suppose that the word might be from some South Italian derivative of Italian sede (Latin sēdēs) seat, sedere to sit.”

However, the OED adds that “there seems to be no trustworthy evidence of the existence in Italian dialects of any form from which the English word could be derived. ”

In other words, origin unknown.

Today, the “sedan chair” is a footnote to history, and “sedan” has been used since the early 20th century, chiefly in North America, to mean a type of automobile.

Returning to your question, we should mention that the term “penny dreadful” refers to cheaply published sensational crime stories that were popular in the 19th century. Oxford Dictionaries online says they were “so named because the original cost was one penny.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

When “my wife” is “the wife”

Q: Why does a husband refer to his spouse as “the wife,” not “my wife,” and a wife likewise to “the husband,” not “my husband”? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

A: English speakers have been using “the” in place of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “your” in reference to relatives (husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and so on) for at least two centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective “the” here is being used “colloquially with names of relatives, as the wifethe mother = my (your) wife, mother.”

The earliest written example in the OED is from an 1838 story in Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative Tales of the Borders, a series of books published from 1835 to ’40 by the Scottish writer John Mackay Wilson: “What shall I say to the wife?”

However, we found an earlier example in Old Mortality, an 1816 novel by Sir Walter Scott: “Cuddie soon returned assuring the stranger ‘that the gudewife should make a bed up for him.’ ”

We suspect that the usage may be of Scottish origin. The Scottish National Dictionary, in its entry for “the,” describes the usage as “Gen. Sc.” (General Scots), but notes that it’s also found in “in colloq. and dial. Eng.”

Here are some more examples from the OED for “the” used in place of a possessive pronoun:

“ ‘It’s a long while since the governor [that is, my father] was here,’ remarked Mr. Charles Larkyns, very unfilially.” (From The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an 1853 novel by Cuthbert M. Bede, a pseudonym for Edward Bradley, an English clergyman.)

“The Mater will do anything for me.” (From The Mystery of Mirbridge, an 1881 novel by the English writer John Payne.)

“The mother and sisters would like to call upon you.” (From The American Girl in London, an 1891 novel by the Canadian writer Sara Jeannette Duncan.)

“The pater will say I’m a fool, the mater’ll say the girl isn’t good enough for me.” (From Somerley, School-Boy and Undergraduate, a 1900 autobiographical novel by Gilbert Swift.)

“[I] sent off an express to Patty and the Mother last night.” (From Richard Carvell, a 1901 novel by the American writer Winston Churchill.)

Why did the usage develop? We don’t know, and we haven’t seen any theories about it.

The earliest citation above (“the gudewife”) uses the phrase affectionately. Perhaps the next citation (“the wife”) is a shortening of “the good wife.” Or perhaps not.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Melania’s pussy bow

Q: In honor of one of my fave blog topics, why is it called a “pussy bow”? PS: I long for the days when we could giggle at newscasters who had to say “Pussy Riot.”

A: “Pussy bow,” a term for a large, floppy bow at the neck of a woman’s blouse, has been in the news lately. Melania Trump wore one to her husband’s debate last Sunday with Hillary Clinton.

Did she wear it as a comment on Donald Trump’s use of the term “pussy” in a controversial video that surfaced last week? No, according to the Trump campaign. We’ll leave it at that, and get on to your question.

The “pussy” in “pussy bow” is from the feline, not the genital, use of the word. When the usage first showed up in the late 19th century, the term was “pussycat bow.”

The language researcher Peter Reitan, writing on the discussion group of the American Dialect Society, reported finding this example in the July 25, 1892, issue of the St Paul (Minn.) Daily Globe:

“Narrow velvet and little pussy-cat bows are seen on many of the summer costumes of light material.”

And we’ve found this example from an article by Mrs. Eric Pritchard in the December 1902 issue of Lady’s Realm: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine:

“Really there is something extremely fascinating in a ‘pussycat bow’; it is so feminine, frivolous, and charming, and, somehow, anything light just under the face, relieving the sombre tint of winter toilettes, is always becoming.”

The first example we’ve seen for “pussy bow” is from Business and Advertising, a 1908 book by Ashby Goodall that says an advertisement could offer suggestions for using a product.

An ad for a fabric, Goodall writes, might suggest using it to make “some pretty feminine trifle” for each of one’s friends: “Say a stock for one, a pussy bow for another, a Marie Antoinette ruch for a third, etc., etc.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has later citations for both of these terms.

The dictionary’s earliest example for “pussycat bow” is from an ad in the March 23, 1932, issue of the Winnipeg Free Press: “Easter Scarves. Linker, Lyolene, Sore Throat, or Pussy Cat Bow types, in daring dashing shades lend that riotous air Spring suggests.”

And the OED’s earliest example for “pussy bow” is from an ad in the Feb. 14, 1946, issue of the Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel: “Betsy Ross pussy-bow blouse, white and colors.”

Some fashion writers have suggested that the terms “pussy bow” and “pussycat bow” are derived from the tying of colorful ribbons around the necks of cats, though we haven’t found any etymologists who’ve weighed in on the issue.

We have, however, found many 19th-century pictures of cats with ribbons around their necks, including several on a page of Currier and Ives lithographs.

The use of pussy bows in women’s fashion has grown in popularity since the mid-20th century, appearing in the work of Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and other designers.

Women who’ve worn them include Margaret Thatcher, Jane Fonda, and Peggy Olsen of Mad Men, all pictured in the link at the beginning of this post.

We’ll end with this OED citation from the August 1994 issue of Sainsbury’s magazine: “Will I start foxhunting, wearing pussy-bow blouses or calling for capital punishment in schools?”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Needlework: sewer or sewist?

Q: Some in our sewing group think a person who sews is a “sewer,” while others prefer “sewist.” To me, “sewer” is more natural, but others say it looks like the drain pipe. (We all agree that “seamstress” sounds too businesslike for a hobbyist, and besides it rules out men.)

A: One who sews is generally called a “sewer” (pronounced SOH-er), a word that’s been in English writing since the 1300s. The alternative, “sewist,” isn’t recognized in dictionaries, though it’s quite popular on the Internet and is often used on sewing websites.

Certainly “sewer,” defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “one who sews,” has history on its side, though it was variously spelled “sower,” “sawer,” and “shewer” at first.

The earliest known use of it in writing, according to the OED, is from William Langland’s long poem Richard the Redeles (1399). These lines are part of a satirical passage about a puffy sleeve, extravagantly slashed and scalloped, that was fashionable in the Middle Ages:

“Seuene goode sowers sixe wekes after / Moun not sett þe seemes ne sewe hem aȝeyn” (“Seven good sewers, for six weeks afterward, / May not set the seams nor sew it together again”).

The term has been in steady use ever since. Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), spelled the word “sewer” and defined it as “He that uses a needle.”

Here are a couple of the OED’s 19th-century examples:

“The sewer has it placed on a long table round which she travels, stitching as she goes” (from a British newspaper, the Echo, December 1870).

“She was not only a neat sewer, but could cut out men’s shirts” (from a Victorian novel, Edward Peacock’s Narcissa Brendon, 1891).

The OED’s entry for the word hasn’t been updated for more than a century, but we can assure you that “sewer” is still going strong.

For example, the sewing guru Sandra Betzina uses it in the title of her book Fabric Savvy: The Essential Guide for Every Sewer (1999). And a trademark logo of the Huskvarna Viking sewing-machine company is “Made for Sewers, by Sewers.”

We see no reason to abandon a word after more than 600 years of English usage. In speech, of course, it will never be confused with the other “sewer” (pronounced SOO-er.) And in writing it would be difficult to confuse the two nouns if they were used in context.

However, those who sew are free to call themselves “sewists” if they prefer. There’s no law that says you must confine yourself to words found in standard dictionaries. Besides, if enough people persist in using “sewist,” it could begin showing up in dictionaries someday. [Update, Oct. 10, 2016: A reader comments, “Better yet, ‘stitcher,’ the term used by costuming professionals like my daughter.”]

The source of both “sewer” and “sewist” is “sew,” a very old English verb. Its earliest known appearance in English writing is from the early 700s, according to OED citations.

This is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 725, and probably compiled as a vocabulary aid: “Sarcio, siouu.” Here the Latin sarcio (mend, repair) is translated as “sew” (siouu in Old English).

Other Old English and Middle English spellings of the verb included siowian, siwian, seuen, and seuwen. The modern spelling emerged in the late 1300s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

After more than a millennium, “sew” still means what it meant to the Anglo-Saxons. You know the meaning, but here’s the OED’s definition anyway:

“To fasten, attach, or join (pieces of textile material, leather, etc.) by passing a thread in alternate directions through a series of punctures made either with a needle carrying the thread, or with an awl; to make the seams of (a garment, etc.).”

Over the years, figurative uses have emerged, notably the familiar expression “all sewed (or sewn) up,” which since the early 1900s has been used to describe a situation or a case that’s brought to a conclusion.

And that reminds us that the verb “sew” has two past participles, so you can say either that you “have sewn” or “have sewed” a project. The simple past tense is “sewed.”

As you might suppose from the word’s great age, “sew” didn’t originate with English. As the OED says, it comes from “Common Germanic” and “Indogermanic” (a synonym for Indo-European). So its distant ancestors are prehistoric and have been reconstructed by linguists.

Outside the Germanic languages, relatives of “sew” are known in Latin, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Sanskrit, and Hittite, Chambers says. People have been employing needle and thread for a very, very long time!

Now, as for that other “sewer,” the one we associate with gutters and drains, it dates back to 1402-03, when “suer” meant an “underground pipe,” Chambers says.

As the OED explains, that 1402-03 sighting appeared in a compound, “suergate” (literally “sewer-gate”), meaning “a floodgate at the mouth of a drain or watercourse.”

The word came into English through Old French (seuwiere or sewiere), a language in which it meant a “channel to carry off overflow from a fishpond,” Oxford says. The Old French word was Latinized as seweria in the 13th century.

In its earliest uses, the English word meant “an artificial watercourse for draining marshy land and carrying off surface water into a river or the sea.”

These OED citations from the 1400s, recorded in the Rolls of Parliament, illustrate that sense of the word. “For Sewers, Walles of Mersshes, Dyches, Gutters” (1461) … “Makyng of Sewers for avoidyng of lake waters” (1482).

By the early 17th century, the modern sense of the word appeared in English writing, defined by the OED as “an artificial channel or conduit, now usually covered and underground, for carrying off and discharging waste water and the refuse from houses and towns.”

Shakespeare, spelling “sewer” as “sure,” is credited with the earliest known example of this usage in writing: “Sweet draught, ‘sweet’ quoth ’a! sweet sinke, sweet sure.” (Troilus and Cressida, 1609. The jester Thersites, known for his irony, is speaking.)

The OED’s next example is more straightforward: “A sewer within the ground to ridde away filth.”

The citation is from a 1610 English translation of William Camden’s Britannia, a historical work written in Latin in 1586. The Latin original uses cloacum for “sewer.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “pussy” a dirty word?

(Note: We’re repeating the following post because of its newsworthiness this weekend. It originally ran on Dec. 28, 2015.)

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out 
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

What is a con-see-AIR?

Q: Your “prix fixe” post reminds me of encounters with people who try too hard to pronounce French-derived terms. For example, a hotel receptionist in Texas once invited me to use the services of the con-see-AIR. The latter threw me for a loop until I realized it was supposed to be “concierge.”

A: Some English speakers apparently mispronounce “concierge” in an attempt to sound sophisticated. They say con-see-AIR (sometimes even con-see-AY) because they think that’s the proper French pronunciation.

It’s not, of course. The French word concierge ends with a soft “g” sound, like “zh,” and the “g” in the English “concierge” sounds much the same way. To pronounce it otherwise would be a faux pas (also spoken in English à la française).

Thanks to the Internet, you can listen to the French and English pronunciations of concierge / “concierge.”

The proper English pronunciation has three sounds, con + see + AIRZH, but the last two sounds are blended into one syllable, so the word is spoken as con-SYAIRZH.

English adopted “concierge” from French in the mid-17th century, when it meant “the custodian of a house, castle, prison, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest written example in English is from 1646: “He is knowne and re-known by the Conciergres [sic], by the Judges, by the greater part of the Senate.” (From George Buck’s History of the Life and Reigne of Richard the Third.)

“In France and other countries,” the OED says, the word was once “the title of a high official who had the custody of a royal palace, fortress, etc.”

In more recent times, Oxford says, “concierge” in England as well as in France came to mean “the person who has charge of the entrance of a building; a janitor, porter.”

This meaning was first recorded in English sometime before 1697: “The concierge that shewed the house would shut the door” (from a portrait of Sir Francis Bacon in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives).

However, the OED’s entry for “concierge” has not been updated since 1891, and does not include the modern sense of an employee who helps guests at a hotel.

Today, “concierge” has two meanings in standard dictionaries. Here, for example are the definitions given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

“1. A staff member of a hotel or apartment complex who assists guests or residents, as by handling the storage of luggage, taking and delivering messages, and making reservations for tours. 2. A person, especially in France, who lives in an apartment house, attends the entrance, and serves as a janitor.”

But “concierge” is now becoming a trendy word intended to add snob appeal to anyone paid to help you, at least here in the US, and standard dictionaries aren’t keeping up.

Besides the hotel “concierge” who gets you theater tickets and dinner reservations, there are “concierge” doctors (you pay a fee up front to get more of their time), and “concierge” shoppers (that is, personal shoppers), as well as “concierge” realtors, dog groomers, personal trainers, car washes, travel agents, and dry cleaners.

And as we all know by now, front-desk people at restaurants, car rentals, salons, spas, and offices of all kinds are commonly called “concierges.” As far as we can tell, the “concierge” designation has no particular meaning except to add cachet.

As we said, English got “concierge” from French, but etymologists don’t know where the French word came from (“derivation unknown,” says the OED).

The word in Old French was spelled various ways: cumcerges, concerge, conciarge, consirge, consierge, and concherge.

The Old French term gave medieval Latin the word consergius, first recorded in writing in 1106, according to the OED.

French etymologists, in Le Trésor de la Langue Français Informatisé and elsewhere, suggest the Old French word may have its origin in the Vulgar Latin conservius (“fellow slave”).

If so, the posh English use of “concierge” may ultimately be derived from a colloquial Latin term for a fellow slave. Chic, n’est-ce pas?

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

A stiff upper lip

Q: Why do the British use the expression “stiff upper lip” in reference to their fortitude? And when did they begin using it?

A: Although the expression is now a cliché for British determination in the face of adversity, it actually originated in the United States in the early 1800s.

Why “keep a stiff upper lip”? Well, the lips may respond to fear and other strong emotions by contracting, turning pale, trembling, and so on.

But we haven’t seen any research in physiology indicating that the upper lip is more responsive to emotion than the lower. Nor have we seen a convincing etymological explanation for why the expression refers to the upper lip in particular.

There’s no clue in the earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from the June 14, 1815, issue of the Massachusetts Spy, a weekly newspaper: “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.”

The next example in the OED is from the writings of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a politician and author in what was then the British colony of Nova Scotia.

The 1836 citation is from Haliburton’s humorous series of sketches, originally published in a Halifax newspaper, about Sam Slick the Clockmaker, an opinionated Connecticut Yankee traveling in Nova Scotia:

“Its a proper pity sich a clever woman should carry such a stiff upper lip.” (The words are Sam Slick’s, suggesting that Haliburton may have considered “stiff upper lip” a Yankeeism.)

The next Oxford example is from the American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “ ‘Well, good-by, Uncle Tom; keep a stiff upper lip,’ said George.”

And here’s one (not in the OED) from another American novel, Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward (1890), by Horatio Alger: “ ‘Keep a stiff upper lip,’ said Dick.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the expression used in the British Isles is from the Sept. 17, 1887, issue of the Spectator: “The Financial Secretary, who, it is supposed, will have a stiff upper lip and tightly buttoned pockets.”

And this battle-hardened example is from Gallipoli Diary, a 1920 memoir by Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the British and allied forces against the Ottoman Empire at the start of the Battle of Gallipoli:

“I spoke to as many of them as I could, and although some were terribly mutilated and disfigured, and although a few others were clearly dying, one and all kept a stiff upper lip—one and all were, or managed to appear—more than content—happy!”

By the mid-20th century, the expression was often used to poke fun at British stoicism. This example is from a late novel of P. G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963):

“It’s pretty generally recognized at the Drones Club and elsewhere that Bertram Wooster is a man who knows how to keep the chin up and the upper lip stiff, no matter how rough the going may be.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Make no bones about it

Q: What is the origin of the expression “to make no bones about it,” and what are these “bones” supposed to be?

A: The expression evolved from a 15th-century saying, “to find no bones” (that is, difficulties) in one’s figurative soup. So in the 1400s, “to find no bones” in a situation meant to see no obstacles or problems.

Today, to “make no bones” about something means to speak clearly and unhesitatingly about it, no matter how awkward or distasteful the subject is.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard, or general, dictionary, has this example: “Definitely not for the squeamish, the article makes no bones about where the responsibility for the massacre lay.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “to make bones” means “to make objections or scruples about, find difficulty in, have hesitation in or about” something.

However, the OED says, the expression is generally used with a negative (“no,” “never,” “without,” and so on).

As the OED explains, “to make bones,” which first appeared in the mid-16th century, was originally “to find bones.”

The earlier, 15th-century expression referred figuratively “to the occurrence of bones in soup, etc., as an obstacle to its being easily swallowed.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from a letter written in 1459 to a Norfolk squire, John Paston I, by his chaplain, Friar John Brackley:

“And fond that tyme no bonys in the matere” (“And found that time no bones in the matter”).

The next citation uses the metaphor in the sense of having no complaints about a cup of ale:

“Supped it up at once; / She founde therein no bones.” (From John Skelton’s humorous poem The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, which some scholars date at about 1516.)

No long afterward, in the mid-1500s, the more familiar formula “make no bones” first appeared in English writing.

In the OED’s earliest example, from a 1548 English translation of Erasmus’s Paraphrases (retellings of the Gospels), the expression conveys Abraham’s willingness to kill his son without hesitation:

“He made no manier bones ne stickyng, but went in hande to offer up his only son Isaac.” (“He made no sorts of bones at stabbing, but proceeded to offer up his only son Isaac.”)

While today the expression is followed by “about,” this wasn’t the case early on. For the first few centuries, people “made no bones at” (or of or in or to) before finally arriving in the late 19th century at “make no bones about.”

Here’s a selection of the OED’s other examples (note the various prepositions):

“As for mans hand, they make no bones at it.” (From a 1571 translation of John Calvin’s The Psalmes of Dauid and Others.)

“What matter soever is intreated of, they never make bones in it.” (From John Marbeck’s A Booke of Notes and Common Places, 1581.)

“Who make no bones of the Lords promises, but devoure them all.” (From Daniel Rogers’s Naaman the Syrian: His Disease and Cure, 1642.)

“The Pope makes no bones to break … the Decrees.” (From a 1670 translation of Gregorio Leti’s history Il Cardinalismo di Santa Chiesa.)

“Do you think that the Government or the Opposition would make any bones about accepting the seat if he offered it to them?” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1850.)

The first known example with the specific wording “make no bones about” is from a late Victorian novel, and here the phrase conveys the sense of speaking forthrightly:

“I didn’t quite like to draw out my money so long as Pilkington held on; but I shall make no bones about it with this fellow.” (From William Edward Norris’s Adrian Vidal, 1885.)

That is the sense the phrase usually has today, as in this mid-20th-century example from the OED:

“On the other hand, Dr. Libby makes no bones about the catastrophe of a nuclear war.” (From a 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

Several other catch phrases involving bones are a familiar part of English, like “a bone to pick” and “bone of contention.” Both of these, as we’ve written before on the blog, date from the 16th century and are derived from the notion of dogs gnawing on bones.

Then there’s the 19th-century phrase, still sometimes heard today, “to make old bones,” meaning to live to a ripe old age.

The OED’s earliest citation for “make old bones” is from 1872, but we found an earlier one. It’s from the Jan. 3, 1863, issue of the journal Once a Week, in a serial installment of Mrs. Henry Wood’s novel Verner’s Pride:

“Barring getting shot, or run over by a railway train, you’ll make old bones, you will.”

The noun “bone” is Germanic in origin and, as you might suspect, it’s extremely old. The earliest known example is from the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written during the last quarter of the seventh century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for “ivory” into Old English: “Ebor, elpendes ban [elephant’s bone].”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

The “potter” in “potter’s field”

Q: I’m an environmentalist doing research on Hart Island, the site of the potter’s field in NYC. How did a burial site for unclaimed bodies get this particular name?

A: An old sense of the word “potter” as a vagrant or an itinerant peddler led to the use of the term “potter’s field” as a burial ground for paupers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As far back as the early 1500s, the OED says, one meaning of “potter” was “a (typically itinerant) trader in earthenware items; a pedlar who sells pots, etc. Also: a tramp, a vagrant.”

This now rare sense of “potter” was first recorded sometime before 1525 in an early Robin Hood tale in which Robin impersonates an itinerant seller of pots in order to fool the Sheriff of Nottingham. Here’s the OED citation:

“ ‘Pottys, gret chepe!’ creyed Robyn … all that say hem sell Seyde he had be no potterlong.” (“ ‘Pots, great bargain!’ cried Robin … and all that saw him sell said he would not be a potter for long.”)

The Middle English tale, which some sources date circa 1500, was collected in 1888 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, now commonly known as the Child Ballads after the editor, Francis J. Child.

This old sense of “potter” survived into the 19th century. William Wordsworth, for example, uses it in his poem The Female Vagrant (1798), in a reference to homeless tramps that are like “potters wandering on from door to door.”

The OED says the indigent sense of “potter” is responsible for the use of “potter’s field” as “a piece of ground used as a burial place for the poor and for strangers.”

The earliest written use of the phrase in this sense, Oxford says, is from a letter written by John Adams from Philadelphia in 1777: “I took a walk into the Potter’s Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital.”

The OED also has these later citations:

1870: “For seven years the land had remained waste, a sort of Potter’s field, and a scandal to that part of the metropolis.” (From the journal Nature.)

1906: “When I wrote a letter … you did not put it in the respectable part of the magazine, but interred it in that ‘potter’s field,’ the Editor’s Drawer.” (A figurative use by Mark Twain in the Westminster Gazette.)

1993: “We had a potter’s field on the campus, where Papa used to bury all the colored people in the area whose folks had no money.” (From the memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years, by Sarah Louise and Annie Elizabeth Delany. The African-American sisters grew up on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, NC, where their parents were educators.)

An early biblical example is included among these citations for “potter’s field,” but it’s enclosed within brackets as representing a different use of the term.

The passage comes from William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible into English from the New Testament Greek (Matthew 27:5 in the Tyndale Bible):

“They toke counsell, and bought with them [i.e., Judas’s 30 pieces of silver] a potters felde to bury strangers in.” (Tyndale’s phraseology was adopted by the King James Version of 1611, Matthew 27:7, almost word for word.)

That is the earliest known use of “potter’s field” in English, but it didn’t refer to a public burial ground for the indigent.

An earlier English bible, John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation from fifth-century Vulgate Latin into Middle English, has “a feeld of a potter, in to biryying of pilgryms.” (Here Wycliffe uses “pilgrims” in its original sense: travelers, itinerants, or strangers.)

Apparently both Tyndale’s “potters felde” and Wycliffe’s “feeld of a potter” are meant literally—a field belonging to a potter. So both accurately render the original wording in Matthew, which has “potter’s field” in Greek.

Now this requires a brief (we hope) detour, because religious scholars have long wrestled with the use of “potter’s field” in Matthew.

The first book of the New Testament, Matthew is believed to have been written in Greek in the latter part of the first century or the beginning of the second.

The “potter’s field” passage is part of what biblical commentators call a “fulfillment quotation,” one linking a New Testament event to an Old Testament prophecy.

The passage presents several problems. To begin with, the author of Matthew mistakenly attributes the Old Testament passage to Jeremiah, while it’s actually in Zechariah.

To complicate matters more, he took the Old Testament reference (to a parable in which money is given back) not from Hebrew but from a version in which the wording was distorted, according modern biblical scholarship.

The source for the reference in Matthew is believed to have been a revised version of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was begun in the third century BC and completed in the following century.

The phrase “potter’s field” or “field of a potter” doesn’t appear in the Old Testament Hebrew parable, according to the biblical scholar Maarten J. J. Menken.

In fact, nowhere in the Hebrew Old Testament is there such a ”potter’s field,” as the bible scholars Thomas J. Dodd, C.C. Torrey, and others have written.

In the text of Zechariah that is pointed out in Matthew as prophetic, “field” was a Greek addition and “potter” was a slight misspelling of a Hebrew word for “treasury” or “furnace”—that is, a foundry for smelting coins.

Our sources for this include The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 2005, by the British theologian John Nolland, and “The Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 27,9-10: Textual Form and Context,” by Menken, published in the journal Biblica, 2002.

We won’t devote any more time to the biblical backstory, but we’d like to take a moment here to debunk two common myths about the term “potter’s field.”

There’s absolutely no evidence to support the fiction that this term for a burial ground was derived from either a man named “Potter” or a field where clay was dug to make pottery.

As for the original sense of “potter” to mean a maker of pots, it may have existed in writing in Old English in the 10th century. An OED citation from a document dated circa 1250 “is a late copy of a grant of land at Marchington, Staffordshire, made in 951,” the dictionary says.

That citation, an apparent reference to property boundaries, reads, “Of stenges heale, on potteres lege” (“from corner stakes, on potter’s land”).

The noun “pot,” the OED says, was first recorded in an Old English recipe: “þæt se pott beo full” (“that the pot be full”).

The word “pot” was “inherited from Germanic,” the OED says, but it also exists in in similar forms in the Romance languages. This seems to point to an earlier, prehistoric origin, Oxford suggests.

“The word in the Germanic and Romance languages and in post-classical Latin,” the editors write, “perhaps ultimately shows a loanword from a pre-Celtic language (perhaps Illyrian or perhaps a non-Indo-European substratal language), although a number of other etymologies have also been suggested.”

Good luck with your research on Hart’s Island, which has been used as a potter’s field by the City of New York since just after the Civil War.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

A note to our readers

We have substantially revised our recent post on the proper verb to use with constructions like “one of those who.” A new post has replaced the one that ran on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Does Sam Weller speak cockney?

Q: I’ve read that Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers is supposed to be a cockney. But the main peculiarities of his speech (using “v” where there should be a “w,” and “w” where there should be a “v”) doesn’t sound like any cockney accent I’ve heard.

A: You’re right. The dialect spoken by Sam Weller in the novel, which Charles Dickens originally published as a serial in 1836-37, is different from the cockney spoken in London now.

In fact, it’s different from the cockney spoken 40 years later, when George Bernard Shaw arrived in London. But as Shaw came to learn, Sam Weller’s dialect was indeed cockney.

In an explanatory note about the cockney used by Frederick Drinkwater, a character in his 1900 stage comedy Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Shaw writes:

“When I came to London in 1876, the Sam Weller dialect had passed away so completely that I should have given it up as a literary fiction if I had not discovered it surviving in a Middlesex village, and heard of it from an Essex one.”

Shaw adds that he used the Drinkwater character to educate people about how cockney was really spoken at the turn of the century.

“So I have taken the liberty of making a special example of him, as far as that can be done without a phonetic alphabet, for the benefit of the mass of readers outside London who still form their notions of cockney dialect on Sam Weller.”

In Shaw’s play, Drinkwater pronounces “v” and “w” normally, and speaks with many of the characteristics of modern cockney, such as pronouncing “lady” as LIE-dy, “ever hear” as HEV-er EAR, and “likely” as LOI-kly.

Shaw uses an “aw” instead of “oi” to render the cockney “likely” in his script, but he’s apparently referring to the same sound. “This aw for i, which I have made Drinkwater use, is the latest stage of the old diphthongal oi,” Shaw writes.

In Cockney Past and Present (2015), which traces the evolution of the dialect from the 16th century to modern times, William Matthews indicates that the use of “v” for “w” and “w” for “v” were features of cockney at least as far back as the 1700s.

He notes that the educator James Elphinston, who translated the odes of Martial into English in 1782, used one of the Roman writer’s odes to illustrate the cockney speech of Elphinston’s time. Here are the opening lines:

Ve have at length resoom’d our place,
And can, vith doo distinction, set;
Nor ve, the great and wulgar met.
Ve dooly can behould the play,
Sence ve in no confusion lay.

Matthews points out several other literary examples of “v” and “w” swapping from the 1700s and 1800s.

In The Waterman, a 1774 opera by the British composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin, the cockney character Tom Tugg pronounces “w” in the usual way, but “v” comes out as “w” when he says “you’ll never catch me at your Cupids and Wenisses.”

And in Fanny Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla, the cockney actor playing Othello pronounces “w” as “v,” and “v” as “w,” but not every “v” is transformed: “I vil a round unwarnish’d tale deliver.”

As we’ve written many times on the blog, the English of yesterday isn’t the English of today, and today’s English won’t be tomorrow’s. The same is true of English dialects.

However, literary cockney isn’t necessarily the same as the cockney spoken on the streets. Writers pick and choose whichever sounds of speech serve their fiction best.

In Dickens’s Pickwick, for example, Sam is much more likely to use “w” for “v” than “v” for “w,” and sometimes both letters are pronounced the usual way. Here are a few examples of Sam’s speech (minus the interpolations):

“Wy, that’s just the wery point as nobody never know’d” … “They von’t be long, Sir, I des-say” … “Yes every man slept vere he fell down” … “Vell all I can say is, that I vish you may get it.”

And here’s an example written around the same time, from Renton Nicholson’s Cockney Adventures (1837-38): “We went in a wan cowered all over with bows, and I vos dressed as smart as a new pin.”

It’s clear that cockney speakers did once pronounce “v” as “w,” and “w” as “v,” but not necessarily in the precise way Sam Weller renders them. Dickens was a novelist, after all, not a phonologist.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

When horses stalked

Q: I know that the phrase “stalking horse” means a sham candidate or a ruse used to disguise a hidden purpose. But were there ever real stalking horses, and what did they stalk?

A: Yes, there were real stalking horses, but they didn’t actually stalk anything. They helped hunters stalk game birds.

When the phrasal noun “stalking horse” showed up in the early 1500s, it meant “a horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or under its coverings in order to get within easy range of the game without alarming it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation for the noun in the OED is from a bill, dated 1519, for shoeing a stalking horse: “Item pd for Shoyng of Thomas Lawes Stawkyng horse.” (From Archaeologia, a collection of early documents published in 1834 by the Society of Antiquaries of London.)

By the early 1600s, “stalking horse” was being used to mean “a portable screen of canvas or other light material, made in the figure of a horse (or sometimes of other animals), similarly used for concealment in pursuing game,” the dictionary says.

This 1621 citation from Gervase Markham’s Hungers Prevention, or the Whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land, uses the term for both equine and canvas stalking horses:

“The Stalking-Horse … is any old lade trayned vp for that vse, which … will gently … walke vp and downe in the water … and then … you shall shelter your selfe and your Peice behind his fore shoulder. Now forasmuch as these Stalking horses … are not euer in readinesse … In this case he may take any pieces of oulde Canuasse, and hauing made it in the shape or proportion of a Horse … let it be painted as neere the colour of a Horse as you can deuise.”

In the late 1500s, as “stalking horse” was evolving in the hunting sense, it took on the figurative meaning of an “underhand means or expedient for making an attack or attaining some sinister object; usually, a pretext put forward for this purpose,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for this new sense is from a 1579 religious polemic by William Wilkinson, attacking a mystical evangelizing sect called the Family of Love: “Abusing the pretence of the Gospell as a stalking horse to leuell [level] at others by.”

In the early 1600s, the noun took on the figurative sense of a “person whose agency or participation in a proceeding is made use of to prevent its real design from being suspected.”

The first Oxford citation is from The White Divel, a 1612 tragedy by the English playwright John Webster: “You … were made his engine, and his stauking horse, / To undo my sister.”

It’s unclear from the dictionary’s examples when that last sense evolved into the modern political meaning of a sham candidate put forward to divide the opposition or mask the candidacy of another.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a May 7, 1869, hearing in the House of Commons of the Select Committee on Parliamentary and Municipal Elections:

“He polled a very small number compared with the other candidates, but he was a mere stalking horse for his colleague, who polled within 74 of the next candidate on the poll.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “one” the one?

Q: This grammar question was posed by a friend on Facebook: Which is correct? (1) “She is one of the few freshmen who understand” or (2) “She is one of the few freshmen who understands.” At first I thought #2 was the answer. Now I’m not sure.

A: We prefer the first example. We lean toward the traditional view, as we wrote back in 2007, that the verb in a relative clause (the part beginning with “who”) should agree with the preceding plural noun, “freshmen.”

But this is not a black-and-white issue, and we don’t think a singular verb should be considered wrong.

Many linguists and usage commentators now believe that that the verb can agree with either the plural (“freshmen” in this case) or the singular (“one”). In fact, the singular verb may be preferable at times.

What the question boils down to is whether the verb is more strongly attracted to the plural (“freshmen who understand”) or to the singular (“one … who understands”).

While logic and tradition call for the plural, respected writers have used both singular and plural constructions for centuries.

Let’s examine these two views a little more closely. First, the conventional explanation.

This sentence has two clauses: the main clause, whose subject is “she,” and a relative clause, whose subject is “who.” (A relative clause completes a sentence by modifying the preceding noun or pronoun in the main clause.)

In the first clause, “she” is the subject of the verb “is.” And this is the only verb for which “she” is the subject.

The verb in the relative clause is what concerns us. And the traditional view is that the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent—the noun or pronoun immediately preceding the subject (“who”). Here the antecedent is “freshmen,” so the verb should be plural, “understand.”

Sometimes proponents of this view appeal to logic in explaining themselves. The subject of the main clause, “she,” is a member of a class—“freshmen who understand.” So the sentence could be recast as “Of the freshmen who understand, she is one.”

We can’t recast it as “Of the freshmen, she is one who understands,” because then we’re changing the nature of the class she belongs to. It would be all freshmen, not just freshmen who understand.

Many, perhaps most of the prominent grammarians and usage writers of the first half of the 20th century have adhered to the conventional view and recommended a plural verb.

They include Otto Jespersen (A Modern Grammar on Historical Principles, 1917), Henry Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926), and George O. Curme (A Grammar of the English Language, 1931).

But both Jespersen and Curme acknowledged the lure of the singular. Jespersen says the verb is “attracted” to “one,” and Curme says that “one” is “erroneously felt as the antecedent.”

Curme explains further that “in loose colloquial speech, sometimes even in the literary language,” the verb in a relative clause “agrees incorrectly with some word closely connected with the antecedent instead of agreeing with the antecedent itself, since this word lies nearer the thought of the speaker or writer than the grammatical antecedent.”

In acknowledging the role of the “thought of the speaker or writer,” he puts his finger squarely on the problem. Sometimes another word (like “one”) is closer to the writer’s meaning than the grammatical antecedent.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, opinions started changing. Linguists and usage commentators began to suspect that the common practice of using a singular verb was not a mistake but a natural tendency and part of normal idiomatic English.

One of the first to doubt the conventional wisdom was the American linguist John S. Kenyon.

In “One of Those Who Is…,” an article published in the journal American Speech in October 1951, Kenyon argues that good writers have been using the singular construction since Old English.

He quotes a 10th-century example (modernizing the Old English): “Lazarus was one of those who was sitting with him.” The singular, he writes, “was evidently native English idiom, for the Latin original was different (‘one of those reclining with him’).”

“Similar examples are very common from the earliest Old English,” he continues, “sometimes with plural verb in the relative clause but very often with the verb in the singular.”

What seems to happen, Kenyon writes, is that “the writer or speaker is more immediately concerned with the one than with those, the whole group to which the one belongs. So he switches from the plural those to the single person or thing that he is most interested in.”

His article includes page after page of examples in which eminent writers, from Shakespeare onward, use singular verbs in “one of those who [or that]” constructions. Individual writers, in fact, sometimes choose the singular and sometimes the plural.

For example, he quotes Joseph Addison in the Spectator, 1711: “My worthy Friend Sir Roger is one of those who is not only at Peace within himself, but beloved and esteemed by all about him.” (Addison could have “those who are,” along with plural pronouns, but he didn’t.)

Then, later in 1711, here’s Addison again: “I am one of those People who by the general Opinion of the World are counted both Infamous and Unhappy.”

Different verbs, yet both sentences seem just right. And Addison, as Kenyon notes, was a “famous exemplar of excellent prose style.”

Kenyon acknowledges that “the plural verb agrees with logic and conventional grammar.” But if “our ideas of grammar” cannot accommodate a usage that’s “an established feature of English,” he writes, then our ideas need to change.

“The facts are clear and abundant,” he concludes, “and if there’s no ‘rule’ of grammar to allow for them, such rules should be made.”

The more thoughtful writers on grammar and usage have adopted Kenyon’s view. Good writers use both singular and plural verbs in these constructions, and both represent good usage.

Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), say that “the clause verb should, logically, be plural, as in one of the best books that have appeared.” But in fact, they write, “a singular is often used here, as in one of the best books that has appeared.” And the singular verb “does not offend anyone except grammarians.”

This thinking has been reinforced over the last 60 years, and today it’s fairly well established.

“The use of the singular verb in these constructions is common, even among the best writers,” says The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. “Perhaps the only workable solution to this problem lies in which word sounds most appropriate as the antecedent of the relative pronoun—one or the plural noun in the of phrase that follows it.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes the same position: “In this case, the mental process involves the pull of notional agreement.” (We’ve written before about notional agreement—that is, agreement based on meaning rather than on conventional grammar.)

As M-W says, “it is simply a matter of which is to be master—one or those.”

Sometimes the verb is made to agree with “one,” the usage guide says, presenting its own phalanx of examples.

For instance, it quotes Randolph Churchill (1945): “Waugh is not one of those who finds the modern world attractive.”

But, M-W continues, “do not think that one is always the master,” and goes on to cite authors who have matched the verb to “those.”

One is Mark Twain (1888): “Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly was one of those people who are infatuated with patent medicines.”

A good indicator of how opinion has evolved is Fowler’s Modern English Usage. As we said, the original 1926 edition, written by Henry Fowler himself, adhered to the traditional view and advocated a plural verb. So did the second edition of 1965, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers.

However, the third edition, revised and edited by R. W. Burchfield and first published in 1996, recommends the plural verb in “one of those who” constructions, but allows for the the singular:

“A plural verb in the subordinate clause is recommended unless particular attention is being drawn to the uniqueness, individuality, etc., of the one in the opening clause.”

Is there a general preference among English speakers? Merriam-Webster’s addresses this question:

“An article in The English Journal in October 1951 reported a citation count (from 1531-1951) showing five plural verbs to one singular. The actual preponderance in favor of the plural verb may not be so great—certainly it is not in our files. But it is plain that those is often the master.”

The usage guide concludes that the “choice of a singular or plural verb … is a matter of notional agreement. Is one or those to be the master?”

The M-W editors note, as did Kenyon, that Joseph Addison “was not troubled by using both constructions. You need not be more diffident than Addison.”

So in summary, you can’t go wrong with the plural. But go with a singular verb if the “one” is uppermost in your mind, and not the class to which the “one” belongs.

On another subject, constructions with “one of the” can also create verb agreement puzzles, as we wrote back in 2007.

And another common problem crops up when we use “one of the” and “if not the” in the same sentence.

Say you go to a fantastic pizzeria and conclude, “That was one of the best, if not the best  pizza I’ve ever had.” Then you wonder if the noun should have been plural, “pizzas.”

The trick here is to put “if not the” toward the end of the sentence, after the noun: “That was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, if not the best.”

Here’s how Pat explains it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“ONE OF THE . . . IF NOT THE. Here’s another corner you can avoid backing yourself into: Jordan was one of the best, if not the best, player on the team. Oops! Can you hear what’s wrong? The sentence should read correctly even if the second half of the comparison (if not the best) is removed, but without it you’ve got: Jordan was one of the best player on the team. One of the best player? Better to put the second half of the comparison at the end of the sentence: Jordan was one of the best players on the team, if not the best.”

Finally (since we brought it up), “if not” in this case means “perhaps” or “maybe even.” That’s generally the case when used with superlatives like “best,” “fastest,” “oldest,” and so on.

But as we wrote in 2013, “if not” can also mean “but not,” as in “His language is colorful, if not grammatically correct.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

The awkwardness of “awkward”

Q: “Awkward” is an awkward-looking word, with a “w” on each side of the “k.” Online sites only categorize it as an adjective, while its brethren and sistren (like “forward” and “backward”) can be adverbs or adjectives. I wonder if it’s related to “gawk” or “gawky.”

A: Yes, “awkward” is an awkward-looking word, one that suits the awkwardness of its various meanings.

That “wkw” in the middle is what sets “awkward” and its derivatives apart. We can think of only one other “wkw” word in English: “hawkweed,” the common name for a favorite wildflower of ours.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says “awkward” was coined in the 1300s in Scotland and northern England, where it meant “turned in the wrong direction.”

Ayto writes that it’s a combination of the Middle English adjective “awk” (“the wrong way round, backhanded”) and the directional suffix “-ward.”

The word “awk,” in turn, is derived from Scandinavian sources. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites the Old Icelandic adjective ǫfugr (“turned the wrong way”), while the Oxford English Dictionary says the source is probably the Old Norse afugöfug, or öfig (“turned the wrong way, back foremost”).

Ayto doesn’t give any citations for the Scottish and northern English origins of “awkward.” But the earliest example of the word in the OED is from a manuscript that includes words in the Northumbrian dialect spoken in the north. The medieval Kingdom of Northumbia covered what is now northern England and southeastern Scotland.

Oxford says “awkward” meant “in the wrong direction, in the wrong way,” when it appeared for the first time in the Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience (1340): “Þe world þai all awkeward sette” (“They turned the world all awry”).

(Though some scholars say the author of the manuscript is unknown, the OED attributes the poem to the English mystic Richard Rolle, who spent much of his life as a hermit in the north of England.)

You mentioned those “brethren and sistren” that are adverbs as well as adjectives. “Awkward” was an adverb when it first showed up in writing. In the 1340 citation above, “awkeward” is an adverb modifying the verb “sette.”

Today, however, the adverbial form is “awkwardly,” while “awkward” is an adjective.

The adjective didn’t appear until the early 16th century, when “awkward” meant “turned the wrong way, averted, back-handed; not straightforward, oblique,” according to the OED.

In the dictionary’s first adjectival citation, from the Scottish clergyman Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid sometime before 1522, the grief-stricken Dido beholds the departing Aeneas “with acquart luke” (“with a sideways glance”).

The “clumsy” sense of “awkward” showed up a few years later. The OED’s earliest example is from John Palsgrave’s L’Esclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French-English grammar:

“Awkwar leftehanded, gauche.” (At the time, “left-handed” meant “clumsy” as well as “using the left hand more naturally than the right.”)

Over the years, the adjective “awkward” has taken on many other senses.

In the early 1600s, Shakespeare used “awkward” to describe an ungraceful or uncouth action: “With ridiculous and aukward action.” (From Troilus and Cressida, believed written in 1602.)

In a July 15, 1665, entry in his Diary, Samuel Pepys used the adjective to describe an ungainly person: “The most awkerd man I ever met withal in my life.”

Since then, the adjective has been used to describe, among other things, embarrassing or inconvenient actions and situations (1709), embarrassed or ill-at-ease people (1713), a difficult action (1860), and someone who’s difficult or dangerous to deal with (1863, as in an “awkward customer”).

Finally, you ask if “gawky” (ungainly) and “gawk” (to stare stupidly) are related to “awkward.” No, though all three words may perhaps have Scandinavian roots. However, the etymology here is uncertain or, as the OED puts it, “difficult.”

One theory is that the adjective “gawky” (1759) and the verb “gawk” (1785) may have been influenced by an earlier adjective “gawk” (1703), which meant “left” and was used in the phrases “gawk-hand” and  “gawk-handed.”

The OED says the earlier adjective is apparently a contraction of various two-syllable combining words in northern English dialects: “gaulick-,” “galloc-,” and “gaulish-.” If you’re thinking that those dialectal terms may come from gauche, French for left, think again. Oxford says that idea has “grave difficulties.”

Another theory is that the 18th-century verb “gawk” may have come from “gaw,” a Middle English verb meaning to stare or look intently. Oxford compares “gaw,” dating from around 1300 and perhaps earlier, to the Old Norse  (to heed). But this is all very speculative.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Priority: the highs and the lows

Q: Settle our nitpicking debate about the term “priority.” It implies importance, so is a qualifier necessary in “high priority,” and is a “low priority” even a priority?

A: Yes, something can be a “high priority” or a “low priority.” But the noun “priority” has several other meanings, which may lead to confusion and even a “nitpicking debate.” Here are the most common senses today:

(1) Something important: “Health insurance is a priority.”

(2) Something ranked in order of importance: “In Miami, flood insurance is a high priority and earthquake insurance a low priority.”

(3) The right to go before someone or something else: “Ambulances take priority over other vehicles.”

(4) The things one cares about the most: “Our children are our priorities.”

When “priority” showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s, it meant “precedence in order or rank,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED, from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte.”

That original meaning, the OED says, gradually evolved into the “right to precede others or to receive something before others.”

The first citation for this sense of “priority” is from the Aug. 19, 1802, issue of the Times (London): “We must give priority to more direct and specific topics which immediately concern ourselves.”

The dictionary says in an etymology note that “priority” is of “multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.”

Those origins include the Anglo-Norman and Middle French priorite (precedence in time, order or rank), the post-classical Latin prioritas (fact or condition of being earlier in time), and the classical Latin prior (former, previous, in front, better).

In the 20th century, the noun came to mean the “right to proceed before other traffic,” according to the OED. Although the dictionary says this usage is chiefly British, we find it common in the US too.

The first Oxford example is again from the Times (May 8, 1929): “At road junctions they favour the rule that the vehicle on the more important road has priority.”

The noun soon took on the sense of a “thing that is regarded as more important than others; something which needs special attention. Freq. in pl.

The first citation is from another issue of the Times (July 21, 1936): “The function of … deciding the main priorities in all classes of munition production should be separated from all functions connected with the problem of material and supply.”

We won’t get into the use of the term in legal writing, but we should mention that “priority” is often used attributively—that is, as an adjective—to describe someone or something that’s more important than others.

The first example in the OED is from an 1849 letter by Charles Darwin. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“If I, a PRIORITY MAN, called a species C. D., it implies that C. D. is the oldest name that I know of; but in order that you and others may judge of the propriety of that name, you must ascertain when, and by whom, the name was first coined.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Jerk, jerky, and jerking off

Q: What’s with “jerk”? A great verb and a greater noun. And what about “jerk seasoning”? And “jerk-offs” need their moment. Which leads me to this slur from my adolescent past: “He’s off jerking his gherkin.” It’s better with a Brooklyn accent!

A: There are several “jerks” to be considered here, not all of them related.

The “jerk” that refers to a sudden, sharp movement also gave us a couple of slang usages—the noun for a fool as well as the sexual verb so beloved of Alexander Portnoy.

But the “jerk” that we associate with Jamaican cooking comes from Quechua, the language spoken in the Inca Empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, which is still widely used among the indigenous people of South America.

We’ll save the culinary “jerk” for later and start with the first “jerk” to come into English, the verb and noun referring to a quick movement.

This “jerk” was known from the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Originally the verb “jerk” meant to strike or lash, as with a whip or a switch, and the noun “jerk” meant such a stroke or lash, Oxford says.

The word in both forms—verb and noun—was “apparently echoic” in origin, the OED says. In other words, it sounded like what it meant.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example of the verb in written English: “Than he beateth and gierketh vs a lytle wyth a rodde.” (From Spyrytuall & Precyouse Pearle, a 1550 translation of a German religious tract by Otto Werdmueller.)

And this is the earliest known example of the noun: “To the manne … foure  score ierkes or lasshes with a skourge.” (From The Fardle of Facions [“collection of customs”], a 1555 translation of a Latin work of anthropology by Joannes Boemus.)

Over the next half a century or so, “jerk” acquired the ordinary meaning it has today. A “jerk,” in the words of the OED, came to mean a “quick suddenly arrested movement; a sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust, or twist,” and the verb meant to make such a movement.

The earliest written example of the new noun usage is from Weedes, a 1575 poem by the Elizabethan writer George Gascoigne: “The stiffe and strongest arme / Which geues a ierke and hath a cunning loose; / Shoots furdest stil.”

The OED has a questionable 1589 citation for the verb. The earliest definite appearance is in The Puritaine, or the Widdow of Watling-Streete, a 1607 comedy whose author is listed as “W. S.” on the title page: “Let him play a litle, weele ierk him vp of a sudaine.”

(Because of the “W. S.,” the play has at times been attributed to Shakespeare, but modern scholars reject that attribution.)

By the way, the “i” in those early “ierke” and “ierk” spellings of “jerk” was pronounced as a “j.”

We should mention here that this new use of “jerk” had a predecessor in the Middle Ages, the earlier noun and verb “yerk” (sometimes “yark”). This word was written and pronounced with a “y.”

This “yerk,” which was known as early as the 1420s, started out as a verb used to describe the action of a shoemaker yanking hard to tighten leather stitches. It soon became synonymous with “jerk” and was used in many of the same senses.

While “yerk” (or “yark”) survived well into the 19th century, it’s now mostly dialectal, the OED says. And it apparently never had the slang meanings that “jerk” acquired in the late 19th and early 20th century.

These slang uses of “jerk” are the noun for a worthless or offensive person and the verb (often in the form “jerk off”) that means to masturbate.

The sexual slang came first, and the derivation is obvious. Considering the meaning of the word that showed up in the late 16th century (“sharp sudden pull, throw, push, thrust”), it’s a wonder that this sense of “jerk” wasn’t recorded earlier.

While the OED’s earliest citation is from 1937 (for “jerk off”), the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has citations for the masturbatory “jerk” from the 1880s and “jerk off” from the early 1890s.

The slang dictionary’s earliest example is from Stag Party, an 1888 collection of erotic humor that includes a fictitious list of prices set by a “Whore’s Union” in New York:

“Common, old-fashioned f—k $1 … Pudding jerking $2.” (As we recently wrote on the blog, “pudding” and “pud” are slang terms for the penis.)

And slang dictionaries published in the 1880s and ’90s carried these definitions, according to Random House: Jerking (low), masturbation” … “To jerk one’s juice or jelly … to masturbate.”

Since we mentioned Alexander Portnoy, we’ll include this Random House citation: “Jerk your precious little dum-dum ad infinitum!” (From Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, 1968.)

Now what about the “jerk” that means a contemptuous person, a usage that began showing up in American slang in the early 1930s?

This “jerk” probably doesn’t derive (as some have suggested) from the notion of a chronic masturbator. Neither the OED nor Random House makes that  connection. The OED discusses this slang term in an entry that begins with the lashing and pulling senses of the noun.

So it seems likely that in the sense of a stupid, worthless, or contemptible person, “jerk” probably derives from the physical motion of jerking, like the “jerk” in “jerkwater.”

In the 1870s, as we wrote in 2013, a “jerkwater” meant a small branch line of a railroad or stagecoach (one to which water had to be brought, or “jerked”). As Random House notes, the adjective “jerkwater” is even older, dating from the 1860s.

The noun “jerkwater” soon came to mean an insignificant or hick town. And in the early 1900s, the adjective “jerkwater” was sometimes abbreviated to “jerk” and meant “small-time, second-rate, mediocre,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

This sense of the adjective “jerk” as insignificant or provincial suggests that the noun “jerk” originally conveyed the notion of a clueless rube.

As further evidence, Random House says the slang adjective “jerky” (early 1930’s), meaning “imbecilic; stupid, silly,” was influenced by “jerk town.”

On the other hand (if we may use the expression), the masturbation sense of the verb “jerk off” inspired the use of the noun “jerk-off” for a stupid, lazy, or worthless person, according to Random House.

The slang dictionary’s earliest citation is from Christ in Concrete, a 1937 novel by Pietro di Donato: “He was … the half-pint jerk-off.”

You mention the phrase “jerk the gherkin.” Here, the euphemism “gherkin” was probably chosen for the rhyme (“jerk”/“gherk”) as well as for the comic value of the pickle as a sight gag. The sources we’ve checked date it no earlier than the 1960s.

(We’ve never gone into the etymology of “gherkin,” so we’ll say briefly that it was borrowed in the mid-17th century from Dutch, in which it was a diminutive of “cucumber.”)

Now that we’re on the subject of food, we’ll turn to the noun “jerky” (the dried meat), the verb “jerk” (to dry meat), and the adjective “jerk” (describing a style of cooking native to Jamaica).

These three culinary terms ultimately come from the Quechua noun ccharqui (strips of dried meat) and verb ccharquini (to dry meat), according to the OED, though the linguistic journey has a few twists and turns.

The words entered Spanish (as the noun charqui and the verb charquear) after the conquest of the Incas, whose Andean empire was based in what is now Cuzco, Peru.

Spanish colonizers apparently carried the verb charquear to Jamaica after occupying the island in the 1500s. The British then Anglicized the verb after driving out the Spaniards in the 1600s.

During a 1687 visit to Jamaica, Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician and naturalist, picked up the Anglicized word, “jirking,” which the OED describes as a corruption of charquear.

In A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, a memoir of his voyage published in 1707, he writes of the dried meat made from swine “running wild in the Country amongst the Woods” and “sought out by Hunters with gangs of Dogs.”

“After pursuit,” he says in an OED citation that we’ve expanded, “they are shot or pierc’d through with Lances, cut open, the bones taken out, and the flesh gash’d on the inside into the skin, filled with salt, and exposed to the sun, which is called Jirking.”

(Incidentally, the plant specimens that Sloane collected on that voyage were the foundation of the British Museum.)

Similarly, the noun “jerky” (as in “beef jerky”) is derived from the Spanish noun charqui. The first appearance in the OED is from Three Years in California, an 1850 memoir by Walter Colton: “A junk of bread, and a piece of the stewed jerky.”

Finally, the word “jerk,” used as a noun, adjective, and verb in reference to the style of cooking native to Jamaica, has its roots in Africa as well as the Caribbean.

Food writers believe that jerk cooking evolved from the pork curing practices of the indigenous Taino and Arawak inhabitants of Jamaica as well as the spicing methods of African slaves who escaped when the British drove the Spanish from the island.

The OED, which traces this sense of the word “jerk” to the Spanish verb charquear, defines its use for the Jamaican style of cooking this way:

“Designating meat (esp. pork or chicken) which has been marinated in a spicy mixture of seasonings (typically prominently featuring allspice) before being smoke-cured or barbecued. Also: designating a seasoning or sauce used in this method of preparation.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a Jamaican newspaper, the Daily Gleaner in Kingston (May 10, 1930): “You could also buy on the race course from the jerk pork men a quattie [coin worth 1.5 pence] jerk pork with bread and mustard.”

And here’s a more recent citation from World Food: Caribbean (2001), by Bruce Geddes: “Your first bite of jerk may lead you to believe that hot pepper is used by the bowlful. However, the most essential ingredient is allspice.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

On rifling and riffling

Q: I’m seeing the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” used interchangeably. I’d use “rifle” (pronounced like the weapon) for searching through a box for something, and riffle” (to my mind, beautifully onomatopoeic) for going through papers. Are these still two distinct terms?

A: Yes, the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” are still two distinct terms, but they overlap somewhat, and it’s not surprising that some people confuse them.

Both verbs can refer to searching, but “rifle” suggests a search for something to steal, while “riffle” means flipping through pages, perhaps searching for something and perhaps not.

(“Rifle” here is pronounced, as you say, like the firearm, while “riffle” rhymes with “piffle.”)

The verb “rifle” is by far the older of the two terms. English borrowed it in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old French, where rifler meant to scratch, scrape, graze, or plunder.

When the verb entered English in the late 1300s, it meant to carry off as booty, to plunder or rob, to ransack or search a receptacle for valuables to steal, and several other felonious actions, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first example cited is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1391), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “He ruyfleþ [rifleth] bothe book and belle.”

And here’s an example from Piers Plowman (c. 1378), an allegorical poem by William Langland: “I roos whan þei were areste and riflede hire males” (“I rose when they were at rest and rifled their bags”).

Piers Plowman is also the source of this OED citation: “What wey ich wynde ful wel he aspieþ, / To robbe me and to ryfle me” (“He clearly discovers which path I take, / To rob me and to rifle me”).

When the verb “riffle” showed up in the 18th century, it referred to storm damage, specifically the stripping of slate, tiles, and other roof coverings.

Oxford says it’s of unknown origin, but may be a variant or alteration of the verbs “rifle,” “ruffle,” or “ripple.” (Remember, the French sources of “rifle” meant to scratch or scrape, as well as to plunder.)

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, from a poem in a 1713 issue of the Monitor, a storm does its damage at sea: “A sudden Storm descends, / That, in an Instant, riffles all the Boat, / Whose scatter’d Streamers on the Billows float.”

In the 19th century, the OED says, “riffle” took on the sense you’re asking about: “To flick through (papers, books, etc.); to thumb (a block of paper, a book, etc.), releasing the leaves in (usually rapid) succession.”

The earliest citation is from Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopedia (1878): “Every three minutes the book is taken out of its covers and ‘riffled.’ Riffling consists in shaking up the leaves, so as to loosen the whole and prevent the gold from clinging to the parchment.”

Here’s a more recent example, minus the gold, from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000): “Most magazine editors can tell how long a story is just by looking at the print and riffling the pages.”

As for the use of the verbs “rifle” and “riffle” today, here are the relevant definitions from Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity from the OED):

rifle: “Search through something in a hurried way in order to find or steal something: ‘she rifled through the cassette tapes.’ ”

riffle: “Turn over something, especially the pages of a book, quickly and casually: ‘he riffled through the pages.’ ”

You didn’t mention the felonious implications of the verb “rifle” in your question, but we should note that all six of the standard dictionaries we’ve consulted mention stealing as the goal of rifling.

Finally, the noun “rifle” (the firearm) doesn’t come from the verb “rifle” (to search for loot). However, the noun is derived from another verb “rifle” (to cut spiral grooves inside the barrel of a firearm). And both of those verbs may share a French ancestor, rifler (to scratch or to plunder).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “bumblebee” a buzz word?

Q: I am working on a discussion of bumblebees, and looking for the origin of the “bumble” portion of the word. What I haven’t been able to figure out is if “bumble” refers to the buzzing/humming noise or the clumsy flying. Any thoughts?

A: The “bumble” that means to buzz or hum (the one we find in “bumblebee”) and the “bumble” that means to flounder around may or may not be related.

We say “may or may not” because there are differences of opinion about this. Rather than split any hairs at the beginning, let’s start with the etymologies given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first “bumble” (to buzz or hum) was originally recorded in the 1380s. It was derived from the old verbs “boom” and “bum,” which the OED describes as echoic words that imitated a buzzing, a humming, or the low resonant sound a bittern makes, the OED says.

To this day, the soft, low call of the bittern, a marsh bird in the heron family, is described as a “boom.” You can listen to it, courtesy of the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

In fact, the OED’s earliest written example of the verb “bumble” is a reference to the bittern’s call: “As a Bitore bombleth in the Myre.” (From “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, circa 1386.)

This later example refers to flies that bumble: “Much bumbling among them all.” (From John Heywood’s parable The Spider and the Flie, 1556.)

And this one refers to bees that bumble: “Bumbling of Bees.” (From a 1693 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of five novels by François Rabelais.)

The noun “bumblebee,” which we think was inevitable and simply begged to be invented, first showed up as “bombyll bee” in the mid-1500s: “I bomme, as a bombyll bee dothe.” (From a 1530 work of John Palsgrave, a tutor in the household of Henry VIII.)

Etymologically, a “bumblebee” is a bee that bumbles. And this noun (sometimes written as “bumble bee” or “bumble-bee”) replaced an earlier word for the same critter, “humblebee,” which is literally a bee that humbles. (In the 14th century, to “humble” meant to buzz or hum like a bee.)

The OED defines “humble-bee” (which it hyphenates) as “a large wild bee, of the genus Bombus, which makes a loud humming sound; a bumble-bee.” (We should add that the taxonomic name Bombus is derived from the Latin noun bombus, an imitative word that means a hum or boom.)

This bucolic example is the earliest known appearance of “humblebee” in writing: “In Juyll the greshop & the humbylbee in the medow.” (From Treatyse on Fysshynge Wyth an Angle, probably written sometime before 1450 by Dame Juliana Barnes. “Angle” is an old word for a fish hook.)

It’s probable, however, that “humblebee” existed long before it was discovered in a written document. Based on comparisons with other Germanic formations, Oxford suggests it may have existed in Old English, possibly as humbol-béo.

Though “humblebee” was eclipsed by the more popular “bumblebee”—probably because of that nice alliteration of b’s—the old word continued to show up into the 19th century.

Charles Darwin apparently preferred it: “Humble-bees alone visit the common red clover … as other bees cannot reach the nectar.” (From On the Origin of Species, 1859.)

Now for that other “bumble,” which means to screw up or bungle or flounder helplessly.

That “bumble” dates from the 1500s in English writing, and is “onomatopoeic” in origin, the OED says, meaning that the word sounds like what it names.

Oxford’s two earliest sightings of the verb are both from the same source, Sir Thomas More’s 1532 polemic against the Protestant scholar William Tyndale:

“The thinge wher about he hath bombled all thys while. … Which argument Tindall hath all thys while bumbled aboute to soyle.”

Thomas More used “bumble,” the OED says, in this sense: “To bungle over; to do in a bungling manner.” The verb is also used intransitively—that is, without an object—in the sense “to blunder, flounder,” the dictionary says.

As we mentioned, Oxford says the verb is onomatopoeic in origin. The dictionary refers the reader to similar verbs that are probably onomatopoeic, like “fumble,” “jumble,” “mumble,” “rumble,” “stumble,” and “tumble.”

All of those verbs do have in common a general sense of awkward disorder or confusion. And they end in the frequentative suffix “-le,” which expresses a repeated action or movement.

However, another source, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, has a different explanation for the “bumble” that means to “bungle” or “botch.” Chambers says it refers “to the noise of booming or buzzing about.”

If that’s true, then the two “bumbles”—one meaning to buzz or hum and the other to blunder—aren’t separate verbs after all. The “bungle” or “botch” sense of the verb was merely an extension of the earlier meaning.

Chambers interprets the Thomas More quotations above as using “bumble” in both senses of the verb—that is, he felt Tyndale was buzzing (perhaps droning on) as well as floundering about.

Consequently, both senses of the verb ultimately reflect the same echoic notion: the sounds made by bees, flies, and bitterns, according to Chambers.

Are the two “bumbles” related? With etymologists divided, you can form your own opinion.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

How tolerant is tolerance?

Q: The word “tolerance” seems to suggest something at least one step short of acceptance. To me, it carries the connotation of a superior agreeing not to actively work against someone clearly not regarded as an equal. Has the meaning changed or am I simply a curmudgeonly stickler or could both be true?

A: Most standard dictionaries define “tolerance” as accepting beliefs or behavior that one may not agree with or approve of. In other words, putting up with them.

This is, as you say, at least a step short of acceptance in the usual sense. It also reflects the Latin origin of the word. English borrowed “tolerance” in the 15th century from French, but the ultimate source is the Latin tolerāre (to bear with or endure).

Is “tolerance,” you ask, evolving in English? Perhaps.

We were recently driving behind a car with a bumper sticker displaying “tolerance” spelled out with a cross, a peace symbol, a star of David, a star and crescent, and other images.

The driver of that car apparently sees “tolerance” as something like respect or consideration for the views of others.

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of the word used that way, including this one from a speech by Trudy E. Hall, the former head of school at the Emma Willard School in Troy, NY:

“What is tolerance? Tolerance is the acceptance and celebration of the full range of emotions, learning preferences, political opinions, and lifestyles of those in community.”

However, we could find only one standard dictionary with such a definition. The entry for “tolerance” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this as its primary sense: “The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.”

When “tolerance” showed up in English writing in the early 15th century, it meant “the action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes that sense as obsolete, but similar senses survive today, such as in “tolerance” to a toxin or an allergen or the side effects of a drug.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “tolerance” is from Troy Boke (1412–20), John Lydgate’s Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy:

“For as to a fole it is pertynent / To schewe his foly, riȝt so convenient / Is to þe wyse, softly, with suffraunce, / In al his port to haue tolleraunce” (“For as a fool plainly shows his folly, the wise man, for his part, shows gentle sufferance and tolerance”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Similarly, “tolerate” meant to endure or sustain pain or hardship, and “toleration” meant the enduring of evil or suffering, when the two words showed up in the same book in the early 16th century.

Here are the two relevant Oxford citations from the The Boke Named the Gouernour, a 1531 treatise on how to train statesmen, by the English diplomat Thomas Elyot:

“To tollerate those thinges whiche do seme bytter or greuous (wherof there be many in the lyfe of man).”

“There is also moderation in tolleration of fortune of euerye sorte: whiche of Tulli is called equabilite.” (“Tulli” refers to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.)

In the 16th century, the verb “tolerate” and the noun “toleration” took on the sense of putting up with something that’s not actually approved, as in these OED citations.

“He can … be none other rekened but a playne heretyque … whome to tolerate so longe doth sometyme lytle good.” (From Debellation of Salem and Bizance, 1533, a theological polemic by Thomas More.)

“The remission of former sinnes in the toleration of God.” (From the Rheims New Testament of 1582.)

When the adjective “tolerant” appeared in the 18th century, it referred to bearing with something. The OED’s earliest example is from a 1784 sermon at the University of Oxford by Joseph White, an Anglican minister and scholar of Middle Eastern languages:

“His [Gibbon’s] eagerness to throw a veil over the deformities of the Heathen theology, to decorate with all the splendor of panegyric the tolerant spirit of its votaries.”

Over the years, “tolerance” and company have taken on various other meanings, such as referring to variation from a standard (“The part was made to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch”) or the decrease in a drug’s effectiveness after prolonged use (“The body builds up a tolerance to allergy medications”).

What does the sense of “tolerance” you’re asking about mean today?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “willingness to accept beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” The dictionary gives this example: “This period in history is not noted for its religious tolerance.”

Cambridge has similar definitions for “tolerate,” “toleration,” and “tolerant.”

However, some scholars argue that “tolerance” is a less judgmental term than “toleration.”

In “Tolerance or Toleration? How to Deal with Religious Conflicts in Europe,” an Aug. 12, 2010, paper on the Social Science Research Network, Lorenzo Zucca says that “non-moralizing tolerance should be distinguished from moralizing toleration and should be understood as the human disposition to cope with diversity in a changing environment.”

And Andrew R. Murphy, in “Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition,” a 1997 article in the journal Polity, sees “tolerance” as a more personal term than “toleration.”

“We can improve our understanding by defining ‘toleration’ as a set of social and political practices and ‘tolerance’ as a set of attitudes,” he writes.

In a June 2, 2008, post on his blog, the linguist David Crystal says “tolerance” is a more positive term than “toleration.”

Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean ‘we have to put up with this,’ ” he writes. “Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.”

Of the two terms, “tolerance” is far more popular today, but “toleration” was more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer.

So language changes! And we wouldn’t be surprised if other standard dictionaries eventually follow American Heritage’s lead and define “tolerance” less judgmentally than “toleration.”

Note: The reader who asked this question later reminded us of Tom Lehrer’s satirical 1965 song about tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week.” It seems an appropriate accompaniment to this political season.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

On “unchartered” waters?

Q: I often hear references to “unchartered” territory. As I understand, “uncharted” means unmapped and the use of “unchartered” is incorrect. I would appreciate any information you might provide regarding these terms.

A: You’re right, of course. Unknown or unexplored territory is “uncharted,” and the use of “unchartered” here is incorrect.

However, the misuse has been in print for more than a century and a half, apparently the result of early misspellings. And at least one standard dictionary includes “unchartered” in the figurative sense of “irregular.”

In fact, the adjective “unchartered” is not often used correctly in its literal sense, though it can be done.

It’s possible to hire an “unchartered accountant” (one without the professional designation), or to sail an “unchartered boat” (one you own instead of hire). But you can’t sail on “unchartered waters.”

We once mentioned this misuse in passing (in a post about “baited breath”), but now we’ll take a closer look.

“Uncharted,” first recorded in the 19th century, literally means not appearing on a map or chart. It’s derived from the noun “chart,” which originally meant a map when it entered English in the 1600s or possibly earlier.

The word for a map came into English from French (carte), derived in turn from the Latin carta or charta, which the Oxford English Dictionary says meant paper or a leaf of paper.

The OED has a few questionable uses of “chart” from the 1500s. The first definite example appeared in the following century:

“The Geographicall Mappe is twofold: either the Plaine Chart, or the Planispheare.” (From Nathanael Carpenter’s Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes, 1625.)

Before the English word was spelled “chart,” it appeared in the 1500s as “carde” or “card.”

Here’s an early example, written sometime before 1527: “A little Mappe or Carde of the Worlde.” (From an account in Diuers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America, a collection published in 1582.)

Until long into the 1600s, the OED says, a seagoing map might be called a “card,” “card of the sea,” “mariner’s card,” or “sea-card.” By the late 1600s, it was a “chart” or “sea-chart.” (Even now, the navigation room on a ship is called the “chart-house” or “chart-room.”)

Over the years the noun “chart” eventually acquired related meanings (a graph, a sheet of information, a musical arrangement, a plan, a course).

In the 19th century the noun gave rise to a verb (1842) and to the adjectives “charted” (1857) and “uncharted” (1890s), according to citations in the OED.

These are the two earliest Oxford examples of “uncharted”:

“To establish the latitude and longitude of uncharted places” (from Popular Science Monthly, 1895).

“In tracking the Siberian coast through the month of August, many uncharted islands were discovered” (from the Edinburgh Review, 1897).

However, we’ve found several earlier appearances, including one that dates from the first half of the 19th century.

In Sparks From the Anvil (1846), the American diplomat Elihu Burritt writes that ancient shepherds and sailors used the stars “to guide them by night over the vast plains of the East, and the uncharted waters of the ocean.”

The expression “uncharted waters” is still used literally, as in this sentence from “Sailing the Artic,” an article by Nicolas Peissel in the May 5, 2011, issue of Sail magazine:

“In these uncharted waters full of ice, unidentified rocks, sand bars and low islands that provide little sanctuary, heavy weather tactics must be planned in advance.”

But “uncharted waters” (along with its sister phrase, “uncharted territory”) gets much more mileage as an idiom for the unknown or unexplored.

The OED doesn’t have an entry for these popular idioms, but in our own searches we haven’t found any earlier than the 1890s.

When used idiomatically, “uncharted” is sometimes replaced by “unchartered,” a substitution that makes no sense.

“Unchartered,” first recorded in the late 18th century, literally means not having a charter, or “not formally privileged or constituted.”

Figuratively, as the OED adds, it means “irregular, lawless.” However, we could find only one standard dictionary (Merriam-Webster Unabridged) that now includes the figurative sense.

The earliest literal usage we know of was reported by the linguist Mark Liberman, who found a passage referring to “the unchartered banks of Scotland” in a 1799 issue of the Scots Magazine. (Reported in a 2013 article in the Language Log.)

The OED’s earliest literal use is from 1812: “Those planters … who should place confidence in the paper of unchartered banks.” (From the Weekly Register of Baltimore.)

And here’s a figurative use from 1805, cited in the OED:  “Me this unchartered freedom tires.” (From the “Ode to Duty,” by William Wordsworth.)

As for misuses of “unchartered” to mean “uncharted,” we’ve found many examples dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Here’s one from Shawmut: Or, the Settlement of Boston by the Puritan Pilgrims (1845), by Charles Kittredge True:

“His prudence, patience, courage and energy made him the successful pilot of the ship of state in the unchartered waters into which she was launched.”

It’s clear from the context that “unchartered” is being used in the sense of “uncharted”—that is, unmapped, unexplored, unknown.

An even clearer example, from Sanders’ High School Reader, an 1856 textbook by Charles W. Sanders, was undoubtedly the result of a typo.

The book cites the example mentioned earler in Sparks From the Anvil, but misspells “uncharted” as “unchartered.”

The adjective “unchartered” is the negative of “chartered,” a word from the early 1400s meaning “founded, privileged, or protected by charter.”

That word in turn is derived from the verb “charter,” originally meaning to grant a charter (circa 1425), later meaning to privilege or license (1542), and finally to hire (1803).

The source of the verb is the noun “charter” (1200s), for a legal document granting rights or privileges, or for a contract between people.

“Charter” came into Middle English from the Old French chartre, which in turn comes from the Latin noun for a charter, cartula.

And here’s an etymological connection for you. The Latin cartula—which literally means “small paper or writing,” the OED says—is a diminutive of carta or charta (paper), the ultimate source of “chart.”

It’s also the source of our map-related words “cartography” (map making), and “cartographer” (map maker).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Words of prey

Q: As a birdwatcher in Florida, it grates on my  ears to hear the town of Osprey referred to as OSS-pree. The bird’s name rhymes with “prey,” which works since the Osprey is a bird of prey. Why does the town’s name rhyme with “spree,” as in a shopping spree?

A: The bird’s name literally means “bird of prey,” so we can see why you assume the last syllable should sound like the word “prey.”

But the usual American pronunciation of the bird’s name rhymes with “spree,” so the townspeople of Osprey aren’t guilty of any disrespect to this wonderful bird.

The word apparently came into English in the late Middle Ages from the French ospreit, which was derived from post-classical Latin avis prede (“bird of prey”).

It was first recorded in English, spelled “hospray,” about 1450, the OED says. The “h” soon disappeared, as in this citation: “Every goos, teele, Mallard, Ospray, & also swanne.” (From John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, written sometime before 1475.)

Shakespeare mentions the bird in his tragedy Coriolanus (possibly 1605-08): “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the Aspray to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature.”

The “osprey” spelling didn’t become the norm until around the mid-18th century, according to OED citations.

The bird is defined in the OED as “a large, long-winged, dark brown and white bird of prey” whose taxonomic name is Pandion haliaetus. It lives principally on fish—both marine and freshwater—and is found almost worldwide.

Getting back to how “osprey” sounds, the OED says it’s pronounced differently in Britain and in the US. In British English it’s OSS-pray, while in American English it’s OSS-pree.

The online Cambridge Dictionary, published in Britain, also gives OSS-pray as the British pronunciation and OSS-pree as the American.

Three standard American dictionaries—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)—give both pronunciations, listing OSS-pree first and OSS-pray second. They use OSS-pree for their online pronouncers.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a number be a pronoun?

Q: I’m puzzled by the numbers in this example: “Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three.” Is “seven” a numerical pronoun? Or is it an adjective with an implied noun? Ditto regarding: “three.”

A: In our opinion, a number used this way is not a pronoun. We would call it an adjective functioning as a noun.

The noun “seven” here has a clear antecedent; it refers to “Bob and his friends.” The noun “three,” given the context, is understood to mean three adversaries.

In English, the cardinal numbers (which say how many, like “three”) and the ordinal numbers (which say in what order, like “third”), have two general functions. They can be adjectives (some prefer the term “determiners”), or nouns.

This is how they’re treated, for example, in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Using “three” as an example, the OED says it’s a noun when it means “a group or set of three things or persons.” And in entries for other numbers, Oxford says they’re nouns when they mean a size, rank, score, weight, and so on.

So the numbers in these examples are nouns, by Oxford’s definition: “They left in twos and threes” … “She wears a six, sometimes a seven” … “So far they’ve won nine and lost eight” … “He discarded a five and drew an ace.”

A number is an adjective, the OED says, when it modifies an expressed noun (“three gentlemen”), or when it stands alone in the predicate (“we galloped all three”).

And finally, the OED says a number like “three” can be an adjective used “absolutely”—that is, without an accompanying noun and functioning as a noun.

The dictionary gives this citation from the Wycliffe Bible (1382): “For where two or three shulen be gedrid [shall be gathered] in my name, ther am I in the midil of hem.”

It also gives this 20th-century example: “Which three do you choose? Any three you please.”

So the “seven” and the “three” in your example (“Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three”) would be adjectives used absolutely—that is, as nouns.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a somewhat similar view of numbers like this, though it uses very different terminology. It would describe that “three” as a “fused-head construction.”

In this type of construction, an implied noun phrase (“three people,” “three objects,” or whatever), is fused into a single word (“three”). The head of the phrase (the implied noun) disappears into the adjective or determiner (“three”), which now functions as a noun.

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples (the editors underline the fusions): “Four boys played croquet and two played tennis” … “He gave ten copies to me and six to the others” … “After having a first child, I didn’t want a second.”

(We should point out that the fused part can appear in a separate sentence: “I’ll take two, please” … “Only five showed up at the meeting.”)

But this kind of construction isn’t limited to numbers. Some ordinary adjectives can become nouns in fused constructions. Here are examples from the Cambridge Grammar:

“Henrietta likes red shirts, and I like blue” … “Knut wanted the French caterers, but I wanted the Italian” … “I prefer cotton shirts to nylon” … “Lucie likes big dogs, but I prefer small.

In short, neither the OED nor the Cambridge Grammar treats numbers as pronouns, and we agree with them, though some grammarians and even some standard dictionaries disagree.

But even if you do regard a number as a pronoun, it’s not a good idea to call it a “numerical” or “numeral” pronoun. The term “numeral pronoun” is sometimes used in linguistics, but it means something else entirely—a word, like “all” or “many,” that means an indefinite number.

Here’s a definition from the Dictionary of Linguistics, by Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor. “numeral pronoun: A term occasionally used for a word which denotes an indefinite number of persons or things.”

The only number that everyone agrees can be a pronoun is “one.”

As we’ve written on our blog, “one” is a personal pronoun in uses like “One does one’s best” and “One never knows.” Like the other personal pronouns, it has possessive and reflexive forms, “one’s” and “oneself.”

When “one” is a pronoun, it can be replaced completely by something else, like “people in general.” It’s not intended as an adjective used elliptically—that is, short for “one person,” “one citizen,” etc.

We think it’s a good policy to focus on how a word functions rather than on what it’s called.

Grammatical terminology today is not what it was 100 (or even 50) years ago. The most respected authorities may differ in their terminology, which can be confusing to a non-linguist.

Take the examples of the “poor” and the “rich,” meaning poor people and rich people. They’ve been interpreted in at least three different ways:

They’re “adjective pronouns” according to one 19th-century grammarian (Stephen Watkins Clark, A Practical Grammar, 1847).

They’re nouns, according to the OED. 

They’re fused-head constructions, says the Cambridge Grammar. The implied noun phrase (which could be paraphrased as “those who are rich,” “those who are poor”) is fused into a single word.

So as you can see, the terms change but the words work in the same way—they act exactly like nouns.

That 19th-century grammarian (who, by the way, invented sentence diagramming) defined a pronoun as “a word used instead of a noun.” Consequently, he identified “sublime” and “ridiculous” as pronouns in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But authorities today don’t regard as a pronoun any word that can replace a noun or noun phrase. If this were the case, words for colors could be pronouns, as in “She considered the black dress but ending up buying the gray.”

It would be reasonable to consider “gray” either as a noun or as an adjective used elliptically for the noun phrase “gray dress.” But no one would call it a pronoun.

And no one today would call “bad” a pronoun in a sentence like this: “Each dress has its good points and its bad.”

Similarly, we don’t consider “two” a pronoun in this similar construction: “She looked at a dozen scarves and purchased two.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Pissy language

Q: Where does “pissed off” (as in “angry”) come from? I know this sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious question!

A: Our serious answer begins around the year 1300, when English adopted the verb “piss” from the Anglo-Norman pisser.

Although the word is “now chiefly coarse slang,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant simply “urinate” back then.

The dictionary notes that “piss” is “probably ultimately of imitative origin”—that is, it represents the hissy sound of peeing.

The OED’s first citation for the verb is from the South English Legendary, a collection of lives, or biographies, of saints and other church figures.

In the life of St. James the Great (i.e., the Apostle James), the devil persuades a young pilgrim to cut off his penis and commit suicide. James brings the pilgrim back to life, but doesn’t undo the castration:

“His menbres þat he carf of, euer-eft he dude misse Bote a luytel wise ȝware-þoruȝ he miȝhte, ȝwane he wolde, pisse” (“He did forever miss the member that he cut off, leaving a little stub through which he might urinate”).

Over the years, the verb “piss” came to be used figuratively in various expressions, including “piss money against the wall” (squander, 1540), “piss on someone” (show contempt, before 1625), “piss against the wind” (waste one’s time, 1642), and “piss and moan” (complain, 1948).

The noun “piss” first appeared sometime before 1387 in John Trevisa’s English translation of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Þey þrewe on his heed wommen pisser out of a chambre” (“They threw on his head women’s urine out of a chamber pot”).

Like the verb, the noun later took on some additional meanings, including its use as an intensifier in such phrases as “piss poor” and “piss elegant,” which we discussed in a post six years ago.

And like the verb, the noun “piss” meant simply “urine” in the 14th century, and wasn’t considered “coarse slang,” according to the OED.

When the adjective “pissed” showed up in the early 17th century, Oxford says, it referred to something “that has been urinated on or in; wet or stained with urine.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Alchemist, a 1612 comedy by Ben Jonson: “Wrap’d up in greasie leather, or piss’d clouts.” (“Clouts” were pieces of cloth.)

It’s unclear from the OED citations exactly when “piss” came to be seen as coarse or vulgar.

In the early 19th century the adjective “pissed” came to mean “drunk.” Here’s an example from John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812): “Sit still you pist fool!”

And in the mid-20th century, the adjective took on the sense you’re asking about: angry, irritated, fed up.

In British use, the OED says, it’s frequently seen in the phrase “pissed off.” We’d add that the phrase is probably just as common in the US. In fact, the dictionary’s earliest citation is from an American memoir.

In Artist at War (1943), the American artist George Biddle writes of his experiences in Italy and Africa during World War II: “When I’m pissed off, I always get that starry look.”

The phrasal verb “piss off” showed up in writing just after the war, in a 1946 issue of the journal American Speech: “He pissed (or peed) me off. An expression used of a person who in any way disappointed the speaker.”

Finally, the phrasal verb “piss off” is also used (primarily in the UK) to mean “Go away!” or “Scram!”

The first OED citation is from The Mint, a memoir by T. E. Lawrence published after his death in 1935: “You piss off, Pissquick.” (Lawrence, an army colonel in World War I, describes enlisting anonymously after the war as an aircraftman in the Royal Air Force.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Pudding and other ing-lish words

Q: For some reason I hate the world “pudding”—it’s like nails on a blackboard to me. Aside from that, why do we have “-ing” words that aren’t participles or gerunds?

A: Your instincts are right. There is something repulsive about “pudding”—about its etymology, anyway. As they say about sausage, you might not want to know how it was made. More about that later.

As you’ve noticed, not every “-ing” suffix is part of a participle or gerund, like “being” or “going.” The suffix “-ing” is also used in English to form nouns, as is the related suffix “-ling.”

The nouns formed with “-ing” and “-ling” are of two kinds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Some originated as diminutives, while others had “the sense of ‘one belonging to’ or ‘of the kind of,’ hence ‘one possessed of the quality of.’ ”

The diminutive nouns, mostly of the “-ling” variety, often refer to very young animals, as in “kidling,” “duckling,” “gosling,” and “codling” (a small cod). But they can also be contemptuous, as in “godling,” “lordling,” and “princeling.”

The words with the other sense—belonging to or concerned with or having the quality of the root word—include extremely old nouns like “king” (cyning in Old English, from cyn, for “kin”).

This group of nouns also includes “nursling” (literally, one being nursed); “stripling” (someone thin as a strip); “hireling” (one who works for hire); “sibling” (originally a kinsman, from Old English sib, for “related”); “nestling” (one still in the nest); “suckling” (one being suckled); “underling” (a subordinate); and “earthling” (originally, a plowman or cultivator of the soil).

Also, “gelding” (derived from Old Norse geld, meaning barren or impotent); the fish names “whiting” (from “white”) and “herring” (possibly from har, for “gray,” or Old High German heri, for “multitude”); and the former English coins “farthing” (feorþing in Old English, from féorð, for “fourth”) and “shilling” (perhaps from ancient Germanic roots meaning to ring or to divide).

Finally, this category includes “darling” (one who is dear, derived from Old English déor, for “dear”); the archaic endearment “sweeting” (one who is sweet); and last but not least, “pudding.”

No matter how you look at it, the origin of “pudding” isn’t pretty. It came into English in the 13th century, and the OED says the source was “probably” the Anglo-Norman word bodeyn, which meant sausage or (in the plural) animal intestines or entrails.

According to this theory, the “b” changed to “p” in English, and the “-eyn” ending was altered by analogy with similar English nouns ending in “-ing.”

Where did the French bodeyn come from? The OED traces it to the Old French boudin (for sausage, entrails, intestines, or a person’s stomach). But Oxford says any further etymology is “uncertain and disputed.”

However, the OED does mention “an alternative etymology” that derives the word from “a Germanic base” meaning a boil, ulcer, or swollen body part.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology also says the ultimate source could be prehistoric Germanic roots (like bod-), having to do with boils, swellings, or bloatings.

While both Chambers and the OED rule out Latin as a source, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins disagrees. It traces the Old French boudin ultimately to botellus, Latin for “sausage.”

Regardless of its earlier history, when “pudding” entered English in the 13th century it meant a stuffed entrail—that is, a sausage.

As the OED defines it, “pudding” originally meant “the stomach or one of the entrails (in early use sometimes the neck) of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled.”

The English word was first recorded in 1287 as “pudinges” and “pundinges” in Norwich city documents that were otherwise rendered in Latin.

The first appearance in an English context is found in a Middle English poem, The Land of Cokaygne (circa 1300), in a reference to “fat podinges, / Rich met to princez and kinges.”

A “pudding” continued to mean a sausage until well into the 19th century, and many English speakers still use the word that way. In British usage a “black pudding” is a blood sausage, and in Ireland and Scotland a “white pudding” is a sausage made with oatmeal and suet, sometimes with the addition of shredded pork.

Meanwhile (banish food from your mind), the plural “puddings” was used to mean “the bowels, entrails, or guts of a person or animal” from the mid-16th to the late 19th century, the OED says.

This cringeworthy example is from Lodowick Lloyd’s The Pilgrimage of Princes (1573): “The Foxe … did bite and scratche the yongman so sore, that his puddynges gusshed out of his side.”

We won’t burden you with any more examples of that usage.

Futhermore, “pudding” was a slang term for both the vagina and the penis from the mid-16th century, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Citations for this use of “pudding” date from 1538 (meaning vagina) and 1546 (meaning penis). In our own time, “pud” is used this way in the male sense and is found in masturbatory verbal phrases like “pull one’s pud.”

Getting back to food, the more familiar meaning of “pudding” and the one that survives in general use today, also came into written use around the mid- to late 1500s. In this sense, it meant “a sweet or savoury dish made with flour, milk, etc.,” the OED says.

Why call these dishes “puddings”? Probably because of the association with sausage casings. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “came to be applied to any food cooked in a bag (hence the cannon-ball shape of the traditional Christmas pudding).”

The earliest definite sighting in the OED is from John Rider’s dictionary Bibliotheca Scholastica (1573): “A pudding made of milke, cheese, and herbs.”

And in a 1736 letter, Lord Castledurrow compliments Jonathan Swift on his hospitality: “Your puddings … are the best sweet thing I ever eat.”

The word “pudding” as used today “refers almost exclusively to sweet dishes,” the OED says, with exceptions like Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like dish that’s savory rather than sweet.

Furthermore, as used “chiefly in Britain,” the word generally means “any sweet dish served as a dessert,” Oxford says, a sense recorded in the early 20th century.

Although the OED doesn’t say so, “pudding” in the US is a soft, creamy dessert with the consistency of a custard.

An American would not refer to a cake or a pie or an apple crisp as a “pudding” (the cake-like exceptions are “bread pudding” and “sticky toffee pudding”).

The American usage is no small matter, and the OED should take note. The difference between “pudding” in the US and the UK “is the one that diverges most, food-wise, in the two countries,” the linguist Lynne Murphy writes in 2008 on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

Finally, you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2012 about whether the proof is in the pudding or the eating of it.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s in a word?

Q: Why aren’t these words, and can they be: “vigorance” or “vigorence” (instead of “vigorousness”) and “analgesity” (meaning pain resistance)?

A: Put simply, a word is a unit of language that has meaning, can be written or spoken, and is used to form sentences. By that definition, the terms you’re asking about are already words, though they’re barely on the lexical radar and can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

A bit of googling will give you examples for “vigorance,” “vigorence,” and “analgesity,” terms that clearly have meaning to the people who use them, but not to many others.

Vigorance,” for example, is the brand name for a series of hair-care products, “Vigorence” is the name of a program to revive stressed-out executives, and the developers of an analgesic derived from snake venom tested the antidote for its “analgesity.”

Can those terms take on the meanings you want them to have, and find acceptance in standard dictionaries?

Lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, examine the various media—Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, Fox News, Amazon bestsellers, Wikipedia, and so on—in search of new words to add.

If enough people use a new term, it will eventually make it into dictionaries. But we wouldn’t bet on “vigorance,” “vigorence,” or “analgesity.”

We’ve written over the years about words we’d like to save—and a lot of good it’s done! The people who speak a language, not language mavens, decide which words live and which die.

For what it’s worth, we don’t see any need for “vigorance” or “vigorence.” If you want a shorter, punchier word than “vigorousness,” how about “vigor”? It seems vigorous enough to us.

As for a word to describe resistance to pain, one might use “analgesia,” which means the reduction or absence of pain. Or perhaps “analgesic,” which is a noun or an adjective for a substance that reduces pain. And if you’d prefer a less technical term, “painkilling” and “painkiller” are possibilities.

The word “analgesic” (as well as the variant “analgetic”) is derived from the noun “analgesia,” which meant the absence of pain when it showed up in the late 17th century. All three terms are ultimately derived from the classical Greek analgesiaan (without) plus algesis (sense of pain).

The first citation for “analgesia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1684 English translation of a medical dictionary compiled by the Dutch physician Steven Blankaart. The definition of “analgesia” includes “absence of pain and grief.”

By the early 20th century, the word was being used in the modern sense of “the relief or reduction of pain, by the use of drugs or other treatments,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new sense is from the June 2, 1900, issue of the Lancet: “The first operation was done under local (eucaine) analgesia and the second under chloroform anæsthesia.”

The word “analgesic” first showed up in the mid-19th century as an adjective meaning “insensitive to pain; exhibiting loss or reduction of the ability to feel pain,” according to the OED.

The earliest Oxford citation is from an 1852 issue of the North American Homœopathic Journal: “There are sensitive spots or even points in the midst of analgesic surfaces.”

In a couple of decades, the adjective took on its modern sense of relieving or reducing pain. The earliest OED example is from an 1868 issue of the American Journal of the Medical Sciences:

“Thus we clearly separate anæsthetics from soporifics, or rather the analgesic influence from the hypnotic.”

The noun “analgesic” soon showed up with the sense of “a drug or other treatment that relieves or reduces pain.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A Treatise on Therapeutics (1874), by the American physician Horatio C. Wood Jr.:

“In the class Analgesics, are placed those drugs whose chief clinical use is in the relief of pain.”

The words “vigor,” “vigorous,” and “vigorousness” are much older, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. English adopted them from Anglo-Norman, but the ultimate source is the Latin vigor, which refers to physical and mental energy.

The first to show up, the adjective “vigorous,” meant strong, healthy, and active when it appeared in Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Herui, þat was vigrous & liȝt, / On þe scheld him hit a dint hard” (“Hervi, who was vigorous and quick, / Struck a hard blow against his shield”).

The noun “vigor” referred to active physical strength, power, and energy when it appeared a half-century later. The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Man of Law’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386):

“That right as god spirit of vigour sente / To hem, and saued hem out of meschance, / So sente he myght and vigour to Custance” (“That just as God sent to them the spirit of vigor to save them from disaster, so he sent might and vigor to Constance”).

Finally, “vigorousness,” a longer and perhaps clunkier version of “vigor,” showed up in Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440 and attributed to a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian: “Vigorowsnesse, vigorositas, ferocitas.”

We’re not feeling much vigorositas or ferocitas right now, so we’ll call it a day.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?

A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.

Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).

Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price

For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a  three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.

Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).

So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.

It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).

The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.

We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.

It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.

In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”

Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”

And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment:  “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”

If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.

The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”

In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”

“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.

We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”

When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.

The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”

At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.

The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”

The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:

“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”

The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”

We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why verb a noun? Why not?

Q: A few aspects of verbing puzzle me. Why does “Bowdler” give rise to “bowdlerize,” but “Boycott” to “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this? And is it verbing if there’s a suffix? To “Shanghai,” yes, but what about “Londonize” and “New Yorkify”? Finally, is verbing peculiar to English?

A: As you know, some language commentators have complained over the years about turning nouns into verbs, arguing that it erodes the distinction between the two parts of speech.

Other commentators (we’re among them) have defended the process, noting that the verbing of nouns is as old as the English language.

The linguist Steven Pinker (another defender), says, “I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns.” (The Language Instinct, 1994.)

“Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries,” Pinker writes; “it is one of the processes that makes English English.”

In fact, the process began in Anglo-Saxon times with the conversion of the Old English versions of nouns such as “love” “rain,” and “shield” into verbs, and it continues today with newbies like “email,” “medal,” “bookmark,” “tweet,” and “blog.”

The OxfordWords blog estimates that 40 percent of the new verbs in the 20th century came from nouns.

There are several ways to convert nouns to verbs in English, a process often referred to as “verbing,” “verbifying,” or “denominalization.”

(Although “verbing” usually refers to turning nouns into verbs, it can also mean converting adjectives or other terms into verbs.)

The simplest method of verbing a noun, sometimes referred to as “zero derivation,” uses the noun, with its original spelling and pronunciation, as a verb: “I hate rain, but I fear it will rain soon.”

Another method, referred to as “affix derivation,” involves adding a prefix or suffix: “She’s my idol. I idolize her” … “The witch wants to bewitch me.”

A third form is “consonant modification”: “I’m waiting for the bath to fill, so I can bathe” … “It’s my belief; I really believe it.” And a fourth is “stress modification”: “Is that the contract? When did you contract it?”

The first of these methods of converting a noun to a verb seems to bug traditionalists the most, but we can’t see much difference between using the noun as is or altering it slightly with an affix or a change in pronunciation, similar to what happens in more inflected languages.

Why, you ask, did the name “Bowdler” gives us the verb “bowdlerize,” while the name “Boycott” gave us the identical noun and verb “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this?

Yes, there does seem to be some logic—or at least a pattern—behind whether a verb derived from the name of a person has a suffix or not. Here are two features that we’ve observed:

(1) If the person’s name is the source of an identical common noun, the accompanying verb generally doesn’t have a suffix. Some suffix-less noun/verb examples: “boycott,” “guillotine,” “sandwich,” and “silhouette.”

(2) If the name of the person didn’t give rise to an identical common noun, the verb derived from the name usually has a suffix. Some examples: “bowdlerize,” “galvanize,” “mesmerize,” “pasteurize,” and “vulcanize.”

However, there are exceptions to number 1, such as “bogart” (a verb but not a common noun) and “gerrymander” (from “Gerry” + “salamander”), as well as exceptions to number 2, such as “bork” and “lynch.”

Also, our sense is that a suffix isn’t generally used today when coining a nonce word (one made up on the fly) from somebody’s name, as in “She Taylor Swifted him on her new album.”

Verbs derived from the names of products generally don’t have affixes. Examples: “bubble-wrap,” “facebook,” “google,” “rollerblade,” “scotch-tape,” “skype,” “taser,” “velcro,” and “xerox.” (Though companies disapprove, we generally lowercase product names that are routinely used as verbs or common nouns.)

As for turning geographic names into verbs, we don’t see much logic there, though many of these verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary come from adjectives rather than nouns: “Americanize,” “Frenchify,” “Germanify,” “Russianize,” and so on.

Fanny Burney, in her novel Evelina (1778), coined the word “Londonize” (“to make like London or its inhabitants”), according to this OED citation: “Her chief objection was to our dress, for we have had no time to Londonize ourselves.”

When the verb “shanghai” first showed up in the 19th century, Oxford says, it was nautical slang for to “drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands.” Now, it also means to coerce or trick someone into doing something.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past participle, is from the March 1, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune: “And before that time they would have been drugged, shanghaied, and taken away from all means of making complaint.”

“Is verbing peculiar to English?” you ask. No, though “zero derivation” conversions (with the words unchanged) occur more often in English. Other languages generally add an affix to turn a noun into a verb.

We came across a guide to verbing in Costa Rican Spanish that includes many affixed examples, like these: café (coffee) to cafetear (drink coffee); galleta (cookie) to galletar (eat cookies), mujer (woman) to mujerear (chase after women—we might say “womanize”).

The OxfordWords blog, in the post mentioned earlier, says the conversion of nouns with their original spelling is “much more common in English than in other Indo-European languages.” It cites a 2010 article by the Irish writer Anthony Gardner in the Economist.

“What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections,” Gardner writes. “The infinitive does not take a separate ending.”

So English can have a noun “act” and a verb “act,” while in French the noun action has to become the verb actionner.

Gardner says such noun/verb words are virtually unknown in German and Chinese, and not found at all in Arabic. However, he notes a couple of exceptions: essen means “food” and “eat” in German, and the Chinese noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “shock.”

You mentioned the suffixes “-ize” and “-ify” in your question. Both have many uses in English, according to the OED, but we’ll mention only a few of them.

The suffix “-ize” is used, for example, to form verbs derived from Greek (like “idolize”) or Latin (“civilize”), as well as to make verbs from the names of people (“Calvinize”) and from ethnic adjectives (“Romanize”).

The suffix “-fy” or “-ify” is used to form verbs from Latin (“pacify”), jocular verbs (“speechify”), verbs that characterize something (“countrify”), verbs that describe attributes (“Frenchify”), and nonce verbs like your example “New Yorkify.”

We’ve written several posts that deal with verbing, including one in 2010 that mentions many common verbs derived from nouns, like “cook,” “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm.”

Here are brief descriptions of the people who gave English the eponymous verbs mentioned above:

  • Thomas Bowdler published an 1818 edition of Shakespeare “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
  • Captain Charles Boycott was ostracized in the autumn of 1880 when he tried to evict protesting tenants from the estate he was managing in County Mayo, Ireland.
  • Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a partisan redistricting bill in 1812 that created a district shaped like a salamander, hence “gerrymander.”
  • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, proposed in 1789 that capital punishment should be by mechanical decapitation.
  • Étienne de Silhouette was the French Controller-general in 1759. The most common of several theories is that his petty economies were compared to the cheap outline portraits that were popular in France at the time.
  • Luigi Aloisio Galvani, the source of “galvanize,” was an 18th-century Italian scientist and a pioneer in the field of bioelectricity.
  • Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician whose research in animal magnetism was a forerunner of hypnosis.
  • Louis Pasteur, a 19th-century French chemist, discovered the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and metalworking, is the source for the name of a process for hardening rubber.
  • Capt. William Lynch and Justice of the Peace Charles Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s, have been cited as sources for the term “Lynch law,” which led to the verb “lynch.” The OED considers Captain Lynch the most likely source.
  • Judge Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987 after a heated Senate debate.
  • Humphrey Bogart, who often smoked in films, gave us a slang verb for monopolizing something, especially a marijuana cigarette.
  • John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) is said to have spent 24 hours at the gaming table, eating only some slices of cold beef placed between pieces of toast.
  • John Calvin (1509-64) was a French theologian during the Protestant Reformation.

We’ll end by letting the critics of verbing have the last word. In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1993, Calvin tells Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, that “verbing weirds language.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

“Shoulder,” a term with legs

Q: What is the purpose of the “-er” suffix in “shoulder”? Is it a comparative (as in “stronger”) or an agent (as in “farmer”). And is “shoulder” related to “shield,” as some suggest?

A: The “-er” in “shoulder” is not a suffix. It’s merely part of the word. And while “shoulder” may have some distant connection with “shield,” there’s no evidence to prove it.

“Shoulder” was recorded as far back as the 600s in early Old English, where it was spelled variously as sculdur, sculdor, sculder, and scyldur.

The word came into English by way of old West Germanic languages, in which it had two syllables and ended in –er or –ra (the modern German is schulter), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest known use of “shoulder” in English writing, the OED says, comes from The Epinal Glossary, a book of Latin terms translated into Old English.

The glossary, which dates from sometime before 700, has this entry: “Scapula, sculdur.” (In Late Latin, scapula meant shoulder; in English “scapula” has always meant shoulder blade.)

Another word from Germanic, “shield,” first appeared in English writing more than a century later, about 825, in a passage from The Vespasian Psalter:

“Ðer gebrec hornas bogan sceld sweord & gefeht” (“The clamor of horns, bows, shield, sword, and fighting”).

Now for their etymologies.

The OED traces “shoulder” to a prehistoric West Germanic term reconstructed as skuldr-, and it traces “shield” to another prehistoric Germanic root, skelduz-.

These may sound similar, but the OED doesn’t connect them. As the editors say, “the affinities of the West Germanic word [skuldr-] are disputed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins does mention a possible link: “One suggestion is that it [skuldr-] is distantly related to English shield, and originally denoted ‘shoulder blade’ (the underlying meaning being ‘flat piece’).”

This is plausible but difficult to prove, since even before prehistoric Germanic, “shoulder” and “shield” were represented by different roots.

Language scholars have identified the source of “shoulder” as an ancient Indo-European root, skep– (to cut or scrape), and the primitive ancestor of “shield” as skel– (to cut).

(These roots, from before written language, are rendered differently by some scholars. We’ve used spellings from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.) 

What do shoulders have to do with cutting and scraping?

Some etymologists suggest that shoulder blades, perhaps from animals, were used as tools for scraping.

Others speculate that the anatomical term may have originally referred to spades or shovels, and that shoulders were named for their resemblance to those flat, sharp implements.

What does a shield have to do with cutting? In Germanic the original sense, as Ayto writes, may have been “a flat piece of wood produced by splitting a log, board.”

If there is a link connecting “shoulder” and “shield,” some common ancestor beginning with ske-, perhaps new evidence will eventually come to light and etymologists will connect the dots.

One thing is certain about these very old words. They’ve kept their original literal meanings since they entered English some 1,500 years ago—“shoulder” as the anatomical part and “shield” as the defensive weapon.

They’ve become verbs and adjectives as well as nouns, and over the centuries they’ve developed scores of figurative and extended meanings, both alone and in phrases.

To choose just one example, would you believe that “cold shoulder,” in the sense of coldness or indifference, is 200 years old?

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Antiquary (1816), a novel by Sir Water Scott: “The Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

On dentists and dontists

Q: Why is a regular tooth doctor called a “dentist” while a specialist is a “dontist,” as in “periodontist” or “orthodontist”?

A: To begin at the beginning, the “dent“ (in “dentist”) and the “odont” (in “orthodontist”) are ultimately derived from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European term meaning “biting,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This ancient term, which the American Heritage guide renders as əd-ent-, may have been pronounced something like uh-dent. It was the source of the words for “tooth” in Greek (odous, odont-) and in Latin (dens, dent-).

Now let’s fast-forward to the mid-18th century, when English adopted the word “dentist” from the French dentiste, a derivative of dent (French for “tooth”) and its Latin ancestors.

What, you may ask, were dentists called before the 18th century? The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “dentist” has the answer:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.” (From the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle.)

Yes, for hundreds of years the term was “tooth-drawer.” The OED’s oldest example is from Piers Plowman (1393), an allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Of portours and of pyke~porses and pylede toþ-drawers” (“Of porters and of pick-purses and bald-headed tooth-drawers”).

As for those people you call “dontists,” the story begins in the early 19th century with the scientific term odontia.

The OED traces the term to John Mason Good’s book A Physiological System of Nosology, which he began writing in 1808 and published in 1820.

(No, the book isn’t about noses; “nosology” is the classification of diseases.)

Although Oxford doesn’t have a citation from the work, a search of the text online finds Good’s description of odontia as “pain or derangement” of teeth or their sockets.

Good explains that he chose a classical Greek source for his terminology because compounds based on odous (“tooth”) were “common to the Greek writers” in referring to toothaches.

Here are the OED’s dates for the earliest appearances of some words derived from odontia:

“orthodontia” (1849), “orthodontist” (1903),  “periodontia” (1914), “periodontist” (1920), “periodontics” (1948), “endodontia” (1946), “endodontics” (1946), and “endodontist” (1946).

So why do practitioners of general dentistry refer to themselves with the Latin-derived “dent,” while dental specialists use the Greek-derived “odont”?

Well, the word “dentist,” borrowed from a Romance language with roots in Latin, showed up first, and it had become firmly established in English by the time Good used a Greek term to classify dental diseases almost a century later.

However, we can’t tell you why Good’s terminology rather than the earlier Latinate usage gave us the names for dental specialties and specialists that showed up later. Not all developments in English have clear-cut explanations.

One possibility is that the usage may have been influenced by the writings of the Scottish author John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s magazine in the early 1800s.

Shortly before Good’s book on diseases was published, Lockhart used “odontist” as a humorous term for a dentist.

Lockhart published a series of highly popular comic poems and songs purportedly written by James Scott, The Odontist, a semi-fictional character based on a real dentist of the same name who practiced in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Lockhart put so many of the real doctor’s phrases and friends into the poems and songs that Dr. Scott started behaving like a literary figure himself and perhaps even believed he was one, according to James Hogg, another Blackwood’s writer.

In Poetry as an Occupation and an Art in Britain, 1760-1830, a 1993 book of literary criticism, Peter T. Murphy includes this comment from Hogg about the real Dr. Scott:

“Lockhart sucked his brains so cleverly, and crammed ’The Odontist’s’ songs with so many of the creature’s own peculiar phrases, and names and histories of his obscure associates, that, though I believe the man could scarce spell a note of three lines, even his intimate acquaintances were obliged to swallow the hoax, and by degrees ‘The Odontist’ passed for a first-rate convivial bard.”

With the political conventions behind us, here’s an applicable excerpt from “Clydesdale Yeoman’s Return,” an 1819 poem by The Odontist that offers a farmer’s thoughts about a noisy political meeting;

For ’tis idle hand makes busy tongue, and troubles all the land
With noisy fools, that prate of things they do not understand.

PS: If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2014 on “dent,” “indent,” “dentist,” and their relatives.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

To be or not to be a question

Q: Often, when I write emails to finalize appointments, I end as follows, “Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you.” Although this would seem to be a question, I am not clear as to whether it really is one and needs a question mark.

A: No question mark is necessary.

Although that sentence is worded as a question, it’s not intended as one. It’s intended as a polite imperative—that is, a courteous command or directive. The speaker (or writer) softens the imperative by framing it as a question.

This is a very common way of expressing a command in a mannerly way.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) calls sentences like this “requests as questions,” and says they don’t need question marks: “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this form of expression an “indirect speech act,” one in which meaning is conveyed indirectly.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, use as an example the sentence “Would you like to close the window.” As they explain:

“Syntactically, this is a closed interrogative, and in its literal interpretation it has the force of an inquiry (with Yes and No as answers).” But in practice, they say, it’s “most likely” a directive, a request to close the window.

“Indirect speech acts,” the authors write, “are particularly common in the case of directives: in many circumstances it is considered more polite to issue indirect directives than direct ones (such as imperative Close the window).”

Clearly, a sentence like yours—”Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you”—is neither a question nor a demand. It lies somewhere in between, which is why a question mark (and certainly an exclamation point) might seem inappropriate.

Still, we would not call a question mark incorrect here—just unnecessary. The use of a question mark instead of a period would make the request sound even more tentative, an effect you might not want.

If you wanted to make the request firmer but still polite, you could use a straight imperative, refined with a “please,” as in “Please confirm that this appointment will work for you.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling  for foreign-sourced words.

A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.

The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”

We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.

Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.

The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in the late 1990s. In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,

Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:

“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”

And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:

“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”

“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”

In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”

And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”

In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.

If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).

In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”

“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.

You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”

“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”

Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”

Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]

As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus , there).

The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”


Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.