The Grammarphobia Blog

The “worse” case

Q: I’m puzzled by the grammar of this sentence: “Worse, the huge sums spent on subsidizing kerosene make a mockery of government health spending.” What part of speech is the word “worse” here?

A: “Worse” has many functions in English—it can be an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. When it introduces a sentence or a clause, it’s an adverb.

In such a construction, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adverb introduces “an additional clause or sentence containing a further and stronger instance of action which incurs reprobation.”

In other words, when the adverb introduces a sentence or clause, it presents something regarded as worse than what was mentioned before.

The OED’s examples of this usage date back to the 18th century, but we’ll cite a couple of the more recent ones for purposes of illustration:

“He had denied the gods; worse, he had denounced the doings of the gods as evil” (from Gilbert Murray’s Euripides and His Age, 1913). Here, “worse” introduces a clause—a group of words containing a verb and its subject.

“Worse still, he has omitted one leaf” (from Hyder E. Rollins’s anthology of Tudor poems, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, 1926). Here, “worse” introduces a sentence.

When the adverb “worse” isn’t making introductions, it modifies a single verb or adjective, as in “You could do worse” … “Don’t think worse [or ‘the worse’] of him” … “He writes worse than I” … “Back then, girls were worse educated” … “She is worse off.”

As we said, “worse” is also a noun, as in these examples: “for better or worse” … “from bad to worse” … “there was worse to come” … “a change for the worse.”

And it’s an adjective, as in these: “he is bad but she is worse” … “a worse situation” … “there are worse things.” (As an adjective, “worse” is the comparative form of “bad,” and the opposite of “better.”)

There’s even a verb form, “worsen,” meaning to make worse or become worse (that is, deteriorate). It’s been part of English since around 1200 and comes from an earlier, now defunct verb, “worse.”

All four words—the adverb, the noun, the adjective, and the old verb “worse”—were recorded in writing in the 800s, according to OED citations.

All of the forms have ancient roots. Etymologists have traced them to a prehistoric Germanic root reconstructed as werz- or wers-, meaning to entangle, confuse, or bring into discord.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that this root is the ancestor not only of “worse” and the superlative form “worst,” but also of the English noun “war” and the German verb wirren (confuse).

If you’d like to read more, we had a post in 2008 about “worse” versus “worst,” as well as the various versions of the expression “if worse comes to worse.”

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Ongoing concerns

Q: I may be wrong, but I am irked by people saying “the investigation is ongoing.” I would say “there is an ongoing investigation” or “the investigation is going on,” but not “the investigation is ongoing.” Am I just plain wrong?

A: “Ongoing” is a legitimate adjective, and typically adjectives can be used either before or after the nouns they modify.

When “ongoing” precedes the noun (as in “an ongoing investigation”) it’s used as an attributive adjective. When it follows the noun (“the investigation is ongoing”), it’s a predicate adjective.

The second usage sounds like bureaucratese to us, and “continuing” or “in progress” would sound less stuffy than “ongoing.” But we can’t find any legitimate argument against this usage.

The adjective “ongoing” has this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “that goes on or is going on; continuing, continuous; that is in progress; current; proceeding, developing.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from an 1841 issue of the Dublin University Magazine: “Nothing better for the ongoing expenses of an establishment, than an attorney’s bills of cost.”

In Oxford’s entry for “ongoing,” all the citations are attributive uses: “this ongoing age” (1851), “a steady on-going thing” (1877), “his on-going cases” (1960), “prior or ongoing … infection” (1984), and others.

But elsewhere in the OED, in unrelated entries, we found examples of “was ongoing” (1991) and “is ongoing” (2003). In fact, “ongoing” is quite often used as a predicate adjective, appearing directly after a linking verb (like “be” or “seem”).

The vast majority of adjectives can be used either way—before a noun (as in “a surprising/unfortunate/historic verdict”) or after (“the verdict was surprising/unfortunate/historic” … “a verdict surprising/unfortunate/historic in its implications”).

There are exceptions, of course. Some adjectives always precede the nouns they modify (like “mere,” “utter,” “former,” “principal”). And a handful of adjectives invariably follow nouns, either directly or with a linking verb in between (like “asleep,” “galore,” “afraid,” “aware”).

But we see no good reason why “ongoing” can’t be used either way. Some similarly constructed adjectives (“forthcoming,” “outstanding,” “outgoing”) can be used either before or after a noun. We can say “She was an outgoing child” or “As a child, she was outgoing.”

The only complaint we can come up with against “ongoing” as a predicate adjective is that it’s not very elegant in our opinion.

Since you’re irked by this usage, you’ll probably be even more irked by two words derived from “ongoing.”

The OED has citations for the use of an adverb, “ongoingly,” and a noun, “ongoingness,” both recorded in the mid-20th century and mercifully uncommon. Here are the OED’s most recent citations for each of them:

Adverb: “I wonder what it must be like to be part of something ongoingly huge like a number-one sitcom” (from Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, 2009).

Noun: “Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness” (from an essay by the poet Mark Strand in the New York Review of Books, 1995).

If you’re being semi-humorous, like Nicholson Baker, or writing art criticism, as Mark Strand was doing, you can get away with “ongoingly” and “ongoingness.” Otherwise, we don’t recommend them.

But to be fair, “ongoing” was a noun before it was anything else. The word was first recorded as a noun in the 1630s, according to the OED, when it meant “the action of proceeding, developing or happening,” or a “continuing or continuous movement or action.”

Oxford’s earliest recorded usage is from a letter written by the Scottish clergyman Samuel Rutherford in 1637: “The Lord, who hath … stopped the on-going of that lawless process.”

There’s a plural form too. “Ongoings” is defined in the OED as meaning the same thing as “goings-on”—that is, “noteworthy actions, proceedings, or doings.”

The earliest use, as far as we know, is from 1673, when local records show that members of a school council in Paisley, Scotland, passed an ordinance because they were “moved by certain ongoings in their midst.” (The “ongoings” involved the sale of alcohol to students.)

This usage is still occasionally found; the OED has a 1999 reference to “ongoings at the eye clinic.”

But we’re partial to “goings-on,” which dates from the late 18th century. As Oxford notes, it “usually” implies censure of some kind. It can mean “questionable proceedings, extravagances, frolics.” We think that’s what the Paisley school council had in mind.

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The rise and fall of capital letters

Q: In rereading Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m impressed by her use of midline capitals. Can you shed some light on the capitalization of common nouns in 19th-century America? Is it intended for emphasis?

A: When William Caxton introduced printing to England in the 15th century, “great uncertainty” surrounded the use of capital letters, according to the linguist David Crystal.

In The Stories of English (2004), Crystal writes that capital letters were “first used for proper names as well as for sentence and verse-line openings.”

Later, he says, capitals “were extended to any words thought to be important (such as titles, terms of address, and personification) as well as to words receiving special emphasis.”

“During the seventeenth century, virtually any word might be capitalized, if it were felt to be significant, and compositors—to be on the safe side—tended to over-capitalize,” he writes.

In the 19th century, he adds, “a reaction set in against excessive capitalization … and we find the present-day system emerging.”

“Then as now there were heavy and light capitalizers, as well as heavy and light punctuators,” Crystal says. “Indeed, this is one of the areas where standard English is still most unstable, as a glance at the ‘sometimes capitalized’ note in modern dictionaries suggests.”

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Crystal expands on some of these points, noting efforts by John Hart, a 16th-century grammarian and spelling reformer, to bring some order to the language.

“Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun,” he writes. “By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature).  Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital.”

By the beginning of the 18th century, Crystal writes, “the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important.”

“Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German)— perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all,” he writes.

Crystal says the use of capitals “was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals.”

“However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language,” he says. “In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.”

We’ll end with “This Is My Letter to the World,” a poem in which Emily Dickinson uses capital letters liberally:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

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The product in your hair

Q: I had my hair cut the other day and as usual the stylist asked me whether I wanted her to use any product. When did “product” enter our vocabulary as something you buy at a salon?

A: The noun “product,” which first showed up in English in the 15th century as a mathematical term, has taken on many other meanings since then.

The sense you’re asking about (“any commercial preparation used to style the hair”) appeared in the late 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from the April 27, 1989, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The key to making mascara work is ‘to make sure that there is not too much product on it.’ ”

The dictionary notes that the term “product” is occasionally used to mean a cosmetic, which may be how it’s being used in that first example.

Here’s a clearly hairy example from the June 25, 2001, issue of New York Magazine: “I don’t wash my hair or even rinse it after the beach—I just put a lot of product in to make it shiny.”

When the noun “product” first showed up in English, according to the OED, it was far removed from the hair salon. It referred to “the quantity obtained by multiplying two or more quantities together.”

The dictionary’s first citation, written around 1450, is from the Art of Nombryng, a translation of De Arte Numerandi, a 13th-century treatise sometimes attributed to the monk Johannes de Sacrobosco.

The anonymous Middle English translator of the Latin treatise refers to the “product or provenient, of takyng out of one fro another, as twyes 5 is 10.”

Over the years, the OED notes, this sense of “product” has been widely used to mean “any of various other entities (as matrices, permutations, sets, tensors, vectors, etc.) obtained by certain defined processes of combination of two or more entities.”

Other senses of “product” include someone or something produced by a natural process (1600), the value of goods produced (1793), something produced for sale (1825), creative work considered marketable (1974), and illicit drugs (1983).

In other words, “product” has had a very productive life.

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A hydra-headed question

Q: Why do so many people say “I can’t get my head around” a problem? I always thought the expression was “I can’t get my arms around” it. You’d have to be a Hydra to get your head around a problem.

A: For dozens of years, people have been trying to get or wrap their heads, minds, brains, or arms around problems (often unsuccessfully, as in the example you mention).

The oldest of these expressions appears to be to “get one’s head around” something, a usage that the Oxford English Dictionary has been tracking since the 1920s.

The OED defines the expression and its variants as “to master or fully comprehend (a subject or fact), esp. despite initial difficulty or reluctance” or “to come to terms with (a situation).”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from the July 15, 1922, issue of Gem: “Wait a minute, my boy. Let me get my head round it.”

The most recent citation is from a July 26, 2010, post on the Spitalfields Life blog: “So many have pegged out. I can’t get my head round it. I suppose I’m next for the chop.”

The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (2d ed.) describes the “get your head” version of the expression as informal and defines it as “to be able to understand something (usually negative).”

Cambridge gives this example of the usage: “He’s tried to explain the rules of the game dozens of times but I just can’t get my head around them.”

The OED doesn’t have separate entries for the other versions of the expression, but Cambridge defines “get your mind around something” as “to succeed in understanding something difficult or strange (usually negative).”

Here’s the example in Cambridge: “I still can’t get my mind around the strange things she said that night.”

The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “get your arms around something,” but the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says it means “to feel confident that you have a good understanding of something that is complicated.”

The dictionary gives this example of what its editors apparently consider an American idiom: “There are so many different aspects of the energy situation that it’s hard to get your arms around it.”

The use of “wrap” instead of “get” in the expression seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In a search of Google Books, we found this example in Wild Harvest, a 1987 novel by Eleanor Gustafson: “I can’t wrap my mind around the stuff I should believe.”

As for the hydra-headed business, relax. Idioms don’t have to make literal sense. So don’t worry your head about them.

[Update, Oct. 13, 2014. A reader of the blog sent in this interesting comment: “Given the 1920s early citation of ‘get one’s head around’ something, I’m wondering if it’s a humorous inversion of getting something into one’s head, parallel to P. G. Wodehouse’s frequent use of ‘getting outside’ something (or similar words) to mean consuming food or drink. For instance, ‘The Oldest Member, who had been meditatively putting himself outside a cup of tea and a slice of seed-cake, raised his white eyebrows.’ (From a short story, ‘The Long Hole,’ published in The Strand, August 1921.)”]

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Grammar term limits

Q: What part of speech is “here” in the sentence “It is here”? In your post about “Here it is,” you say “here” is an adverb. But my understanding is that “to be” is a linking verb that takes an adjective or a noun as a complement, not an adverb. Yours confusedly.

A: You’ve put your finger on an important problem, one that has prompted linguists and grammarians to rethink the way words have traditionally been categorized.

Your question refers to a 2011 blog post in which we wrote that “here” is an adverb when it means “in this place.” So in the sentences “Here is the key” and “Here it is,” we said, the verb “be” is complemented by the adverb “here.”

It’s not true that “be” must always be complemented by either a noun (as in “He is a man”) or an adjective (“He is tall”).

The complement can also be a “locative” adverb (an adverb of location), like “here,” “there,” “everywhere,” “outside,” “inside,” “in,” “out,” “away,” and so on.

All standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, classify this use of  “here” as adverbial.

Oxford’s earliest written examples of “here” used with “be” are “Nys he her” (Old English for “He isn’t here,” circa 1000), and “Here he is and honen he nys” (Middle English for “Here he is and hence he isn’t,” 1175).

In his paper “Retrospective on the Verb ‘To Be’ and the Concept of Being,” published in the book The Logic of Being (1986), Charles H. Kahn discusses “copula” (that is, linking) uses of the verb “be.”

“Among the copula uses of be in a broad sense,” Kahn explains, “are what we may call locative uses, where the complement or predicate expression is not a noun or adjective but a local adverb (here, there) or a prepositional phrase of place (at home, in the marketplace).”

The Collins English Dictionary has a similar explanation. The copula “be,” the editors write, can be “used with an adverbial complement to indicate a relationship of location in space or time (Bill is at the office; the dance is on Saturday).”

You’ll notice that the adverbial complements in those Collins examples are prepositional phrases. This is significant, because “here” and other locative adverbs can be replaced by prepositional phrases.

In fact, some linguists believe that “here” and other locative adverbs used with “be” should be reclassified as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is a good example.

The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, depart from what they call “the practice of traditional grammar (as reflected, for example, in the classification of words in dictionaries),” and categorize “here,” “there,” “outside,” “indoors,” “away,” “downstairs,” “ashore,” “overseas,” and many more as prepositions.

On the other hand, some language authorities have suggested that the difficulty doesn’t lie in calling “here” an adverb. Instead, it lies in our thinking that “be” is always a mere linking verb that can’t have attributes.

In his book Understanding Grammar (1954), Paul Roberts writes that sometimes “be” is more like the verb “exist”:

“A difficulty in analysis is illustrated by the sentence ‘He is here.’ Linking verbs are usually followed by subjective complements (nouns and adjectives) rather than by adverbs. But is in ‘He is here’ is best considered not a linking verb but a predicating verb, like exists in ‘He exists.’ It is true that is needs a following word to complete its meaning; ‘he is’ is not a finished statement. … If then we consider the is in ‘He is here’ as not a linking verb but a predicating verb with existential meaning, here may be construed conventionally as an adverb modifying a verb.”

That’s the story—so far. The way linguists and lexicographers look at language is always evolving.

So if you’re puzzled about how to pigeonhole the words in “It is here,” you can either change your view of adverbs like “here” and think of them as prepositions, or you can change your thinking about the verb “be,” and think of it as a predicating verb, rather than a linking verb.

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Getting involved

Q: Which preposition should follow “involve”—“in” or “with”? I must be using the “wrong” preposition in casual conversations, because I seem to use the two interchangeably. Is there an easy rule to follow?

A: We have a hunch that you’re mostly concerned with the use of “involve” in the passive (“to be involved”) or as a participial adjective ( “the suspects involved”).

When you need a preposition here, the choice depends on your meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is how the OED illustrates these passive or adjectival uses:

● “To be involved in” means “more generally, to be occupied, engrossed, or embroiled in.”

Oxford has the examples “deeply involved in smuggling” (1843), and “involved in a union dispute” (1940).

● “To be involved with” means “to be concerned or associated with” or “to commit (oneself) emotionally; spec. to have a sexual relationship with.”

Oxford has these examples: “one of those people one liked to know but not really be involved with” (1983), and “He had involved himself with Ellie” (1955).

Otherwise, when “involve” is used in ordinary constructions (not passively or adjectivally), the usual preposition, if one is needed at all, is “in.”

For example, if “involve” means to envelop or entangle in troubles, difficulties, crime, perplexities, or the like, then “in” is used, not “with.”

The OED has these examples: “to involve as many persons as they could in the charge” (1838) … “involved both kings and people in one common ruin” (1847) … “you will involve me in a contradiction” (1871).

As for its history, “involve” first entered written English, as far as we know, in the 1380s.

The OED says it comes from the Latin verb Latin involvere, meaning “to roll into or upon, to wrap up, envelop, surround, entangle, make obscure.” The Latin verb is formed from the prefix in- plus the verb volvere (to roll).

In its earliest English use, “involve” meant “to envelop within the folds of some condition or circumstance; to environ [surround], esp. so as to obscure or embarrass; to beset with difficulty or obscurity,” Oxford says.

OED citations indicate that this sense of “involve” was accompanied at first by “with” as well as “in.” Gradually the “in” uses became dominant.

You can see a progression in these examples from the dictionary: “ [a doctrine] involved with absurdities, and inexplicable contradictions” (1635) … “[a passage] involved in great obscurity” (1790) … “the numerous difficulties in which this question is involved” (1871).

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Do fish have tongues?

Q: I recently returned from a vacation in Newfoundland, where I enjoyed the regional dish of “cod tongue.” Or should it be “cod’s tongue”? Or maybe “cods’ tongues”? I suspect that “cod” in “cod tongue” is an adjective (telling us what kind of tongue), not a noun (telling us whose tongue).

A: The word “cod” in “cod tongue” is an attributive noun, a noun that acts as an adjective. It’s attributive because the attributes associated with “cod” are applied to “tongue.”

All three of the versions you mention—“cod tongue,” “cod’s tongue,” and “cods’ tongues”—are legitimate, though “cod tongues” appears to be the most common way of referring to the dish, according to online searches.

Your question led us to ask one of our own: Do fish have tongues?

Yes, we’ve learned, most fish do have tongues. The tongue of a fish is formed from a fold in the floor of the mouth, according to an FAQ on the website of the Australian Museum.

However, fish tongues aren’t much like ours. Fish use their tongue muscles to thrust food backward while mammals use the tongue to position food for grinding, according to a study by researchers at Brown University.

We couldn’t find the term “cod tongues” (or its variants) in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the standard dictionaries we usually check.

A Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines the term as “the tongue or hyoid apparatus of the cod-fish, much prized for its glutinous jelly-like consistency and delicate flavour when lightly fried.” (The hyoid bone anchors the tongue.)

The term “cod tongues” has been around since at least the 18th century. The earliest citation in the Newfoundland dictionary is from a 1771 entry in the journal of George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer in Newfoundland and Labrador:

“In the morning Condon came up and brought some cod tongues and sounds.” (The dictionary defines “sound” as the “’swimming bladder of certain fish.”)

In its entry for “tongue,” the dictionary has several examples of the word used in the sense we’re talking about, including this one from the September 1975 issue of The Rounder, a Newfoundland magazine:

“Best known is the tongue, much prized in certain circles for its jellylike consistency. Young children in many fishing communities make extra pocket money by cutting out the tongues and selling them by the dozen, door to door.”

In case you’re interested, we came across a video on a Norwegian website that shows young fishermen cutting the tongues out of cod.

The noun “cod” first showed up in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the origin of the word is uncertain.

Interestingly, it doesn’t appear in any other language and it’s not related to the name for the fish in classical Greek (gados) or zoological Latin (gadus).

The OED says it’s been suggested that the name might come from cod, an Old English term for a pouch, perhaps because of the baglike appearance of the fish. (John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this theory is not all that convincing.)

We’ll end with an excerpt from a Nov. 14, 1825, letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge, who was living in Boston:

“We should be very glad occasionally to get small supplies of the fine dumb cod-fish to be had at Boston, and also of the tongues and sounds of the cod.”

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If grammar be the food of love

Q: A couple of friends insist on using the subjunctive in a conditional clause like this: “Say hello to my brother if he be there when you arrive.” To me, it sounds ungrammatical, never mind this example from Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on.” What do you say?

A: The sentence “Say hello to my brother if he be there when you arrive” is not grammatically correct in modern English.

The proper construction is “if he is there.” Why? Because it’s possible that he will be there.

In modern English (we’ll get to Elizabethan English later), we use the subjunctive with “if” only when the condition is contrary to fact.

Here’s an example: “If she were thinner, she’d be more confident” (she’s not thinner, so the condition mentioned is not a fact).

There’s a lot of confusion over what constitutes the subjunctive mood. It’s not the same as the conditional; not all conditional clauses have verbs in the subjunctive mood.

Here’s a passage from Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, that you might find helpful:

CONDITIONAL CLAUSE. A clause that starts with if, as if, as though, or some other expression of supposition. The verb in a conditional clause has an attitude: that is, it takes on different forms, or ‘moods,’ depending on the speaker’s attitude or intention toward what’s being said. When the clause states a condition that’s contrary to fact, the verb is in the subjunctive mood (If I were you . . . ). When the clause states a condition that may be true, the verb is in the indicative mood (If I was late . . . ).”

And here’s a passage, from a post on our blog, that further explains the conditions under which the subjunctive is used in modern English:

“(1) When expressing a wish: ‘I wish the nuclear arsenal were retired.’ (In the subjunctive, ‘was’ becomes ‘were.’)

“(2) When making an ‘if’ statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: ‘If the nuclear arsenal were retired, we’d be safer.’ (Ditto.)

“(3) When something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: ‘We demand that the government retire the nuclear arsenal.’ (In these cases, the verb in the second clause is always in the infinitive, as in ‘I suggest she walk,’ ‘They ordered that he be jailed,’ etc.)”

Note that we said “in modern English.” If Shakespeare were writing today, he wouldn’t use the subjunctive in that passage from Twelfth Night (unless he wanted to sound Elizabethan).

In the past, the subjunctive was used more widely and in different kinds of constructions than it is today.  Thus does English change.

Note: We’ve had several items on the blog about obsolete uses of the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 on the use of the verb “be” in Elizabethan times.

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A medieval mystery

Q: I’m enjoying Mel Starr’s Hugh de Singleton series of medieval mysteries. I take notes when he mentions unfamiliar dishes and I look up the terms later. I’ve finally come across one I can’t track down. It’s cevy, which seems to be a broth or herb or flavoring for cooking fish or rabbit. Can you help?

A: The term cevy is a variant of cive, a Middle English word for a “spicy sauce containing chives or onions,” according to the Middle English Dictionary (5th ed., 1998), edited by Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn.

The dictionary says cive (pronounced with a long e) is derived from civé, Old French for “chive” or “onion.”

Other Middle English variants for cive include civey and cyvee. (In Middle English, the “v” sound is often written as u.)

In addition, Kurath and Kuhn note, the term is sometimes misspelled as ciney, cene, sine, and sene.

The dictionary has citations, dating from sometime before 1300 to sometime before 1500, for cive and its variants, including Harys in cyuee, mallard in cyuey, Connyngnes [rabbits] in cyuee, Mawlard in gely or in cyuey, and Oysturs in ceuy.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which spells the word civy or civey, cites a more expansive description of the now-obsolete term from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongnes (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave:

“A broth or sauce made of the entrails of a hog; also broth or sauce for the forepart of a fried hare, made of wine, vinegar, verjuice, herbs, and spices; oyster broth, or broth made of boiled oysters.”

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How do you say “long-lived”?

Q: Should “long-lived” and “short-lived” be pronounced with a long or a short “i”?  I have always wondered about that and I would appreciate your consideration of this issue.

A: The traditional pronunciation of “-lived” in a compound is with a long “i,” but current dictionaries say the vowel can now be either long (as in the noun “life”) or short (as in the verb “live”).

How did this change come about?  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which accepts both pronunciations, sheds some light in a Word History note.

“Some uncertainty exists as to the correct pronunciation of long-lived,” the note says. “The answer depends in part on how one looks at the word.”

Historically, according to American Heritage, “the first pronunciation is the more accurate. The word was formed in Middle English times as a compound of long and the noun life, plus the suffix -ed.”

In Middle English, the editors note, “the suffix -ed was always pronounced as a full syllable, so long-lifed (as it was then spelled) had three syllables.”

Later, the dictionary continues, the “f” came to be pronounced as “v,” and “eventually, the spelling became long-lived to reflect the pronunciation.”

But this new spelling, American Heritage says, “introduced an ambiguity; it was no longer clear from the spelling that the word came from the noun life, but rather looked as though it came from the verb live.

Thus the new pronunciation was introduced, and over the years it has come to be accepted as standard English, along with the traditional pronunciation.

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What’s “flat” about “flatware”?

Q: I was in a restaurant with three golfing buddies when I told the waitress we needed flatware. All three guys hooted, saying I should have said “silverware.” (The utensils were stainless steel. Are plastic knives, forks, and spoons “silverware” too?) Anyway, where does “flatware” come from, especially the “flat” part?

A: Originally, “flatware” meant not cutlery but dishes—that is, “plates, dishes, saucers and the like, collectively,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Such things were called “flatware” in the mid-19th century to distinguish them from “holloware” (or “hollow-ware”), a 17th-century term for bowls, cups, pots, pans, and other vessels with some depth to them, mostly made of metal.

The word “flatware” was first recorded, according to the OED, in the official catalogue for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which carried this description:

“Plates, dishes, saucers, &c., termed ‘flat ware,’ are made from moulds which form the inside of the article, the exterior being given by ‘profiles’ of the required outline, made of fired clay, glazed.”

But by the end of the century “flatware” was being used—especially in the US—to mean “domestic cutlery,” the OED says. All four of the dictionary’s citations are American, and show that “flatware” could be made of silver.

Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue: “Solid Sterling Flat Ware … Tea Spoons … Dessert Forks … Sugar Shells … Butter Knives.”

A few years later, in 1901, the New York Evening Post carried a reference to “a complete line of Rogers Flatware.”

The American author Gertrude Atherton used the term in her 1914 novel Perch of the Devil: “A magnificent silver service, from many dozens of ‘flat ware,’ to silver platters.”

And Mary McCarthy used it in her 1952 novel The Groves of Academe: “She seemed to fix her eyes on the flatware and napery with the same hypnotized effort that dragged her fork to her lips and back again.” (Earlier, we were told the table had been laid with a lace cloth and “wedding silver.”)

Today, many people use “flatware” to mean any kind of cutlery, and reserve “silverware” (another term coined in the mid-19th century) for tableware made of silver or an alloy of silver.

But this isn’t universally the case. In our experience, people sometimes use “silverware” loosely to mean knives, forks, and spoons in general.

“Tableware,” by the way, is a general term for articles used at the table—“cutlery, crockery, etc.,” as the OED says. It was first recorded in the late 1700s.

“Ware” in all these compounds, Oxford says, is a collective term for “articles of merchandise or manufacture; the things which a merchant, tradesman, or pedlar, has to sell; goods, commodities.”

This Germanic word, first recorded in English around the year 1000, is also used in the plural, as when we speak of a shopkeeper’s “wares.”

But etymologists think it may be older yet in English, and that it could be the same word as a now defunct “ware” from the 800s.

This obsolete word, first recorded in the ninth century, meant “watchful care,” “safekeeping,” and the like, and is the source of “wary,” “beware,” and “aware.”

So the 11th-century version of “ware” meaning goods, the OED suggests, is “used in the concrete sense ‘object of care.’ ”

As for plastic knives, forks, and spoons, we’d call them “plastic knives, forks, and spoons,” but some googling suggests that “plastic cutlery” is the preferred term among the people who make and sell the stuff.

Although the term “cutlery” has traditionally referred to knives, scissors, and other cutting implements since it entered English in the 1400s (via the Old French coutelerie), many standard dictionaries now accept its use for knives, forks, and spoons.

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Transitive, intransitive, or both?

Q: I’m appalled by the intransitive use of transitive verbs such as “excite,” “engage,” “inform,” and “entertain.” Then there’s the transitive use of intransitive verbs, as in “grow the economy.” I gag on these, almost as much as “between you and I.”

A: In English, the line dividing transitive and intransitive verbs isn’t as distinct as you might think. Most English verbs—including the ones you mention—can be both.

As we’ve written before here, a verb is said to be transitive when it requires a direct object, as in “She raises the shade.” (The verb’s action is transmitted to an object.) And a verb is intransitive when it doesn’t require an object, as in “The shade rises.”

Some verbs are always one or the other—they’re either transitive (like “raise”) or intransitive (like “rise”). But such one-or-the-other verbs are the exceptions.

As Joseph M. Williams writes in Origins of the English Language (1986), “Most verbs in English are neither strictly transitive nor intransitive.”

It’s true that the verbs you mention—“excite,” “engage,” “inform,” “entertain,” and “grow”—are generally used in limited ways (except for “grow,” they’re mostly used with objects).

But none of them are exclusively transitive or intransitive, according to their entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s a brief summary:

● “Excite,” while usually transitive (used with a direct object, as in “don’t excite the children”), has also been used without one for almost two centuries.

As the OED says, “excite” is used in modern English to mean “to move to strong emotion, stir to passion; to stir up to eager tumultuous feeling, whether pleasurable or painful.” And in this sense it’s sometimes used intransitively.

An early 19th-century example in the OED suggests to us that the intransitive “excite” may have originated as fashionable London slang. Here’s the citation, from a footnote in Pierce Egan’s novel Life in London (1821): “If some of the plates should appear rather warm, the purchasers of ‘Life in London’ may feel assured, that nothing is added to them tending to excite.” (In his novel, Egan italicized slang words.)

The OED also gives this later example of the verb’s intransitive usage: “Last week’s legitimate television drama failed to excite” (from a BBC publication, the Listener, 1968).

● “Engage,” usually transitive, has had intransitive (or “absolute”) uses since the mid-17th century. The OED has a representative example from 1693: “When Beauty ceases to engage” (from a poem by Matthew Prior).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that “engage” used intransitively can also mean, among other things, “to involve oneself” or “participate.”

● “Inform,” originally transitive, began acquiring intransitive uses in the 16th century. The OED’s examples include these: “They held that the Senses inform not alwaies truly” (from the classical scholar Thomas Stanley, 1656) …  “The basis of the patient’s claim is essentially the doctor’s failure to inform of risks” (the Modern Law Review, 1989).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says that “inform” used intransitively means “to impart information or knowledge.”

● “Entertain,” which also started out as a transitive verb, has had intransitive senses since the 19th century. The OED has these early examples: “My favourite occupations … now cease to entertain” (Charles Lamb, 1828), and “We were in such confusion … that we could not entertain” (from Macmillan’s Magazine, 1880).

American Heritage says that when used intransitively, to “entertain” can mean “to provide entertainment.”

● “Grow,” an intransitive verb in Old English (as in “the corn grows”), has been used transitively (“he grows corn”) since the 18th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the transitive sense, to “grow” means to cultivate or cause to grow. Many people object, however, to uses that don’t involve living things (“grow the business” … “grow the economy”).

As we’ve written on our blog, you can feel free to object to this inanimate usage (we don’t particularly like it ourselves), but not on the grounds that “grow” is only intransitive.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts without reservation the use of “grow” to mean “promote the development of” and gives as an example “start a business and grow it successfully.” So as far as M-W is concerned, this use of the verb is standard English.

There’s a much broader point to be made here. English verbs are very flexible in how they’re used, with transitive verbs taking on intransitive uses and vice versa. This has happened from the earliest times, and it’s likely to continue.

Origins of the English Language, which was mentioned above, notes that “starve” was originally always intransitive (“He starved”), but it took on a transitive sense in the 16th century (“Someone starved him”).

Williams, the author, argues that a sentence like “Someone starved him” probably sounded ungrammatical once upon a time. But such change is normal and to be expected.

In the end, he writes, the differences between transitive and intransitive senses “may not be in the meaning of the word but in whether the word occurs before an object, before a noun phrase.”

Another grammarian, Josephine Turck Baker, put it this way back in 1907: “The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is not an important one, for the reason, that most verbs are capable of either a transitive or an intransitive use.”

And in her book English Mediopassive Constructions (2007), the linguist Marianne Hundt notes that “the flexibility of using verbs both transitively and intransitively goes back to the Old English (OE) period. This tendency seems to have been strengthened through the following centuries.”

We’ve written before about verbs that change their spots, as with the newer uses of “disappear,” “bank,” “progress,” “consent,” “do,” “look,” “present,” and others.

There’s one more issue to consider here. Sometimes a verb’s alteration from transitive to intransitive has to do with its “voice”—that is, whether it’s being used in the active voice, the passive voice, or a “middle” voice (sometimes called the “mediopassive”) that’s somewhere in-between.

The German linguist Ekkehard König, writing in The Germanic Languages (2013), has this to say:

“In the so-called ‘middle’ voice, transitive verbs are constructed like intransitive ones and what is normally selected as object appears in subject position: Shakespeare does not translate, this bed folds up easily, this tent puts up in five minutes, this paint applies evenly.”

People use such constructions every day, in sentences like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.”

Note that the subjects (blouse, house, car) aren’t performing any action; they’re in fact the recipients of the action. Someone offstage presumably does the actual washing, selling, and driving.

In sentences like these, what would normally be the object of the verb disappears and becomes the subject. So the verb, even if it’s normally transitive and takes an object, must change its spots and become intransitive.

In our view, this flexibility between transitive and intransitive is a pretty nifty characteristic of English verbs. Sure, usages will emerge that make you gag. Some make us gag too.

But that’s the price we pay for speaking an exciting, engaging, and growing language.

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Lobbies where lobbyists lobby

Q: I assume that the verb “lobby,” meaning to try to influence politicians, is related to the noun “lobby,” a room near an entrance. Can you tell us a little about the history of the two words, and how they’re connected?

A: Yes, the noun and the verb “lobby” are related. When the verb showed up in the 1830s, it meant to hang out in the lobby of a legislative building with the aim of influencing the voting.

When “lobby” first appeared in this sense, it was an intransitive verb—that is, it didn’t need an object to make sense. By the mid-1800s, it was being used transitively—that is, with an object.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Oct. 6, 1837, issue of the Cleveland (Ohio) Herald:

“Gen. Bronson … spent a considerable portion of the last winter in Columbus, lobbying to procure the establishment of a Bank at Ohio City.”

The OED’s first transitive example is from an 1850 book by Sir Charles Lyell, an English geologist, about his travels in North America:

“A disappointed place-hunter, who had been lobbying the Houses of Legislature in vain for the whole session.”

The use of “lobbying” as a noun (a gerund is a verbal noun) showed up in an entry for the verb “lobby” in an 1855 supplement to The Imperial Dictionary, edited by John Ogilvie.

Here’s a more interesting OED example from the Jan. 6, 1862, issue of the Times (London): “ ‘Lobbying’ as it is termed, is a well known institution at Washington.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the guy doing all that lobbying is from the January 1863  issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “A Representative listening to a lobbyist.”

The latest cite is from Epitaph for a Lobbyist, a 1974 mystery by R. B. Dominic (pen name of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, who also wrote as Emma Lathen): “I don’t like high-powered lobbyists and their greasy favors.”

But let’s go back to the place where all this started. When the noun “lobby” appeared in the 1500s, it referred to a covered walk or cloister in a monastery.

The OED’s earliest (and only) example of this sense is from Thomas Becon’s 1553 book, The Relikes of Rome: “Our Recluses neuer come out of their lobbeis, sincke or swimme the people.”

By the late 1500s, the noun was being used to mean a corridor with one or more apartments in a building or a waiting area in a hall or theater.

Polonius uses the word in that sense in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written around 1600: “You know, sometimes he walkes foure houres together / Heere in the Lobby.

The noun “lobby” took on a political sense in 17th-century England, when it was used to mean the entrance hall in the House of Commons—a place where MPs could speak with members of the public.

Here’s a 1640 example from the Historical Collections, a series of works by the English historian John Rushworth:

“The outward Room of the Commons House, called the Lobby … where the Cryer of the Chancery first made Proclamation in the King’s name.”

In the 1800s, according to the OED, the noun took on another political sense in the US: “the persons who frequent the lobby of the house of legislature for the purpose of influencing its members in their official action.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from a Feb. 2, 1808, debate in Congress: “If we move to Philadelphia we shall have a commanding lobby.”

In the mid-20th century, the OED says, the noun took on yet another political sense: “a business, cause, or principle supported by a group of people; the group of persons supporting such an interest.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 26, 1952, issue of the Economist: “American … interests have maintained their effective lobby against the project.” (The reference is to the St. Lawrence Seaway.)

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Mr. Black, Ms. White, Mr. Purple?

Q: Many people are called “Mr. Black,” “Ms. White,” “Mr. Gray,” or “Ms. Brown,” but almost no one is “Mr. Red” or “Mr. Yellow,” “Ms. Pink,” “Ms. Purple,” or “Ms. Blue.” Why are so many beautiful colors unpopular as family names?

A: To keep things simple, we’ll discuss only names of British origin, though much of this would apply to surnames that originated elsewhere in Europe.

When people began using colors as surnames in Britain during the Middle Ages, the colors usually referred to appearance—hair color, complexion, clothing, and so on.

As Charles Wareing Endell Bardsley explains in English Surnames, Their Sources and Significations (1915), “there was no term in the vocabulary of the day which could be used to denote the colour of the dress, the hair, or the face, which did not find itself a place among our surnames.”

The historian Mark Lower notes that “Black” and its variants “doubtless refer in general to the dark complexion and black hair of the original owners.”

Similarly, Lower writes in Patronymica Britannica: A Dictionary of Family Names in the United Kingdom (1860), the name “Brown” refers “to the dark complexion of its original bearers,” and “white” to someone “of light or fair complexion.”

As for the surname “Grey” (or “Gray”), Lower believes it’s derived from a place name, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that its use in 13th-century surnames such as “Greiberd,” “Greyeye,” and “le Greie” may refer to physical appearance.

Larry Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex in England, agrees that “the surnames ‘Black,’ ‘White’ and ‘Brown’ often developed from nicknames applied because of the bearer’s complexion.”

In responding to a question on Ask the Linguist, a feature of the Linguist List forum, he points out that the use of the color red as a surname isn’t as rare as you seem to think.

In Old English, Trask says, the color was pronounced with a long “e” sound, which “gave rise to the surname variously spelled Reade, Read or Reed.”

These surnames stayed the same, but the color term “underwent a shortening of the vowel” and was pronounced and spelled “red.” (The same sound change happened with “bread,” “dead,” and “head,” but the spellings didn’t change.)

“As for ‘purple,’ this word was simply not in use in English as a color term when surnames were being invented,” Trask adds. “All of ‘purple,’ ‘’orange’ and ‘pink’ were late additions to our set of color terms.”

He notes that the use of “Green” as a surname “was variously conferred because the bearer lived next to the village green, because he had played the Green Man in a play, or perhaps because he was fond of green clothing.”

(In outdoor shows and pageants, a “Green Man” was someone “dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods or seasonal fertility,” according to the OED.)

The use of the color blue as a surname isn’t all that common, but it’s not unheard of. In fact, the left-handed pitcher Vida Blue and the switch-hitting first baseman Lu Blue were notable Major League baseball players with that surname.

Lower, writing in Patronymica Britannica, suggests that the use of “Blue” as a surname may have arisen in Scotland and that “It is probably derived from the favourite colour of the costume of the original bearer.”

Finally, why don’t we see a lot of people called “Mr. Yellow”? For one thing, light hair is usually described as “blond” or “blonde,” a subject we’ve discussed on our blog.

Although we don’t find a lot of people called “Mr. Blond” or “Ms. Blonde,” we do find quite a few called “Fairchild,” “Fairbairn,” and “Fairfax” (“fax” is an obsolete term for hair).

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Did clams give us “clammy”?

Q: A recent article in the Charlotte Observer about regional food describes New England clam chowder as “clammy (in the good way).” Does “clammy (in the bad way)” also come from the noun “clam”?

A: No, the adjective “clammy,” meaning moist, sticky, and cold, is not derived from “clam,” the noun for a bivalve mollusk with a soft, edible  body.

Early versions of both the adjective and the noun showed up in Old English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but the two words are not related.

Ayto says “clam” originally meant “something for tying up or fastening,” and it can be traced back to the prehistoric Germanic root klam-, which also gave English the word “clamp.”

By the late 1300s, according to Ayto, both “clam” and “clamp” referred to a rigid, vise-like device used to grip or brace objects.

It wasn’t until the 1500s, he writes, that “clam” came to mean “the mollusc which now bears the name, apparently on the grounds that its two shells close like the jaws of a clamp or vice.” (Ayto uses the British spelling, “vice.”)

As for the adjective “clammy,” it etymologically means “sticky as if smeared by clay,” according to Ayto.

He says the adjective comes from a now obsolete verb, clam, that meant to smear or stick, but the ultimate source is klaimaz, a prehistoric Germanic root that also gave English the word “clay.”

Ayto adds that klai- (the base of klaimaz) “can be traced back to the Indo-European base gloi-, glei-, gli-, from which English gets glue and gluten.”

By the way, we couldn’t find the clam-like sense of “clammy” in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the standard dictionaries we usually check.

However, you don’t have to dig too far to find the usage on the Internet, and we imagine that lexicographers will take notice if enough people use “clammy” in the good way.

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Can “such as” be separated?

Q: I was hoping to get your thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while.  Almost everyone  breaks up “such as” in statements like “such companies as G.E. and I.B.M.” This sounds terribly awkward and just plain wrong to me.

A: We’ve written before on our blog about the history of “such as” and its use to mean “like” or “for example.”

But we didn’t discuss whether the phrase “such as” can be split when used in this sense. The short answer is yes.

You can write either (1) “authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald,” or (2) “such authors as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.”

In other words, the “such” in the phrase can either follow the noun “authors” (as in #1 above) or precede it (as in #2).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains in more technical language, “syntactically, such may have backward or forward reference.”

The OED notes that the entire phrase “such as” can be “used to introduce examples of a class.”

One of the quotations it cites for this usage is from a 1779 issue of the Mirror (London): “Writers, such as Theophrastus and La Bruyere.”

Elsewhere, in an entry about the use of “as” when the antecedent is “such,” the OED gives this example:

“Without ever having discovered such unwanted distractions as subjugation, exploitation, or war” (from The Last Theorem, 2008, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a few more illustrations of “such as” constructions, with “such” either preceding or following the noun it refers to:

“such statements as this” … “such factors as costs and projected life expectancy” … “sports such as tennis, cricket, and football.”

That last example could have been written differently: “such sports as tennis, cricket, and football.” A writer might choose to split or not to split—for reasons of style, emphasis, or sentence structure.

In other words, you shouldn’t have separation anxiety when other writers split “such as.” But if separating the phrase sounds awkward to you, don’t do it.

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Did froggie go a-wooing, or no?

Q: I proofread pretrial depositions for court reports. Some attorneys have the annoying habit of asking questions like “Was that xyx, or no?” My inner voice screams “or NOT!” But don’t get me started on attorneys and their ignorance of basic grammar.

A: Yes, a lot of legal usage is atrocious, but you can’t criticize lawyers for using “or no” in place of “or not.”

The use of the adverbial phrase “or no” to express “the negative in an alternative choice, possibility, etc.,” has been around since the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest example of the usage in the OED is from an early version of the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382: “Wheþer þou woldist kepe þe hestys of hym or no” (“Whether thou wouldst keep the commandments of him or no”).

Although the usage is primarily seen in “whether … or no” statements, many respected writers have used “or no” in examples similar to the one you cite.

The most recent example in the OED is from the March 3, 1988, issue of the Times (London): “He … might afterwards complain (rightly or no) that he was not given an accurate account.”

Here are some 20th-century examples from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

“Laryngitis or no, the play has started off with a bang,”  from a Feb. 19, 1940, letter by Alexander Woollcott.

“But personality or no, I have been aware of how much of you she was,” from an April 20, 1957, letter by E. B. White.

“Sister Mary Teresa emerges as a real human, nun or no,” from an April 1, 1984, column by Newgate Callendar (a k a Harold C. Schonberg) in the New York Times Book Review.

Merriam-Webster’s notes that several 19th-century language commentators objected to the usage, though M-W doesn’t have any objections of its own. Nor does the OED or any of the standard dictionaries or usage guides we checked.

(A post we wrote for our blog earlier this year deals with a related issue, the use of “no” as either an adjective or an adverb to make a sentence negative.)

We’ll end with an example from Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), which cites an early 19th-century version of “Frog Went A-courting,” a nursery rhyme with roots that date back to the 16th or 17th centuries:

A frog he would a-wooing go,
Heigh-ho! says Rowley,
Whether his mother would let him or no.

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Is that officer a police?

Q: I just finished reading a book that uses such statements as “I am a police” and “He is a police.” I‘ve been a court reporter for about 20 years, and this stopped me each time I read it. Is this correct? It seems very awkward.

A: This usage was new to us, too, but it’s apparently common among police officers and those who have dealings with them. Perhaps the police drop their insider lingo when they appear in the courtrooms where you work.

Martin Amis’s novel Night Train (1998), which is set in a “second-echelon American city” that sounds like Seattle, opens with this passage:

“I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement—or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also.”

Later, the narrator says, “I worked murders. I was a murder police.” And still later: “ ‘What’s your read on it, Mike? Not as a friend. As a police.’ ‘As a police? As a police I have to say that it looks like a suicide.’ ”

Characters in the American crime drama The Wire, set in the Baltimore area, also use “a police” in this way, as many fans have commented online.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this use of “police” as a “count noun” is regional. (A count noun is a noun that can be used in the singular with an indefinite article like “a.”)

The dictionary says the usage is chiefly found in American, Scottish, West African, and Caribbean English.

The OED’s published examples date back to the 19th century. The earliest citation (which we’ll expand for context) is from an editorial published in the Chicago American on Sept. 5, 1839, encouraging ladies to attend the theater:

“Why do not the fair ladies of our city lend the theater, occasionally, the light of their countenance? The play of ‘Isabelle, or Woman’s Life’ this evening will give them a fair and appropriate opportunity. There is a police in attendance, whose duty it is to preserve strict order and decorum in the theater.”

Here are a few of the OED’s later examples:

1856: “He was a police.” From The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, by Mark Twain. (The reference is to “a military lookin gentleman with a club in his hand, tappin me on the shoulder.”)

1960: “It was all over the market that ‘the unco man wis a p’leece wi’ plain claes.’ ” From the Huntly Express, a local weekly paper in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (“Unco” is Scottish dialect for unknown or strange. It’s a shortening of an old use of “uncouth,” which originally meant unknown or unfamiliar.)

1988: “If you see Jobe tell him a police outside looking for him.” From A Brief Conversation: And Other Stories, by Earl Lovelace, who was born in Trinidad.

2002: “Why you was acting so suspicious? You think I was a police?” From the Sunday Gleaner, in Kingston, Jamaica.

We doubt that “a police” will slip into common usage. Our guess is that it will continue to be used mostly among law enforcers, law breakers, and the people who write about them.

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Calculus class

Q: I was listening to a radio interview and heard the host ask a guest for “your calculus” on something or other. She was using the word in place of “calculation.” It sounded so pretentious and wrong. Did she use the word incorrectly or am I wrong?

A: In British as well as American usage (in fact, wherever English appears) “calculus” is widely being used to mean simply “reasoning” or “thinking” or “decision-making” or “method”—or, as you’ve noticed, “calculation” in a loose sense.

You can find scores of recent examples in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Here are just a few of them:

“the moral calculus” (New York Times) … “the political calculus” (Wall Street Journal) … “The calculus is simple” (Japan Times) … “playing into this calculus” (the Nation) … “The calculus has changed” (Pravda) … “that calculus may be shifting” (Washington Post). None of these examples referred to mathematical computations.

We’ve had our eye on “calculus” for a few years now, and our opinion is that it originated as gobbledygook. It got its start as a pseudo-scientific usage, one intended to dress up simple language with a gloss of technical erudition.

Like you, we have a low opinion of this use of “calculus.” We place it in the same category as the nonscientific use of “parameter,” which we’ve written about before on our blog.

But we may have to adjust our thinking (our “calculus”?) on this looser sense of the word. It isn’t recognized by most standard dictionaries, but it’s become so ubiquitous—and it’s found in such respectable circles—that acceptance seems almost inevitable.

The Big Kahuna of linguistics, Noam Chomsky himself, uses “calculus” this way.

In an essay posted on Bill Moyers’s website, Moyers & Company, Chomsky commented on “the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism.”

“Calculus” came into English in the 17th century from Latin, in which it meant “small stone,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Latin calculus was a diminutive form of calx (stone, pebble, limestone), a word whose echoes can be seen in English words like “calcium” and “chalk” as well as “calculus,” “calculate,” and “calculation.”

While the Romans used “calculus” to mean any small stone, they also used it in a more specific sense. It meant “a stone or counter” used in playing games, in reckoning on an abacus or counting board, or in casting a vote, the OED says.

Thus in Latin, Oxford adds, “calculus” also came to mean a reckoning, an account, or a vote.

The earliest verifiable appearances of “calculus” in English are from the late 17th century, when it was used in its mathematical sense. It meant “a system or method of calculation” or “a branch of mathematics involving or leading to calculations,” the OED says.

In standard dictionaries, the mathematical definitions of “calculus” vary.

For example, Cambridge Dictionaries Online has “the mathematical study of continually changing values.” But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has three definitions, including “a method of analysis or calculation using a special symbolic notation.”

The first use given in the OED is from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1672): “I cannot yet reduce my Observations to a calculus.”

In a more detailed example, Charles Hutton’s A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary (1796) refers to “the Arithmetical or Numeral Calculus, the Algebraical Calculus, the Differential Calculus, the Exponential Calculus, the Fluxional Calculus, the Integral Calculus, the Literal or Symbolical Calculus, etc.”

In medical English, “calculus” has a more literal meaning—at least one that’s closer to its early Latin roots. In this sense, it means a stony deposit created in the body, as in “renal calculus” (kidney stone), “vesical calculus” (bladder stone), “biliary calculus” (gallstone), and “dental calculus” (for tartar, a hardened deposit on the teeth).

The medical sense of the word made its appearance in the 18th century, the OED says (an earlier citation, from 1619, is debatable).

The earliest example cited in the OED is from John Arbuthnot’s Practical Rules of Diet in the Various Constitutions and Diseases of Human Bodies (1732): “A Human Calculus, or Stone.”

As we mentioned above, nontechnical definitions of “calculus”—senses that are neither mathematical nor medical—are scarce in standard reference books.

While “calculus” was briefly used to mean merely any computation or calculation, that sense of the word disappeared in the early 1800s, the OED says. But even then, there was a sense of numbers being juggled.

The OED’s earliest example is from Thomas Burnet’s The Theory of the Earth (1684): “Suppose the abyss was but half as deep as the deep ocean, to make this calculus answer, all the dry land ought to be cover’d with mountains.”

The only standard dictionary we’ve found that includes a mushier, entirely nontechnical definition is Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, which says the word can mean “calculation” in a general sense, as in “the calculus of political appeal.”

But the usage is so common these days that it may eventually find a place in other standard dictionaries. Participatory web-based dictionaries, whose readers contribute and edit the entries, are already recognizing this use of “calculus.”

Wiktionary, for example, has this among its definitions: “a decision-making method, especially one appropriate for a specialised realm.”

The example given in Wiktionary is from a 2008 issue of the Financial Times: “The Tory leader refused to state how many financiers he thought should end up in jail, saying: ‘There is not some simple calculus.’ ”

While this use of “calculus” has certainly increased in recent years, it isn’t as new as you might think. For decades, it’s been known in academic writing in the humanities and social sciences.

In Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (2014), the authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont discuss scientific terms (“algorithm,” “topology,” etc.) that are often used by academics to give weak ideas a “veneer of rigor.”

The authors give examples of loose uses of “calculus” going back to the 1950s. Since then, it has escaped the ivory tower and it’s on the loose.

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Do you sleep in your contacts?

Q: When I go to bed without removing my contact lenses, I sleep in my contacts. Or so I say, even though the reverse is true: my contacts are in me when I sleep. What say you?

A: The preposition “in” has been used to mean “wearing” since Anglo-Saxon days.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from an Old English translation of Exodus, refers to mourners in blacum reafum (in black robes).

You’re right, though, that when “in” is used this way we’re usually in clothing of one sort or another (a dress, a suit, a dinner jacket, and so on).

However, we sometimes use “in” loosely to mean “wearing” when we’re not literally inside things—or at least not very far inside them. For example, we say we’re “in curlers” or “in a wig” or “in a beret.”

More important, the expression “in my contacts” is an idiom, and idioms don’t always make sense on a literal level. We’ve written often on our blog about idioms, including a post a few years ago entitled “Can an idiom make sense?”

As we said then, an idiom is a peculiarity of language—an expression or some characteristic of speech that’s peculiar to a language, a region, a dialect, or a group of people.

Sometimes an idiom doesn’t make literal sense (“it’s raining cats and dogs,” or “he reached for the stars”). At other times it’s grammatically unusual or doesn’t parse (“I could care less,” “that dress isn’t you”).

An idiom can also be a specialized language or vocabulary used among a particular group—like doctors or journalists. Or it can be a particular regional or dialectal speech pattern.

By the way, the term “contact lens” may be a lot older than you imagine. The two earliest examples in the OED are from an 1888 issue of Archives of Ophthalmology. Here’s one citation:

“The ‘contact-lens’ consists of a thin glass shell, bounded by concentric and parallel spherical segments.”

The first example in the dictionary for the term “contacts” used in place of “contact lenses” dates from 1961, but we’ll end with this more recent OED citation:

“I can’t wear glasses because it hurts my nose. I can’t wear contacts because it hurts my nerves” (from Money: A Suicide Note, an 1984 novel by Martin Amis).

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Close encounters

Q: When I was younger, I didn’t hear anyone say “close with,” but now I hear it all the time. Example: “She’s close with her sister.” For me, it should be “close to.” I did a Google search, however, and got millions of hits for “close with.” Am I crazzzy?

A: No, you’re not crazzzy! The usual preposition here is “to,” as in “He was close to his grandfather.”

Other prepositions are commonly used with different senses of “close.” For instance, “He’s close [i.e., stingy] with a dollar,” and “They’re close [secretive] about their private lives.”

But when “close” means “intimate” or “near,” the usual preposition is “to.”

Still, we sometimes read and hear “close with,” as in “He’s always been close with his cousin Frank,” or “Julia is very close with her friend Amy.”

Our guess is that this usage has been influenced by similar “with” phrases—“friendly with,” “intimate with,” “on good terms with,” and “tight with,” a slang phrase that’s been around since the 1950s. Perhaps people are extending these “with” usages to include “close.”

In fact, the preposition “with” can imply a more personal interaction than “to.” For instance, we recognize that the phrase “talk (or speak) with” implies a greater intimacy than “talk (or speak) to,” and this recognition may have influenced the use of “close with.”

By the way, Google search results are often misleading. When we searched for “I was close with him,” for example, Google reported 4,430,000 results. But when we went to the last page of the results, we found that the actual number was 127.

As for the etymology, “close” showed up in writing around 1275 as a verb meaning “to stop an opening; to shut; to cover,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb came into Middle English from the Old French clore, which in turn came from the Latin verb claudere (to shut, to close).

Adjective and adverb forms came along in the late 1300s, with the adjective generally meaning closed or shut, and the adverb meaning in proximity to.

It wasn’t until about 1500 that the adjective “close” took on meanings having to do with nearness of one kind or another, whether “in space, time, form, or state,” as the OED says.

The primary notion here was of “having intervening space or spaces closed up,” Oxford explains, “whereby the parts are in immediate contact with, or near to each other.”

In the latter part of the 15th century, people began using the adjective “close” in another way, to describe people and relationships as “closely attached, intimate, confidential.”

The OED’s first example is from the writings of the historian Raphael Holinshed (1577): “Letters sente to him from some close friendes.”

Unfortunately, none of the OED’s citations for this sense of “close” show it preceding a preposition, as in “he was close to his colleagues.”

Nevertheless, “to” has long been the preferred preposition following “close” in the sense of nearness. In fact, “close to” is sometimes referred to as a complex preposition in itself.

The Oxford English Grammar, by Sidney Greenbaum, includes “close to” in a list of complex prepositions. And Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) notes: “Some grammarians treat close to, as in he was standing close to the door, as a complex preposition.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language goes further and says that “close” by itself is sometimes a preposition rather than an adjective.

In discussing “near,” “close,” and “far,” the Cambridge Grammar says they “belong to both categories” (adjective and preposition), “though the prepositional uses are much more common than the adjectival.”

The book says all three words can be attributive adjectives (that is, adjectives that precede a noun), as in “a near relative, close friends, the far side of the building.

In addition, the adjective “close” can follow what it modifies—that is, it can be a predicate adjective—as in the Cambridge Grammar’s example: “Kim and Pat are getting very close (in the sense of close friends).”

But Cambridge would consider “close” and the other two words prepositions, not adjectives, in phrases like “close to election day, “near the city,” and “far from their house.”

When they act as prepositions, Cambridge says, they behave in some respects like adjectives. For example, they’re “gradable”—that is, they can be modified by “very” and “too.” And they have comparative and superlative forms (“closer to” … “closest to”).

But there are differences between “near,” “close,” and “far” when used as prepositions.

For example, Cambridge notes, “near” as a preposition can be followed by a noun phrase (“near/nearer the pool”) or a “to-phrase” (“near/nearer to the pool”).

But the grammar book says “close takes only a to phrase and far only a from phrase” (“close/closer to the pool” … “far/farther from the pool”).

The notion that “close” and “to” are paired in this sense is reiterated elsewhere in the Cambridge Grammar; “close” is included in a list of prepositions where “for the most part the to phrase complement is obligatory.”

Getting back to your question, will “close with” eventually be considered normal in the intimate sense? As we’ve often said on the blog, only time will tell.

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Did World War I give us cooties?

Q: I tuned in late to Pat’s last appearance on WNYC and just caught the tail end of her discussion about cooties. Did I hear right that World War I gave us the word?

A: When the word “cooties” first showed up, it referred to the lice that were rampant on the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I.

The earliest example of “cooties” in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in From the Fire Step, a 1917 memoir by Arthur Guy Empey about his experiences as an American serving in the British Army:

“ ‘Does the straw bother you, mate? It’s worked through my uniform and I can’t sleep.’ In a sleepy voice he answered, ‘That ain’t straw, them’s cooties.’ ”

The noun “cooties” was derived from a slightly earlier WWI word, “cooty,” an adjective meaning infested with lice and first recorded in 1915. The phrase “going cooty” meant getting lice and being quarantined for de-lousing.

It’s been suggested that these words—“cooty” and “cooties”—may have come from kutu, a word for louse in the Malay or Maori languages.

However, the OED says that “there is nothing in the early uses of any of these three words to make such an origin seem likely.”

The word “cooties,” as you know, is now used loosely (and often humorously) to mean imaginary germs or bugs.

We found a recent example in Notorious Nineteen (2012), a novel in Janet Evanovich’s series about the klutzy bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

Lula, Stephanie’s sidekick, says one of the hazards of bounty hunting “is getting hospital cooties. We had to do some investigating in a hospital today, and I might have got the cooties.”

For dozens of years, the term “cooties” has also been the name of a children’s tag game that often pits boys against girls.

In “Tradition and Change in American Playground Language,” a 1973 paper in The Journal of American Folklore, Herbert and Mary Knapp describe how a designated “cootie carrier” spreads an imaginary infection by hand.

Children can be protected, the Knapps write, by inoculating themselves with a “cootie shot.” In different versions of the game, the inoculation includes such ritualistic expressions as “Circle, circle, dot, dot. Now you’ve got a cootie shot.”

“Almost all our informants who attended fifth grade in the fifties, sixties, and seventies recall ‘Cooties,’ ” the Knapps report in their paper. “The percentage of affirmative replies declines in the forties and thirties.”

Now, we’ll briefly mention some of the other World War I terms that Pat discussed in her appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show on July 16. (Thanks go to the OED for most of these etymologies.)

People refer to American soldiers of World War I as “Doughboys,” and to their British counterparts as “Tommies”—but in fact both terms preceded the war.

“Doughboy” was American Army slang for an infantryman as far back as the 1830s. And “Tommy” (short for a mythical “Thomas Atkins,” a generic name for a British soldier) dates from 1881, as we’ve written on our blog.

But plenty of words did originate during WWI, though many of them have since lost their wartime associations and acquired figurative meanings in everyday language.

A WWI term that’s acquired a wider meaning is “shell shock.” It was introduced in 1915 to describe a combat condition that we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s now also used more broadly to mean any kind of emotional upset.

The phrase “over the top” also originated in the trenches of 1915. To go “over the top” meant to go over the parapet of a trench and into battle. Later, in the 1930s, “over the top” took on a figurative usage and came to mean “to an exaggerated degree” or “beyond the limit.”

The very modern-sounding verb “liase” was first used by British officers in WWI and has gone on to be widely used (or misused, as many people think) in civilian life. We’ve written about the history of “liase” on our blog.

Another modern-sounding  term, “zero hour,” also came into use in 1915, when it meant the time at which a military operation was to begin.  Later it acquired an extended usage: the time at which any event is scheduled to take place.

“Zero in” also owes its origins to WWI, when it meant to adjust one’s rifle sights. It now means to focus or home in on something.

“Tailspin” is yet another example. When first recorded during the war, it meant a steep, uncontrolled, spinning descent of an aircraft with engine failure. But it now can mean any kind of rapid, out-of-control fall—as when having 22 errands on your list for the day sends you into a tailspin.

Here’s a term that many people don’t associate with WWI—“trench coat.” But when first recorded (in 1914), it meant a lined or padded waterproof coat worn by soldiers in the trenches.

As you might expect in an era marked by new ways of waging war, many of the words that emerged in 1914-18 have retained their original wartime meanings.

These include “air raid,” “anti-aircraft,” “gas mask,” “flame thrower,” “storm trooper,” and “tank”—originally a code word used in 1915 while the armored artillery vehicle was being secretly developed.

Another military word, “strafe” (1914), was derived from the German verb strafen (to punish), and was plucked from a famous German propaganda slogan, Gott strafe England! (“God punish England!”).

German also inspired “U-boat” (1914), meaning a German military submarine. The “u” in “U-boat” was from unterseeboten, the German word for the submarine.

Even on the home front, the war made changes in our language. The term “home front” itself came out of WWI, as did the nickname “Aussie” (for an Australian soldier), and the phrase “over there” (meaning Europe), which was popularized by the George M. Cohan song of that title.

A different category of WWI words includes those that (like “Doughboy” and “Tommy”) were around before but didn’t become household words until the war brought them into the news.

Examples include “Zeppelin.” While the airship was developed at the turn of the century, the word didn’t come into common use until the Germans used Zeppelins in bombing raids in 1914.

“Dogfight,” too, had been around in figurative usage as a word for a struggle or melee. But in 1918 “dogfight” was first used to mean an air battle between warplanes.

Those dogfights may have been fought by “aces.” That word, too, had been in earlier use to mean someone who excels. But it wasn’t used until 1916 to mean a daring flier—like a pilot or gunner—who brings down lots of enemy planes.

“Submarine” had also been around before WWI, but it was a mere novelty until the war at sea made it a household word. Similarly, the phrase “cannon fodder” was around earlier but emerged from obscurity in WWI and is now forever associated with that war.

Another word dreaded by troops—“shrapnel”—was first recorded in 1914 in the sense of fragments from shells or bombs. But it came from an earlier sense of the word. In the 19th century, a “Shrapnel” (named for its British inventor, Henry Shrapnel) was a type of hollow shell containing bullets and a charge.

Even the way people referred to the war has an interesting history.

Early on, in 1914, it was called “the Great War,” and was sometimes referred to as “the war that will end war,” a phrase credited to H. G. Wells (it was the title of a book he published that year).

The phrase “First World War” was coined toward the war’s end, in September 1918.

But the name we probably use most often, “World War I,” was first used by Time magazine in its issue of Sept. 18, 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland and ushered in the next world war.  Only the previous week, Time had become the first to use the term “World War II” in print.

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A moving appreciation

Q: The words “move” and  “appreciate” are often used in local government in San Francisco, but not always to my liking. I hear “so moved” when a motion is approved rather than introduced. And I hear things like “I want to appreciate her advocacy” instead of “I appreciate her advocacy.” Your thoughts, please.

A: We’re volunteer land-use commissioners in our small New England town, so we’re intimately acquainted with the jargon of local government.

We’ve never heard “So moved” used to indicate that a motion has been approved. The usual expression would be “Motion carried” or “Motion approved.”

In our town, the chairman of a board, committee, or commission may say something like “I’d entertain a motion to approve the minutes” or “I’d entertain a motion to adjourn.”

One of the seated members may then say “So moved” as shorthand for “I move to approve the minutes” or “I move to adjourn.”

Some parliamentary mavens object to the use of “So moved” in such a case, insisting that it’s too vague and that a full motion should be made.

We see nothing wrong with using “So moved” for relatively minor motions like those mentioned above.

But we’d recommend a formal motion in more complex situations, such as a vote on a series of amendments to revise building setbacks.

As for the verb “appreciate,” it means to be thankful or grateful for something when used in the sense you’ve mentioned. The usual, idiomatic way of using it, as you point out, is “I appreciate her advocacy.”

The sentence “I want to appreciate her advocacy” seems off to you because it’s not idiomatic. In fact, it suggests just the opposite of what is intended: “I want to appreciate her advocacy, but …”

With a little help from our friends at Google, we found lots of examples of the “want to” usage that bugs you, such as “I want to appreciate his gifts of fatherhood and joy” and “I want to appreciate his generosity.”

However, we also found many examples of “want to” followed by a not-so-appreciative “but” clause, including this one from a post on Tumblr: “I want to appreciate Tupac’s music but I cannot get into it.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about the use of “but” clauses in backhanded statements like “It’s not about the money, but …” and “It really doesn’t matter to me, but …”

The technical term for this kind of usage is “procatalepsis.” The word comes from post-classical Latin, and it’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “rhetorical figure by which an opponent’s objections are anticipated and answered.”

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The “basket case” myth

Q: I found a photo online, apparently from the early 20th century, of a disabled man in a basket chair. Could this be a clue to the origin of “basket case”?

A: The man pictured in the basket chair (a three-wheeled woven rattan wheelchair) is nowhere near as disabled as the original basket case—that is, if the original basket case ever existed.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial term “basket case” originated in the United States shortly after World War I, and meant “a person, esp. a soldier, who has lost all four limbs.”

However, the phrase, which initially referred to American soldiers supposedly left limbless by the war, was a product of the postwar rumor mill in the US.

There’s not a shred of evidence that a single American or other Allied soldier survived the war after losing all four limbs. Or, for that matter, that any head-and-torso survivors were carried around in baskets.

As word spread that limbless soldiers were being warehoused in one place or another in the US, the Surgeon General of the Army, Maj. Gen. Merritte W. Ireland, said in 1919 that the rumor had absolutely no foundation in fact.

“I have personally examined the records and am able to say that there is not a single basket case either on this side of the water or among the soldiers of the A. E. F. [Allied Expeditionary Force],” he explained.

Furthermore, the general said in his March 28, 1919, statement, “I wish to emphasize that there has been no instance of an American soldier so wounded during the whole period of the war.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase “basket case” dates from January 1919, two months after the war ended. It’s from Oak Leaves, a local newspaper in Oak Park, Ill.: “There were seven ‘basket cases,’ men without arms or legs.”

The term “basket case” isn’t used anymore in that original sense, but it refers now to an emotionally disturbed person or an ineffective organization, nation, business, and so on.

The dictionary’s first citation for the phrase used in its ineffective sense is from the Feb. 16, 1948, issue of Life:

“The U.N. may become a more pathetic basket case than the old League of Nations after the Japanese nullified the decision on Manchuria.”

In the early 1950s, the phrase came to mean “a person who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope, esp. because of overwhelming stress or anxiety,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example of this usage is from Polly Adler’s 1953 autobiography, A House Is Not a Home:

“By New Year’s, 1935, after three months in the new house, I realized I’d wind up a basket case if I didn’t take a vacation.”

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How to shorten a child

Q: I recently found an old diary in which my grandmother wrote this about my uncle: “today the baby was shortened.” What in heaven’s name could she have been referring to? She was born in 1893, grew up around Philadelphia, and had my uncle around 1925. She was Catholic so it couldn’t have had anything to do with circumcision.

A: We were stumped too, until we found this definition of “shorten” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To put (a child) into short clothes.”

The dictionary defines “short clothes” as “an infant’s short-coats,” which wasn’t much help. Nor was this definition of “short-coats” in the OED: “The garments in which an infant is clothed when the long clothes are laid aside.”

It turns out that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both male and female newborns were clothed in dresses (long clothes) that came down below their feet.

When the babies were a few months old and beginning to crawl, they were “shortened”—that is, clothed in ankle-length or calf-length dresses (short clothes or short coats) so they could move around.

In the May 1913 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, a doctor answers a question from a young mother about baby clothes. Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Mothers’ Class,” by Emelyn L. Coolidge, MD:

“This time I have some questions to ask you about the baby’s clothes,” said the young mother to her doctor. “First I want to know at what age you think a baby should be changed from long clothes to short ones, and how long these first short clothes should be.”

“Usually in these days it is considered best to put the baby in short clothes when he is three months old,” replied the doctor. “He is not then hampered by long skirts when he needs to kick and develop his legs; but if he happens to reach this age in the coldest weather you had better wait until it is a little warmer before making the change from long to short clothes, which should be of ankle length.”

[Update, Aug. 20, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that the most often-heard reference to short clothes these days is
probably in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Marco and Giuseppe, in their introductory song, describe themselves as "For gallantry noted / Since we were short-coated."]

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A half-dollar vs. 50 cents

Q: Has the use of the term “half-dollar” to mean fifty cents fallen out of favor? I never hear it anymore.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the term “half-dollar” as a coin worth 50 cents, not as an amount of money valued at 50 cents.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines it as “a US coin worth 50 cents” while the online Collins English Dictionary defines it as “(in the US) a 50-cent piece.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says it’s “a coin worth 50 cents,” and the unabridged Random House Dictionary says it’s either a US or Canadian coin “equal to 50 cents.”

We’ve found only two standard dictionaries that define a “half-dollar” as both a coin and an amount of money, and those two references are published by the same company:

● Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it can be “a coin that is worth 50 cents” or “the sum of 50 cents.”

● The online Merriam Webster’s Unabridged says it’s either “a coin representing one half of a dollar” or “the sum of fifty cents or one half of a dollar.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry for “half-dollar” first appeared in 1898 and hasn’t been fully updated, defines the term as “a silver coin of the United States and other countries, equal to 50 cents.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 8, 1786, resolution published in the Journals of Congress: “Resolved … that the silver coins shall be as follows: One coin containing 187  82-100 grains of fine silver, to be called a Half-Dollar.”

The 1964 John F. Kennedy half-dollars were the last to contain silver (the percentage of silver was reduced from 90 percent to 40 percent from 1965 to 1970).

You seldom see a half-dollar today, except in coin collections. That may be another reason why the term “half-dollar” is rarely used now to mean 50 cents.

As “the popularity of the Kennedy half dollar began to fade,” production fell from a high of over 429 million in 1964 to just over 3 million in 2011,  according to the numismatic writer James Bucki.

“The workhorse coin of the US economy,” Bucki says on, “was, and still is, the Washington quarter dollar.”

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Are “loath” and “loathe” related?

Q: I assume the adjective “loath” (meaning reluctant) and the verb “loathe” (meaning to dislike) are relations of one sort or another. Which of these came first? And where did it come from?

A: Yes, the two words are related. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the verb “loathe” is derived from the adjective “loath,” which was láð in Old English. (The letter ð, or eth, was pronounced like “th.”)

The adjective, according to Ayto, “originally meant ‘hostile’ or ‘loathsome,’ and goes back to a prehistoric Germanic laithaz,” which gave German leid (sorrow) and French laid (ugly or disgusting).

Two of the earliest examples of the adjective “loath” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the 700s.

Early in the poem, the monster Grendel kills dozens of warriors, leaving King Hrothgar grief-stricken from a feud described as to strang, lað ond longsum (“too cruel, loathsome, and long”).

Later, during Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, she clutches him, but her laþan fingrum (“hostile talons”) fail to pierce his chain-mail shirt. (The letter þ, or thorn, was also pronounced like “th.”)

It wasn’t until the 1300s that the adjective “loath” took on the modern sense of reluctant or unwilling, according to examples in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius: “She lyueth loþ of this lyf.”

Here’s an example in modern English from a Feb. 7, 1667, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary: “I … would be loath he should not do well.”

As for the verb “loathe,” it meant to be hateful, displeasing, or offensive when it first showed up in Old English in the late 800s, but the OED says that sense is now obsolete.

“Loathe” went through several other senses now considered obsolete before the modern meaning of “to feel aversion or dislike” showed up in the 12th century, according  to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Poema Morale, an anonymous early Middle English work from sometime before 1200.

However, the Middle English is easier to read in this example from A Paraphrase on the Seven Penitential Psalms (1414), by Thomas Brampton: “Good werk he lothith to bigynne.”

Now, let’s skip ahead to a couple of 19th-century poetic examples in modern English:

“To breathe and loathe, to live and sigh, / Than once from dread of pain to die,” from Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” (1842).

“Man who, as man conceiving, hopes and fears, / And craves and deprecates, and loves, and loathes,” from Robert Brownings’s “The Family” (1884).

Although careful writers are now careful to spell the verb “loathe” with an “e” at the end, the OED has many literary examples from the past of the “e”-less verb.

Here’s an example from Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgica: “The Swarms … loath their empty Hives, and idly stray.”

The OED even has a 14th-century citation for the adjective spelled with an “e” at the end, but you’ll have to trust us on this. We’re loath to give one more example.

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When the future is present

Q: I’ve noticed that people who write Dear Abby often say something like “I am being married in the fall” where I would say “I am getting married in the fall.” Is “being married” correct here?

A: The short answer is yes, but expressing the future in English can get (or be) as complicated as trying to predict it.

In fact, some linguists maintain that English doesn’t have a future tense per se. They argue that the word “will” in “We will marry in the fall” is an auxiliary of mood, rather than tense. But let’s not get sidetracked.

Whether English technically has a future tense or not, it certainly has a lot of ways to express the future.

One of them is what grammarians call the futurate, a usage in which the future is referred to without using a traditional future construction. The usual way to do this is with a multi-word form of the present tense.

The two sentences you ask about (“I am being married in the fall” and “I am getting married in the fall”) are examples of the present progressive futurate.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the futurate “is subject to severe pragmatic constraints” and “must involve something that can be assumed to be known already in the present.”

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of the Cambridge Grammar, say the most common uses of the futurate “involve cyclic events in nature, scheduled events, and conditionals.” Cambridge offers these examples:

Cyclic events of nature. “It’s going to rain soon.”

Scheduled events. “Australia meets Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December.”

Conditionals. “What happens if there is a power failure?”

As for your question, both “I am getting married in the fall” and “I am being married in the fall” are perfectly legitimate sentences.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “get” indicates that “getting” in a sentence like the first one means causing a “specified action to be performed upon (a person or thing).”

And the dictionary’s entry for “be” indicates that “being” in a sentence like the second is an “auxiliary, forming the progressive passive.”

The OED has examples of this use of “being” dating back to the 1700s. Here’s one from a 1795 letter by the English poet Robert Southey: “A fellow … whose grinder is being torn out by the roots.” (A grinder is a molar.)

Although the OED lists the “being” usage as standard English, it notes that some 19th-century commentators criticized it.

For example, David Booth, author of An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830), is quoted as saying the usage “pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

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Does “daresay” have a past?

Q: My dictionary doesn’t have a past tense for “daresay.” Is it “daresaid”? Or “daresayed”? Or perhaps even “daredsay”? I daresay you’ll have an answer.

A: We haven’t found any standard dictionaries that list a past tense for “daresay,” a compound verb that means to think very likely or to suppose.

In fact, many dictionaries specifically say that “daresay” is generally used in the first-person singular present tense (“I daresay”).

However, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “some dialects make the past daresaid, darsayed, dessayed.” The term is “durst say” in the OED’s only past-tense example:

“La Fleur … told me he had a letter in his pocket … which, he durst say, would suit the occasion” (from A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, a 1768 novel by Laurence Sterne).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites a more recent example of the past tense—using “daresayed”—from a Sylvia Townsend Warner story published in the New Yorker in 1954:

“Philip, a courteous guest, daresayed that the hourglass was timed to town eggs—puny specimens.”

Despite that example and the one in the OED, the usage guide says, “This compound verb is used in the first person singular of the present tense. It has hardly ever  been used otherwise.”

We’ve written before on our blog about the first part in the compound verb, “dare,” including posts in 2008 and 2009 on the regional or dialectal usages “durst,” “dast,” and “dasn’t.”

As for the verb “daresay,” the editors of the M-W manual say the term can be written as either “daresay” or “dare say,” but they add that “our evidence shows the one-word styling slightly more common.”

The OED says “dare say” (it uses two words) can mean to venture to assert or to assume as probable. The dictionary has examples of the first usage dating from the 1300s and of the second from the 1700s.

The verb is in the present tense in the dictionary’s earliest citation, from a Middle English translation (circa 1350)of Guillaume de Palerme, a French poem written around 1200:

I dar seie & soþliche do proue, sche schal weld at wille more gold þan ȝe siluer” (“I dare say and truly do prove she shall wield at will more gold than silver”).

We’ll end with a more recent example, from an essay by the author Daniel Mendelsohn in the Oct. 8, 2013, issue of the New York Times Book Review:

“Tone is everything. A novel in which characters say ‘I daresay’ is galaxies apart from one in which characters say ‘I kinda think.’ ”

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Q: Any thoughts why the “.com” in a Web address is referred to as “dot com” and not “period com” or perhaps the more suitable “point com”?

A: Our feeling is that “dot” is preferred because it’s snappier than “period” or “point.” It has fewer syllables than “period,” and it’s clearer and more emphatic than “point.”

While journalists and editors often use “point” to mean “period,” we suspect that most people think of “point” in the punctuation or notation sense as short for “decimal point”—something used with numbers, not letters.

Besides, “dot” was first on the scene in the world of computing. It’s been used for more than 30 years to refer to this punctuation mark in an Internet address.

By the way, most standard dictionaries hyphenate the term “dot-com” when it refers to a company that does business on the Internet. However, the term is often seen as “,” “dotcom,” “dot com,” or simply “.com.”

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd ed.) uses “dot-com” when referring to Internet commerce and “.com” when referring to a Web address. We think that’s a good idea.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the term spells it “dotcom,” but the dictionary notes the various other spellings mentioned above.

Since at least as far back as 1981, according to the OED, “dot” has been used to mean “a full stop or point as an element of punctuation dividing the different components in an Internet address.”

And since at least as far back as 1984, the dictionary says, “com” has been used in domain names “to indicate a commercial web site, though later more broadly applied.”

The dictionary’s “dotcom” entry includes definitions for both an address (or website) and a company. We’ll quote them in full:

1. “An Internet address for a commercial site expressed in terms of the formulaic suffix .com; a web site with such an address.”

2.  “A company which uses the Internet for business, esp. one which has an Internet address ending with the suffix .com. In extended use: the Internet as a business medium.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for No. 1 is from the April 5, 1994, issue of Newsday: “If I were telling someone that address I’d say: ‘quit at newsday dot com.’ ”

And its earliest example for No. 2 is from the November 1996 issue of Internet World: “A broad discussion of what’s around the corner for dot.coms.”

No matter how it’s spelled, the term is always pronounced the same way (as a compound of “dot” and “com”).

[Update, Aug. 15, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that
RFC 882 (a Request for Comments memo issued by Internet developers in November 1983) uses the term “dot” in introducing the concept of domain names. Here’s the relevant sentence: “When domain names are printed, labels in a path are separated by dots (‘.’).”]

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Learner driver or student driver?

Q: I see driver education cars with stickers reading “Learner Driver” rather than “Student Driver.” The phrase “Learner Driver” just doesn’t seem right to me. Is it?

A: Like you, we find the phrase “student driver” more idiomatic than “learner driver.” But we may be in the minority here.

It turns out that “learner driver” is more common—at least on the Internet—than “student driver.” The phrase “learner driver” gets almost four times as many Google hits as “student driver.”

What’s more, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples for “learner driver” going back more than 80 years, but it has no examples for “student driver.”

However, some googling suggests that the term “learner driver” is more popular in the UK than in the US. It’s also popular in Canada. (In Britain, learner drivers must display a red letter “L”—for “learner”—on their license plates.)

The OED’s earliest example is from Taxi! A Book About London Taxicabs and Drivers (1930), written by Anthony Armstrong (the pseudonym of George Willis): “Conversational freedom between … taximen and private ‘learner drivers.’ ”

This later example is from Paul Barry’s novel Unwillingly to School (1961): “If you hadn’t been a learner driver … I’d have booked you for that!”

And here’s an OED citation from the June 28, 1973, issue of the Times (London): “The learner driver holding up the traffic as he or she falters down the High Street is still part of the British motoring scene.”

All those examples are in a subentry in the dictionary for the noun “learner” used to mean “one who is learning to be competent but who does not yet have formal authorization as a driver of a motor vehicle, cycle, etc.”

In the phrase “learner driver,” the OED says, the noun “learner” is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to modify the noun “driver.”

The word “student” in “student driver” is also being used attributively.

Such a noun is sometimes called an “attributive noun” because the attributes we associate with the noun (“learner” or “student”) are used to modify another noun (“driver”).

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These ones and those ones

Q: “These ones” is never OK. Not here in the US, nor in my native UK. There is no “sometimes.” It’s simply wrong. The “ones” element is redundant. It’s “these” or “those” (for plurals), and “this” or “that” for singular items.

A: We assume your remarks were inspired by our post in 2010 about whether the phrase “these ones” is ever legitimate.

As we said then, we don’t like this usage. But we could find no authoritative evidence against it, and on the contrary there was reliable evidence in its favor.

In the earlier post, we note that the linguist Arnold Zwicky says the use of “these ones” and “those ones” apparently isn’t considered odd or nonstandard in Britain.

Zwicky cites the linguist Nicholas Widdows, who reports finding examples in the British National Corpus of “these” and “these ones” used in different senses. Here’s how Widdows explains the difference:

“Faced with an array of jelly babies I might point to a red one and say, ‘I like these ones.’  The fused head [plain these] could be misinterpreted as referring to all jelly babies; the ‘ones’ says more clearly ‘this type.’ ”

In the US, Zwicky writes on the Language Log, educated people seem to differ about the usage, and their opinions may depend on where they grew up.

”It’s possible that in North America ‘these/those ones’ is a variant in the gray area between standard and nonstandard—fully acceptable to educated middle-class speakers in some areas, but not fully acceptable, though not actually stigmatized, to such people in other areas,” he writes.

The fact that we dislike a usage doesn’t make it incorrect. Nor does the fact that some online language junkies claim it’s wrong, without offering any evidence to support their opinions.

You argue that “ones” is redundant in “these ones,” but do you really find “one” redundant in the phrases “this one” and “that one” for the same reason?

And what about if we add a modifier to “these ones” or “those ones”? Would you object to “these heavy ones,” “those black ones,” and so on?

The Cambridge History of the English Language indicates that “ones” here is an anaphoric pronoun—a pronoun that refers back to another word or phrase. In this case the pronoun is preceded by a determiner, a modifier like “these” or “those.”

Cambridge says “those ones” first showed up in the 19th century, and “these ones” in the 20th. However, we’ve found many formal and informal examples of “those ones” going back to the 1600s, and of “these ones” dating from the 1700s.

Here’s an example of “those ones” from Greenwich Park, a 1691 comedy by the English actor and playwright William Mountfort:

Reveler: “Madam, Men may divert themselves with several Women, but only one can make ’em truly happy.”

Dorinda. “And how many of those ones have you said this to?”

Reveler: “As I never was really in Love till now, I never had occasion for the Expression before.”

Here’s a more formal example from Annals of Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries, and Navigation (1805), by David Macpherson and Adam Anderson:

“The mercantile Venetian and Genoese galleys, which formerly resorted to England, were very probably of a more solid structure than those ones which are only fit for summer expeditions within the Mediterranean.”

Another example, from The British Cyclopedia (1836), edited by Charles F. Partington, says that only in Europe and Asia have falcons been trained to help humans “and therefore those ones of which specimens are obtained from remote countries are birds of little or no interest, except to mere collectors.”

And in Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England (Vol. 2, 1807), William Cobbett and Thomas Curson Hansard write about 17th-century reforms in Britain that eased the burdens of taxation:

“The compulsion of the subject to receive the order of Knighthood against his will, paying of fines for not receiving it, and, the vexatious proceedings thereupon for levying of those ones, are, by other beneficial laws, reformed and prevented.”

As for “these ones,” here’s an example from An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (1766), by John Brown:

“Our Mediator Christ being so excellent a person, his death was so full a price, and so satisfactory unto justice, for all these ones for which it was offered up, that it needeth not to be repeated, but once for all this sacrifice was offered: He died once.

And here’s an example from “The Foreigner,” a story published in the June 1895 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine:

“It is not the colour only. It is that the whole room has neither expression nor character about it. You must surely have noticed that our English drawing-rooms were very different from these ones.”

Modern scholars, too, have used this construction. Here’s a recent example from Blooming English, a 2012 collection of observations by the British linguist Kate Burridge:

“These were just some of the nominees for the annual Doublespeak Awards—and these ones didn’t even win a prize.”

This modern example is from Emerging English Modals, a 2000 monograph on English auxiliaries by the linguist Manfred G. Krug: “Like previous maps, these ones too have to be taken with a good deal of caution.”

If you don’t trust the writing of linguists, here’s an example from The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature (Vol. 3, 2012), edited by David Hopkins and Charles Martindale:

“The effect produced by the epigrams in Rowe’s Lucan is indeed often one of dignity, but this can make them rather un-Lucanian. Take these ones, for instance, about the panic that grips Rome as Caesar approaches the city at the end of Book I.”

(The work is a study of how literary texts from the classical world were received by English writers from the Middle Ages to the present time.)

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Garage sailing, in knots or mph?

Q: A columnist for my local paper in Minnesota wrote that he and his wife went garage sailing. Now I’m wondering how large were his sails, in order to get his garage to move.

A: We’ve also noticed that some people use the term “garage sailing” to mean going to garage sales. We’ve seen “yard sailing,” “estate sailing,” and “tag sailing,” too.

We checked eight standard dictionaries and none of them listed “sail” or “sale” as a verb meaning to go to sales.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the early 1900s of “sale” used as a verb meaning to shop at sales.

Here’s an example from the July 3, 1901, issue of The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality: “To go ‘saleing’ in Bond Street.”

And here’s an example from the June 19, 1928, issue of the Daily Express: “Men went ‘sale-ing’ at lunch time.”

As you’ve probably noticed, the words “saleing” and “sale-ing” above were enclosed in quotes, indicating that the writers didn’t consider the usage quite up to snuff.

And if “sale” were a verb, the participle would normally be formed without the “e” (“saling,” as with “whaling” and “scaling”).

You won’t find “garage sailing,” “garage saling,” or “garage sale-ing” in standard dictionaries, but all three are in online references that let readers submit new words for consideration.

The Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary, for example, has reader contributions for both “garage sailing” and “garage saling” with these illustrations:

“Let’s go garage-sailing this weekend!” and “I’m going garage saling on Friday so I can’t go to the zoo.”

In Google searches, we’ve found several hundred examples for each of the various spellings of the participial phrase, including this exchange between a reader and the Chicago Manual of Style’s “You Could Look It Up” blog.

Q. For those who make a hobby of cruising garage sales, are they going “garage sale-ing,” “garage saling,” or “garage saleing?” Or are they not permitted this usage?

A. Oh, my. Is garage saleing anything like parasailing? The mind boggles. As you suspected, this phrase would not survive the red pencil at Chicago. (Why can’t you just go to garage sales?) I can tell you that suffixes like “ing” don’t normally take a hyphen. After that, you’re on your own.

We think the Chicago Manual’s blogger should loosen up a bit. There’s something to be said for and against all these phrases, but we’re talking here about going to garage sales, not submitting a paper to the Philological Society.

We rather like “garage sailing.” It may have begun life as a misspelling or as a substitute for the ungainly “saling,” but we imagine that most people who use the phrase now are doing so for humorous effect.

In fact, the “sailing” image has prompted humorous comments online, like “You measure the distance driven in knots, not miles.” (To be precise, knots aren’t a measure of  distance, so the joker should have said, “You figure your driving speed in knots, not miles per hour.”)

Savvy shoppers know very well that they’re going to “sales,” not “sails,” but the notion of sailing from house to house in search of treasure isn’t inappropriate.

As one woman wrote on a shopping forum, “My husband and I are avid garage ‘sailors.’ ”

We’ll end this with a tip we picked up from a garage sailor on the Web: “Bargain with the man on girly items and the woman on power tools.” (In our home, the woman usually mans the power tools.)

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Chardonnay facts and fictions

Q: My brother-in-law, who has made his home in Israel for the past 65 years, says Chardonnay wine is named for the hills of Jerusalem, not a small town in Burgundy. In his telling, crusaders returned to France with vines grown in the area, known in Hebrew as sha’har adonai (i.e., “gate of God”).

A: Your brother-in-law isn’t the first to suggest that Chardonnay—both the wine and its name—originated in ancient Israel. But we haven’t found any evidence that this is true.

It’s possible that crusaders could have brought home vine cuttings in the Middle Ages. But those cuttings couldn’t have been from Chardonnay vines and the grape couldn’t have been called anything resembling “Chardonnay.”

There are two issues here—the origin of the name and the origin of the wine grape. Let’s focus for the moment on the name “Chardonnay.”

One thing is certain. “Chardonnay” has been the name of the grape for only a century or so, though it’s been the name of a village in France since the mid-1400s.

In the centuries before the grape’s name was standardized in the 1890s, it had many names and some of them sounded similar to “Chardonnay,” but none were spelled like the village.

These names for the grape included Chardenai, Chardenay, Chardenet, Chardennet, Chardonai, Chardonnet, Chatenait, Chardonet, Chaudenay, and Chaudenet.

Yes, those names resemble the Hebrew phrase sha’har adonai, but resemblance alone doesn’t prove a word’s etymology.

More important, as far as we can tell none of these names were used in reference to wine until hundreds of years after the Crusades.

If the crusaders had brought a “Chardonnay”-sounding name home with them, we would have seen evidence of it much earlier.

The earliest example we’ve found for a Chardonnay-like word used in the wine sense is a 17th-century citation in Chardonnay, Saône-et-Loire (2004), Emmanuel Nonain’s history of the village from the 10th through the 17th centuries.

Nonain writes that inspectors visiting the region reported in 1685 that Saint-Sorlin (now La Roche-Vineuse) “fait du meilleur chardonnet mais en petite quantité” (“makes the best chardonnet  but in small quantities”).

Complicating the picture is the fact that over the centuries the grape has had a great many local French names that don’t sound remotely like the current word or that even begin with the letter c: Beaunois, Aubaine, Epinette, Meroué, and scores of others—all synonyms for the same grape.

For example, in Chablis in northernmost Burgundy, where some have speculated that French vintners originally cultivated the Chardonnay vine, it’s still sometimes called Beaunois.

And true Chablis is also made from Chardonnay grapes. The local appellation (or official geographic name for the grape grown locally) became Chablis in 1938, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (1994), edited by Jancis Robinson.

You can see the difficulty here. It’s dicey to come up with a single etymological explanation for the name of a grape that has had so many names and that has been grown in so many places.

As for the small village of Chardonnay, located in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, its name is derived from a word in medieval Latin, Cardonnacum, meaning “place of thistles.” (“Thistle” is carduus in classical Latin and chardon in French.)

Nonain writes in his book about the village that it was originally known by its medieval name, Cardonacum (we’ve also found Cardoniacum and Cardenacum in old texts).

This name, Nonain says, evolved into Chardenay in the 13th century, then into Chardonay, with either one n or two, in the middle of the 15th century. From about the 18th century, it has consistently had two n’s.

While many people assume the grape was named for the village, the relationship between the names is murky at best.

Nonain says the name of the grape was standardized in 1896 at the suggestion of “certain members” of a national congress of wine authorities, meeting in Chalon-sur-Saône in southern Burgundy.

Why name it “Chardonnay”? Perhaps because some of the grape’s earlier names sounded like the village of Chardonnay, which just happened to be in southern Burgundy, the site of the wine congress.

Before 1896, Nonain says, the vine was most commonly known as Chardenet, Chaudenet, Chardonnet, or Chardenay.

“Although there are similarities between these names and the successive names of the village,” he adds, “one can hardly draw conclusions about the geographical origin of the famous grape.”

Which brings us to the origins of the famous grape itself.

In a joint study published in 1999, American and French scientists said DNA research had proved that the Chardonnay vine was a cross between two others—Pinot and Gouais blanc.

And where did the parent vines come from?

Pinot, the oldest grape variety in Burgundy, “may already have been present in the Burgundy region at the time of the Roman conquest,” the scientists said.

But Gouais blanc, according to the authors of the study, probably came from Croatia and was introduced to ancient Gaul by Romans in the third century.

“The third century Roman emperor Probus, a Dalmatian, encouraged viticulture in the provinces and is said to have given the Gauls a grape from his homeland,” the scientists said. “It is reasonable to consider that perhaps Probus’ gift to the Gauls was Gouais blanc.”

This is speculative, of course, and it leaves the question of who crossed the parent vines to create what we now call Chardonnay. The scientists suggest that the crossing happened spontaneously—that is, by natural causes.

A wine writer, Hugh Johnson, author of Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989), says Cistercian monks in Chablis in the 1100s may have been the first to cultivate the Chardonnay grape.

But now we’re entering into even more speculation. Sometimes, the more we learn about a subject, the more questions arise. This is one of those times.

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