The Grammarphobia Blog

When a contraction won’t do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Ye olde bookshoppe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She will be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

The Grammarphobia Blog

What with one thing and another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Did you vigil for Orlando?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is it “went,” not “goed”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Bombshells, blonde & otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A lexical epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A hole that swallows things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Mixed feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adjective “ambivalent” has had a similar evolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When “it” isn’t fit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy gardening!

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why “lucky me,” not “lucky I”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is especially true in speech or informal writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

From “housewife” to “hussy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Participle physics

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on to your questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Sex, gender, and rock ’n’ roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

“Word” is a word is a word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A slave named Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A midwife’s tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are two hoods better than one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Passive resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

He should’ve stood in bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Follows the subject

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Update, May 9, 2016: Several readers have pointed out that odd syntax is what  makes Yoda’s speech so odd. The great Jedi master of the Star Wars series favors such constructions as “Do it you must.” The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote about Yoda talk on the Language Log in 2005.]

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Unimagined and unimaginable

Q: I edit writing about crime and justice. I recently scrubbed a piece that used the word “unimagined” instead of “unimaginable” to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison. Is the former term acceptable in this case?

A: The online Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary gives “unimaginable” as one of the definitions of “unimagined,” but three other standard dictionaries that include the two terms define them somewhat differently.

The entries in the online versions of Oxford Dictionaries, Collins, and Macmillan indicate that “unimagined” refers to something that hasn’t been imagined, while “unimaginable” refers to something that’s hard or impossible to imagine.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines “unimaginable” as “difficult or impossible to imagine or comprehend,” and offers this example: “lives of almost unimaginable deprivation.”

The dictionary defines “unimagined” as “not having been imagined or thought of as possible,” and gives this example: “a previously unimagined degree of economic and social freedom.”

Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary and a different entity from Oxford Dictionaries) defines “unimaginable” as incapable of being imagined, and “unimagined” as not imagined.

The examples for the two words in the OED suggest that they have been used differently since “unimaginable” showed up in the early 1600s and “unimagined” in the mid-1500s.

The earliest citation for “unimaginable” is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave: “Inimaginable, vnimaginable, vnconceiuable.”

The OED’s first example for “unimagined” is from The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall: “A thyng discended from heauen, of theim vnsought, vnimagined and not deuised.”

Getting back to your question, we think either word would be acceptable to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison, but the meanings would differ.

The term “unimagined” would describe abuse that hadn’t been imagined before, while “unimaginable” would describe abuse that’s difficult or impossible to imagine.

As Angelica sings in the musical Hamilton, “We push away what we can never understand / We push away the unimaginable.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Scales get in your eyes

Q: When “the scales fall from one’s eyes” to suddenly reveal the truth, are they the scales of justice?

A: No, the “scales” here are etymologically related to the ones on fish, reptiles, and insects.

The Oxford English Dictionary has three major meanings for the noun “scale,” with many related senses: (1) a device for weighing things; (2) one of the thin, overlapping plates protecting the skin of animals; (3) a graduated system of measurement.

When English borrowed “scale” from Old Norse in the 1100s, it meant a bowl or cup to drink from. The Old Norse skál is also the ultimate source of the drinking toast “skoal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED’s earliest example for “scale” is from Layamon’s Brut, written sometime before 1200: “Heo fulde hir scale of wine” (“He filled her cup with wine”).

In the early 1400s, this cup-like sense of “scale” evolved to mean a device for weighing—that is, “the pan, or each of the pans, of a balance,” according to Oxford.

The earliest example in the OED for “scale” used in the weighing sense is from An Alphabet of Tales (circa 1440), a collection of moral stories:

“And when it was put In þe to skale it weyed more þan all þat evur þai cuthe put in þe toder skale” (“And when it was put into the scale, it weighed more than all that ever they could put in the other scale”). We’ve expanded the OED citation for clarity.

The dictionary’s first citation for “scales” used in the justice sense is from Christ’s Victory and Triumph (1610), an allegorical poem by Giles Fletcher: “In one hand a paire of euen scoals [even scales] she weares.”

The amphibian sense of “scale” is ultimately derived from skaljō, the ancient German source for the word “shell.” The earliest OED citation is a reference to the scales on a dragon, from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Þe smallest scale þat on him is No wepen no may atame” (“No weapon may cut into the smallest scale that’s on him”).

And here’s a piscine example from the Chaucer poem Parlement of Foules (circa 1381): “Smale fischis lite / With fynnys rede & skalis syluyr bryȝt” (“Skinny little fishes / With red fins and bright scales”).

The OED’s earliest example for the expression you’ve asked about is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “And anon ther felden from his yȝen as scalis, and he receyuede siȝt” (“And anon there fell scales from his eyes, and he received sight”).

Think of the expression as a metaphorical way of describing something akin to the sudden clearing of the cloudy layer on the lens of someone with cataracts.

The measurement sense of “scale” is derived from the classical Latin scāla (ladder) and scālae (flight of stairs). In the late 1300s and early 1400s, “scale” was used literally for a ladder and figuratively for a stair-like series of gradations for measuring things, according to OED citations.

It’s used literally in John Lydgate’s poem Troy Book (1412-20), where Diomedes says the Trojans fortified their walls while the Greeks delayed attacking “and ageyn oure skalis … made gret ordinaunce” (“and against our ladders … assembled a great defense”).

in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a 1391 how-to manual about the astrological instrument, Chaucer uses the word figuratively: “Next the forseide cercle of the A. b. c., vnder the cros-lyne, is Marked the skale, in Maner of 2 Squyres or elles in Manere of laddres.”

Over the years, the noun “scale” has taken on many other meanings derived from the “ladder” sense of the word, including a “scale” in music (1597), doing something on a large or small “scale” (1785), a wage “scale” (1921), and economies of “scale” (1944).

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “based off” off base?

Q: As I read the papers of college freshmen, I am often stopped by usages that seem wrong to me. The latest example is the use of “based off” for “based on,” as in “based off the research of Albert Einstein.” Your thoughts?

A: You’re not the first to notice the use of “based off” (sometimes “based off of”) in place of “based on,” though college students aren’t the only perpetrators.

Linguists have been discussing the usage for at least 10 years, and it was the subject of an online article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2013.

The author of the article, Anne Curzan, wrote: “I have mentioned the construction to a few colleagues, and it’s clear at least some of them are circling it in student writing.”

The use is also found outside routine classroom writing. Curzan, a linguist and a professor of English at the University of Michigan, passed along this example from the academic journal Exceptional Children (March 2012):

“For our study, the parameters used in the simulation were based off of values derived from a large empirical data set.”

And we’ve found other recent examples of “based off” in academic journals, both American and British.

By the way, “based off of” is just a puffed up version of “based off.” Our suspicion is that people who use “based off of” may have the phrase “on the basis of” in mind.

We’ve written on the blog about “off of,” an extremely common redundancy. So we’ll confine these remarks to “based off.”

While “based off” may have become more popular recently, it’s not unseen in older writing. It’s been used occasionally since the early 1930s, mostly in trade journals.

The earliest example we’ve been able to confirm appeared in a May 1931 issue of National Petroleum News:

“To consumers: … discounts are based off tank wagon price, and affect purchases of 1,000 gallons or more per month” (this notation appeared several times in column listings).

Here it is again in 1952: “Based off 1951 figures, the proposed constitutional amendment would cut Federal revenues by $16,000,000,000 a year” (from the Bulletin of the Metal Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor).

And this headline appeared on a cover story in the trade journal Automotive News in January 1997: “Bigger Honda SUV will be based off Accord, minivan.”

These 20th-century appearances cropped up so seldom that nobody seems to have minded.

The use of “based off” in the sense of “based on” isn’t discussed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. And while the newest edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (4th ed., 2016) has a long discussion of “based on,” it makes no mention at all of “based off.”

Discussions of “based off” have come up periodically on the Linguist List, the online discussion group of the American Dialect Society, but only in the last 10 years.

Writing on the list in 2006, Seán Fitzpatrick commented: “My daughters were discussing a forthcoming movie, and the 21-year-old said you had to give the auteur credit for originality, since the movie was ‘not based off a book, not based off another movie, and not based off a TV show.’ ”

“ ‘Based off’ seemed to me to be a peculiar alteration of ‘based on,’ ” Fitzpatrick added. “The strange thing is that she denied having said ‘based off’ instead of ‘based on.’ ”

Another contributor, the linguist Arnold Zwicky, suggested that “based off” as a variation on “based on” or “based upon” may be relatively recent.

“In any case,” Zwicky wrote, “it’s now very widespread.” And it’s become even more widespread since 2006.

Writing on the list in 2014, the slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter reported a sighting of “based off” with another meaning: “as a result of; by reason of; from.”

The quotation, from Yahoo! news: “Hawking earned his scientific reputation back in the 1970’s based off his theory of black holes as cosmic vacuums.”

We won’t bother reporting the comparative frequency of “based off” versus “based on” in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.

Many of the supposed examples of “based off” turn out to be misreadings of “eased off” or another phrase. And many other examples don’t represent the sense we’re talking about (e.g., “based off the coast of Cadiz”).

Though “based off” in place of “based on” sounds foreign to our ears, the usage doesn’t surprise us.

We’ve often remarked that the use of prepositions in English is highly idiomatic and subject to changing usage.

(A newcomer to English recently wrote to us in confusion about the various prepositions used in reference to copying: “print out,” “print off,” and “print up.” We explained that they’re all acceptable idioms.)

As Curzan wrote in her article: “With ‘based on’ one could argue that because things are physically built on bases, it makes more sense to say ‘based on.’ ”

“I agree: That is perfectly logical,” she added. “But language isn’t always logical, and once ‘based on’ becomes as much or more metaphorical than literal, it doesn’t seem surprising to me that the preposition might shift—especially given that one can metaphorically ‘build off’ things.”

We would add that a reinterpretation of a work is often called a “takeoff,” which may have contributed to the use of  “based off.”

“Based” here is the past participle of the verb “base,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has no examples of its use with “off.”

The OED says the verb means “to place on (also upon) a foundation, fundamental principle, or underlying basis.” (Note the prepositions in italics.)

All of the dictionary’s citations for this sense the verb and adjective, between 1776 and 2009, show the accompanying preposition as either “on” or “upon.”

As far as we can tell, people seem to use “based off” in three general ways:

● as a verb, either active (“She based her novel off Pride and Prejudice”) or passive (“Her novel is based off Pride and Prejudice”);

● as an adjective (“Figures based off speculation aren’t reliable”);

● as an adverb (“The company pays based off the hours worked”).

Now, we aren’t advocating any of these or claiming they’re standard English usage. We’re merely reporting what’s out there, so hold those indignant emails and tweets.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

School days, school days

Q: Could you tell me the origin of the compound word “schoolteacher”?  What is the reason for the redundancy?  My first thought was that the phrase distinguished schoolteachers from Sunday school teachers. I later theorized that it might’ve come from the Germanic preference for compounds.

A: We wouldn’t call “schoolteacher” redundant. We think of a schoolteacher as someone who teaches in elementary, middle, or high school. However, not all standard dictionaries make that distinction.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “schoolteacher” as we do: a “person who teaches in a school below the college level.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), defines it simply as “one who teaches school.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s define “teacher” loosely as someone who’s hired to teach. So a teacher may give piano lessons in a student’s home or lead a university seminar on literary theory (though we might use “professor” for the literary theorist).

The earliest citation for “schoolteacher” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Reliquæ Baxterianæ (1696), the autobiography of the Puritan clergyman Richard Baxter:

“The third sort is School-Teachers, which is not my Case (though I have also a License to Teach School).”

In discussing the etymology of the term, the OED points the reader to an earlier usage, “to teach school,” which showed up in a 1590 letter by the Elizabethan writer Christopher Ockland: “I teach schole at Grenewych.”

But we suspect that the term “schoolteacher” may have also been influenced by two even earlier terms, “schoolmaster” (circa 1225) and “schoolmistress” (1335). 

Two other early influences may have been the Old French tenir escoles (c. 1200) or the Middle French tenir escole (1366), verb phrases meaning to teach. In medieval Latin, according to the OED, scholam tenere meant  to run a school and scholas tenere meant to “engage in academic disputation.”

The source of all these usages is, of course, the word “school,” which ultimately comes from the classical Latin schola or scola, which referred to a teacher’s lecture on a subject or the place where the teacher lectured.

In medieval Latin, schola came to mean, among other things, a group of people of the same profession, the sense the word had when it showed up in early Old English spelled scola. (It’s also spelled scolu and scole in Old English manuscripts.)

The first OED example of the word used to mean an “institution for the formal education of children” is from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s: “Eac þær leornode on þære ylcan scole se æðela Gregorius” (“Also there learned in the same school the noble Gregory”).

The word “teacher”—derived from tǽc(e)an, to teach in Old English—first showed up in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Oon of hem, a techer of the lawe, axede Jhesus, temptynge hym.”

In case you’re curious, Wycliffe’s use of “axede” for “asked” here is an example of an old usage that’s now considered nonstandard. As we wrote on the blog back in 2008, this wasn’t always the case.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Dribs and drabs

Q: In your recent post about dribbling, you talk about the long-dead verb “drib,” the source of “dribble.” Is that also the source of “dribs and drabs”?

A: Yes, that old verb “drib” gave us “dribs and drabs” as well as “dribble.”

As we noted in our post, the “dribble” we associate with basketball and drinking fountains comes from a defunct 16th-century verb, “drib.”

This old verb originally meant  “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little,” and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A noun form showed up in Scottish and dialectal English in the early 18th century. This “drib” meant a “drop” or a “petty or inconsiderable quantity,” the OED says. In other words, it meant the same thing as the earlier “driblet.”

The noun “drib” was first recorded in the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay’s Ode From Horace (circa 1730): “That mutchkin-stoup it hauds but dribs” (“That small flagon it holds only dribs”).

Soon afterward, Jonathan Swift used the word in his satirical poem On Dr. Gibbs’s Psalms. (1745): “Thy heavy hand restrain; / Have mercy Dr. Gibbs; / Do not, I pray thee, paper stain / With rhymes retail’d in dribbs.” (We’ve expanded to citation to get in more of the poem.)

The usage eventually migrated to America, where Abraham Lincoln used it in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan on May 25, 1862: “We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore as we can spare to Harper’s Ferry.”

But before Lincoln’s time, people were already using the expression “dribs and drabs” to mean bits and pieces (or, as the OED says, “small and intermittent sums or amounts”).

The earliest example in Oxford is from a letter written by an English governess named Ellen Weeton on March 17, 1809:

“Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…. You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” (From Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess, Vol. 1, 1807-11.)

So what is a “drab”? Interestingly, the noun “drab” made its first appearance (pluralized) in that very expression. Before “dribs and drabs,” it had no independent existence—at least in that sense of the word.

Two earlier senses of “drab,” which the OED says are probably unrelated to this one, were first recorded in the early 1500s: (1) “a dirty or untidy woman,” as in a “slattern”; and (2) a “harlot, prostitute, strumpet.”

Apparently the expression “dribs and drabs” later inspired a separate use of “drab” to mean a small amount of money, a usage first recorded, the OED says, in the late 1820s.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from William Carr’s book The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (2nd ed., 1828): “Drab, a small debt. ‘He’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.’ ”

An entirely different “drab,” the adjective meaning dull, plain, or light brown, took on its various senses in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s believed to have evolved from a noun for plain, undyed cloth, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Druggist or chemist?

Q: In a pharmacy in the US, the person filling the prescriptions is often called a druggist. In England, that person is often called a chemist. How did this come about?

A: “Druggist” is one of many old words that Americans have preserved and the English have generally lost. Others include “skillet,” “sidewalk,” “apartment” (now a “flat” in the UK), “merry-go-round,” and “fall” (the season), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 17th century, English speakers in both America and England used the word “druggist” for someone who prepares and dispenses medicine (the Scots still do), but the English began switching to “chemist” in the 18th century. (A somewhat older term, “drugger,” is rarely seen now.)

English borrowed the word “druggist” from the French droguiste in the early 1600s. The first example in the OED is from Lanthorne and Candle-Light, a 1608 pamphlet by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Dekker about the tricks of London confidence men:

“Tongues had rather Spit venome on thy lines, then from thy labours (As Druggists doe from poison) medicines gather.”

In the 1600s, according to the OED, a “chemist” was someone who practiced chemistry or alchemy. Here’s an example using both “chemist” and “druggist,” from The Magicall-Astrologicall-Diviner, a 1652 attack on magic by the English Puritan cleric John Gaul:

“Two Chymists had agreed upon a cheat, that one of them should turn druggist and sell strange roots and powders: the other to follow still his gold finding trade” (we’ve expanded the OED citation to add context).

In the mid-1700s, the English began referring to pharmacists as “chemists.” The earliest example in Oxford is from A New Improvement in the Art of Making the True Volatile Spirit of Sulphur (1744), by Ephraim Rinhold Seehl: “The Shops of the Druggists, Chemists, and Apothecaries.”

And here’s an example from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend (1865): “She arrived in the drug-flavoured region of Mincing Lane, with the sensation of having just opened a drawer in a chemist’s shop.”

By the way, the word “pharmacist,” which is used on both sides of the Atlantic, comes from pharmacia, classical Latin for the preparation of drugs.

The first OED citation is from Dr. Radcliffe’s Practical Dispensatory, a 1721 work by the English medical writer Edward  Strother:

“Who knows these, save the Philosopher, the Anatomist, the Chymist, the Mathematician, the Pharmacist, and the learned Observer?”

As for those other words, we’ve written about them (and many others) in “Stiff Upper Lips,” the chapter on US and UK English in Origins of the Specious, our book about language.

Since the Middle Ages, English speakers have used both “skillet” (1403) and “frying pan” (1382). Americans have kept both, but the British generally threw out the “skillet.” Both used to walk on a “sidewalk” (1739) or a “pavement” (1743), but Americans now use the former and the British the latter. (The dates are from OED citations.)

An “apartment” was the usual word for a suite of rooms in 17th-century England. The British didn’t start using “flat” for such a dwelling until the early 1820s.

Children generally ride on a “merry-go-round” in the US and a “roundabout” in the UK. Which is older? “Roundabout” (1763) is a roundabout way of saying “merry-go-round” (1729).

Finally, the season between summer and winter was once called “autumn” and “fall” on each side of the Atlantic. Americans kept both terms, but “fall” generally fell out of favor in the UK. If you’d like to read more, we’ve written about the subject on our blog.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Color us plural

Q: Some friends from work were wondering if it’s correct to use colors in the plural when they’re nouns. We have a team called “Amber,” and we’re usually referred to as the “Ambers,” like my neighbors, the “Greens.”

A: There’s nothing wrong with that terminology. Words for colors aren’t just adjectives, as in “a pink dress.” They’re nouns, too, and even verbs.

As nouns, they can refer to the colors themselves (“Mix blue and yellow to get green”) or to things of that color (“If I bring wine, do you want a white or a red?”).

Such nouns can of course be pluralized, as in “There are so many different greens in the landscape,” or “The carriage was drawn by two dappled grays.”

And groups of people are commonly referred to this way as well: “The Reds meet the Phillies tomorrow at 4 p.m.” … “Participants re-enacted battle scenes between the Blues and the Grays.”

So members of a team known as “Amber” would naturally call themselves the “Ambers.”

We also use some color words as verbs meaning to turn that color: “First, brown the chicken” … “The sun may yellow the drapes” … “The lawn has greened up nicely.”

As for those neighbors, the “Greens,” this is simply a pluralization of a surname, like “the Smiths” or “the MacGregors.”

Many surnames happen to be the names of colors: “Black,” “White,” “Gray,” “Green,” and “Brown” are probably the most common.

A reader once asked why people have those color words as surnames, but almost no one is “Mr. Yellow” or “Ms. Purple.” As you can see from our reply, there’s no black-and-white answer.

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


The Grammarphobia Blog

Page references

Q: I cannot help feeling that the word “page,” meaning a manservant, has something to do with the word “pageant,” which you discussed recently. Surely it was worth a mention.

A: Despite the similarity in appearance, the word “page,” in its servant sense, isn’t etymologically related to “pageant.” In fact, this “page” isn’t ultimately related to the “page” in a book either, though English borrowed both from the same French term.

The noun “page,” used in the sense you’re asking about, was adopted from French in the late 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle French, page meant a servant as well as one side of a sheet of paper.

The French acquired the servant sense of page (perhaps by way of Italian) from pagius, medieval Latin for a servant, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Here the trail turns lukewarm.

Chamber’s says pagius “perhaps ultimately” comes from paidós, classical Greek for a child. The OED says only that such an etymology has been “proposed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says pagius is “generally assumed”  to come from paidós, source of such English words as “encyclopedia,” “pediatric,” “pedagogue,” “pedophile,” and “pederast.”

The paper sense of the French word page showed up in English around 1485 as page references in the correspondence of the Celys, an English merchant family.

The OED says this sense of the French page is derived from pāgina, classical Latin for a written page or a piece of writing.

The word “pageant,” as we wrote on our blog, referred to a mystery play, a drama depicting biblical events, when it showed up in the late 1300s or early 1400s. It comes from multiple sources in French and Latin, none of them related to the servant sense of “page.”

The OED’s earliest example for “page” used in its servant sense is from The Lay of Havelock the Dane (circa 1280): “Was þer-inne no page so lite Þat euere wolde ale bite” (“Was therein no page so little that ever would ale bite”).

In the late 1300s, it came to mean a servant in a royal or noble household. And around 1400, it came to mean a youth in training for knighthood, ranking just below a squire.

The OED’s earliest citation for a knight’s “page” is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance: “Fyue hundreþ þousynde Kniȝttes to armes … Wiþouten pages and squyers” (“Five hundred thousand knights in arms … not counting pages and squires”).

Finally, the American sense of a “page” as a young person who runs errands in a court or a legislative body showed up in the mid-19th century.

The first OED example is from the Feb. 18, 1840, issue of the Boston Evening Transcript: “A page took them to the Clerk—the Clerk handed them to the Speaker.”

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


The Grammarphobia Blog

The well-tempered reply

Q: I once asked you about the epidemic of people on radio and TV who respond to a question by beginning the answer with “so.” You sent me to a post that says this use of “so” goes back to Shakespeare. You guys have everything so nailed, but whatever happened to the well-established, reply-greasing introductory word “well”?

A: Well, people still use it, and we suspect that they’ll use it even more when they get tired of beginning statements with “so.” In fact, this use of “well” has an even longer history than the introductory “so.”

Since early Old English, more than a thousand years ago, people have begun statements with a “well” that’s unconnected with anything else in the sentence.

The earliest example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is from King Ælfred’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ (circa 888):

“Wella wisan men, wel, gað ealle on þone weg … ” (“Well oh wise men, well, go all of you on the way …”).

(As we wrote on the blog last year, the Old English interjection wella was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “oh.”)

The OED describes “well” here as a “disjunctive use,” in which the word is sometimes “a simple interjection.”

This “well,” the dictionary explains, is “used to introduce a remark or statement, sometimes implying that the speaker or writer accepts a situation, etc., already expressed or indicated, or desires to qualify this in some way.”

But frequently, the word is “used only as a preliminary or resumptive word,” the dictionary says, adding:

Well functions as a discourse marker, often expressing an emotion such as surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief, but also used when pausing to consider one’s next words, to introduce an explanation or amplification, to mark the resumption or end of a conversation, etc., or to indicate that one is waiting for an answer or explanation from someone.”

So people who respond to a question with “Well …” are probably pausing to weigh their answer (either that or stalling for time).

Sometimes people begin a question this way if they’re asking it with an emotion like “surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief,” Oxford says.

The OED has this example from a Middle English poem, Sir Tristrem (circa 1300): “Wel, whi seistow so?” (“Well, why say you so?”)

And sometimes the entire question consists of that single word, as in this OED citation: “ ‘Well?’ said Mrs. Stanmere interrogatingly.” (From Mary Linskill’s novel The Haven Under the Hill, 1886.)

No matter how it’s used, this disconnected “well” has been extremely common from the beginnings of recorded English until the present day.

Interview subjects may use it in reply to a question, as in this OED example: “Why does he only cut short hair, I ask? ‘Well, I am good at it and short haircuts are more creative.’ ” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 1999.)

Sometimes “well” isn’t used all by itself as a “disjunctive” beginning. Oxford has examples for “Well well” (circa 1015); “Well well well” (1563); “Well then” (before 1450); “Ah well” (1534); “Very well” (1529); “Oh well” (1582); and “Well now” (1550).

And as John Lennon sang, “Well, well, well. Oh, well. Well, well, well. Oh, well.” And so on.

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


The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t sweat it

Q: As someone who ranks high on the perspiration index, I was wondering when the phrase “don’t sweat it” came about.

A: “Don’t sweat it” first showed up in print about 50 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ve found a similar expression that appeared in writing 50 years before that.

The OED describes “don’t sweat it” as American slang for “don’t worry.” The dictionary says a positive colloquial version, “to sweat,” means “to experience discomfort through anxiety or unease.”

The earliest example for “don’t sweat it” in Oxford is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “Don’t sweat it means ‘don’t worry about it.’ ”

However, we’ve found this similar usage in the Dec. 12, 1914, issue of Happy Days, a New York weekly newspaper:

“ ‘What’s the meeting for, anyway?’ said Paul Braddon. ‘Keep your shirt on, and don’t sweat it off,’ said Deacon Small.”

The first positive citation (grammatically speaking) in the OED is from The Hungarian Game, a 1973 espionage thriller by Roy Hayes:

“ ‘Hold off for a moment. I want to watch him sweat.’ ‘The guy’s about to faint from pain.’ ”

As you can imagine, the verb “sweat” in its literal sense is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. The infinitive was swætan in Old English and meant (as it does today) to emit perspiration through the pores of the skin.

The first example in the OED is from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 900):

He swa swiðe swætte swa in swole middes sumeres (“He so sweated strongly in the mid-summer heat”).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says that “sweat” is ultimately derived from the proto-Germanic root swaita-, and that it has given us such words and phrases as “sweater” (1882, the garment), “sweatshop” (1889), and “sweatshirt” (1929).

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Snacks and refreshments

Q: To me, “refreshments” can refer to food or drink. But in the last 10 years, at least in Cincinnati, I’ve seen it used exclusively for beverages. Often an event will mention “snacks and refreshments” or something similar, implying that the snacks are solid and the refreshments liquid. Have you noticed this, and what can you say about it?

A: All six of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree with you that the word “refreshments” refers to food or drink or both.

However, English speakers have been using the expression “food and refreshments” for nearly two centuries. Go figure!

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1816 account in the New Evangelical Magazine about the last days of Thomas Paine, the American political activist and Founding Father, who died in 1809 in Greenwich Village.

A letter forwarded to the magazine describes how a family living near Paine “had contributed to his comfort by occasionally preparing and sending him food and refreshments more adapted to his situation than he usually enjoyed.”

The phrase “food and refreshments” has been used regularly since then, according to the results of a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.

However, the phrase you mentioned, “snacks and refreshments,” is a relative newcomer, showing up in the mid-20th century and increasing sharply in usage since then, according to an Ngram search.

The earliest example we’ve found for the new phrase is from a 1949 issue of the magazine Outdoor Indiana:

“The Division of State Parks, Lands and Waters, under whose supervision Mounds State Park is operated, maintains a service pavilion where snacks and refreshments may be obtained by park guests.”

As you’d expect, “food” is the oldest of these words, dating back to Old English, when it was spelled fóda. and meant a “nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary offers this Old English example from the abbot Ælfric’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi (The Questions of Sigewulf): “On þære oðre fleringe wæs heora nytena foda gelogod” (“On another floor was the food for cattle”).

Although the noun “snack” is fairly old too, dating back to the early 1400s, it originally meant a snap or bite, especially from a dog. It evolved over the years to mean a snappish remark, a part of something, and in the mid-1700s a bite of food or a light meal.

The OED’s earliest example for the culinary sense is from a 1757 issue of the Monitor or British Freeholder: “When once a man has got a snack of their trenchers, he too often retains a hankering after the honey-pot.”

And here’s a figurative usage from a letter by the poet John Keats: “Having taken a snack or luncheon of literary scraps.”

Finally, the word “refreshment.” When English adapted the term in the 1400s from several Gallic sources, according to the OED, it meant “refreshing a person or thing physically, by means of food, drink, rest, coolness, etc.”

The use of the plural “refreshments” in the modern sense of a light meal or drink didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1639 entry in a notebook kept by Thomas Lechford, a Boston lawyer: “You must … have some refreshments besides the ships provisions … that is, some suger and fine ruske or bisket.”

Getting back to your question, one could argue that the expression “food and refreshments” is redundant, but we’d describe it as an idiomatic usage with a long history. In other words, relax and have a canapé.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She will be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Fold like a cheap X

Q: Is the expression “fold like a cheap suit” or “fold like a cheap suitcase”? Most of the people I’ve asked think it should be “suit,” but I remember it as “suitcase.”

A: The verb “fold” has been used for hundreds of years to mean “give way,” “collapse,” or “fail.” But it’s been used for only a few dozen years in expressions like the ones you’re asking about.

There are many variations on the “fold” theme, including “fold like a cheap tent,” “fold like a cheap lounge chair,” and “fold like a cheap camera” (a reference to the inexpensive folding cameras of days gone by).

These expressions, sometimes called “snowclones” by linguists, follow a verbal pattern (like “X is the new Y” or, in this case, “fold like a cheap X”) into which various words can be inserted by people too lazy to come up with new clichés.

In a 2004 post on the Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum credits the economist Glen Whitman with coining the term for “these non-sexually reproduced journalistic textual templates.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, in discussing the “fold like a cheap X” formula on his blog in 2009, questions the use of the word “suit” here, then suggests a possible explanation for the usage.

Suit would not have been my first choice as a filler for X, suits (even cheap ones) not being notable for ease of folding,” he writes. “But maybe the cliché ‘all over someone like a cheap suit’ promoted suit for X.”

Zwicky mentions several other choices as a filler for X, including “shirt,” “umbrella,” “cocktail umbrella,” “lawn chair,” “deck chair,” “card table,” “pocket-knife,” “wallet,” “blanket,” and “accordion.”

The earliest example in writing that we could find for any of these “fold like a cheap X” expressions is from White Rat: A Life in Baseball, a 1987 memoir by Whitey Herzog:

“The Phils, I think, were secretly rooting for the Cardinals to win the second half because they knew they could throw Steve Carlton at us in the mini-playoffs and we’d fold like a cheap tent.”

The earliest written example we’ve found for the “suitcase” version is from All Out, a 1988 novel by Judith Alguire: “She folded like a cheap suitcase.”

And the first written example we’ve found for the “suit” formula is from Another 48 Hours, Deborah Chiel’s 1990 novelization of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film: “Wilson folded like a cheap suit to the ringing applause of everyone present.”

And now we’ll fold like a cheap laptop and call it a day.

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