The Grammarphobia Blog

When “mortify” meant to kill

Q: At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley is “mortified” by Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. I’ve read the novel umpteen times, but it just struck me that “mortify” must have something to do with death. What is the connection?

A: Yes, the verb “mortify” has a deadly history.

When English adopted it in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman mortifier, the word in both languages meant “to put to death.”

It’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin combining elements mort- (death) and -ficāre (to cause), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the years, “mortify” took on many other senses, some influenced by medieval Latin, Old French, and Middle French, and others originating in English.

The earliest example for “mortify” in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Þe lord mortefieþ & qwekeneþ, bryngeþ down to hellis & aȝeeyn bryngeþ” (“The Lord mortifieth and awakeneth, bringeth down to hell and bringeth redemption”).

Here are some obsolete, historical, or rare meanings of “mortify” and the earliest dates for them in the OED:

“Weaken” (circa 1390), “alter a metal, as with alchemy” (c. 1395), “die” (c. 1475), “donate property” (1479), “be an ascetic” (1568), “tenderize meat” (1572), and “become gangrenous” (1603).

The usual sense today (“to embarrass or humiliate”) showed up in the early 17th century. The first Oxford example is from The Ball, a 1639 comedy by the English dramatist James Shirley: “We come to mortifie you.”

The most recent citation in Oxford is from Parallel Lives, a 1985 book by Phyllis Rose about the marriages of five Victorian writers: “It mortified Effie that her husband [John Ruskin] left her constantly alone.”

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The emperor’s cold feet

Q: Professor Wadding, a minor character in The Transit of Venus, says the expression “cold feet” comes from Emperor Henry IV’s waiting in the snow at Canossa to meet Pope Gregory VII. Is this etymology too good to be true?

Yes, that’s a fictitious story, but don’t blame Shirley Hazzard, the author of the novel. Blame Professor Wadding, who is deliberately portrayed as a pompous twit and a fount of academic gobbledygook.

The use of “cold feet” to mean a lack of courage, confidence, or resolve actually appeared in writing for the first time in the late 19th century, more than 800 years after the Pope is said to have kept the Emperor waiting for three wintry days outside Canossa Castle.

The expression showed up in writing for the first time in two American works of fiction published in 1896:

“He’s one o’ them boys that never has cold feet and there’s nothin’ too good for a friend.” (From Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town, a novel by George Ade.)

“I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” (From Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novella by Stephen Crane. The citation is found in the 1896 second edition, but not the 1893 first, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.)

Word sleuths have found earlier examples of “cold feet” in fiction, but the phrase is used either literally or in a different figurative sense.

For example, the phrase shows up several times in an 1878 English translation of Seed-time and Harvest, a novel by the German writer Fritz Reuter.

In one scene, a winning card player decides to leave the table when his lucks changes: “so he rose and said his feet were getting cold, and put his winnings in his pocket.”

Other players then accused him of using “cold feet” as an excuse: “Don’t you always get cold feet at our club, when you have had good luck?” one said.

(The title of the novel is from Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”)

And in Volpone, a 1606 comedy by the English playwright Ben Jonson, the title character says: “Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate, than I accustomed: look not to it.”

Kenneth McKenzie, who was an Italian scholar at Yale University, says in a December 1912 letter in Modern Language Notes that “to be cold in the feet” in the Lombard dialect (as well as in modern Italian) means to be “hard up”—that is, “without money.”

As for Canossa, Emperor Henry IV may have had cold feet, both literally and figuratively, as he waited outside the castle in January 1077. But there’s no evidence  that the expression “cold feet” was ever used figuratively at the time to describe his submission to the will of Pope Gregory VII.

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Is “monthslong” a word?

Q: Is “monthslong” a new word or did the editors at NPR slip up? A recent story referred to “a monthslong campaign of racist bullying.”

A: Yes, “monthslong” is a word—a unit of written or spoken language—and it’s not all that new. But is it really a word, one that’s alive and well in writing and speech?

You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but dictionaries often leave out compounds made of words that have entries of their own.

For example, we’ve seen only three standard dictionaries with entries for “monthlong” or “month-long” as a singular compound adjective. Yet all standard dictionaries have entries for “month” and “long.”

Two online references, the collaborative Wiktionary and the program-generated Wordnik, do have entries for the plural form, “monthslong” (with “months-long” as a variant).

Wiktionary describes “monthslong” as an adjective that means “Lasting for multiple months.” As an example, it cites an April 14, 2007, article in the New York Times:

“A former United States Senator, John B. Breaux, ended his monthslong flirtation with the Louisiana governor’s race Friday evening, declaring that he would not be a candidate in the election this fall.”

Our own search of the Times archive found many examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long.” The earliest is from an English translation of Adolf Hitler’s June 22, 1941, proclamation on Germany’s war with the Soviet Union:

“German people! National Socialists! Weighted down with heavy cares, condemned to months-long silence, the hour has now come when at last I can speak frankly.”

We found many earlier examples for the hyphenated “months-long” in searches of book and newspaper databases.

Here’s an example from Hearts and Creeds, a 1906 novel by Anna Chapin Ray:

“The months-long discontent with the existing order of things, increased by the passive revolt of the Conservative party and aided by their active influence, was ending, as they had hoped, in the temporary disruption of the Liberal power.”

And an article in the Feb. 19, 1911, issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram refers to “a timber cruiser, or field surveyor, for a big lumber company, who was perpetually taking months-long trips through the most inaccessible regions.”

Many early examples for “months-long,” including all three mentioned above, break at the end of a line of type, so it’s unclear whether the writer intended the adjective to be hyphenated or not.

The Associated Press and New York Times style books have entries for “monthlong,” but not “monthslong.” However, “monthslong” and “months-long” appear frequently in the online versions of the Times and other newspapers.

In fact, the Times archive has hundreds of examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long,” though the hyphen-free version seems to be more popular lately.

Interestingly, the word usually appears without a hyphen in online searches of the Times archive, even when it originally appeared with a hyphen in the print paper.

In short, it seems that “monthslong” and “months-long” are indeed words in both the technical and practical senses, but their orthography is still a work in progress.

For what it’s worth, we prefer “months-long.” It’s easier to read than “monthslong,” especially online, where everyone’s in such a hurry.

Better still, if you know the number of months, why not be precise and say “a three-month campaign”?

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“Intend on” vs. “intend to”

Q: I hear people saying things like “I intend on getting back to you” instead of “I intend to get back to you.” I wonder if they’re conflating “intend to” and “intent on.” It sounds incorrect to me. Or is “intend on” correct?  I’m intent on knowing.

A: The verb “intend” has been used in more than two dozen ways since it showed up in English in the late 1300s, but most of them are now obsolete.

Today, it’s primarily followed by a noun (“I don’t intend offense”), a gerund (“The board intends meeting”), an infinitive (“She intends to write”), a clause (“The officer intends that we wait”), or a prepositional phrase (“The money was intended for a new school”).

You ask whether it’s legit to use the phrasal verb “intend on” with a gerund (or gerund phrase) as a direct object: “I intend on getting back to you.”

Merriam-Wester’s Dictionary of English Usage has this to say: “In speech and speechlike writing, it [intend] is sometimes followed by on and a gerund.” In other words, M-W considers the usage colloquial—that is, informal or conversational.

The usage guide offers this example from a 1981 letter to the Saturday Evening Post: “I intend on protecting myself and my loved ones.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield describes the usage as an informal Americanism (“informal AME type”) and gives this example: “Don’t pick up a magazine unless you intend on buying it.”

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English suggests that the construction is more common in the US than Merriam-Webster’s suggests, while a search of the British National Corpus finds it negligible in the UK.

The usage is relatively recent, apparently showing up in the early 1970s, according to our searches of literary and news databases.

The first examples we’ve found are from a report of the Sept. 23-28, 1973, convention of the International Woodworkers of America in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The usage showed up several times at the convention, as in this comment by one speaker: “we intend on being the strongest, the most militant union anywhere on the North American continent.”

In our opinion, it’s acceptable for Americans to use “intend on” in conversation and informal writing, but we wouldn’t recommend it in formal contexts.

Is “intent on” responsible for the “intend on” usage? Our guess is that “plan on” is a more likely culprit. “I intend on sleeping late” is parallel to “I plan on sleeping late,” a standard construction.

The verb “intend” comes from the Latin intendere, which combines in- (towards) with tendere (to stretch).

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, one of the meanings of intendere in Latin was to “ ‘direct’ or ‘stretch’ one’s thoughts toward something.”

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Little Buttercup, disassembled?

Q: While playing oboe for a D’Oyly Carte tour, I heard that Little Buttercup may really mean “disassembled” when she tells the Boatswain in Pinafore that she has “dissembled.” Have you ever come across this alternate definition?

A: Does Little Buttercup use “dissembled” to mean “disassembled” in H.M.S. Pinafore after the Boatswain describes her as “the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead”?

Red, am I? and round—and rosy! Maybe, for I have dissembled well! But hark ye, my merry friend—hast ever thought that beneath a gay and frivolous exterior there may lurk a canker-worm which is slowly but surely eating its way into one’s very heart?

One could perhaps make a case that Buttercup is using “dissembled” here to mean “disassembled,” but we wouldn’t make it.

Although the verb “dissemble” did indeed once mean “disassemble,” the Oxford English Dictionary has only one example for the usage—from the late 1500s or early 1600s.

And in our searches of literary databases, we couldn’t find any examples for the usage from the late 19th century, when W. S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Sullivan the music for the comic opera.

It seems perfectly clear to us that Little Buttercup has indeed “dissembled” in the usual way—she’s disguised her true feelings by putting a happy face on the remorse eating at her heart.

And in a duet with the Captain, she uses that sense of “dissemble” several times, as in this example: “Though to catch my drift he’s striving, / I’ll dissemble—I’ll dissemble.”

Interestingly, the verb “disassemble” was rarely seen before the 20th century, and Gilbert may not have been aware of it when he wrote the libretto for the opera, which opened in London in 1878.

Standard dictionaries didn’t have entries for “disassemble” until well into the 20th century, and the earliest modern citation for it in the OED is from the 1920s, though we’ve found some 19th-century examples in our searches.

Now, let’s assemble the history of these words.

The first to show up in English, “dissemble,” is an alteration of the earlier (and now obsolete) verb “dissimule,” which was borrowed from the Old French dissimuler (to hide one’s intentions) in the 14th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The ultimate source is the Latin dissimulāre (to disguise or conceal). The Latin verb combines dis- (completely) with simulāre (to pretend), Chambers adds.

(Dissimulāre is also the source of “dissimulate,” to conceal one’s feelings, and “dissimulation.”)

Why did “dissimule” morph into “dissemble”? The OED suggests that the transformation was “influenced perhaps by resemble.”

The first citation for the “dissemble” spelling in the OED is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513-18):

“Some … not able to dissemble theyr sorow, were faine at his backe to turne their face to the wall.” More’s history was the main source for Shakespeare’s Richard III, according to scholars.

Oxford defines “dissemble” as to “alter or disguise the semblance of (one’s character, a feeling, design, or action) so as to conceal, or deceive as to, its real nature; to give a false or feigned semblance to; to cloak or disguise by a feigned appearance.”

As for the old use of “dissemble” to mean “disassemble,” the OED describes it as rare and obsolete. It defines this sense as to “separate, disperse: = disassemble,” and traces the usage to the Old French dessembler (to separate).

The only Oxford citation for this sense of “dissemble” is from a memoir by Sir Jerome Horsey, a British diplomat, about his travels in Russia during the late 1500s:

“The chieff bishops … assembled and disembled often tymes together, much perplexed and devided.” The dictionary says the citation was written sometime before 1626, and appears in a version of the memoir edited by E. A. Bond in 1856.

As to “disassemble,” Oxford has an obsolete sense from the early 1600s, but the first example for the word in its usual modern sense (“to take to pieces, to take apart”) is from a 1922 collection of short stories:

“This generating plant was partly disassembled.” The OED doesn’t cite the author or publisher of the story.

However, we’ve found several 19th-century examples for “disassemble,” including this one from an 1893 report to Congress by the Secretary of the Navy:

“The breech mechanism was disassembled and thoroughly examined immediately after this firing and found to be cool and comparatively clean, what little dirt there was having come from the leaky primer test.”

The usage must have been uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since we didn’t find entries for “disassemble” in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), The Century Dictionary (1889-91), or Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).

However, the verb “assemble,” the opposite of “disassemble,” has been around since the Middle Ages. The earliest example in the OED is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297):

“And amorwe hem lete asemly wyþ mylde herte ynou” (“And in the morning let them assemble with enough mercy in their hearts”). Oxford notes that the Middle English “asemly” was misprinted as “asely” in the manuscript.

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Coming for to carry me home

Q: I’ve come across the use of “for to” instead of “to” in a number of songs, poems, and other writing. In fact, a post of yours includes an example from Chaucer: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.” In what context is this usage correct?

A: The old phrase “for to” is now considered archaic or dialectal, but it still gets around, as you’ve noticed.

You can hear it in the Belfast dialect spoken in Northern Ireland, for example, as well as in songs by Bob Dylan.

In Belfast English and Standard English (1995), the linguist Alison Henry includes “I don’t like the children for to be out late” and “They are going home for to see their parents” among her dialectal examples.

In “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan sings, “I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade.” And in “When the Ship Comes In,” he sings, “And the words that are used / For to get the ship confused.”

Of course the usage also appears in older poetry and music, such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “For to Admire” and the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with its line “Coming for to carry me home.”

In what context is this usage correct? Well, “for to” was once ordinary usage, but it’s not standard English today. Nevertheless, we’re not particularly bothered when poets and lyricists take liberties with English.

How did all this “for to”-ing begin? Here’s the story.

In Anglo-Saxon times, “for” was a preposition meaning “in front of,” “for the purpose of,” and “because of.” But it sometimes combined with other terms, as in forþan (therefore) and for-hwí (for why).

In the 12th century, as Old English gave way to Middle English, “for” and “to” came together to form the phrasal preposition “for to,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The new term, which meant “in order to,” was used before bare, or “to”-less, infinitives, much like the infinitive marker “to” is now used.

The earliest example of “for to” in the OED is from the Cotton Homilies, written sometime before 1175: “Forte don him understonden” (“For to [in order to] make him understand”).

A little later, “for to” appeared as a conjunction meaning “until.” The first OED example is from the Trinity Homilies (circa 1200):

For to þe time cam þat he heregede helle” (“Until the time that he harrowed hell”). Translated from the Latin descendit ad inferos (“he descended into hell”) in the Apostles’ Creed, an early medieval statement of Christian belief.

In late Middle English, the phrase “for to” was often used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense, according to the linguist Elly van Gelderen. The subordinate verb referred to an action that followed that of the main verb.

In a 1998 paper in the American Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Literatures, van Gelderen says Chaucer uses “for to” in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386) “to introduce subordinate verbs approximately 430 times.”

The Canterbury quotation in your question is a good example of “for to” used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.”

In that excerpt from “The Parson’s Tale,” the main verb, “cometh,” is followed by “for to,” which introduces a subordinate verb, “axe,” that refers to a future action.

In her paper, “The Future of For To,” van Gelderen says the “demise of for to” began as Middle English gave way to Modern English in the 16th century, with “for” and “to” eventually going their separate ways.

However, the “for to” usage continued to be relatively common until well into the 18th century.

The OED’s two most recent examples are from prominent figures in American history: George Washington and Abigail Adams:

“You must ride round ye back of ye Mountain for to get below them.” (From a 1748 entry in Washington’s journal.)

“Having only put off its present glory for to rise finally to a more happy state.” (From a letter written in 1774 from Abigail to John Adams.)

In contemporary English, “for” is either a preposition with many senses (“She’s running for senator,” “He’s being treated for depression,” and so on) or a conjunction meaning “because” or “since” (“I asked them to leave, for I was sleepy”).

And “to” is now a preposition with multiple meanings (“I was close to tears,” “Move the cursor to the left,” etc.) or an infinitive marker (“They want to start a recycling program”).

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Suck, sucker, and sucking up

Q: How did “suck,” a verb apparently derived from an ancient root related to creating negative pressure to draw liquid into the mouth, give us the noun “sucker” for a foolish or gullible person?

A: When the verb “suck” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it usually referred to what a baby does at its mother’s breast.

All the modern uses of “suck” and its offspring—from the innocuous to the vulgar—are derived in one way or another from that innocent early usage.

When the verb came into Old English writing as súcan, it meant “to draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English verb, like the corresponding term in Latin, sūgĕre, ultimately comes from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root seuə- (to take liquid), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This root is rendered by the OED as sug-, and by John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins as seug- or seuk-.

Ayto says the word is imitative in origin: “This no doubt originated in imitation of the sound of sucking from the mother’s breast.”

The earliest Old English example in the OED (from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825) refers to drawing sustenance from things other than the breast:

“Sucun hunig of stane & ele of trumum stane” (“Suck honey from the stone and oil from the hard stone”). The passage is in Deuteronomy 32:13.

However, the next Oxford example (from the Paris Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 1050) refers to nursing babies:

“Of ðæra cild muðe, þe meolc sucað, þu byst hered” (“From the mouths of children who suck milk you are praised”). Matthew 21:16.

When the noun “suck” showed up in the Middle Ages, it similarly referred to “the action or an act of sucking milk from the breast,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from one of the two St. Gregory documents in the Vernon Manuscript (1390-1400), written in the West Midland dialect of Middle English:

“Whon heo hedde iȝiue þe child a souke” (“When she had given the child suck”).

Around the same time, the noun “sucker” appeared in the sense of “suckling” (a term that showed up in the 15th century). The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384:

“Forsothe Philip, his euen souker, transferride the body” (“Forsooth Philip, a fellow suckling [a friend from infancy], transported the body”). We’ve expanded the citation, a passage found in 2 Maccabees 9:29.

Most of the negative senses arising from “suck” showed up in the 19th and 20th centuries, though a few appeared earlier, including to “suck” money from someone (circa 1380), “suck” the blood from someone (to exhaust or drain, 1583), and “suck” someone dry (to exhaust, 1592).

The sense of “sucker” you’re asking about (a gullible person who’s easy to deceive) originated in North America in the early 19th century, according to Ayto’s etymological dictionary.

Ayto defines it as “someone as naive as an unweaned child.” And the language writer Hugh Rawson says in Wicked Words that it refers to “one who has all the smarts of an unweaned animal.”

The first example in the OED is from the May 29, 1838, issue of the Patriot, a newspaper in Toronto:

“It’s true that pigs has their troubles like humans … constables catches ’em, dogs bites ’em, and pigs is sometimes as done-over suckers as men.”

The use of “sucker” as a dupe or patsy may also have been influenced by the somewhat earlier use of the word for a sweet, such as a lollipop.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is from Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823), by Edward Moor: “Suckers, a longish sort of a sweety.”

In the 1840s, the phrasal verb “suck in” came to mean to cheat or deceive. The dictionary’s first example is from Frontier Life, an 1842 collection of sketches by Caroline M. Kirkland:

“I a’n’t bound to drive nobody in the middle of the night … so don’t you try to suck me in there.”

Later, the expression “suck up to” came to mean curry favor with or toady to. The first Oxford example is from an 1860 slang dictionary written by John Camden Hotten:

Suck up, ‘to suck up to a person’ to insinuate oneself into his good graces.” The OED says the term originated as schoolboy slang.

A couple of decades later, “suck” showed up in writing in the cunnilingus and fellatio sense.

The Pearl, a pornographic monthly, used the word repeatedly in both senses during the 18 months that it published in 1879 and 1880.

Here’s an example from the October 1879 issue: “How nice it feels to have one’s prick sucked.”

The OED is a laggard in recording this sense. The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1928 citation in A. W. Read’s Lexical Evidence From Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (1935): “I suck cocks for fun.”

Rawson, the author of Wicked Words, says “suck” was apparently a taboo word decades before its sexual sense appeared in print in the Pearl.

As evidence, he cites the “watered-down text” of Matthew 24:19 in Noah Webster’s 1833 revision of the King James Version “for family consumption.”

Webster changed “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” to “And woe to them that are with child, and to them that nurse infants in those days!” Many modern biblical translations use a similar, “suck”-less wording.

A few other negative terms from the “suck” family showed up in the first half of the 20th century, including “suck eggs” (to be mean or irritable, 1903), “suck eggs!” (an exclamation of hostility or dismissal, 1906), and “suck the hind tit or teat” (to be inferior or a loser, 1940).

However, new positive senses for “suck” also showed up, such as “suck it up” (to work up one’s courage in the face of adversity, 1967).

The use of “suck” as a slang verb meaning “to be contemptible or disgusting” appeared later in the 20th century, according to citations in the OED.

The first example in Oxford is from the June 2, 1971, issue of International Times, or IT, a counterculture newspaper:

“Polaroid sucks! For some time the Polaroid Corporation has been supplying the South African government with large photo systems … to use for photographing blacks for the passbooks … every black must carry.”

But the linguist Ronald R. Butters, writing in the Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, cites a 1964 use of “suck” in this sense to denigrate an astrologer:

“Consuela sucks and anybody who believes this crap is crazy.” (Butters says the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower acquainted him with the citation, from The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997.)

Standard dictionaries variously label this usage “informal,” “slang,” “rude,” “impolite,” or “vulgar.” The more disapproving labels apparently reflect the word’s association with oral sex.

Etymologists and other language types have argued for years over whether the sexual “suck” begat the “suck” that means to be bad, disagreeable or disgusting—that is, to stink.

In his 2001 paper, Butters argues against a “vulgar” label for “suck” in its newer sense, saying, “Little if any lexicographical evidence exists that privileges the etymological derivation of the idiom X sucks! from phrases involving fellatio.”

“At best, the connotations of fellatio that many speakers today sometimes assign to the X sucks! idiom arise post facto, when speakers speakers are forced to speculate about the etymology of the idiom,” he writes.

(The title of the Butters paper is “ ‘We Didn’t Realize That Lite Beer Was Supposed to Suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of ‘X Sucks’ in American English.”)

As we said at the beginning, all the usages in the “suck” family are ultimately derived from the Anglo-Saxon sense of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. However, the use of “suck” in the sexual sense clearly colors the newer usage for some English speakers.

We’d describe the “stink” sense of “suck” as slang, not vulgar. It’s clearly gaining acceptance, but we wouldn’t recommend using it in most formal writing or speech.

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Can a ‘run-on’ sentence run on?

Q: I’m puzzled by this sentence: “Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers.” Technically, it’s a run-on sentence and incorrect. But it feels so right. What are your thoughts?

A: It’s true that in general you shouldn’t use a comma alone—without a conjunction like “and” or “but”—to join two independent clauses (that is, clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences).

Supposedly, to use a comma instead of a semicolon creates a “spliced” or “run-on” sentence. Or so we’ve been taught.

But we think the example you sent is fine as it is. In our opinion, it’s not a run-on sentence.

This is a natural (and very common) way of writing everyday English. In more formal—perhaps legal or academic—writing, you might prefer a semicolon to a comma.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a discussion of “what prescriptivists call a ‘spliced’ or ‘run-on’ comma,” and it provides this example: “The locals prefer wine to beer, the village pub resembles a city wine bar.”

Such a sentence would be “widely regarded as infelicitous,” say the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But in certain cases, commas are accepted when used to join two independent clauses, Huddleston and Pullum write. They give these examples:

(1) “To keep a child of twelve or thirteen under the impression that nothing nasty ever happens is not merely dishonest, it is unwise.”

Here a negative clause is followed by a positive, the authors note. In such cases—especially where the negative clause has “not only,” “not simply, “not merely,” or “not just”—the positive clause often starts with “but.” The authors add that the “construction without but is also common, however, and readily allows the comma.”

(2) “Some players make good salaries, others play for the love of the game.”

Here, the Cambridge Grammar explains, “The comma is justified by the close parallelism between the clauses and their relative simplicity.”

The sentence you ask about—“Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers”—is like No, 1, with a negative clause followed by a positive. It also resembles No. 2 in that the two independent clauses are closely parallel.

This is why we don’t consider it a run-on sentence, and why we think the comma is fine.

In a footnote, the Cambridge Grammar mentions a third kind of sentence in which a comma is used to separate two independent clauses. The example given is “Order your furniture on Monday, take it home on Tuesday.”

Technically, the authors write, these are two separate imperative clauses. But the sentence “is interpreted as a conditional statement, ‘If you order your furniture on Monday you can take it home on Tuesday.’ ”

Using a semicolon instead of a comma (“Order your furniture on Monday; take it home on Tuesday”), the authors write, “would allow only the literal interpretation as a compound directive.”

Here’s something else to keep in mind. As the Cambridge Grammar points out, the great mass of published English that we read is edited according to “codified rules” of punctuation that are “set out in manuals specific to a particular publishing house or accepted more widely as authoritative guides.”

Despite this “codification,” the Cambridge Grammar says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.” As we’ve written on our blog, punctuation also changes with the times.

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Shards or sherds?

Q: Seeing “filled with centuries-old pottery sherds” in a poem made me wonder if the poet intentionally changed shards into sherds or made a mistake. But then I googled “sherds” and got many hits. My spellchecker still wants to change it to “shards.” Your comments?

A: The word for a piece of broken pottery, glass, metal, and so on has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, including sceard, scherd, scheard, schord, shard, and sherd.

Dictionaries now include two standard spellings, “shard” and “sherd,” but most of them consider “sherd” a variant of the more common “shard.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online defines “sherd” specifically as a short form of “potsherd,” a broken piece of pottery, especially one found at an archaeological site.

And Merriam-Webster online says “sherd” can refer generally to a fragment of something, or specifically to “a fragment of a pottery vessel found on sites and in refuse deposits where pottery-making peoples have lived.”

As M-W explains, “English speakers have adopted the modernized shard spelling for most uses, but archeologists prefer to spell the word sherd when referring to the ancient fragments of pottery they unearth.”

In “At the Metropolitan Museum,” the poem that got your attention, Matthew Siegel is using “sherds” in the archeological sense when he writes that “in the museum there is a room / filled with centuries-old pottery sherds / and it is difficult not to start seeing / symbols everywhere.”

The Old English word for a broken piece of pottery, sceard, is derived from the prehistoric Germanic skardo- ‎(notched, cut, separated, broken) and the Proto-Indo-European sker– ‎(to cut), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In a paper in Studia Neophilologica, a journal specializing in Germanic and Romance philology, Karl P. Wentersdorf explains that the term had “two distinct lines of semantic development” in English—a cutting sense (as in the verbs “score,” “share,” and “shear”) and a sense relating to the byproducts of cutting (“shirt, “short,” and “skirt”).

When sceard showed up in Old English, the OED says, it referred to the result of cutting (“a gap in an enclosure, esp. in a hedge or bank”) and a byproduct of cutting (“a fragment of broken earthenware”). The gap sense is now chiefly dialectal.

The dictionary’s earliest example, from the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, a document written sometime before 1000, uses “sceard” in the sense of a gap.

The first Oxford example for the term used as a fragment of earthenware is from a Latin-Old English glossary written around 1000: “Testarum, scearda.

(The OED cites the fourth-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius for this use of testarum. In a description of the martyrdom of St. Vincent, he uses fragmenta testarum to describe the potsherds that Vincent is forced to lie on.)

Here’s a Middle English example in the OED (with the noun spelled “shord”) from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “My vertue driede as a shord.”

And here’s a Modern English “shardes” example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, written around 1600: “Shardes, Flints, and Peebles, should be throwne on her.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Ophelia’s body.

Although the “sherd” and “shard” spellings showed up in Middle English (mid-12th to late 15th centuries), the OED has a “shord” citation from as late as 1881.

Here’s a recent “shard” example, from the March 2, 2017, issue of the South Bend (IN) Tribune: “All of a sudden, ‘bang,’ and there’s 12-inch shards of glass flying through my house.” A resident was describing a powerful storm.

And here’s a recent “sherd” example,  from the March 1, 2017, issue of the Idaho County Free Press, a weekly in Grangeville, ID: “Excavations in the summer of 2010 at the WWII Kooskia Internment Camp uncovered this pottery sherd.”

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Adjectives galore

Q: I was telling a friend about the “fresh flowers galore” at the produce outlet in Dover, Delaware, when I got to thinking about “galore.” Is there any other adjective (if it is an adjective) that always goes after the noun?

A: Yes, “galore,” meaning “in abundance,” is an adjective. Technically, it’s a postpositive adjective—one that follows the noun it modifies. A prepositive adjective precedes the noun.

Many adjectives can be prepositive in one phrase and postpositive in another, depending on the sense.

For example “proper” precedes the noun when it means correct (“proper grammar”) or decorous (“proper behavior”), but follows when it refers to a specific place (“the city proper”).

However, “galore” is among a group of adjectives that always follow nouns.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has several examples, including “restaurants aplenty,” “flowers galore,” “Attorney General designate,” “President elect,” and “Nobel laureate.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say “aplenty” and “galore” are “somewhat dated,” and the others “occur with a very narrow range” of words—“designate and  elect with nominals denoting various kinds of roles to which one may be appointed or elected, laureate mainly with Poet or Nobel.”

We’ll add some other examples: “arms akimbo,” “devil incarnate,” “door ajar,” “man alive,” “ship afloat,” “three abreast,” “a vacation abroad,” and “Watergate redux.

(Many of these words were once phrases beginning with the archaic preposition “a,” a variant of “on,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.)

As for “galore,” English adapted it in the 17th century from an adverb in Irish, go leór (“to sufficiency, sufficiently, enough”), says the OED, which notes a similar term in Scottish Gaelic, gu leòr.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says go in Irish and gu in Gaelic are particles “prefixed to an adjective to form an adverb.”

As the OED explains, “galore” is now “commonly viewed as Irish; in some earlier examples the proximate source seems to have been Scottish Gaelic.”

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by C. T. Onions, says “galore” was “prob. popularized by [Sir Walter] Scott.”

The Scottish novelist, poet, and playwright used the word in his journal on April 10, 1826: “Sent off proofs and copy galore before breakfast, and might be able to give idleness a day if I liked.”

The earliest citation for “galore” in the OED is from a 1675 entry in The Diary of Henry Teonge, a Royal Navy chaplain: “Provinder good store, beife, porke, sheepe, ducks, geese, chickens, henns, gallore.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add foodstuffs galore.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, classifies “galore” as an adverb or a noun, but all six of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it only as an adjective.

(The OED entry hasn’t been fully updated since 1898; the up-to-date Oxford Dictionaries online, also from Oxford University Press, considers “galore” an adjective.)

It’s hard to imagine “galore” as a noun. But the OED has two 19th-century examples, including this one from 1848:

“Galore of alcohol to ratify the trade.” (From Life in the Far West, a series of articles about a British officer’s experiences in America, written by George Frederik Augustus Ruxton and published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine.)

In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English has several 20th-century examples of “galore” used as a noun meaning “a great quantity.”

This one from A. B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel The Big Sky refers to Rocky Mountain sheep: “There’s a galore of ’em beyond the Yellowstone.”

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‘Interested in’ vs. ‘interested to’

Q: I’m interested in hearing what you think about the use of the infinitive in “I’m interested to hear what you think.”

A: Let’s begin by discussing the use of “interested” with “to hear” and “in hearing.” We’ll get to other complements later.

English speakers have used both constructions (“interested to hear” and “interested in hearing”) for more than two centuries, but the one with the gerund (“hearing”) is more popular today than the one with the infinitive (“hear”)

The two usages are now common in both the US and the UK, according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus.

The verb “interest” is being used here in the passive voice (“to be interested”) with the sense of “I desire hearing what you think” or “I want to hear what you think.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “interested to hear” is from an Oct. 26, 1819, debate among the delegates at a Maine constitutional convention: “You are deeply interested to hear more!”

The first example we’ve found for “interested in hearing” is from Early Lessons, an 1825 collection of children’s stories by the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth:

“Now she could hear Frank’s thoughts and feelings about every thing and every person they had seen at Bellombre; but chiefly she was interested in hearing that his father and mother were quite satisfied with him.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several gerund and infinitive examples with verbs other than “hear,” including one from the late 1700s in which “to be interested” is used with an infinitive. We’ll have more about this when we get to the etymology of the verb “interest.”

Although the gerund usage is more popular now, the infinitive usage has been more popular at various times in the past, according to a search with Ngram Viewer, which provides rudimentary comparisons of phrases in the millions of books digitized by Google.

As for your question, we find both “interested to hear” and “interested in hearing” acceptable, but the gerund usage is more idiomatic, or natural, to our ears, and we rarely use the infinitive construction.

Things get more complicated when “to be interested” is used with the gerunds and infinitives of verbs other than “hear.”

In “The Lexicogrammar of Be Interested,” the linguist Costas Gabrielatos points out that the gerund construction is used with many more verbs than the infinitive.

Gabrielatos, whose paper analyzes the use of “be interested” in various English corpora, or databases of recorded language, writes that the infinitive usage “seems to have a much more restricted range of complements” than the gerund usage.

He says he found that the infinitive is usually used with verbs of perception or inquiry, such as “find,” “hear,” “know,” “learn,” “note,” “read,” “see,” and “share.”

Our own examination of American and British corpora, which reflect the language as it’s actually used, indicate that “interested to” is generally used with verbs of perception while “interested in” is used with verbs of both action and perception.

So one might be “interested in seeing” or “interested in going” to a movie, according to these databases. However, it’s more likely that one would be “interested to see” a movie than “interested to go” to it.

As we’ve said, the gerund usage sounds more natural to us—and that’s the case with verbs of perception and verbs of action.

We should note, however, that we’ve used the infinitive construction a few times on our blog, and that we haven’t found any objection to it in the many grammar and usage manuals in our library.

As for the etymology here, the verb “interest” showed up in the early 17th century as a variant of the now-obsolete verb “interess.” The ultimate source is the classical Latin interesse (to differ, concern, be of importance).

The OED notes a suggestion that the “interest” spelling “might be partly due to confusion” with “interessed,” the past tense of “interess.”

The dictionary defines the verb “interest” in the sense we’re discussing as to “cause (a person) to have an objective interest or concern in the progress or fate of a matter; to involve.” It says the usage is chiefly seen in the passive construction “to be interested.”

The first Oxford citation is from Essaies Politicke and Morall (1608), by the Anglican clergyman and auhor Daniel Tuvill: “When they think he is not interested in the cause, or induced by any priuate obligation.”

And here’s a negative 1781 example for “to be interested” with an infinitive, from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon: “The emperor himself was interested not to deface the splendour of his own cities.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation for “to be interested” used with a gerund, from an 1886 decision of the Chancery Division of the High Court in England: “The landlord … is interested in seeing that the liquidators discharge their duty properly.”

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Which egg came first?

Q: Is there a connection between the noun “egg” and the expression “egged on”?

A: No, the two terms aren’t etymologically related, though English got both from Old Norse.

It turns out that there were two separate words egg in Old Norse: a neuter noun for the reproductive body, and a feminine noun meaning an edge or a blade.

The neuter term gave English the noun “egg” while the feminine term gave it the noun “edge” as well as the verb “egg,” meaning to urge.

Interestingly, the verb “egg” is older than the noun “egg.” Although a relative of the noun did exist in Old English, it died out in the 1500s.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “English has two distinct words egg, but surprisingly the noun, in the form that we now have it, has not been in the language as long as the verb.”

Ayto says the modern noun for the reproductive body was borrowed from the Old Norse egg with the same sense, and appeared in English writing in the 14th century, hundreds of years after the verb showed up.

An earlier noun (spelled ǽg in Old English and eye in Middle English) died out in the 16th century, he says, after “considerable competition between the native eye and the imported egg.”

Ayto cites a passage in the “Prologue” to Eneydos, William Caxton’s 1490 translation of the Aeneid, that refers to the rivalry between “eye” and “egg”:

“Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges, or eyren? Certaynly it is hard to playse every man, by-cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.”

The Old English and Old Norse nouns are etymological cousins, according to Ayto, since both are derived from the same sources in prehistoric Germanic (ajjaz) and Proto-Indo-European (ōwo-), both meaning “egg.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces “egg” to awi- (“bird,” and a source of “avian”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the reproductive sense of the noun as “the (more or less) spheroidal body produced by the female of birds and other animal species, and containing the germ of a new individual, enclosed within a shell or firm membrane.”

The earliest example in the OED for the defunct Old English form is from Metres of Boethius, a translation dated sometime before 1000 of the verse sections in the sixth-century Roman scholar’s Consolation of Philosophy: “On æge bið gioleca on middan” (“There’s a yolk in the middle of an egg”).

The first written example for the modern form (with “eggs” spelled “egges”) is from Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland’s allegorical poem:

“And ȝet me merueilled more how many other briddes / Hudden and hileden her egges ful derne / In mareys and mores for men sholde hem nouȝt fynde” (“And yet I found myself marveling more at the many other birds / That hid and covered their eggs in secret spots / In marshes and moorland so men should not find them”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

As for the verb “egg,” Ayto says in his etymological dictionary that English borrowed it from the Old Norse verb eggja (to urge) in the 10th century, but he doesn’t give a citation.

He says eggja was “a relative or derivative” of the Old Norse form of egg that meant “edge.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces it back to the Proto-Germanic agjō and the Proto-Indo-European ak- (sharp).

The earliest written example in the OED is from a collection of homilies, dated around 1200, in the Trinity College library at the University of Cambridge: “werred wið god alse þe deuel him to eggede” (“even so the devil egged him to war with God”). We’ve expanded the citation to add “werred wið god.”

The OED defines “egg” here as to “incite, encourage, urge on; to provoke, tempt.” At first, the dictionary says, people were simply “egged” to do something. It wasn’t until the 16th century that they were “egged on” to do it.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrasal verb “egg on” is from A Medicinable Morall (1566), by Thomas Drant, the first English translation of Horace’s Satirae, a collection of satirical poems: “Ile egge them on to speake some thyng, / Whiche spoken may repent them.”

Finally, the English noun “edge” first referred to the sharp edge of a blade, while the verb originally meant to sharpen a blade. Some of the early spellings of “edge” reflected the word’s Norse origins as egg.

The first OED example for the noun (spelled “ecge”) is from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725:

“Breostnet broden Þæt gebearh feore wið ord ond wið ecge ingang forstod” (“The mesh of mail that saved his life stood fast against point and edge”).

The first example for the noun’s usual modern sense (“the line which forms the boundary of any surface”) is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe. His instructional manual for the device used in astronomy was written sometime before 1400:

“And sett þou þere þe degre of þe mone according wiþ þe egge of þe label” (“And set thou there the degree of the Moon with the edge of the label”). A “label” was a narrow metal rule that revolved across the face of an astrolabe.

The earliest OED citation for the verb is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “I-egged yt [the sword] ys in on alf” (“I sharpened it on one side”).

In the 16th century, the verb “edge” took on the modern sense of “to furnish with a border or edging.”

The dictionary’s first example, from a 1555 translation of a book by the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, describes a helmet “edged with belles and plates of golde, and vnder euery bell two knobbes of golde.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add more of the decorative edging.)

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Lay waste to Carthage?

Q: I never see “lay waste” used correctly, as in “lay Carthage waste.” Instead I see “lay waste to Carthage.” Though a voice crying in the wilderness, perhaps I could enlist your help in staying this devastation of the language?

A: Traditionally, as you point out, “lay” is a transitive verb that takes a direct object in the idiom “lay waste.” So the traditional usage would be “Rome laid waste Carthage” or “Rome laid Carthage waste.”

In those examples, “Rome” is the subject, “laid” is a transitive verb, “waste” is an adjective, and “Carthage” is the direct object of the verb. It’s similar to saying “She laid bare her problems.”

However, living languages evolve, especially their idioms, which don’t necessarily follow traditional rules.

In the early 20th century, some English speakers began thinking of “waste” in that idiom as a noun and the direct object of “lay.” Hence the usage that bugs you: “Rome laid waste to Carthage.”

As Bryan A. Garner notes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the new usage caught on and was quite popular by the second half of the 20th century:

“In 1965, an academician polled about 100 college students in New York, only a quarter of whom preferred the traditional phrasing; half preferred the phrasing laid waste to the city. In that version, lay is the verb; waste is a noun serving as a direct object; and a prepositional phrase follows. The phrasing doesn’t make any literal sense.”

(We’d add that the usual idiomatic sense of the phrase, “devastate” or “destroy,” isn’t quite the same as the literal meaning of “lay waste”—“bring to a worthless or useless condition.”)

In his entry for “lay waste,” Garner says a 2003 study “showed that in modern print sources, the version with the superfluous to outnumbers the one without it by a 3-to-1 ratio,” but he adds that a more extensive 2008 survey “showed that the traditional transitive version had retained the lead by a 2-to-1 radio.”

Our own surveys of the 12 databases in Brigham Young University’s English corpora suggest that the new usage may now be more popular than the old one.

However, the idiom “lay waste” is clearly a work in progress, and several standard dictionaries accept both the old and new versions in formal as well as informal English.

The online ​Oxford Dictionaries, for example, has an entry for “lay waste to” or “lay something (to) waste,” with this definition: “To completely destroy.”

One of the dictionary’s examples refers to a proposal “that Athenians lay waste to their own lands to deny the Spartan army resources and the opportunity to do so itself.”

Merriam Webster online has an entry for “lay waste to,” which it defines as “to cause very bad damage to (something).” M-W has this example: “The fire laid waste to the land.”

The online Macmillan Dictionary has an entry for the phrase “lay something waste/lay waste to something,” which it defines as “to cause very serious damage to a place, especially in a war.”

Cambridge Dictionary online has an entry that includes “lay sth (to) waste” as well as “lay waste to sth,” which it defines as “to completely destroy something.” (Here “sth” is short for “something.”)

Which form of the idiom should English speakers use today? With the usage in flux, we’d suggest going with the one that seems more natural to them. Our guess, though, is that the new usage is here to stay, and that no amount of crying in the wilderness, the blogosphere, or the halls of ivy will stop it. In fact, the idiom evolved once before.

When the expression “lay waste” showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “to devastate, ravage (land, buildings).”

The first example in the OED is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “For they haue deuoured Iacob, and layed waiste his dwellinge place.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the usage you’re writing about is from the April 25, 1908, issue of an aptly named magazine, the Waste Trade Journal:

“A number of the dealers who were last week reported to have been entirely disabled from the transaction of business by the disastrous fire which laid waste to the entire center section of Chelsea, Mass., have already established themselves in temporary quarters, and it is expected that their operations within a short time will regain their former extent.”

And here’s a recent example from the Feb. 14, 2017, issue of the New York Times: “Fourteen years of war snuffed out 200,000 lives and laid waste to Liberia, producing generals who led ritual sacrifices of children before going into battle, naked except for shoes and a gun.”

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Fatal or mortal?

Q: I’d be grateful for your thoughts on whether “fatal” or “mortal” better describes a gunshot wound that someone dies of.

A: Either “fatal”  or “mortal” may describe a deadly wound. However, each adjective has several other meanings of its own.

“Fatal” may also mean, among other things, decisive (“a fatal moment”), causing failure (“a fatal design flaw”), and bringing ruin (“a fatal addiction”).

And “mortal” may mean implacable (“a mortal enemy”), of great intensity (“mortal fear”), subject to death (“all humans are mortal”), and so on.

At the end of its “fatal” entry, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) compares four adjectives that “apply to what causes or is likely to cause death.”

  • Fatal describes conditions, circumstances, or events that have already caused death or are virtually certain to do so in the future: a fatal accidenta fatal illness.”
  • Deadly means capable of killing or of being used to kill: a deadly poisona deadly weapon.”
  • Lethal has a similar range, often with a suggestion of deliberate or calculated intent: execution by lethal injectionthe lethal technology of modern warfare.”
  • Mortal describes a condition or action that produces death, typically in a context of combat: a mortal wounddelivered a mortal blow.”

Getting back to your question, all the standard dictionaries we’ve checked define “fatal” and “mortal” similarly when used for an injury that causes, or is likely to cause, death.

As for the etymology, both “fatal” and “mortal” showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, but it took “fatal” a few hundred years to get its sense of causing death

At first, “fatal” meant destined or fated, similar to the sense of fātālis, its Latin ancestor.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “The fathel destyne, / That Joves hath in disposicioune.”

It wasn’t until the late 17th century, according to OED citations, that “fatal” came to mean “producing or resulting in death, destruction, or irreversible ruin, material or immaterial; deadly, destructive, ruinous.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the new sense is from The Roxburghe Ballads (1685–8): “O that my sorrows were ended, by the most fatalest hand.”

The adjective “mortal” came into English from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Latin sources. The ultimate source is the classical Latin mortālis (subject to death, human, transient), but in medieval Latin the word also came to mean causing death.

When “mortal” showed up in Middle English a few years after “fatal,” it meant “seeking to bring about the destruction of an adversary.”

The first OED example is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1385): “For I am Palamon thy mortal foo [foe].”

At the same time, “mortal” took on the sense we’re talking about: “Causing death, deadly, fatal; (now) spec. of a disease, wound, or blow.”

The first OED citation is from “The Tale of Melibeus” in The Canterbury Tales: “Thre of his olde foos … betten his wif and wounded his doghter with fyue [five] mortal woundes.”

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Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like a death’s head at a feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elder vs. older: an eald story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scratch made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A mite interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An adverb, forsooth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here’s to hoppiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arrival time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why surgery is an operation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When “and that” means “etc.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Mammalogy” or “mammology”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the racket sport is “squash”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Needs must when the devil drives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When “we” is “you”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keeping up with the Joneses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The light and dark of language

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

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

A: This is a tall order!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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Breaking the ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drones, bees and otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does a doorway need a door?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How French is “Des Moines”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When “old chestnut” was new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pablo. (Eagerly.) Chesnut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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