The Grammarphobia Blog

Did “ta” beget “ta-ta”?

Q: Years ago, I read somewhere that the Cockney “ta” actually stood for “thanks awfully.” It then evolved into “ta-ta” as an exit term because humans love to play around with (and repeat) sounds. Just wanted to offer that theory.

A: No, “ta” is not an acronym for “thanks awfully,” it’s not Cockney, and it didn’t beget “ta-ta” (more on this later). However, it does have a connection with “thank you.”

The interjection “ta,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated as “an infantile form of ‘thank-you’ ” that was first recorded in the late 18th century.

We expect that since the word was used as intimate nursery babble, it was around for many years before it was recorded for posterity in writing.

It got its start in British usage and is still more common in the UK than in the US.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) identifies “ta” as a British expression. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels it “chiefly British,” and describes it as a “baby-talk alteration of thank you.”  

The OED’s earliest example is from a letter written in 1772 by Mary Granville, better known as Mrs. Delany: “You would not say ‘Ta’ to me for my congratulation.” (It appears in her memoir, Life & Correspondence, which wasn’t published until 1861.)

Mrs. Delany’s note was written to her one-year-old great-niece on the occasion of her first birthday, so the “ta” here was intended to echo a babyish version of “thank you.”

Here’s another childish example, from Israel Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto 1892): “Give it me. I’ll say ‘ta’ so nicely.” (In this party scene, adults use baby-talk jokingly while a man teases his lover with an engagement ring.)

As the OED says, this infantile “ta” has passed into colloquial use among adults. Oxford gives a few modern examples, including these:

“ ‘Ta,’ he said, slipping the card into the back pocket of his jeans.” (From Richard Gordon’s novel Doctor on the Boil, 1970.)

“ ‘You know your way, don’t you?’ ‘Ta, love.’ ” (From Douglas Clark’s mystery The Longest Pleasure, 1981.)

So while “ta” isn’t an acronym for “thanks awfully,” it’s close in meaning.

As for “ta-ta,” the other expression you’ve asked about, it’s another adult usage to graduate from nursery school. 

As we’ve written before on our blog, “ta-ta” originated as an infantile form of “goodbye.” It was first recorded in the 1820s, and soon passed into colloquial (that is, spoken) adult usage.

An expanded version, “ta-ta for now,” became a popular British catchphrase in the 1940s, and was shortened in the later ’40s to the initialism “TTFN.”

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Pour English

Q: Are there too few English majors nowadays? A recent headline on CNN.com: “Volunteers pour over satellite images.” Hmm. I prefer maple syrup on my satellite images. What about you?

A: It shouldn’t take an English major to tell the difference between “pour” and “pore.” Yet many people, even in news organizations, write “pour over” when they mean “pore over.”

The verb “pour” means flow or cause to flow, as when a river “pours” over its banks, troops “pour” over a border, or you “pour” maple syrup over your waffles.

The other verb, “pore,” means to examine or study closely.

As Pat writes in Woe is I, “You pore over an engrossing book, but it’s gross to pour over one.” She uses this example: “While Charlotte pored over a steamy novel, the bathtub poured over.”

CNN wasn’t the only news organization to use “pour over” instead of “pore over” in reference to volunteer efforts in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. This passage is from the Telegraph of Calcutta:

“The approach is a kind of crowdsourcing, but not one in which volunteers pour over satellite images, like they have in search of Flight 370.”

The verbs “pour” and “pore” have been part of English since the Middle Ages, but they’re unrelated and probably come from different sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says “pour,” first recorded around 1330, is of uncertain origin but perhaps is derived from the Middle French verb purer, which meant “to decant, pour out (a liquid).”

Over the centuries, “pour” has been widely used in transferred or figurative senses.

This OED citation from a 1995 issue of the British magazine Sugar is a good illustration: “If you want to cause a stir on the beach just pour yourself into a gorgeous swimsuit.”

In fact, “pour” has so many figurative uses that it’s hard to count them.

Today people “pour out their hearts,” “pour money” into causes, “pour into” hot vacation spots, and “pour themselves” into their jobs. And when lavishly praising or criticizing, they “pour it on” (a usage the OED dates from the late 1940s).

But the uses of the other verb, “pore,” are much more limited. It still means roughly what it did when first recorded around 1300, the OED says: “to look intently or fixedly, to gaze.”

“Pore” is of unknown origin, the dictionary says, but may be related to a now obsolete Middle English verb, “pire,” meaning to peer or look closely.

This long-dead verb, “pire,” bears some similarity to a regional usage in Low German, piren, meaning “to search closely, to collect carefully,” the OED says. But we’re getting into speculation here, and there’s no definite connection to the modern “pore.”

The most common use of “pore” today is one that developed in the late 1300s. The OED defines this sense as “to examine a book, map, etc., with fixed attention; to study or read earnestly or with intense concentration; to be absorbed in reading or study.”

In this sense, “pore” is frequently used with prepositions, especially “over” the OED says. And only occasionally do we find “pore” used in any other sense.

The OED says it’s sometimes used when we speak of meditating or thinking intently, as in this 1982 example from the Financial Times: “The Treasury clearly does not spend all its time poring over macro-economic issues.”

Generally, “pore” is used literally in its original sense, as Gretel Ehrlich did in her essay collection Islands, the Universe, Home (1991): “We pore over maps, chart our expeditions.”

In summary, volunteers definitely wouldn’t want to “pour over” those satellite pictures—especially if they were pouring something sticky. They’d want to “pore over” the images.

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Embarrassment of prepositions

Q: I heard this usage at least a half-dozen times in an episode of the sitcom New Girl: “She is embarrassed of me.” Rarely have I heard such an awkward phrase repeated in a scripted context. Is “of” wrong here? If not, why does it sound so awful?

A: We can’t say that “embarrassed of” is wrong, but scriptwriters who were older or more tradition-bound would probably have used “embarrassed by” instead.

Like “bored of,” which we wrote about in 2013, “embarrassed of” has recently become more common. 

For now, “embarrassed by” is still the favorite combination, with 1.6 million Google hits. The runner-up is “embarrassed for,” with 1.2 million. And trailing distantly are “embarrassed about,” with 656,000 hits, and “embarrassed of,” with 523,000.

So “embarrassed by” is three times as popular as “embarrassed of.” (We ruled out the 1.8 million hits for “embarrassed to,” since with infinitives there’s no choice—“embarrassed to ask,” “embarrassed to be,” and so on.)

While “embarrassed of” is trailing at the moment, it’s gaining fast. Searches with Google’s Ngram viewer show a sharp spike in the use of the phrase between 1980 and 2008.

We’re not talking here about uneducated speakers. A university professor, writing on the American Dialect Society’s discussion group in 2007, said that “of” was becoming the “default preposition” among students in his linguistics courses.

He reported seeing usages like “poking fun of” and “self-conscious of” in student writing since the 1980s.

In fact, many prepositions used after adjectives are starting to defy their traditional roles.

“It begins to look as if preposition replacement is becoming an occasional but significant feature of the language,” Robert Burchfield writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.). “It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, though at present still regrettable, that some people (esp. children) are now usually bored of instead of bored with.”

In fact, it isn’t always “of” that muscles its way in. Sometimes “of” is muscled out by another preposition.

Burchfield cites the linguist Dwight Bolinger, who found that as words like “of” are used in growing numbers of idiomatic phrases, their meanings fade and other prepositions start to replace them.

For example, Bolinger observed that “about” was replacing “of” in certain phrases: “conscious of” was becoming “conscious about”; “wary of” was becoming “wary about,” and so on.

He also found that “enamored of” was becoming “enamored with,” and that “free of” was becoming “free from.”

Unfortunately, it’s easier to observe this kind of trend than it is to explain why it happens. Who knows? Perhaps “embarrassed of” emerged by analogy with “ashamed of” and “afraid of.”

Clearly, prepositions are a handful—in more than one sense. They comprise a relatively small set of words, but it’s often difficult to choose among them or to explain why one is better than another.

We answer lots of mail about prepositional usage, from new learners of English as well as from native speakers.

In 2012, for instance, we wrote about why people say “in the newspaper” but “on the Internet.” In 2008, we discussed why “to luck out” means “to luck in.”

In 2011, we ran a post on why English speakers say “in 2001” but “on Monday.” And in 2008, we had an item on why prepositions are used so differently in British and American English.

The answers aren’t cut-and-dried, because the choice of one preposition over another is mostly idiomatic and becomes habitual. That being the case, preferences emerge (or subside) based on common usage.

This is why prepositions often defy labels like “correct” and “incorrect.” They express relationships, so their meanings are often abstract. It’s better to speak of the “customary” or “dominant” preposition than the “right” one. 

In his book The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore M. Bernstein writes, “The proper preposition is a matter of idiom; and idioms, if they do not come ‘naturally,’ must be either learned or looked up.”

And what if a particular idiom can’t be found in a usage manual or dictionary? “The only thing to do,” Bernstein says, “is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus.”

However, unless the “three knowing friends” are all roughly the same age, you probably won’t get a unanimous verdict.

You could seek an answer in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which devotes several pages to prepositions that complement adjectives.

The book discusses “about,” “at,” “by,” “for,” “from,” “in,” “of,” “on/upon,” “to,” “towards,” and “with.” And while the lists of corresponding adjectives aren’t exhaustive, some are implied in the explanations.

For example, the book notes that “by” is used only with “adjectives deriving from past participles in their passive use.”

This would include “embarrassed” as well as “bored,” because (1) they’re identical to the past participles of the verbs they’re derived from, “embarrass” and “bore”; and (2) they’re used passively, as in “I was embarrassed” or “they were bored.”

Some adjectives aren’t limited to one preposition. For example, Cambridge separately lists “bored” among those that can take “with.”

And some adjectives can take either “at” or “about.” These often denote “a psychological reaction” to what’s expressed in the complement, Cambridge says: “annoyed,” “pleased,” “aghast,” “indignant,” and so on.

What all this boils down to is that prepositions are unpredictable.

“Language is nothing but a set of human habits,” Otto Jespersen wrote in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933). “As with other habits it is not to be expected that they should be perfectly consistent.”

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Graduate school

Q: In the recent New Yorker piece about the father of the Sandy Hook killer, Andrew Solomon writes that Adam Lanza’s older brother “moved to New Jersey after graduating college.” GRADUATING COLLEGE?  Shouldn’t that be FROM college?

A: We read the same article in the March 17 issue and had the same thought: How did “graduating college” make it through the New Yorker’s copydesk?

Pat’s feeling was that copy-editing standards at the New Yorker might have slipped a notch. But Stewart wondered if the construction had passed into standard English usage since we discussed the issue on the blog eight years ago.

We decided that we ought to reexamine this subject. So in the interest of open-mindedness, here goes.

Back in 2006, we said the verb “graduate” had evolved over the last two centuries, but not enough for this sentence to be considered standard English: “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

Traditionally, according to our original post, there would be three proper ways to express that sentence:

● “Stanford graduated him in 1986.”

● “He was graduated from Stanford in 1986.”

● “He graduated from Stanford in 1986.”

Most of the usage guides we’ve consulted still object to a sentence like “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

Why? Because the verb “graduate” originally meant to award a degree, not to receive one. The school graduated the student, not the other way around.

Over the years, the verb “graduate” has evolved, but usage authorities generally believe that the use of “graduate” in that disputed sentence strays too far from the original meaning of the verb. Here’s the scoop.

When the word first showed up in the late 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “graduate” was a transitive verb meaning to confer a university degree.

(A transitive verb is one that needs an object to make sense: “Stanford graduated him.” An intransitive verb is one that can make sense without an object: “He graduated.”)

The OED’s earliest example is from Robert Parke’s translation of The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China (1588), by Juan González de Mendoza: “To commence or graduate such students as haue finished their course.”

And here’s a passive construction of the same transitive verb, from an 1884 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The class of ’76 was graduated with six men.”

So in the earliest, transitive uses of “graduate,” it was standard to say either (1) that the school “graduated” the student, or (2) that the student “was graduated” by the school.

But in the early 1800s, the OED says, “graduate” underwent a significant change. It acquired an intransitive sense, meaning to take a degree or diploma.

In the intransitive sense (in which the verb has no direct object), the student is the one doing the graduating—that is, taking a degree or diploma.

Oxford has a several examples, starting with one from the poet Robert Southey’s Letters From England (1807): “Four years are then to be passed at college before the student can graduate.”

Late in the 19th century, we see intransitive examples with the institution added in a prepositional phrase (“from Stanford,” “from college,” etc.). The OED, which finds nothing objectionable in this construction, gives a couple of examples:

“In 1837 he graduated from Yale College” (the Times of London, 1892), and “Dwight was … able to graduate from High School at the premature age of fourteen” (Harold Nicolson’s biography Dwight Morrow, 1935).

About the time when people started adding “from” plus the institution, some usage commentators started to object that “graduate” was moving too far from its transitive roots.

In fact, the critics wanted to take a step back and abandon the intransitive usage altogether. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains:

“The critics argued that since the college conferred the degree on the student, graduate should only be used transitively with the student as its object or in the passive construction ‘He was graduated from college.’ ”

But as we know, “graduate” was already firmly established as an intransitive verb (as in Southey’s “before the student can graduate”). In hindsight, it was only natural that people would start adding prepositional phrases: “from college,” “from high school,” etc.

Despite the critics, this use of “graduate” was soon accepted and the criticism has long since disappeared. Today nobody thinks twice about a sentence like “Spot graduated from obedience school.”

But in the 20th century, the use of “graduate” shifted once again and a fourth usage emerged. This is the one we’re reexamining here, in which “from” is dropped (“he graduated college”).

What do the experts say about this newest wrinkle? So far, the disputed usage isn’t yet recorded in the OED, so we find no opinion there one way or the other. But most of the other sources we checked are holding the line against it. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), says the use of “graduate” in the sense “to receive an academic degree from” is a “usage problem.” It gives this example “How many chemists graduated the Institute last year?”

The dictionary notes that this newest use of the verb, “in which the student is the subject and the institution is the object, as in She graduated Yale in 2010,”  was rejected by 77 percent of the American Heritage usage panel.

Another source, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), includes this use of the verb (with the example “to graduate college”), but labels it “informal.”

Looking further, we find that Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), says the “newish” transitive use in American English, as in “he graduated Yale in 1984,” is much more controversial and is best avoided.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) seems to agree with Fowler’s. “In the mid-20th century,” Garner’s says, “usage began to shift further toward an even shorter transitive form: students were said to graduate college (omitting the from after graduate). This poor wording is increasingly common.”

On Garner’s “Language-Change Index,” this new use of “graduate” is rated Stage 3, for “widespread but ….” (A rating of Stage 1 means “rejected”; Stage 5 is “fully accepted.”)

We found only a couple of clear votes in favor of “graduated college.”

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary lists this among its definitions: “to receive a degree or diploma from: to graduate college.”

A usage note in Random House adds that “although condemned by some as nonstandard,” this sense of the verb “is increasing in both speech and writing: to graduate high school.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) finds no problem with the disputed usage either and labels it standard English.

Merriam-Webster’s accepts, without qualification, the use of “graduate” in the sense “to earn a degree or diploma from (a school, college, or university).” It gives the example “she graduated high school.”

The editors at M-W provide their own usage note on the subject. They note the historical shifts in the uses of the verb, then go on to say that it’s the “newer transitive sense,” as in “she graduated high school,” that’s now condemned by some critics.

The dictionary says the newer usage remains “the least common,” while the one with “from” is the most common. But all of them “are standard,” M-W concludes.

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “This use of graduate without from has been cited as an error” by usage commentators since 1957.

Nevertheless, it’s “probably established by now,” the guide continues, though “it appears to be more frequent in speech than in writing and is not nearly as frequent as the longer established intransitive”—the one with “from.”

 A rough Google search—“graduated college” versus “graduated from college”—confirms this. The version without “from” got 1.5 million hits, compared with 24.3 million for the version with “from.”

A search of Google Books is perhaps more significant in terms of written usage: 35,500 hits for the “from”-less version versus 3.6 million for the one with “from.” 

Our feeling is that “graduated college” still hasn’t made it into the Ivy League, though it may get there one of these days.

We’d call it informal. It’s OK in conversation, but until the usage is more established, we’d recommend tossing in a “from” when writing.

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Kicks in the closet

Q: I have a question that occurred to me while reading your article about “kick the can down the road.” This isn’t life-altering or profound, but what is the origin of the slang use of “kicks” to mean shoes?

A: The use of “kicks” for shoes originated in 1890s American slang, and judging from the earliest examples, it had unsavory beginnings among tramps and thieves. 

The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Jack London tale, “The Frisco Kid’s Story” (1895), which is narrated by a “road kid” or tramp: “Dere wuz nothin’ left but his kicks, I mean shoes.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has another early example, from an 1897 article in Popular Science Monthly on the subject of criminal lingo.

In the article, “The Language of Crime,” the writer A.B.F. Crofton discusses “the general tendency of the criminal to reduce the abstract to the concrete, to denote the substantive [the noun] by one of its attributes.”

Crofton goes on to give a few examples: “Thus a purse is a leather; a street car is a short, comparing its length with a railroad car; a handkerchief is a wipe; and a pair of shoes a pair of kicks.” (We’ve expanded the Random House citation to provide more context.)

So there’s the likely explanation: shoes are used to kick, hence the noun “kicks.” It makes a lot of sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the phrase originated in the US, but doesn’t hint at the connection between shoes and kicking.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a prison memoir, Life in Sing Sing (1904), whose author, identified only as “No. 1500,” defines many jailhouse terms including this one: “Kicks, shoes.”

After a few decades, “kicks” gradually lost its underworld associations and became more widely used for “shoes” in the general population.

Random House has several examples of this wider usage, including one from a 1927 story by S. J. Perelman: “Beige lizard kicks are being worn a good deal this season.”

And a 1932 article in the journal American Speech said “kicks” was being used for “shoes” among students at Johns Hopkins University. 

This slang term is still with us, though it now has a more specific meaning. In street language and in youth culture generally, “kicks” means sneakers or athletic shoes.

Random House has several examples of this newer usage, including one from a 1984 issue of USA Today: “Here at the Roxy Roller Rink, sneakers are called ‘kicks.’ ”

The slang dictionary also has two 1993 citations: U.C.L.A. Slang II, edited by Pamela Munro, says students use “kicks” to mean “athletic shoes.” And the rap song “I Got It Goin’ On,” recorded by Us3, has the line “Sport the dope threads and the $100 kicks.”

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Is “not that” a no-no?

Q: A friend says “that” is incorrect in this sentence: “Leonardo DiCaprio’s never winning an Oscar isn’t that surprising when you realize Stanley Kubrick never won one either.” I say it’s an informal usage. We thought why not ask you guys.

A: Some language authorities would agree with you that this use of “that” (especially the negative “not that”) is informal, but we see nothing wrong with using it in formal as well as informal contexts.

Film buffs, however, would object to the sentence you’re asking about: Kubrick did win an Oscar—for visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In your example, the adjective “unfair” is qualified by “that.” In this construction, “that” is a demonstrative adverb meaning “so much,” “so,” or “to that extent or degree,” a usage the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 1400s.

Oxford adds that the negative version “not that”—the version in your sentence, with “not” contracted—is a colloquial usage that means “not very.” (A colloquial usage is one that’s more common in spoken than in written English.)

Among the OED’s citations are both positive and negative examples, including these:

“Charles Paris found it difficult to get that excited.” (From Simon Brett’s 1980 novel The Dead Side of the Mike.)

“The forgiveness of sin isn’t just an easygoing matter, as if to say: ‘Well, you sinned, but it doesn’t matter all that much—I forgive you.’ ” (From a 1981 issue of the Listener.)

As we’ve said above, we think this usage, negative as well as positive, is acceptable in all kinds of English. To be fair, we’ll give you two additional views on the subject.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) would say we’re jumping the gun. It describes the usage as still informal, though close to becoming formal.

Fowler’s says constructions with “that” as a demonstrative adverb of “the type ‘I was that angry,’ i.e. ‘so angry, very angry,’ and its negative counterpart, ‘things aren’t really that bad,’ have been slipping into and out of standard use since similar uses were first recorded in the 15c.”

“It would seem that both the positive and the negative types are common now,” Fowler’s says, “but in the written language are normally used in plainly informal contexts.”

The usage guide gives these published examples of informal use, both positive and negative: “I’ve been that worried. I thought I’d lost you,” and “Shut up. … It’s not that funny.”

But the manual acknowledges that all this “is only a short step away from reasonably formal territory, to judge from the following example: ‘The questioning attitude that comes naturally at student age is not that easily abolished.’ ”

Another authoritative source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, says both uses of “that”—positive as well as negative—are “common and widespread.”

But the “most common current use,” the book adds, “is in negative statements in which that is reduced more or less to an intensifier.”

The book’s published examples include sentences like these: “It is not that easy” … “The movie is different, but not that different” … “He did not think that they were that close to a treaty.”

M-W concludes that this use of “that,” in both positive and negative constructions, is “standard in general prose.”

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The saucy source of “liaise”

Q: The word “liaison” has been around for quite some time, but at a recent lunchtime meeting someone offered to “liaise” with others. This usage makes me cringe, but what’s your take on it?

A: We liaise a lot—that is, we work together on matters of mutual concern—but we don’t use the term “liaise” (it sounds like jargon to us).

Nevertheless, the verb “liaise” is standard English, a back-formation that’s been around for nearly a century, and a word with roots in the 1600s.

We’ve written many blog posts about back-formations—words formed by dropping parts of existing ones. New words have been formed this way for many hundreds of years.

Examples of verbs that started as back-formations from nouns include “injure” (from “injury”), “babysit” (from “babysitter”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “curate” (from “curator”), and  “surveil” (from “surveillance”).

We can add the verb “liaise” to the list. It’s a back-formation (from the noun “liaison”) that emerged in British military slang during World War I, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Oxford’s earliest citation comes from C. F. Snowden Gamble’s The Story of a North Sea Air Station, which is about the Royal Flying Corps in 1914-18.

Snowden Gamble’s book was published in 1928, but it includes this 1916 quote by Lord Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet: “I want a soldier … to keep in touch with the Navy and so ‘liaise’ or exchange inventions which may be suitable.”

Apparently “liaise” had staying power, since British military types were still using it in the next war.

The OED cites a comment that appeared in a 1941 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries, remarking on a recent instruction sheet issued by Britain’s Home Guard: “in the event of certain circumstances, it stated, two groups were ordered to ‘liase’ with two others.”

And a year later, in 1942, the New Statesman commented:
“ ‘To liaise’ … was at first frowned on by the pundits: its usefulness … soon came to outweigh its objectionableness.”

The OED defines “liaise” as meaning “to make liaison with or between.” By the 1950s, according to the dictionary’s citations, the usage had been absorbed into civilian usage.

The noun that it came from, “liaison,” can ultimately be traced to the Latin verb ligare (to bind). And when it first came into English, in the mid-17th century, it was decidedly civilian.

The original “liaison” was a cooking term (we’re not making this up). It meant “a thickening for sauces, consisting chiefly of the yolks of eggs,” the OED says.

This noun, which was borrowed from French, also for a time meant “the process of thickening,” Oxford adds.

The dictionary’s earliest citation in English is from a cookbook by an English courtier and intellectual, Sir Kenelm Digby, who died in 1665. (He left his recipes behind, and they were published posthumously in 1669.)

In a recipe for a mutton pot-roast, we find this line: “The last things (of Butter, bread, flower) cause the liaison and thickening of the liquor.” (The noun “liaison” appears several other times in the book, also in connection with a thickened broth or gravy.)

The noun took on new meanings in the early 19th century.

First, it came to mean an intimate (sometimes illicit) relationship or connection; and in 1816 it acquired a military sense, defined by the OED as “close connection and co-operation between two units, branches, allies, etc., esp. during a battle or campaign.”

In the early 20th century, this military sense of “liaison” also became common in corporate, governmental, and other civilian usages.

As you say, “liaison” has been around for quite some time. Our guess is that “liaise” will be with us for a while too, whether we like it or not.

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In the catbird seat

Q: Why is it such a good thing to be “in the catbird seat”? And where did Red Barber get the expression?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “the catbird seat” as American slang for “a superior or advantageous position.”

The OED’s earliest published example of the usage is from “The Catbird Seat,” a 1942 story by James Thurber in the New Yorker: “ ‘Sitting in the catbird seat’ meant sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”

One of the characters in the story is said to have picked up “sitting in the catbird seat” and other colorful expressions while listening to Red Barber do play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions—picked ’em up down South,” the story explains. (We’ve added to the OED citation.)

The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms describes the usage as “a Southern Americanism dating back to the 19th century,” but popularized by Barber and Thurber.

The earliest example we could find in a search of digitized books and newspapers does indeed come from the South, but it dates from the early 20th century, not the 19th.

One of the speakers at the 1916 annual meeting of the Georgia Bar Association says the frustrations of the legal profession make it hard for a lawyer to act like a card player “in the catbird seat as he squeezes an ace-high flush.”

The use of the term “catbird” (for the gray catbird, Dumetella carolinensis) dates from the early 1700s, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The first DARE citation is from John Lawson’s New Voyage to Carolina (1709): “The Cat-Bird … makes a Noise exactly like young Cats.”

The regional dictionary says the phrase “catbird seat” probably refers to the gray catbird’s habit “of delivering its song from a high, exposed position.”

We’ve seen a lot of gray catbirds where we live in New England, and from our experience the birds don’t deliver their cat-like call from a particularly high or exposed position. But maybe Southern catbirds are more uppity.

Where, you ask, did Red Barber get the expression? In Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, his 1968 biography, the Old Redhead says he first heard it while playing poker with friends in Cincinnati.

Barber describes one hand in which he raised repeatedly, but ended up losing when another player “turned over his hole cards, showed a pair of aces, and won the pot.”

“Thank you, Red,” the winner said. “I had those aces from the start. I was sitting in the catbird seat.”

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A euphemism of a certain age

Q: How old are women of “a certain age”? Are only French women of that age? Can men be of “a certain age” too?

A: The expression “a certain age” is generally used now (often tongue in cheek) as a euphemism to avoid saying a woman is middle-aged or older.

However, masculine and unisex versions are not all that unusual. In fact, the earliest example we’ve found refers to “men of a certain age.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a 1754 issue of the Connoisseur, a short-lived satirical weekly in London, edited by the essayists George Colman and Bonnell Thornton:

“I could not help wishing on this occasion that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.”

The expression is used there to describe an older, unmarried woman, similar to the terms “maiden lady” (1700), “spinster” (1617), and “old maid” (1530). “Spinster,” which dates from the 1300s, originally referred to someone who spins thread or yarn.

The phrase “a certain age” was a work in progress during the 1700s and 1800s, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes referring to women, sometimes men, and sometimes children, animals, or things.

A search of literary databases indicates that the usage first showed up in English in the early 1700s and in French (as d’un certain âge) in the late 1600s.

The earliest English example we could find, from a 1709 book written by a London midwife, refers to “men of a certain age.”

In A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery, Elizabeth Nihell argues against “the utter impropriety” of men, especially young men, examining the “sexual parts” of women:

“It may perhaps be granted that men of a certain age, men past the slippery season of youth, may claim the benefit of exemption from impressions of sensuality, by objects to which custom has familiarized them.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, the expression was generally positive when used to describe men. The Earl of Chesterfield, for example, used it in a June 13, 1751, letter to his son, Philip Stanhope, to refer to men of substance and refinement:

“You would not talk of your pleasures to men of a certain age, gravity, and dignity; they justly expect, from young people, a degree of deference and regard.”

The phrase was sometimes used positively and sometimes negatively to describe women.

In Amatory Tales (1810), Honoria Scott uses it positively: “Mrs. Cleveland was a woman of a certain age, and handsome person; her understanding intelligent and cultivated; she had moved much in the circles of fashionable life.”

But in The Lady of the Manor (1831), Mary Martha Sherwood uses the term to describe “a vain woman who cannot condescend to grow old” and who needs a lot of help to keep up appearances:

“The Comtesse de V was a woman of a certain age, and she therefore owed to her perruquier, her perfumer (who supplied the various washes for her complexion), her milliner, and her femme de chambre, that juvenile appearance which she still had in the eyes of those who beheld her only for the first time.”

In Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens does a riff on the expression to describe a house: “A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain age.”

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto, says “of a certain age” may have been inspired by the French expression d’un certain âge.

We suspect that Ayto is less than definitive here because the French expression showed up only a few decades before the English version.

Ayto offers this contemporary unisex example of the usage from a 2003 issue of Architectural Review: “Text … is in readable white sans-serif type … and happily for clients of a certain age, it’s adjustable with the browser’s View/Text Size command.”

William Safire suggests in his July 2, 1995, language column in the New York Times Magazine that the phrase was “repopularized” for modern readers by Women of a Certain Age, a 1979 book by the psychotherapist Lillian B. Rubin.

“When I wrote the book in 1979,” she told Safire, “the ‘women of a certain age’ were in their late 30’s and early 40’s. I think that has changed with the baby boomers and the lengthening of the life span. I’d say the ‘certain age’ has now moved to the age of 50 or 55.”

Safire’s column was prompted by a reader who’d been surprised by this headline in the paper: “3 Explorers of a Certain Age, Scaling Mountains and More.” The explorers were three men in their 80s.

It’s comforting to think that we may still be of a certain age when we’re in our 80s.

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Deconstructing sports talk

Q: I have been annoyed at sports commentators who seem to ALWAYS put the subject at the end of the sentence. Example: “Since he returned from injury he is a different player, Smith.” Please advise.

A: The construction you mention is very common in live sports commentary. The speaker puts the subject at the end of the sentence almost as an afterthought.

Sometimes there’s a pronoun mentioned first, but sometimes not: “He came up from the  minors like a rocket, Jones,” or  “Up at bat now, Brown.”

It’s as if the speaker assumes at first that the audience will know who “he” is, or will mentally supply the subject. But just to be sure, a name is added.

It could even be that the speaker consciously delays mentioning the name to give himself time to think. (Lots of names to remember!)

In the case of your example, the subject (Smith) is reinserted by name at the end to identify who’s meant by “he.”

This kind of thing is sometimes heard in casual conversation outside the broadcast booth as well.   

A mother might say, “He’s a good boy, Johnny,” just as a sports reporter would say “It was brilliant, that catch.”

The examples are parallel. When an informal sentence has a pronoun (“he,” “it”) as its subject, the speaker sometimes names the subject at the end for clarification.

In elliptical constructions, the verb might be omitted completely: “A good boy, Johnny” … “Brilliant, that catch.”

Or the verb might be repeated: “He’s a good boy, Johnny is” … “It was brilliant, that catch was.”

Here’s another kind of casual sentence, one you might hear at the playground: “Interesting, watching children play.”

The subject is “watching children play,” and the verb (“is”) is missing. Full sentence, transposed and with verb added: “Watching children play is interesting.”

More often, the pronoun “it” is used up front as a dummy subject: “It’s interesting, watching children play.” The true subject—“watching children play”—identifies the mystery pronoun.

As we said, such sentences are common in informal speech. But the habitual use of such constructions—especially when there’s no original pronoun or when the verb is missing—is a hallmark of live sports commentary.

In the broadcast booth, speakers use a telegraphic style in which loose sentence fragments are strung together, often without explicit grammatical connections.

Some linguists call this “parataxis,” a term from Greek in which it means “placing side by side.” In the parataxis of sports commentary, “Outbursts of short, snappy, loosely connected clauses are typical,” Kersti Borjars and Kate Burridge write in their book Introducing English Grammar (2nd ed., 2013).

Sometimes pronouns, conjunctions, even verbs may be missing, as in “Strong bullpen, the Twins.” Or “Needs a walk, Anderson.” It’s almost stream-of-consciousness.

And the faster the live action, the more telegraphed the commentary. And yet the listener understands perfectly—even though the things we ordinarily consider crucial to the English sentence aren’t there.

One bit of commentary given by Borjars and Burridge is certainly elliptical. It consists of a single word, “Unbelievable.” But there’s isn’t a listener alive who wouldn’t understand.

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Why is a shaft a rod or a hole?

Q: How come we use the word “shaft” for two different things: a linear object like an arrow and an open space like a tunnel in a mine? Are these two usages somehow related etymologically?

A: The “shaft” that’s a slender rod and the “shaft” that’s a narrow hole have always been two different nouns in English.

But it’s natural for you to wonder if there’s a link somewhere in their ancient ancestry, since both “shafts” are long, straight columns—the first a solid object and the second a hollow cavity.

Well, there is probably a connection, but scholars disagree on what it is.

The first “shaft”—a smooth, straight stick or pole, like the body of an arrow or spear—was known in Old English as sceaft around the year 1000 or earlier, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

 The other “shaft”—the hole or pit—wasn’t known in Old English. It made its appearance in the 1430s, the OED says, when it meant “a vertical or slightly inclined well-like excavation made in mining, tunnelling, etc., as a means of access to underground workings.”

How did the different “shafts” develop?

The OED says the original, rod-like “shaft” probably got its meaning from the sense of something shaven—that is, scraped and made smooth. (The Old English verb sceafan meant to shave.)

This word has its origins in a prehistoric Germanic root that linguists have reconstructed as skafto-, which has to do with shaving. That ancient root, in turn, comes from an even earlier Germanic word element that has to do with digging.

There are a couple of theories about the origin of the pit-like sense of “shaft” in English. Here are the possibilities: 

(1) In Europe in the early Middle Ages, speakers of Low German simply transferred the word for a rod to mean a pit. The Low German schacht combined both senses of “shaft,” perhaps with “the primitive notion being that of something cylindrical,” the OED says.

In his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991), Hans Henrich Hock suggests that this Low German schacht (in the sense of a pit) may have originated as miners’ jargon, perhaps as early as the late 900s, and later filtered into English as the new noun “shaft.” Many other Low German mining terms made their way into English and other languages, according to Hock.

(2) The two “shafts” developed separately, much further back in their Germanic ancestry. 

As the OED puts it, the prehistoric Germanic root “skafto- represented by Low German schacht, English shaft ‘pit-hole,’ may be a separate formation” of the Germanic root of “shave” in its original sense, “to dig.”

If the last suggestion is true, then the first “shaft” (the rod) is derived from the notion of something shaven and the second “shaft” (the pit) from that of something dug or excavated.

While English got both “shafts” from Germanic sources, we should note that the words have cousins in Latin (scapus, a stem or stalk) and Greek (skapos, a staff or support).

But enough ancient etymology. We don’t want to dig ourselves into a hole here.

The original English “shaft” (the rod) has been used in many ways, figurative as well as literal, to describe all kinds of rod-like things.

Over the centuries, the same “shaft” has been used to describe an architectural column, a beam of sunlight, a bird’s feather, the stem of a wineglass, a rotating mechanism (driveshaft, crankshaft, etc.), and many other objects.

This “shaft” has also given us slang usages, and as you might imagine (given the phallic nature of the word), few of them are respectable.

For example, the penis has been described as a “shaft” since the early 1600s, according to citations in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The OED cites this mock-poetic example from a comic song published in 1772: “For Cupid’s Pantheon, the Shaft of Delight Must spring from the Masculine Base.”

And since the early 1950s, the verb “shaft” has meant to give someone a raw deal—to cheat, reject, slight, take advantage of or treat the person unfairly.

Green’s quotes this line from Mickey Spillane’s noir novel The Long Wait (1951): “She’s going to have more on her mind than trying to shaft you.”

Then of course there’s the expression “to get the shaft,” meaning to be on the receiving end of a raw deal. This has also been a common slang usage since the 1950s.

The OED cites this explanation from a 1959 issue of the journal American Speech: “A girl or boy who makes a play for another’s date is snaking. … If he succeeds, the loser gets the shaft (sometimes with barbs), the purple shaft, or the maroon harpoon, depending upon the degree of injury to his pride.”

This more graphic definition of “get the shaft” appeared in 1960 in the Dictionary of American Slang, by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner: “the image is the taboo one of the final insult, having someone insert something, as a barbed shaft, up one’s rectum.”

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How diverse is diversity?

Q: I am helping promulgate the criteria for recruiting new members of a board of directors. At issue is “diversity.” I say it is now a code word for nonwhite or nonmale. That is, a white male, no matter how diverse his experience, doesn’t provide diversity. Others say “diversity,” without elaboration, could refer to experience. What do you think?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries, and none of them restrict the term “diversity” to race or gender.

All the dictionaries define “diversity” in general terms, such as a range of different things or the state of being varied. A few include additional definitions or examples that refer to racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, or social differences.

None of the dictionaries specifically mention either gender or experience, but the more general definitions would encompass those as well as other differences, such as age, sexual orientation, and education.

We’ve also looked at several legal dictionaries, but couldn’t find the term “diversity,” except in a few relatively obscure usages.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a general definition that could encompass just about any difference: “The condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness.”

Although some people believe, as you do, that “diversity” primarily refers to race and gender, lexicographers clearly feel that most people use the term more broadly.

What do we think? If we were writing the criteria, we’d use the word “diversity” by itself, without citing any specific differences.

Some outsiders may misunderstand the term, but we assume that the main reason for the criteria is to guide board members, who should know by now what they mean by “diversity.”

Yes, the directors could cite specific kinds of diversity, especially if they were thinking of more than differences in race, gender, and ethnic origin, but the list would clutter up the criteria and almost certainly be incomplete.

Here, for example, is how the Chancellor’s Committee on Diversity at the University of California, San Francisco, defines the term:

“The variety of experiences and perspective which arise from differences in race, culture, religion, mental or physical abilities, heritage, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics.”

Interestingly, there’s been a diversity of opinion about the meaning of “diversity” since the word entered English in the 1300s. In fact, the differences date from the term’s Old French and Latin ancestors.

In Old French, the term diverseté (or diversité) meant difference, oddness, wickedness, or perversity, according to the OED.

However, the word ultimately comes from the Latin diversus, which means opposite, separate, different, contrary, or hostile, and which is the source of the English word “diversion” (a turning away from the fatiguing and the mundane).

In English, the word “diversity” has meant difference, variety, unlikeness, distinction, perversity, evil, and mischief over the years, not to mention a couple of technical electrical and radio usages. Now, that’s diversity.

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Bullies and bulldogs

Q: I came across someone who wonders if “bullying” has something to do with “bulldogs.” Is there anything to this? Or is it just bull?

A: It’s just bull, though the paths of the two words did cross at least once (more on this later).

“Bullying” and “bulldogs” aren’t etymologically related. In fact, the word “bully” had nothing to do with what we now think of as “bullying” when it entered English in the 1500s.

The noun “bully” was originally “a term of endearment and familiarity” similar to “sweetheart” or “darling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although it was initially used for both men and women, the OED says, it was “later applied to men only, implying friendly admiration: good friend, fine fellow, ‘gallant.’ ”

The origins of the word are fuzzy, but the dictionary suggests that it might have come from boel or buole, Dutch or Middle High German terms for a lover.

The earliest Oxford citation for the usage is from A Comedy Concernynge Thre Lawes, of Nature Moses, & Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes (circa 1548), a morality play by John Bale, an Anglican bishop:

“The woman hath a wytt, / And by her gere can sytt, / Though she be sumwhat olde. / It is myne owne swete bullye, / My muskyne and my mullye.” (“Muskyne” and “mullye” are obsolete terms of endearment.)

Here are a few examples from Shakespeare’s plays:

“From my hart strings I loue the louely bully.” (Henry V, c. 1600.)

“What saiest thou, bully, Bottome?” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1600.)

“Blesse thee my bully doctor.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1602.)

In the late 1600s, the term “bully” came to mean a “blustering gallant” or a “swashbuckler,” according to the OED, though it now generally means “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.”

It’s impossible to tell from the dictionary’s examples when the swashbuckling sense of the noun evolved into the tyrannical sense.

But the verb “bully,” which showed up in the early 1700s, was initially used in both the blustering and tyrannical senses—or, as the OED defines it, “to act the bully towards; to treat in an overbearing manner; to intimidate, overawe.”

The OED’s earliest example for the verb is from Samuel Palmer’s Moral Essays on Some of the Most Curious and Significant English, Scotch and Foreign Proverbs (1710): “His poor neighbour is bully’d by his big appearance.”

And here’s an example in Google Books of the noun used in the tyrannical sense, from Tobias Smollett’s 1775 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:

“Then, it must be owned, he wants courage, otherwise he would never allow himself to be cowed by the great political bully, for whose understanding he has justly a very great contempt.”

As for the noun “bulldog,” it first showed up in the mid-1700s. (The OED has a questionable 1518 citation that refers to “two bolddogges,” but it’s unclear whether the animals were actually bulldogs.)

The dictionary defines the noun, which it hyphenates, as “a dog of a bold and fierce breed, with large bull-head, short muzzle, strong muscular body of medium height, and short smooth hair.”

Oxford says the name of the dog is derived from the words “bull” and “dog.” Why a bull? Because the dog was once used in bull-baiting—a “sport” in which a dog would lock its teeth onto the snout of a tethered bull.

The first clear “bulldog” citation in the OED is from a 1752 essay by David Hume: “The courage of bull-dogs and game-cocks seems peculiar to England.”

The adjective “bully” (meaning admirable) showed up in the late 1600s. We discussed this usage in a blog post several years ago about the term “bully pulpit.”

In the late 1800s, the adjective was also used to describe someone who looked like a bulldog—this is where the paths of “bully” and “bulldog” crossed.

The OED’s sole example of the adjective used this way is from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1883 novel Phantom Fortune: “Angelina is bully about the muzzle.” (Angelina is a fox terrier.)

Although the usage hasn’t made it into the OED or standard dictionaries, many dog rescue groups use the term “bully breeds” to refer to such breeds as the American Staffordshire terrier, bull terrier, bulldog, and bullmastiff.

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“I’m afraid” (aka “I’m sorry”)

Q: What’s the origin of the use of “afraid” in sentences like “I’m afraid I can’t help you” or  “I’m afraid that is the case”? Is this apologetic sense considered old-fashioned today?

A: When the adjective “afraid” showed up in the 1300s (as affred or afreyd in Middle English), it meant alarmed or frightened.

But by the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression “I am afraid” (or “I’m afraid”) was being used in the apologetic sense you’re asking about.

The OED says “I’m afraid” here means “I regret to say,” “I apologetically report,” “I suspect,” “I am inclined to think,” and so on.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (circa 1590): “I am affraid sir, doe what you can / Yours will not be entreated.”

In this citation from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Miss Bingley’s offer of help is rebuffed by Darcy:

“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”

“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”

(We’ve expanded on the OED citation to savor Miss Bingley’s comeuppance.)

The most recent Oxford example is from Bloodless Shadow, a 2003 detective novel by Victoria Blake: “I’m afraid I can’t discuss my cases.”

You ask if this apologetic sense of “I’m afraid” is now considered old-fashioned. Not as far as we can tell.

It seems as contemporary today as when Shakespeare put those words into the mouth of Petruchio’s friend Hortensio.

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Does “Sr.” outlive the senior?

Q: My father and brother, both deceased, had the same name, and used “senior” and “junior” to differentiate themselves. Now, I can’t decide how to present my father’s name in a book dedication. Do you have any advice?

A: The use of “Sr.” in reference to your father would be appropriate.

This is an issue of etiquette, not style, grammar, or usage. But we think it makes sense to keep the “Sr.” here to be clear who is being referred to in the dedication.

Generational suffixes like “Jr.” and “Sr.” aren’t necessarily dropped when a son or a father dies. A deceased father may still be known as “John Doe Sr.” and a deceased son as “John Doe Jr.”

A well-known example is Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who outlived his “Jr.” son but continued to be referred to as “Sr.” even after his own death.  

When the son survives the father, he may choose to drop the “Jr.” from his name, or he may choose to keep it.

William F. Buckley Jr., for example, used the “Jr.” throughout his life, and the suffix is still used after his death.

And by the way, it’s not necessary to use commas around the abbreviations “Jr.” and “Sr.,” according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

The manual uses this example: “John Doe Sr. continues to cast a shadow over his son.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “Sr.” for “senior” as “chiefly US.”

This use of the abbreviation to distinguish a father from a son of the same name is relatively new, according to OED citations.

The earliest example in the dictionary is from the June 5, 1936, issue of the New York Herald Tribune: “Extradition of Ellis Parker Sr. to await Republican Convention.”

(The OED doesn’t have any citations for “Jr.” used to distinguish a son from his father.)

However, the dictionary has citations dating from the 1400s for the word “senior” used this way, and from the 1600s for “junior” used for the son.

Here’s an example from a 1692 issue of the London Gazette that uses both: “Lost, a Note of Mr. Tho. Symonds junior’s Hand for Mr. Tho. Symonds senior … for 50£.

Finally, you might be interested in a post we wrote a few months ago about the use of “senior” to refer to an old person.

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Taking George Clooney to task?

Q: Twice in The Monuments Men (screenplay by George Clooney), Clooney the actor uses “task” as a verb: “We have been tasked to find and protect art that the Nazis have stolen.” But were people saying that back in the early 1940s?

A: You’re not the first moviegoer to be startled by Clooney’s use of “task” as a verb. Bloggers and contributors to online discussion groups have criticized this usage.

One critic complains, for example, that Clooney is making a noun (“task”) into a verb. Another suggests that the usage emerged in 1980s corporate-speak, so it’s an anachronism in a movie that takes place near the end of World War II. 

Neither complaint is legitimate. Since 1530, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “task” has been used as a verb meaning to impose a task on someone.

The construction followed by “with” or “to” (as in “tasked to find”) has been around since the late 1500s and appears in Shakespeare.

The OED has an example from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598), in which Hotspur complains that the King “taskt the whole state.”

But we prefer the scene in Othello (circa 1603) where Iago schemes to get Cassio plastered.

Here Cassio says he can’t hold his liquor and doesn’t want any more to drink: “I am unfortunate in the infirmity, / and dare not task my weakness with any more.

The OED has only a couple of modern examples, including this Nov. 20, 1980, ad from the Oxford Star, a weekly in England:

“A small engineering team tasked with the design, building and commissioning of high volume production lines.”

However, the usage is alive and well these days. A Google search for “I was tasked to” resulted in more than 1.7 million hits. Example: “I was tasked to look through my old Facebook pics to find a candid photo of myself for a shoot.”

Now for an interesting detour. In Middle English, “task” and “tax” meant the same thing. The two words are etymological twins that went their separate ways over the centuries.

When the noun “task” first appeared around 1300  it meant a payment or a levy—that is, a tax. And when the verb came along in the 1400s, to “task” meant to impose a tax.” 

So why were there two words, “task” and “tax,” one ending in an “sk” sound and the other in a “ks” sound?

As the OED explains, both have their ultimate roots in the Latin taxare (assess, evaluate). It’s been suggested that around the year 800, the consonant sounds were swapped in medieval Latin, resulting in two separate nouns taxa and tasca.

These two Latin words were passed along into Old French, then into Anglo-Norman, and finally into English.

(The transposition of sounds is called metathesis, and it can result in new words. As we’ve written on our blog, something similar happened with the word “ask, which had two forms in medieval English, “ask” and “axe.”)

The words “task” and “tax” began to diverge in the 1500s.

The “task” that originally meant a fixed payment imposed on someone—say, by an overlord—came to mean a fixed quantity of labor imposed on a person or owed as a duty.

From that meaning grew the modern sense of “task”: an assignment or a piece of work. (The verb “task” developed along similar lines.)

While “task” and “tax” have now gone their separate ways in English, they still intersect here and there.

As you know, we sometimes say a difficult task or a hard job is “taxing.” Both “task” and “tax” are occasionally used as verbs meaning to “burden” or “put a strain on,” as in these OED citations:

“It tasked his diplomatic skill to effect his departure in safety” (from John Yeats’s The Growth and Vicissitudes of Commerce, 1872).

“My ingenuity was often taxed for expedients” (from Elisha Kent Kane’s The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, 1853).

And when we scold or censure a person for doing something, we “take him to task” for it.

In fact, the verbs “task” and “tax” have both been used in this sense of censuring or reproving someone. Here are a couple of examples from the OED:

“Trollope is another offender who is frequently tasked with endangering the wholeness of his novels” (1965, from Kenneth Graham’s English Criticism of the Novel, 1865-1900).

“That Chronicle … which seems to tax the envy and rapaciousness of Clarence as the Causes of the dissention” (1768, from Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third).

And that’s our task for the day. We won’t tax our brains any more!

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How funny is facetious?

Q: How do you assess the state of “facetious” today? Do most people use it to mean humorous or to mean joking, often inappropriately? Do you find this ambiguity problematic or do you think context is usually sufficient for understanding?

A: All in all, “facetious” is a slippery term. Some dictionaries recognize two meanings, some only one. And those that give only one definition differ as to whether “facetious” remarks are biting or benign.

It’s safe to say, however, that both the meanings you mention are in use today.

The word can simply mean humorous—that is, not serious. But “facetious” can also mean waggish or jokey, sometimes in a flippant or inappropriate way.

We generally depend on the context, or the manner of the delivery, to tell us whether a joke or witty comment is merely amusing or has a bite to it.

Obviously, that’s easier when the witticism is spoken (with vocal inflections and perhaps wry facial expressions), than when it’s written.

The different senses of “facetious” can overlap, of course, which is probably why some standard dictionaries mush them together.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says only that “facetious” means “playfully jocular; humorous,” as in “facetious remarks.”

And this single definition comes from Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “not seriously meaning what you say, usually in an attempt to be humorous or to trick someone,” as in “I make so much money that we never have to worry – I’m being facetious.”

On the other hand, the Macmillan Dictionary recognizes only the negative meaning of “facetious.” The sole definition is “trying to be funny in a way that is not appropriate.”

Some other dictionaries recognize wider uses for the adjective. 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has these definitions: (1) “joking or jesting often inappropriately: waggish,” as in “just being facetious”; and (2) “meant to be humorous or funny: not serious,” as in “a facetious remark.”

M-W’s online edition gives longer examples, including this illustration for inappropriate humor: “a facetious and tasteless remark about people in famine-stricken countries being spared the problem of overeating.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also has two broad definitions of “facetious” in modern usage: (1) “characterized by or given to pleasantry or joking, now esp. when inappropriate or flippant”; and (2) “witty, humorous, amusing.”

That “now esp.” comment in the OED suggests that the dictionary’s editors believe that when “facetious” is used in a joking sense today, the flippant side of the word—the one with the bite—is more common.

The OED’s earliest published citation for “facetious” in the modern sense appears to use the word to mean witty and amusing. It’s from A Treatise of the Felicitie of the Life to Come (1594), by the Scottish minister and poet Alexander Hume:

“To heare the merry interloquutors of facetious Dialogues, pretty and quicke conceits, and rancounters of Comediens, in their comedies, and stage plaies.”

In a more contemporary citation, we find “facetious” used to describe an article that’s an extended joke (though a harmless one) about two literary figures who were dead ringers for each other.

“The resemblance between the two is extraordinary,” Robert H. Boyle writes in the New York Times Book Review (2000). “I decided to write a facetious article stating that Joyce and Jennings had been separated at birth.”

The references are to James Joyce and an angler named Preston Jennings, whose volume A Book of Trout Flies was published in 1935, four years before Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

In accompanying photographs, the two authors look nearly identical. Boyle argues, among other things, that the “fin” in Joyce’s title is no coincidence, and that his phrase “speckled trousers” is code for “speckled trout.”

Boyle’s article is hilarious, but not flippant or inappropriate.

(None of the OED’s examples of “facetious,” in our opinion, seem to represent inappropriate humor.)

So far, we’ve been discussing the meanings of “facetious” that have survived in modern usage. But an earlier sense of the word in English was lost long ago.

This “facetious,” first recorded in 1542, meant “polished, elegant, agreeable,” and was used to describe a person’s manners or style, according to the OED.

Oxford has only four examples, concluding with this one from Samuel Mather’s An Apology for the Liberties of the Churches in New England (1738):

“I Have a Letter in my Hands, and the very Original Letter, of the learned and pious and facetious Mr. Charles Morton of Charles-Town in New-England.”

What kind of etymological roots could grow a word meaning both elegant and funny? Slightly different roots, it seems.

The “facetious” that’s now obsolete (“polished, elegant, agreeable”) comes ultimately from the classical Latin facetus (clever, whimsical), which in post-classical Latin came to mean courtly.

And the “facetious” that has survived into modern usage is descended from the classical Latin facetia (a joke or jest).

Finally, an interesting aside: In booksellers’ catalogues the word “facetiae” is a euphemism for pornography, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.). It means “jests” in Latin.

Keep that in mind next time you’re shopping for printed rarities.

Update (March 26, 2014): A reader writes to remind us that “facetious” is one of only two common words that contain all five vowels in order. The other is “abstemious.”

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The geography of the apostrophe

Q: I thought you might find it interesting that city officials in Cambridge (England) have banned the use of the apostrophe in new street names. What are your thoughts?

A: We saw the same news stories you did. But a few days after you emailed us, there was a new development. The officials in Cambridge bowed to public pressure and reversed that ban on possessive apostrophes in signs marking new streets.

Here in the United States, we don’t see many possessive apostrophes (or periods, for that matter) in street signs. The authorities that regulate these things tend to discourage the use of punctuation. 

(And by the way, you might be interested in a post we wrote some time ago on the use of compass directions—like the confusing “No” for north—on street signs.)

Who gets to decide whether street signs can have apostrophes? In the US, as in Britain, this is up to local cities and towns.

In this country, the individual municipalities use guidelines established by state boards or commissions that regulate geographic names. All 50 states have such agencies.

The states in turn look to the federal government for guidance. And on the federal level, the use of apostrophes in the names of geographic features has been discouraged since 1890, when the US Board on Geographic Names was established.

This is why you almost never see apostrophes on federal signs and maps. The US board says in the FAQ on its website that when place names are in the possessive form, “the apostrophe is almost always removed,” though the “s” by itself is allowed.

What does the federal government have against apostrophes in geographic features? The agency itself can’t explain. “The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy,” it says in the FAQ.

But it does dispose of a few old theories: “Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of ‘stick–up type’ for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion.”

“The probable explanation,” the agency suggests, “is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features.”

Elsewhere, in its editorial guidelines, the board says: “Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper name (Henrys Fork, not Henry’s Fork).”

However, the guidelines add, “Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter (Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow).”

As for street signs, the national board says that, unless asked for an opinion, it doesn’t get involved in the names of roads, streets, highways, canals, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals, airports, and other entities that are administered by local governments. 

So local agencies or municipalities are free to choose whether the names include a genitive or possessive apostrophe. But as we said above, the local agencies generally follow guidelines from their states, which tend to follow the federal government’s lead.

For example, the Hawaii State Board on Geographic Names lists apostrophes among “things to avoid.”

Many American place names that once had apostrophes officially lost them to government regulation back in the 19th century—notably Pikes Peak, named for the explorer Zebulon Pike, and Harpers Ferry, for a ferry operator named Robert Harper.

And for the most past, Americans haven’t been as bothered by all this as their counterparts in Britain. But even here, defenders of the apostrophe have occasionally (very occasionally) made themselves heard on the subject.

As a result, a handful of what the board calls “natural features” have been allowed to include an apostrophe denoting possession or association.

Here are the names, along with the years in which the board relented and gave them back their punctuation:

● Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts, 1933). The locals simply wouldn’t stand for “Marthas Vineyard” and mounted an intense campaign. It worked.

● Ike’s Point (New Jersey, 1944).  The argument, according to the agency: “it would be unrecognizable otherwise.”

● John E’s Pond (Rhode Island, 1963). This would be unreadable without the apostrophe. And spoken, the name would sound like “John S.”

● Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (Arizona, 1995). The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names argued that three apparent names in a row would be confusing. (The third name is a reference to a stand of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) once captured on film by the photographer Carlos Elmer.)

● Clark’s Mountain (Oregon, 2002). Meriwether Lewis named the peak for William Clark, who climbed it in 1806. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, along with the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, asked that the apostrophe be restored.

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When fewer is less

Q: You’ve written more than once about your preference for “less” over “fewer” in referring to percentages. In a recent comment on the New York Times’s After Deadline blog, Philip B. Corbett takes the opposing view. Your guidance feels better to me, but are you in the minority or the majority?

A: We disagree with Corbett, the Times’s associate managing editor for standards. We think the reporter, Lizette Alvarez, was right to use “less” instead of “fewer” in this sentence on Jan. 20:

“In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals.”

Although “fewer” is generally used for a smaller number of individual things, and “less” for a smaller quantity of one thing, there are many exceptions.

As we’ve said before on the blog, including posts in 2008 and 2009, “less” is more appropriate than “fewer” when percentages are involved.

We’re in the majority on this. Many usage authorities believe that percentages, like fractions, suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says it’s better to think of a percentage as a collective mass noun than as something that’s been counted.

As Bryan A. Garner writes: “Most percentages aren’t whole numbers anyway. And even if it were a toss-up between the two theories [collective mass noun versus countable noun], it’s sound to choose less, which is less formal in tone than fewer.”

Here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say:

“In present-day written usage, less is as likely as or more likely than fewer to appear in a few common constructions. One of the most frequent is the less than construction where less is a pronoun. The countables in this construction are often distances, sums of money, units of time, and statistical enumerations, which are often thought of as amounts rather than numbers.”

Finally, in Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she recommends using “less than (not fewer than) with percentages and fractions: Less than a third of the graduates showed up for the reunion.

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It’s a big ask

Q: When did “ask” become a noun? I first heard “a big ask” used at work for a difficult request. I considered it another annoying bit of industrialese, but I just heard a TV commentator use “a tough ask” this way. Is the usage now an acceptable idiom?

A: You’d better sit down. The word “ask” has been used as both a verb and a noun since Anglo-Saxon days.

The verb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first showed up in Old English in Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s.

The noun appeared a couple of hundred years later in the dooms, or laws, of Athelstan, who was King of the Anglo Saxons (924-27) and the King of the English (927-39).

Since it first showed up in Old English, the noun has meant asking, an inquiry, a thing asked, or a request, according to Oxford.

Here’s an OED example in modern English from a Dec. 8, 1781, letter by the scholar Thomas Twining (whose grandfather founded the Twinings tea empire):

“I am not so unreasonable as to desire you to take notice of all the stuff I scribble, or answer all my asks.” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

And here’s an example from The Laws and Principles of Whist, an 1886 book written by “Cavendish” (the pen name of Henry Jones): “When your three comes down in the next round, it is not an ask for trumps.”

The particular usage you ask about (in expressions like “a big ask” and “a tough ask”) isn’t quite as new as you seem to think—it’s been around since the 1980s.

The OED describes the usage as colloquial (more common in spoken than written English), and says it originated in Australia.

The dictionary defines this “ask” as meaning “something which is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a May 6, 1987, issue of the Sydney Morning Herald: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer, Johnny Lewis, that four pounds is ‘a big ask.’ ”

In a 2005 draft addition to its entry for the noun “ask,” the OED says the usage is chiefly heard in sports. But as you’ve observed, the expression has traveled far afield since then, geographically as well as linguistically.

A Jan. 30, 2014, editorial in the Guardian, for example, wonders whether Ukrainians will get a chance to “to make a free choice about their own government and national direction.”

“It is a big ask,” the paper says, “and none of the steps will be easy.”

And, according to the latest reports from Eastern Europe, it’s still a big ask.

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Is “expat” domesticated?

Q: On WNYC, Brian Lehrer invited “expats” from Seattle and Denver to call in with their opinions on the merits of their ex-cities (music scene, weather, microbrews, etc.). Has the term “expat” been domesticated?

A: We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, and all of them define “expat” as an informal shortening of the noun “expatriate.”

As for “expatriate,” all the dictionaries define the noun as someone who’s living in a foreign country—not in a new part of his or her own country.

Although lexicographers haven’t yet recognized the domestication of “expat,” the usage is definitely out there.

A search of online databases suggests that the use of “expats” for people moving within their own country began showing up nearly a dozen years ago.

The website Mountain West News, for example, has this headline on an Oct. 1, 2003, article about Californians moving to the Rocky Mountains region: “California’s expats brought their politics.”

And an Oct. 15, 2003, article on the website City Limits reports that “scores of New York expats have joined lawsuits” against 26 Poconos-area builders, realtors and appraisers.

Although this new use of “expat” seems to have originated in the US, American dictionaries say the original use of the term as a shortened form of “expatriate” is “chiefly British.”

The OED, which considers “expat” a colloquialism, has only two examples for the usage—from 1962 and 1968.

The latest citation is from the Jan. 25, 1968, issue of the now-defunct BBC magazine The Listener: “The ‘expats,’ as the expatriate British refer to themselves, are understandably fond of Ghana.”

Interestingly, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has four citations from US publications for this supposedly British usage, though some of the cites refer to British expatriates.

Here’s an example from the May 21, 1961, issue of the New York Times: “The easygoing Malays still maintain many Britons, whom they call expatriates, or ‘expats,’ in key positions.”

When the noun “expatriate” entered English in the early 1800s, it referred to someone “expatriated”—that is, forced into exile.

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from an 1818 issue of the Quarterly Review: “Patriots and expatriates are alike the children of circumstances.”

The English noun (as well as the verb) “expatriate” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin prefix ex- (out) and noun patria (native land).

Getting back to your question, we like the new informal use of “expat” for someone living in a different part of his own country.

It’s similar to the extended use of the newspaper term “column” for a website “column,” a subject we’ve discussed on our blog.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: sports talk—the language of the broadcasting booth and the bullpen. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
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Is “caring” a noun?

Q: The company I work at lists “caring” as one of its supposed “shared values.” The other values (“productivity,” “integrity,” etc.) are obviously nouns. The word “caring” looks like the odd one out. Sounds awfully, distastefully wrong to me. Am I right?

A: The word “caring” can be a present participle (“He’s caring for his sick child”), a participial adjective (“He is a caring person”), or a gerund (“Caring is a full-time job”).

Although all three are derived from the verb “care,” the present participle is a verb form, the participial adjective is of course an adjective, and the gerund is a noun—technically a verbal noun.

So the gerund “caring” does indeed belong with the other nouns in your company’s list of shared values.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “caring” as a noun, with examples dating back to the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from the English poet Nicholas Grimald’s 1556 translation of Cicero’s De Officiis: “No painfulness, no diligence, no caring.”

A gerund can be a subject, an object, or the principal part of a noun phrase. Although gerunds don’t ordinarily have plural forms, plurals are sometimes used (“comings” and “goings,” for example).

Gerunds are sometimes referred to as deverbals or deverbatives, as well as verbal nouns or simply nouns. Some are listed in standard dictionaries as nouns and some aren’t.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, has separate entries for “running,” “skiing,” and “working” as nouns, but not for “driving,” “eating,” and “smoking.” Why not?

We asked Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at the Merriam-Webster company, how lexicographers decide when a gerund gets listed separately as a noun.

He explained that space is the major consideration, so the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged  has more noun entries for gerunds than the M-W Collegiate.

“The bar for gerund entry in the Unabridged is much lower than for the Collegiate, because there’s more space,” Sokolowski said.

Less common gerunds “are considered to be covered by the verb entry,” he added, and a  “similar policy is in place for nouns that function adjectivally.”

“Our Learner’s Dictionary has a more liberal policy regarding gerunds because we can’t assume that the user will understand the relationship between the verb and the gerund, so ‘driving’ and ‘smoking’ are there, for example,” he said.

We’ve written about gerunds frequently on the blog, including a recent post about why some verbs are followed by gerunds and others by infinitives, and an item in 2012 about the difference between gerunds and participles.

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Can cluelessness be betrayed?

Q: I am a physician who blogs and strives to improve his style. But I stumble when I see a statement like this one on an NY Times blog: “it betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession.” What is being betrayed here? A lack of awareness? Or the medical profession? I would think the latter.

A: The verb “betray” has several meanings that concern disloyalty: one can betray a country, a cause, a confidence, or a spouse.

But you’re asking about a different sense of the word: to make known unintentionally (as in, “The snicker betrayed his true feelings”).

The comment that got your attention—by Lawrence K. Altman, a Times medical writer and professor of medicine at NYU—is about an article in the New York Review of Books by a doctor who was seriously injured in an accident.

In the article, Arnold Relman, a doctor with six decades of experience, writes that he “had never before understood how much good nursing care contributes to patients’ safety and comfort.”

In commenting on that, Altman writes that Relman’s sudden realization of the importance of nursing “betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession and the nation’s fragmented health care system.”

Altman is using the word “betrays” here to mean “unintentionally reveals.” What is being revealed? Relman’s former cluelessness about the importance of nursing.

The verb “betray” entered English in the 1200s with the sense of “to give up to, or place in the power of an enemy, by treachery or disloyalty,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted the word from Old French, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb tradere, meaning to deliver or hand over.

The sense of the word you’re asking about showed up in the late 16th century. The OED defines it this way: “To reveal or disclose against one’s will or intention the existence, identity, real character of (a person or thing desired to be kept secret).”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for the usage is from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598): “I do betray my selfe with blushing.”

And here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Ire, envie and despair … betraid Him counterfet.”

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When “ditto” was an original

Q: In The Pioneers, a book from Time-Life’s The Old West series, a pioneer woman uses “ditto” to mean something like “I agree with what you just said.” I thought the term had its origins in the Xerox copy machine, which created “dittos” of documents.

A: No, the word “ditto” had been around for hundreds of years before Xerox made its first copying machine in the mid-20th century. And Xerox wasn’t even responsible for the use of “ditto” in the copy-machine sense.

We wrote briefly in 2007 about the history of the word “ditto,” but your question gives us a chance to expand on our original post.

English borrowed the word “ditto” in the early 1600s from Italian, where detto (ditto in the Tuscan dialect) was the past participle of dire (to say).

At the time, the Oxford English Dictionary says, detto was used adjectivally in the sense of “aforesaid” to modify dates in Italian “to avoid repetition of the name of a month.”

In an Italian sentence, the OED explains, “December 22” and “December 26” might have been written as 22 di dicembre and 26 detto. And the phrase il detto libro would have meant “the said [or aforesaid] book.”

In the dictionary’s earliest English example of the usage, “ditto” appears in the date sense and means “in or of the month already named; said month.”

Here’s the citation, from a 1625 collection of travel writing by the English cleric Samuel Purchas: “The eight and twentieth ditto, I went … to the Generals Tent.”

This monthly use of “ditto” soon expanded in English to include other senses of “aforesaid” and “the same,” the OED says, such as in accounts and lists “in commercial, office, and colloquial language.”

Oxford’s first example of this expanded use of “ditto” is from The New World of Words (4th ed.), a 1678 dictionary by Edward Phillips:

Ditto (Italian, said) a word used much in Merchants Accompts, and relation of Foreign news; and signifieth the same place with that immediately beforementioned.”

(The OED notes that a 1696 edition of the dictionary changes “same place” to “the same Commodity or Place,” and that a 1706 edition adds “the aforesaid or the same” to the meaning of ditto in Italian.)

In the 1770s, the usage expanded further, with several other senses of “ditto” showing up.

In a 1775 example in the OED, the verbal phrase “to say ditto to” is used in the sense of “to acquiesce in or express agreement with what has been said by (another).”

The citation, from a biography of Edmund Burke by James Pryor, describes a Parliamentary candidate as using “the language of the counting-house” in support of remarks by Burke: “I say ditto to Mr. Burke.”

In an Aug. 12, 1776, letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, during the Revolutionary War, “ditto” is used as a noun meaning “a duplicate or copy; an exact resemblance; a similar thing,” according to the OED:

“Here they wait untill We grow very angry, about them, for Canteens, Camp Kettles, Blanketts, Tents, Shoes, Hose, Arms, Flints, and other Dittoes, while We are under a very critical Solicitude for our Army at New York, on Account of the Insufficiency of Men.”

(We’ve expanded on the Oxford citation to add context.)

The OED doesn’t have any examples of “ditto” used as a noun to mean a duplicate produced by a copying machine. However, it has several citations for the term used to mean a copying machine.

The dictionary describes “Ditto” (with a capital “D”) as “a proprietary name in the U.S. for a kind of duplicating machine that reproduces copies from a master.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from a July 1, 1919, notice in the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office: “Duplicator Manufacturing Company, Chicago, Ill. … Ditto … Claims use since Dec. 16, 1918.”

The Duplicator Manufacturing Company produced a copier called a Ditto that was somewhat similar to a mimeograph machine. The process involved creating a master copy that would be transferred to a hand-rotated printing cylinder.

The July 28, 1921, issue of the trade magazine Printers’ Ink reported that Duplicator, a Chicago company, “has found it expedient to change its corporate name to that of its advertised product, ‘Ditto.’ The corporate name is now Ditto, Incorporated.”

Although Ditto, Inc., is now defunct, a company called the Ink Technology Corp. has sold ink for the few ditto machines still functioning, according to a Jan. 16, 2007, article by Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune.

Finally, we should mention that the word “ditto” ultimately comes from the Latin dicere (to say). And as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes, dicere is the source of many other English words, including one we use a lot: “dictionary.”

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You who, Mrs. Goldberg?

Q: I’m a language arts teacher in Florida who loves your blog—what fun! Now, my question. In these sentences, does the verb agree with “you” or “who”? (1) “You who have/has been so kind, I thank you.” (2) “You who cut/cuts through the veil of this mortal coil, guide us.”

A: The pronoun “who” can be singular or plural in number, so the choice of verb depends on whether “who” refers to one person or more. Examples: “Who are they?” … “Who is she?”

When it’s preceded by a noun or another pronoun, as in the “you who” construction you’re asking about, “who” takes its number (singular or plural) from the antecedent.

(An antecedent, as you know, is a word, phrase, or clause that determines what a pronoun refers to.)

In this case, the verb agrees with the antecedent “you,” as in “you who see me standing before you,” or “you who remember her will recall,” or “this is for you, who were so kind.”

We ran a post a couple of years ago that touches on this subject. But in case you or your class would like to know more, here’s a technical explanation, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes “who” in such constructions as a relative pronoun (similar to “that”) being used to introduce “a clause defining or restricting the antecedent and thus completing the sense.”

As we mentioned, the verb in these constructions agrees with the antecedent. 

The OED cites this example, from an essay written in 1717 by Alexander Pope: “those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.” (By way of illustration, the singular version would be “he moves easiest who has learn’d to dance.”)

We’ll invent a couple more singular and plural examples:

In subject position: “He who betrays you is not to be trusted” … “They who betray you are not to be trusted.”

In object position: “Don’t trust him who betrays you” … “Don’t trust them who betray you.”

We hope this helps, and all the best to your students!

They’re too young to remember this, but your question reminds us of the old TV show The Goldbergs. Molly Goldberg and her neighbors used to holler “Yoo-hoo!” to get one another’s attention.

The expression became the catchphrase of The Goldbergs, which ran on radio from 1929 to 1946, and on TV from 1949 to 1956.

Although the show undoubtedly helped popularize “yoo-hoo,” the usage had been around before The Goldbergs went on the air.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: “Yoo-hoo (call).” Oxford describes the usage as “a call made to attract attention,” and notes that a similar nautical expression, “yoho,” showed up in the 1700s.

We’ll end with an example from the Jan. 2, 1926, issue of the New Yorker: Yoo-hoo! When did your school let out?”

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May I help who’s next?

Q: Regardless of which Starbucks I go to, employees taking orders say, “May I help who’s next?” This may not be technically wrong, but it sounds awful! I’d say “May I help the next customer?” or “May I take your order?” or “Are you ready to order?”

A:You aren’t the first person who’s been startled to hear “May [or “Can”] I help who’s next?”

People waiting in line at a coffee shops, bakeries, bookstores, banks, and ice cream parlors are hearing this query across the United States and in parts of England, according to linguists.

But strictly speaking, this construction isn’t incorrect. As the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has written on the Language Log, it’s merely outdated and no longer common in English usage.

That is, it’s no longer common except at Starbucks and other places where people wait in line. 

Pullum points out that what you’re hearing is “an isolated survival of an extinct construction type” that hasn’t been in common use for the last 50 to 100 years.

What’s happening is that “who” is being used as what linguists call a “fused relative.”

In this construction, the single word “who” represents (or is fused into) the relative noun phrase “the person that.”

In modern usage, though, the pronoun of choice here is “whoever,” not “who.” 

This particular use of “who,” Pullum speculates, “seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment”—and you heard an example of it at Starbuck’s.

Pullum says he began hearing reports about this usage around 1990, especially from the Upper Midwest. But now, he says, it’s being heard all across the continent (presumably wherever people wait in line to be helped).

And it’s not just American. The linguist Lynne Murphy, who teaches at the University of Sussex, reports on her blog that she’s heard “Can I help who’s next?” from clerks and shop assistants in the south of England. 

Pullum admits that this use of “who” is odd. He calls it “something that is almost grammatical and used to be fully grammatical.”

The use of “who” in this manner “has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years,” he says. The construction “survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.”

On the other hand, he says, “whoever” is “freely used” this way in contemporary English.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the relative use of “who” to mean “any one that” or “whoever” is now considered “archaic” or “literary.” The OED’s examples of the usage date from the 1200s to the late 1890s.

The dictionary includes two examples from Shakespeare, probably written about 1600: “Let it be who it is” (Julius Caesar), and “Who steales my purse, steals trash” (Othello). 

Later citations include this line from Robert Browning’s poem Balaustion’s Adventure (1871): “I passionately cried to who would hear.”

And this one is from Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892): “Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.”

So why are we hearing this old construction again? This is a legitimate question, but there’s no simple answer.

No one’s suggesting that baristas and bank tellers revived the construction after reading Shakespeare or Kipling. But, as Pullum says, this isn’t a matter of ignorance, either:

“It’s about the grammatical possibility of human-referring fused relatives,” he says, “and the complexity of the picture we face when a single language is in use by a billion people with dates of birth spread over about a century.”

It’s also, he adds, “about the odd survivals and exceptions that can lurk in the syntactic patterns found in everyday use.”

By the way, we once wrote a post about a similar, commonly heard expression, “May I help the following customer?”

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Big-time spenders

Q: My wife and I wonder where “last of the big-time spenders” comes from. Our parents (who were born in the 1910s and 1920s) used the expression for someone living high on the hog. Can you enlighten us?

A: In a literal sense, the catch phrase “last of the big (or big-time) spenders” means someone who spends lavish amounts of money. But it’s often used humorously or ironically to describe someone who’s stingy.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines “the last of the big spenders” as meaning “someone who spends a lot of money, often in a way that is designed to impress people.”

But, the dictionary adds, “This expression is often used in a humorous way about someone who spends a very small amount of money.”

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1992) describes “last of the big-time spenders” as a “playfully ironic” expression that “has flourished, in UK, since c. 1945.”

The reference book, edited by Paul Beale, further speculates that it was “very prob. adopted from US servicemen c. 1944 and has almost certainly arisen in US during the early 1930s—during the Great Depression.”

However, no citations are given that would back this up. While the expression may indeed date from World War II or before, the earliest published examples we’ve been able to find are from the late 1950s.

This one, for example, appeared in a profile of the actress Joy Lafleur that ran in a 1957 issue of the Canadian magazine Saturday Night: “If you offer to buy Joy a coffee, she’ll wisecrack, ‘No, I’m the last of the big-time spenders.’ ”

The expression has also been used as a song title. 

In late 1960, a comic song entitled “Last of the Big-Time Spenders,” by Cornbread and the Biscuits, appeared on Billboard magazine’s “Hot Hundred” chart.

More recently, the title was given to a poignant ballad written by Billy Joel and recorded on his album Streetlife Serenade (1974).

The shorter expression “big-time spender” is probably a conflation of two others—the adjective “big-time” and the noun phrase “big spender,” both of which appeared in the early 20th century.

The adjective “big-time,” meaning significant or impressive, may be a coinage from vaudeville days, when the major theater circuits were referred to as “the big time.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the adjectival usage is from 1914: “They buy and sell for all ‘big time’ acts and all ‘big time’ theaters.”

The show-biz newspaper Variety is often credited with this usage. A 1927 article in Vanity Fair, for example, said:

“For the vaudeville branch of the show business Variety coined such famous colloquialisms as ‘Big Time’ and ‘Small Time,’ differentiating the first rate circuits from the second rate.”

As for “big spender,” the earliest example we’ve found is from an article about the gambling industry that ran in the December 1907 issue of the journal the Scrap Book:

“With the typical big spender and plunger, it is either his way of taking his fun or he is well able to take care of himself. The real problem is the poor little piker.”

After this, uses of “big spender” became extremely common.

In 1909, for example, Moody’s Magazine said of the financier Henry Keep: “He was never a big spender according to the Wall Street interpretation of the term, and when he died in 1869, he left his family a fortune of over four million dollars.”

And in June 1910, according to Congressional records, an Illinois cattle farmer named Daniel L. Keleher testified before  a Senate committee on wages and commodities prices:

“I am not what might be called a big spender and have always made it a point to have something, thank God, for a rainy day.”

Today, many people associate the noun phrase “big spender” with the song of that title, in the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.

Here are a couple of stanzas from the song, which was a hit record for Peggy Lee in 1966 and for Shirley Bassey in 1967:

The minute you walked in the joint
I could see you were a man of distinction,
a real big spender.
Good looking, so refined,
Say, wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

So let me get right to the point.
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.
Hey, big spender, spend
A little time with me.

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Like to read? Or like reading?

Q: Is there a reason why some verbs are followed by gerunds and some by infinitives?  I’ve seen lists created to help non-native speakers, but I haven’t seen a rule that explains what’s going on.

A: In the kind of construction you’re referring to, when a verb has an action as its object, that action can be expressed either as a gerund (an “-ing” word like “skating”) or as “to” plus an infinitive (“to skate”).

Some verbs, like “adore,” use only gerunds in such a situation: “She adores skating.” Others, like “wish,” use only “to”-infinitives: “She wishes to skate.”

And still other verbs, like “prefer,” can use either one: “She prefers skating” … “She prefers to skate.”

So for many verbs there’s a division of labor between the gerunds and the infinitives. But for other verbs, either one is possible.

This state of affairs has evolved over time, and native speakers of English don’t have to stop and think about which to choose—gerund or infinitive. It’s largely a problem for foreign learners.

Anyone who’s puzzled can consult one of the many verb lists on the Internet, but those merely tell which complement goes with which verb—they don’t say why.

There’s a good reason for this. In fact, there’s no easy way to explain why some verbs are followed by gerunds, some by “to”-infinitives, and some by either one (but often with different meanings).

A great many academic linguists have written about this subject, but no one, to our knowledge, has come up with a simple formula—perhaps because no simple formula is possible.

For purposes of experiment, let’s make up a test. We’ll look at two different sets of verbs and the typical object (gerund or infinitive) that goes with them.

● verbs followed by a gerund: “She enjoys/practices/finishes/resumes skating.”

● verbs followed by a “to”-infinitive: “She decides/prepares/plans/intends to skate.” 

Is there a pattern here that would explain why some verbs go one way and some another? We’ve come across three general views.

(1) Some linguists suggest that the gerund constructions refer to actions that are habitual or have happened in the past, while “to”-infinitives are about potential or future actions.

(2) Others suggest that gerunds represent actions that are “real” or fulfilled, while infinitives represent actions that are hypothetical or yet to come.

(3) Still others see gerund constructions as conveying sensation or actual experience, while infinitive constructions convey volition—that is, a general inclination toward something.

All three make good points, but taken together what do they add up to? Perhaps that gerunds often look back (to an action that’s completed or in progress), while “to”-infinitives tend to look ahead—literally “to” or toward something.

Yet even that statement has holes in it. For example, verbs like “contemplate,” “recommend,” and “advise” all take gerunds and yet refer to unfulfilled actions. You can see what a slippery eel we’re trying to grasp here. 

And how to explain verbs that go either way?

With some of these verbs, the choice of gerund versus infinitive can make little or no difference in meaning: “She likes skating” versus “She likes to skate.”

But with some other two-way verbs, the choice can make a marked difference.

The verb “try” is a good example of the latter. It can take both complements: “He tried skating” … “He tried to skate.” But the meanings are different. The first refers to skating in general, while the second refers to a particular act.

Or consider the verb “stop”—”I stopped thinking” means just the opposite of “I stopped to think.”

The verb “remember” is another interesting example. “He remembers washing” is very different from “He remembers to wash.” In the first, he recalls an occasion when he washed (in the past); in the second, he’s reminded to perform the act (in the present or near future).

This answer is a bit rambling, but you can perhaps get the drift. This is a very broad and complicated subject, one that many linguists of our time (and earlier) have wrestled with.

As Randolph Quirk wrote in The Linguist and the English Language (1974): “There ought to be a big award for anyone who can describe exactly what makes him say ‘I started to work’ on one occasion and ‘I started working’ on another.”

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Toilet training

Q: I found your post about the use of “head” for toilet very illuminating, although I was surprised by the euphemistic use of “lavatory,” probably derived from a Latin word for “wash,” rather than the more precise “crapper,” which, as I recall, derives from the name of the person who invented the first flush toilet.

A: We wouldn’t describe “lavatory” as a euphemism, like “powder room” or “restroom” or “washroom.” It’s an old word that’s been around since the 14th century, and its modern sense of a room with a toilet can be traced to the 17th century.

You’re right, though, that it’s derived from a Latin word (lavare, to wash). We discussed “lavatory” a couple of years ago in an item about another word from the same Latin source, “lavabo,” a washbasin or lavatory.

The word “lavatory” is more common in the UK than the US, where a room with a toilet is usually referred to as a “bathroom,” a usage that might be described as a euphemism when the room doesn’t have a bath or shower.

As for “crapper,” we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it’s a notorious myth that the Victorian plumbing magnate Thomas Crapper was responsible for the words “crap” and “crapper,” or for the invention of the flush toilet.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we explain that the word “crap” has been used to mean debris since the 1400s, and “crapping” has meant defecating at least as far back as 1846, when Thomas Crapper was barely out of diapers.

In fact, there’s some evidence, though not conclusive, that “crapping” has meant defecating since the 1600s.

“Another widespread legend about Crapper is that he invented the flush toilet,” we write in Origins. “This myth was helped along by a comic biography, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969), by the British humorist Wallace Reyburn.”

In fact, the flush toilet was around well before Crapper was born. He did, however, help popularize it, and he patented some toilet-related inventions, not all of them improvements.

“One in particular,” we write, “a spring-loaded toilet seat, was nicknamed the ‘bottom-slapper’ for its inclination to paddle Victorian users as they rose.”

A final myth is that Thomas Crapper’s name was the source of the word “crapper,” slang for the device itself.

One story has it that American doughboys in England during World War I brought back the usage after seeing the trade name “Crapper” on British toilet bowls.

“But in fact the word was already in use in 1911, when it meant a lavatory or bathroom and not the fixture itself,” we say in Origins. “The apparatus wasn’t referred to as a ‘crapper’ until 1932, long after the war.”

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Steady, the Buffs!

Q: I watch the PBS series Midsomer Murders. In a recent episode, a character appears who sometimes exclaims, “Steady, the Buffs” and “Stiffen the Prussian Guard.” I tried to find their source, with little luck. They sound like something in a novel about the Napoleonic Wars, or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What do you know about them?

A: The first of those expressions originated in the British military and the second probably did, though its origins are a lot more obscure.

Later, as you’ve discovered, they found their way into civilian usage, minus their military flavor.  

We’ll examine the less obscure one first. “Steady, the Buffs!” means “Keep calm!” or “Steady on, boys!” and can be traced to the late 19th century.  

The “Buffs” in the phrase is a reference to a famous British Army unit, the Third Regiment of Foot. The regiment, founded in 1572, was nicknamed “the Buffs” in the early 18th century because of the colors of its uniforms.

“The Buffs” was officially made part of the regiment’s name by royal warrant in the 1750s, according to several histories we consulted. (It’s now the East Kent Regiment.)

The earliest published use of “Steady, the Buffs!” we’ve found is from a history of the regiment that appeared in the journal Notes and Queries in 1876.

First, the writer quotes an earlier history, published in 1836, which says: “The men’s coats were lined and faced with buff; they also wore buff waistcoats, buff breeches, and buff stockings, and were emphatically styled ‘The Buffs.’ ”

The writer then goes on to add: “ ‘Steady, The Buffs,’ a not unfamiliar caution to many an English soldier.”

The source of that “not unfamiliar caution” is hard to pin down.

By some accounts, an adjutant shouted the expression to a battalion of the Buffs while it was on parade in Malta in 1858.

By other accounts, an officer cried, “Steady, The Buffs!” as the regiment was going into battle abroad. We haven’t been able to confirm either story.

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases calls it an expression “of self admonition or self-adjuration or self-encouragement” that originated in the military. Its origin? Partridge says only that it comes “from an incident in the history of the East Kent Regiment.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression is a reference to the army regiment and means “hold on! keep calm! be careful!” No origin is given.

However it originated, the expression followed the regiment back home to Britain and became a popular catchphrase.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Rudyard Kipling’s The Story of the Gadsbys (1888), but we’ve found a civilian usage that’s at least two years older.

An angler named Samuel Harwood used it in his “Thames Reminiscences,” which appeared in an April 1886 issue of Fishing, a journal published in London:

“He turned off to the left, and I followed him as well as I could. Squish—squash! This was a sort of exercise in which I did not excel. Oh, why had I not brought my goloshes? But steady, the Buffs, what had become of my leg! Down a drain, or something, by all that was ludricrous. I pulled it out as fast as I could, but only to find I was minus a shoe.”

We also found this example, from an October 1899 issue of the Sketch: “ ‘Good the Guards!’ is becoming a military catchword, just as ‘Steady the Buffs’ and half-a-dozen other short sentences of the kind are.”

A similar but unrelated expression, “stand buff,” means “to stand firm, not to flinch; to endure,” according to the OED.

Oxford’s earliest published example of “stand buff” comes from Samuel Butler’s poem Hudibras’s Epitaph, written sometime before 1679: “For the good old cause stood buff  / ’Gainst many a bitter kick and cuff.”

The “buff” in this phrase is an old noun, dating back to the 1400s, meaning “a blow, stroke, buffet,” the OED says. “Buff” and “counterbuff,” the dictionary adds, “seem to have been technical terms in fencing or pugilism.”

Now, let’s look at the more obscure of the two expressions you asked about—“Stiffen the Prussian Guard (or Guards).”

Other than a brief mention here or there on an Internet discussion group, sightings of this expression are rare.

We found an example in White City (2007), a memoir by the British writer Donald James Wheal of his childhood in World War II-era London.

In this passage, Wheal’s father is speaking: “ ‘Stiffen the Prussian Guards!’ he exploded—his invariable comment at moments of high drama. ‘They’ve given you a scholarship!’ ”

A British review of Wheal’s book, from a 2007 issue of the Telegraph, says that “he writes affectionately of both his background and his parents, particularly his plumber-cum-bookie dad whose only two weaknesses were shouting ‘Stiffen the Prussian Guards!’ at every opportunity and wanting the best for his son.”

What does the phrase mean? Our best guess is that Wheal’s father was using an expression from an earlier era, World War I, and that it originally meant something like “Kill the Germans!”

In turn-of-the-century slang, to “stiffen” was to kill or murder—that is, to make a corpse of—according to the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

Green’s has examples of this use of “stiffen” (as in “Stiffen the brute!”) dating from the 1890s. The OED has a single example, from an 1888 issue of the Daily News in London: “Mr. Burgess threatened to blow my brains out and to ‘stiffen’ me.”

The rest of the phrase is probably a reference to an elite military unit in Prussia and later Germany from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s.

So in the mouth of a British soldier, “Stiffen the Prussian Guard (or Guards)!” would have been a rousing call to arms.

Donald James Wheal’s parents courted in the 1920s and married in the ’30s, so his father would have remembered World War I and the slang that was in the air back then.

However, he was probably using the expression loosely as an expression of surprise or amazement, much like “I’ll be damned!” or “Blow me down!”  or “I’ll be a son of a gun!”

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Ante meridiem or antemeridian?

Q: My child got back a spelling test in which she was marked wrong for writing “ante meridiem” as the full name of the abbreviation “AM.” The teacher’s spelling list had it as “antemeridian.” Is this some variant I’m unaware of?

A: Your child’s paper should not have been marked wrong.

In fact, “ante meridiem” and “antemeridian” are two different terms. Neither of them is seen much, though, since the first is rarely written out and the second is rarely used at all.

The two-word “ante meridiem” is the term that’s abbreviated as “AM” or “a.m.” Like its counterpart, “post meridiem,” it’s seldom written out.

The Oxford English Dictionary classifies “ante meridiem” as an adverb meaning “before midday; applied to the hours between midnight and the following noon.”

Standard dictionaries agree that the full phrase is uncommon. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “ante meridiem” is “used chiefly in the abbreviated form to specify the hour: 10:30 AM.”

The term, first recorded in English in 1563, is from Latin: ante (before) and meridiem (midday).

The other word, “antemeridian,” is labeled in the OED as a “rare” adjective meaning “of or belonging to the forenoon or ‘morning.’ ”

The word, Oxford says, was derived from the Latin adjective antemeridianus (“of the forenoon”), which in turn comes from ante meridiem

Some standard dictionaries (Longman and Macmillan, for example) don’t have entries for “antemeridian.”

One that does, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, gives this example of its usage: “antemeridian chores.” Another, Webster’s New World, has “an antemeridian repast.”

The OED has only one example for the use of “antemeridian” in a sentence, from an 1865 article in the Daily Telegraph of London: “Every[one] had come out in attire that was decidedly ante-meridian.”

The spelling that’s clearly a mistake today is “ante meridian.” It’s either “ante meridiem” or (less likely) “antemeridian.”

Under its entry for “a.m.” and “p.m.,” Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has this to say: “Some writers, when using the full phrases, mistake meridiem for meridian.”

If you can’t remember which is which, go to the dictionary. You’ll usually find at least one of them.

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Why is a ship’s toilet a head?

Q: Your article about “masthead” raises an interesting question: how about the naval term “head” as a place for defecation?

A: When the word “head” was first used in a nautical sense back in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled heafod in Old English), it referred to a ship’s figurehead.

By the 1400s, the term “head” or “boat head” was being used to refer to the front or bow of a ship, boat, or other vessel, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So how did the word “head” come to mean a toilet on a ship? You’ve probably figured that out by now. The term referred to a lavatory in the bow of a vessel.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from A Cruising Voyage Round the World, a 1712 book by the English sea captain Woodes Rogers: “He begg’d to go into the Head to ease himself.”

And here’s a citation from The Adventures of Roderick Random, a 1748 novel by Tobias Smollett: “The madman … took an opportunity, while the centinel attended him at the head, to leap over-board.”

The most recent example of the usage in the OED is from The Last Heathen (2004), Charles Montgomery’s memoir about a trip to Melanesia to see the area visited by his missionary great-grandfather in the 19th century:

“The floor was a slippery paste of oil, spit, crushed insects, and a disturbing slurry that seeped from the ship’s head.”

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Kick the can down the road

Q: The use of “kick the can” now in vogue among pundits and politicians has nothing to do with the childhood game I played 60 years ago. How did kicking the can “down the road” become such a common cliché?

A: The expression “kick the can down the road,” meaning to procrastinate or put off solving a problem until later, isn’t quite as new as you may think.

It first showed up in the 1980s, according to a search of newspaper and literary databases, though of course it’s not nearly as old as the game kick-the-can, which has been mentioned in print since the late 1800s.

In the game, a variation of hide-and-seek, the kid chosen to be “it” tags, or captures, players and puts them in a holding area near the can.

The game is over when “it” captures all the other children. But if one of the free players sneaks up and kicks the can, the captured children are released.

We’ve found several 19th-century mentions of the game. Here’s one from The Story of Aaron, an 1896 children’s book by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories:

“ ‘Oh, come and help us, Drusilla!’ cried Sweetest Susan, as gleefully as if she were playing hide-the-switch, or kick-the-can.”

(In hide-the-switch, another children’s game, the child who finds the switch is allowed to hit one of the players with it.)

The earliest example we could find for the expression “kick the can down the road” is from an Associated Press article that ran on Feb. 26, 1985, in the Galveston (TX) Daily News, the Gettysburg (PA) Times, and other newspapers:

“Whether or not the reason for the delay is exclusively for technical reasons, this official said the delay ‘kicks the can down the road’ in terms of making it a less pressing problem with the Soviets.”

William Safire, commenting on the usage in a 1988 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, suggests that the children’s game inspired the expression:

“What a superb use of metaphor. Who has not, as a kid, played kick-the-can, or in less organized fashion kicked a can or other nonbiodegradable container ahead?”

We haven’t found any evidence proving that the game kick-the-can is the source of the expression “kick the can down the road.” But we’ve seen some evidence that suggests a connection.

For example, Twilight Zone: The Movie, which appeared in 1983 shortly before the expression showed up in print, includes a “Kick the Can” segment in which the game helps transform residents at a retirement home into their youthful selves.

We didn’t see the movie, but the 1959 TV segment on which it was based begins with kids kicking a can around in an aimless way (or, to use Safire’s phrase, “in less organized fashion”) before playing the actual game.

Did that aimlessness suggest the procrastinating sense of “kick the can down the road”? Perhaps, but another explanation may lie in the etymology of the verb “kick.”

Since the early 1800s, the verb phrases “kick about” and “kick around” have meant “to walk or wander about; to go from place to place, esp. aimlessly,” according to the OED. The dictionary describes the usage as a colloquialism that originated in the US.

The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from A New Home—Who’ll Follow, an 1839 book by the American writer Caroline Matilda Kirkland: “We heard that he was better, and would be able to ‘kick around’ pretty soon.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has 20th-century examples of a similar expression, “kick it around,” which it defines as to carouse.

Here’s the earliest citation, from Ceiling Zero, a 1936 Howard Hawks film starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien: “You gotta learn to kick it around. Look at Dizzy—he’s having a great time.”

We’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about this can-kicking business, but there’s one other way of looking at the relationship between the game kick-the-can and the expression “kick the can down the road.”

In kick-the-can, the kicking frees the captured children and delays a resolution of the game, which could loosely be described as putting off a solution to a problem.

Sorry we can’t be more definite about this, but we’ve given you a few ideas to kick around.

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When a woman was a WOW!

Q: As a civilian conducting research for the US military in Afghanistan, I came across a reference to the Women Ordnance Workers during World War II. The women were referred to by the acronym “WOW,” which led me to your post about the origins of the exclamation “Wow!” Interested?

A: As we said in that 2012 post, the interjection “wow” first showed up in the early 1500s, but it was primarily used at that time in Scottish English.

By the late 1800s, though, the exclamation was in general use among English speakers. Now, as you know, it’s chiefly used to express astonishment or admiration.

In other words, the usage was around well before World War II. But the Women Ordnance Workers were indeed referred to as “WOWs,” and the acronym was sometimes followed by an exclamation point.

Wartime posters celebrating these women, who worked in war plants making weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies, clearly played on the similarity between the acronym “WOW” and the exclamation “Wow!”

One poster, featuring a Woman Ordnance Worker and a GI in combat, reads: “THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND” / IS STILL BEHIND HIM / She’s a WOW

Another example, a poster showing a soldier holding a photo of his girlfriend, reads: “My girl’s a WOW”

The best-known Woman Ordnance Worker was the iconic Rosie the Riveter—actually, various Rosies were featured in song, on the air, and in print.

Here’s the beginning of the 1942 song “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb:

All the day long, whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie, brrrrrrrrrrr, the riveter
.

(The “brrrrrrrrrrr” in the lyrics, as you’ve probably guessed, is the sound of a rivet gun.)

Many people think of Rosie when they see the civilian war worker in J. Howard Miller’s 1943 “We Can Do It!” poster for Westinghouse.

However, the worker in the poster, who’s wearing the red-and-white head scarf of the Women Ordnance Workers, wasn’t referred to as “Rosie the Riveter” during the war years.

The most widely seen illustration of a WOW during the war was probably Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” cover on the May 29, 1943, issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

The picture shows a muscular woman with a rivet gun resting on her lap as she eats a sandwich during her lunch break.

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