The Grammarphobia Blog

December nine: A cardinal sin?

Q: I’m noticing that TV and radio hosts are getting away from using ordinal numbers for dates. For example, “It’s Thursday, October twenty” instead of “It’s Thursday, October twentieth.” Would you have any thoughts as to why?

A: In speech, people normally use an ordinal number for a date, “October twentieth” or “October the twentieth,” rather than the cardinal version, “October twenty.”

(As we’ve written before on the blog, the ordinal numbers say in what order, like “third,” “sixth,” and 20th. The cardinal numbers say how many, like “three,” “six,” and “20.”)

Although “October twenty” isn’t the form generally heard in speech, it’s not incorrect. This usage got your attention not because it’s wrong but because it’s not the norm.

So why do broadcasters sometimes use it? We can only guess. Perhaps they’re aiming for a more clipped delivery. Or perhaps they’re reading exactly what they see on a script or teleprompter. In writing, dates are usually given in cardinals.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has these comments about the use of dates in writing and in speech:

“In writing, the day and year are normally given in figures.” The examples given illustrate American usage (“June 2, 1980, June 2nd, 1980”) as well as British (“2 June 1980, 2nd June 1980”). The authors add, “In recent times the versions  … with cardinal numbers have become increasingly favored over those with ordinals.”

“The most usual way of giving dates in speech,” the Cambridge Grammar continues, is illustrated by examples like “the second of June, nineteen eighty” and “June the second, nineteen eighty.” (Note the ordinal “second.”)

But, the authors continue, “shorter versions matching the written forms … are also found.” The example given here is “two June nineteen eighty.” (Note the cardinal “two.”)

So while the cardinal form isn’t generally used in speech, it does crop up.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2013 about the use of ordinal numbers in street names.

As we explain, “ordinal numbers are normally used in writing street names, and they’re always used in speech. We never say, for example, ‘I live on Seventy-Two Street,’ or ‘The store used to be on Nine Avenue.’ In speech, we use ‘Seventy-Second Street’ and ‘Ninth Avenue.’ ”

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How the C-section got its name

Q: If Julius Caesar wasn’t delivered by cesarean section, as I’ve read, how did the medical procedure get its name?

A: Let’s begin with the old story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean section, an urban legend that we discuss in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. (The usual spelling is “cesarean” in the US and “caesarean” in the UK.)

This fiction can be traced back to one sentence in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, a 37-volume work on astronomy, botany, architecture, human physiology, and many other subjects. It was written in the first century.

In discussing human birth, the Roman naturalist says it’s “contrary to nature for children to come into the world with the feet first.”

To make his case, Pliny cites the emperor Nero, who was born with his feet first and “proved himself, throughout the whole of his reign, the enemy of the human race.”

If such children are delivered surgically, he adds, they “are evidently born under more favorable auspices.”

In passing, he notes that the first of the Caesars “was so named, from his having been cut from his mother’s womb (a caeso matris utero).” The Latin caeso comes from caedere, to cut.

As we explain in Origins, Pliny “was plainly referring to the first of the many Caesars who preceded the great emperor. But over the centuries a lot of readers thought the first Caesar was a reference to the emperor himself. Ergo, a myth was born!”

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 12 or 13 in the year 100 or possibly 102 BC. The exact date is uncertain. However, his mother, Aurelia, lived long into her son’s adulthood, which would have been impossible if she’d delivered him by cesarean.

“In ancient times, surgical deliveries were performed only on women who were dead or dying,” we write in Origins. “Back then, the child’s survival was barely possible after such an operation, but not the unfortunate mother’s.”

The first documented case of a mother’s surviving a cesarean apparently took place in Prague on Feb. 25, 1337, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Beatrice of Bourbon, second wife of the King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg, survived a cesarean in giving birth to her only child, Duke Wenceslaus I, according to archival documents found by Czech researchers.

As for the cognomen “Caesar” (a cognomen is the last of a Roman citizen’s three names), its origin is still in dispute. Did it have anything to do with surgery?

It could be that the original Caesar was born surgically and that inspired the cognomen, as Pliny wrote, but several other theories have been proposed.

One of the more interesting comes from a Roman grammarian, Sextus Pompeius Festus, who believed the name came from the Latin word caesaries, or hair, and suggested the first Caesar was born with a full head of hair.

Be that as it may, the author of the earliest example for the term “cesarean section” in the OED apparently based the English usage on Pliny’s account of the surgical birth of the first Caesar.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Mikrokosmographia, a 1615 medical treatise by Helkiah Crooke, the court physician of King James I:

“Concerning this Cæsarian section, Franciscus Rossetus the French Kings Physitian hath set foorth an elegant Booke so beautified with Histories and abounding with good arguments.” (We’ve expanded the citation to put it in context.)

Elsewhere in the treatise, Crooke cites Pliny and says the birth of the first Caesar was by “the cutting of the mothers wombe, from whence the Caesars had their names.”

Finally, we should mention that Julius bears no responsibility for Caesar salad. As we point out in Origins, the king of salads was invented in 1924 by Caesar Cardini, a chef and restaurateur in Tijuana, Mexico.

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Off-putting and down-putting

Q: People who are put off by a remark say it’s “off-putting.” Can a put-down be described as “down-putting”?

A: Would you believe that the word “off-putting” is more than 600 years old? Honest.

In the 1300s, “off-putting” was a noun meaning “the action of reproving,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that “off-putting” became the adjective we know today.

We’ll begin at the beginning.

The OED’s earliest example for the noun (written “of putting” in Middle English) comes from this dramatic passage in the Polychronicon, a historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and translated later in the century by John de Trevisa:

“Þanne he [Sergius] hym self occupiede þe poperiche. And in wreche of his of puttynge he made hem take up Formosus þe pope out of his grave, and smyte of his heed, and þrewe þe body into Tyber.” (“Then Sergius himself occupied the papacy. And in vengeance for the off-putting of Formosus, he made them take the late pope out of his grave, and cut off his head, and throw the body into the Tiber.”)

That meaning of the noun—a reproval or a rebuke, you might say a “putdown”—is now rare, the OED says.

Also rare is this this wider meaning, which the dictionary says appeared in the late 1400s: “The action or an act of delaying, a postponement, procrastination; a fobbing off, an evasion.”

This sense of the word was in use in Scottish English from the late 1400s until modern times, according to Oxford citations. This 1833 example from Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal has a distinct Scottish flavor: “Weel, mistress, … this off-putting will do nae langer.”

Today we almost never find “off-putting” used as a noun. In the sense of a delay or an evasion, English speakers are likely to use “this putting off” instead of “this off-putting.”

As an adjective, “off-putting” originally meant procrastinating or delaying, a sense chiefly used in Scottish English and now rare, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from 1808, when a Scottish dictionary said the term meant “delaying, trifling, dilatory.” As late as 1931, the Scottish National Dictionary gave this lively example: “Gan’ away and dae yer work, ye affputting slut.”

As we said above, the adjective “off-putting” didn’t take on its modern sense until the mid-20th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “that puts one off; unpleasant, disconcerting, repellent.”

The term is derived, the OED says, from the phrasal verb “to put off,” which since the late 1300s has meant not only to defer or postpone but also to drive away or repel.

Oxford’s earliest example of “off-putting” in its modern sense is from a 1930s novel: “Your face isn’t in the least off-putting, except when you’re cross.” (From Illyrian Spring, 1935, by Mary Dolling, writing under the name Ann Bridge.)

The dictionary has these among its other examples:

“‘Shut up about Ronald,’ Tim said. ‘It’s jolly off-putting.’ ” (From Muriel Spark’s novel Bachelors, 1960.)

“The only off-putting factor is the price.” (From the Classical Review, 1986.)

“Kyle finds it a little offputting, especially when he’s only wearing his boxers.” (From Cult Times, February 2001.)

You ask whether “down-putting” is similarly becoming an adjective, perhaps derived from the phrasal verb “to put down” or from the noun “put-down,” which dates from the 1930s.

So far, no. The only examples of “down-putting” we’ve found used adjectivally are humorous uses online.

The OED has two lone examples of “down-putting,” but both are nouns and very old.

One is dated circa 1440 and uses “down-putting” in the sense of “abasing”: “Downe puttyng and a-lowenge of his euencristen” (“Down-putting and lowering of his fellow Christian”).

The other is from circa 1556 and uses the noun to mean “downfall): “To them who were the occasion of his down-putting.”

But the OED does have examples of “put-down” used as an adjective “intended to humiliate or put a person down.” The earliest is from a 1973 issue of the New York Times: “He [Trudeau] doesn’t rise to bait—with choice epithets and that put-down Gallic shrug of his.”

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You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

Q: A post about the word “rat” as it relates to despicable, disloyal, or deceitful people would be interesting, don’t you think?

A: When “rat” showed up in Old English (as ræt) it meant the rodent that we’re all familiar with. It didn’t refer to human rats until hundreds of years later. Here’s the story.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English translation (“Raturus, ræt”) in the Antwerp-London Glossaries, a collection of 11th-century manuscripts derived from earlier texts.

Similar words for the rodent appeared in other Germanic languages (Old Saxon ratta, Old Swedish rotta, Old High German rato, etc.), as well as in medieval Latin and Romance languages.

“The word was probably spread with the reintroduction of rats to Northern Europe during the Viking Age,” the OED notes. (The Norse seafarers raided and traded from the 8th to the 11th centuries.)

The relationship between the Germanic and Latin terms for “rat” is murky. As the OED explains, “It is uncertain whether the Latin and Romance words are cognate with the Germanic words, or whether they were borrowed from Germanic, or vice versa.” (Cognates are related linguistically.)

The dictionary notes that there’s no written evidence for any of the Latin or Romance words “before the end of the first millennium.”

The word’s “ultimate origin is uncertain,” the OED says, but it offers a creepy suggestion: the usage is “perhaps imitative of the sound of gnawing.”

English speakers began using the word “rat” for people in the 16th century, at first for someone who was dishonest, contemptible, or worthless, especially in a romantic relationship.

The first example in the OED is from A Chronicle of All the Noble Emperours of the Romaines (1571), by Richard Reynolds:

“He was a scourge to the Enuches, and lasciuious Courtiars, he called them the moathes and rattes of Princes Courtes.” (“Moath” was used figuratively for a person dangerously drawn to temptation, as a moth to a flame.)

In the 17th century, a “rat” came to mean a disorderly person—at first a rowdy arrested for drunkenness, and later any disruptive or troublesome person.

The OED has a questionable citation from 1607. The first definite example for the new sense is from Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (1662), an anonymous biography of a cutpurse, or pickpocket:

“A Shoomaker … being then Constable … was pleased for all my faire Words and Account to send me to the Counter for a Rat.” (A “counter” was a prison attached to a court. We’ve expanded the Oxford citation to add context.)

In the 18th century, according to the OED, “rat” took on the political sense of someone “who deserts his or her party, side, or cause; a person who puts personal considerations before political principles, departs radically from the official party line, or adopts the political beliefs of a rival party.”

The dictionary attributes this figurative sense of the word to “the belief that rats leave a ship about to sink or a house about to fall down.”

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from “A Dialogue Between X, Y, and Z,” by Benjamin Franklin, published in the Dec. 18, 1755, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette:

“Z. For my Part, I am no Coward; but hang me if I’ll fight to save the Quakers. X. That is to say, you won’t pump Ship, because ’twill save the Rats,—as well as yourself.”

In the early 19th century, “rat” adopted the slang sense of a “person who gives information, esp. of an incriminating nature, on another person to the police or other authority, an informer.”

The OED’s first example is from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), an epistolary novel in verse, by Thomas Moore: “Give me the useful peaching Rat; / Not things as mute as Punch, when bought.”

(Around this same time, “stool pigeon” also became a slang term for an informer, as we wrote in 2008.)

Soon afterward, “rat” also came to mean a “person who refuses to strike, or takes the place of a striking worker” as well as “a non-union worker” or “a person who works for lower wages than the usual or trade union rate.”

Here’s an example from the March 6, 1824, issue of the Microscope, a weekly in Albany, NY: “Loren … Webster, chief ink-dauber in a rat-printing office at the west. Ralph Walby, nothing at all but a rat-printer.”

We should mention here that James Cagney never used the exact phrase “you dirty rat” despite all the Cagney imitators using it on YouTube. The closest he came was “that dirty, double-crossing rat” in Blonde Crazy (1931) and “you dirty, yellow-bellied rat” in Taxi! (1932).

There are several other less common meanings of “rat” in the human sense, but we’ll skip them and end this post with the old expression “to smell a rat”—that is, to suspect deception or foul play.

The first OED citation is from The Image of Ipocrysy, a poem by John Skelton from around 1540: “Yf they smell a ratt, / They grisely chide and chatt.”

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Fractious or fractured?

Q: A recent edition of The Hill described President-elect Trump’s relationship with the New York Times as “fractious.” Isn’t “fractured” the right word in this instance?

A: We wouldn’t use either term to describe the President-elect’s complicated relationship with the New York Times, though “fractious” would be better than “fractured” in our opinion.

“Fractious” usually describes a troublesome, unruly, or irritable person or group of people, and it’s often used to characterize cranky or irritable children, according to standard dictionaries.

It’s true that “fractious” is sometimes used in reference to a difficult relationship, and a search of news databases suggests this is becoming more common. But we’d prefer a term without the unruly and childish connotations—perhaps “contentious,” “quarrelsome,” or even “rocky.”

As for the use of “fractured” here, it would describe a broken relationship, not a difficult one. Although the Trump-Times relationship has had its ups and downs, it’s not broken—at least not yet! In fact, the President-elect’s recent meeting with Times editors and reporters seems to have been more of an up than a down in the relationship.

Interestingly, both “fractious” and “fractured” are ultimately derived from the same classical Latin verb, frangĕre (“to break or shatter”), which has also given English such words as “fragile,” “frail,” and “fraction.”

When the adjective “fractured” showed up in the early 1600s, it was used to describe a broken bone. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Surgions Mate, John Woodall’s 1617 reference book for naval surgeons: “Nothing cureth a fractured boane so much as rest.”

The OED‘s next citation, from a poem by William Shenstone written about 1763, uses the term to describe a broken chair: “Behold his chair, whose fractur’d seat infirm / An aged cushion hides.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for “fractured” used to describe a broken relationship, but we’ve found many dating from the late 1960s, including one from a 1972 issue of the Presbyterian Journal about “the healing of the fractured relationship between God and man.”

When “fractious” showed up in the early 1700s, it meant stubborn or unruly. The earliest example in the OED is from A New Voyage Round the World, a 1725 novel that the dictionary attributes to Daniel Defoe, though some scholars question that attribution: “Having had an Account how Mutinous and Fractious they had been.”

The next citation is from The Capuchin, a play written around 1777 by the British dramatist Samuel Foote: “The young slut is so headstrong and fractious.”

The OED says the meaning of “fractious” is “now chiefly, cross, fretful, peevish; esp. of children,” and gives this example from The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole, an 1848 novel by the English writer Albert Richard Smith: “Baby would be getting so very fractious.”

The dictionary doesn’t have an examples for “fractious” used to modify “relationship,” though we’ve found a few hundred in books published since the 1950s.

The earliest we’ve seen, from Labor, Free and Slave, a 1955 book by Bernard Mandel, refers to “the complicated and often fractious relationship between the antislavery campaign and the mid-nineteenth-century labor movement.”

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Grass widow or grace widow?

Q: Lately, I’ve noticed the use of “grace widow” for a woman living in grace after being abandoned by her husband. Thinking it may be related to “grass widow,” I checked some non-scholarly sources online. Now I’m more confused than ever. Can you lexical experts clear things up?

A: The term “grass widow” has gone through a lot of changes in its 500-year history. At one time it even inspired a variant spelling, “grace widow,” which took on a life of its own.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. Neither has ever meant an actual widow—that is, a woman whose husband is dead, a term we wrote about in 2010.

We’ll take a look first at “grass widow,” which now generally means a woman whose husband is temporarily away or a woman who’s divorced.

The phrase made its debut in English writing in the 16th century, several hundred years before “grace widow” appeared on the scene.

In the 1500s, a “grass widow” was not a respectable woman. The term meant “an unmarried woman who has cohabited with one or more men,” or “a discarded mistress,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It also meant an unmarried mother, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The term was first recorded, the OED says, in a 1529 religious treatise by Thomas More, who wrote: “For then had wyuys [wives] ben in his [St. Paul’s] time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now.”

These later OED citations show that “grass widows” were often single mothers:

“The 31 day was buri’d Marie the daughtr of Elizabeth London graswidow.” (From town records of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, 1582.)

“A Grass-Widow, one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, yet has Children.” (From a slang collection, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1699.)

But what was the significance of “grass” in the phrase? It had nothing to do with “widow’s weeds”—that is mourning clothes. And in its original sense “grass widow” had no connection with notions of being “turned out to grass.”

In fact, the entire term “grass widow” may have come down to us from Germanic languages. The OED notes comparable words with the same meaning in Middle Low German (graswedewe), Dutch (grasweduwe), Swedish (gräsenka), and Danish (græsenke), as well as the German strohwittwe, literally “straw-widow.” (Interestingly, there’s an equivalent term in French, veuve de paille, “straw widow.”)

“The etymological notion is obscure,” the OED says. “It has been suggested,” the dictionary adds, that words for grass and straw “may have been used with opposition to bed.” So a “grass widow” might provide a roll in the hay, so to speak—an illicit sexual tryst, not necessarily in a bed.

In a usage note, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this explanation: “The grass in grass widow seems to have originally made reference to the makeshift bed of grass or hay (as opposed to a real bed with a mattress and sheets) on which a woman might lie with her lover before he rises and abandons her—leaving her a widow, so to speak, in the grass.”

As we wrote on the blog in 2015, grass and the color green have had sexual connotations since the Middle Ages. For example, the OED describes “green gown” as an archaic and historical term for “a dress stained green from rolling in grass.”

“Grass widow” was still used in the sense of an illicit sexual partner well into the 1800s.  On May 23, 1856, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Maria Fitzherbert, mistress of King George IV, as a “grass widow.” And A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases, published that same year, defined “grass widow” as “a female of easy virtue, a prostitute.”

However, “grass widow” was gaining more respectable meanings in the mid-19th century. Most notably, it came to mean a married woman whose husband is away, as when his work takes him elsewhere.

This sense of “a married woman whose husband is absent from her,” the OED says, may have arisen after the original, pejorative meaning “had ceased to be generally understood.”

The more respectable usage, Oxford suggests, may have been influenced by the 16th-century expression “turned out to grass,” in the figurative sense of being on vacation or freed from one’s duties.

This newer sense of “grass widow” was first recorded in a short story by Johnson J. Hooper, an American humorist: “John Green’s sister, (the grass widder, as lives with ’em), she goes to her battling bench.” (From “Taking the Census in Alabama,” originally published in 1843 in the magazine Spirit of the Times.)

The term was also used in Australian, Anglo-Indian, and British English, as in these OED citations:

“The absence of so many of ‘the lords of creation’ in pursuit of what they value … more than all the women in the world—nuggets. The wives thus left in town to deplore their husbands’ infatuation, are termed ‘grass-widows’—a mining expression.” (From A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia, by Ellen Clacy, 1853.)

“Grass widows in the hills are always writing to their husbands, when you drop in upon them.” (From John Lang’s book Wanderings in India, 1859.)

“The pretty grass-widow … is going because every one else is gone.” (From the Englishman’s Magazine, August 1865.)

“Expectant husbands come out to meet the ‘grass widows’ who have travelled with us.” (From an 1884 journal entry by Lady Dufferin, Vicereine of India, published in Our Viceregal Life in India, 1889.)

In the United States, “grass widow” also came to mean a woman whose husband has deserted her. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle used this sense of the phrase in a news item on May 7, 1857: “His sister was a ‘grass widow,’ her husband having left her years ago.”

What does “grass widow” mean today? Dictionaries differ somewhat, though most include a meaning not cited in the OED: a divorced woman.

American Heritage has the broadest number of definitions: “1. A woman who is divorced or separated from her husband. 2. A woman whose husband is temporarily absent. 3. An abandoned mistress. 4. The mother of a child born out of wedlock.”

However, both Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster Unabridged say that only the first two uses are standard today. (M-W  labels #3 and #4 as dialectal, and the OED says they’re perhaps obsolete.)

Yet another source, the Cambridge Dictionary online, has only the #2 meaning, which it phrases this way: “a woman who spends a lot of time apart from her partner, often because he or she is working in a different place.”

Now, on to “grace widow,” a comparatively rare term. As is often the case, you’ll find a lot of nonsense about it on the Internet.

For example, it’s sometimes suggested that “grace widow” was the original phrase, later corrupted to “grass widow.” This isn’t true.

The OED has no entry for “grace widow” (and neither do standard dictionaries), but in its entry for “grass widow,” Oxford rejects “the notion that the word is a ‘corruption’ of grace-widow.”

In fact “grace widow” did not occur in English, according to our researches, until the early 19th century (300 years after “grass widow”), when “grace widow” was used to mean an unmarried mother.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Edward Moor’s book Suffolk Words and Phrases: An Attempt to Collect the Lingual Localisms of That County (1823):

“GRACE WIDOW. A woman who had ‘a child for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.’ It ought rather to be grace-less.”

We found another example in a short story, published a few years later in Boston, about an elderly unmarried mother: “Hannah was a spinster—or, as the country people denominate a single woman, who has to support a family—a grace widow.” (From “Old Hannah,” by Susanna Strickland, published in the Atheneum, March 1829.)

In these contexts, “grass widow,” the long-established phrase for an unmarried mother, would have been the expected usage. So why was “grace” substituted for “grass”?

We don’t know. Perhaps “grace” made more sense to people than “grass”—that is, an unmarried mother was given the title “widow” by “grace,” or courtesy. Or perhaps people thought “grass” was a mispronunciation of “grace.”

For whatever reason, it seems clear that “grace widow” originally cropped up as a variant spelling of “grass widow.”

However, within 30 years claims were made that (1) “grace” was the original term, and (2) a “grace widow” was not a mistress or unmarried mother, but rather a married woman deserted by her husband.

Both assertions appeared in this letter to the editor in the March 1859 issue of the Ladies Repository, a Methodist magazine published in Cincinnati:

“GRASS-WIDOW.—The epithet is probably a corruption of the French word grace—pronounced gras. The expression is thus equivalent to femme veuve de gracefoemina vidua ex gratia, a widow, not in fact, but—called so—by grace or favor. Hence grass-widow would mean a grace widow: one who is made so, not by the death of her husband, but by the kindness of her neighbors, who are pleased to regard the desertion of her husband as equivalent to his death.”

The only truth in that statement is that vidua ex gratia could be translated “widow by favor” and the French veuve de grâce as “widow by grace.” But there’s no evidence that those Latin or French phrases were ever in use.

No French dictionary we’ve seen—historical, etymological, or modern—has an entry for, or even a mention of, veuve de grâce. And no Latin dictionary has vidua ex gratia. They don’t appear in official documents in any of the historical databases we’ve searched.

The story was further embroidered in the 1870s, when another element was added: the claim that the “grace” came not from kind neighbors but from a higher authority. Supposedly a “grace widow” was a divorced or abandoned wife who was given a dispensation to call herself a widow by the “grace” of the pope or the Roman Catholic Church.

The first to suggest this, as far as we can tell, was apparently David Turpie, an Indianapolis judge and later US senator from Indiana, who made the claim in a speech delivered to a literary society in 1875.

We found this paragraph in the May 5, 1875, issue of an Indianapolis newspaper, the Evening News, under the headline “Grass Widow”:

“Judge Turpie has been reading a paper to the ‘Fiat Lux’ Society on the origin of the phrase, ‘grass widow,’ or rather ‘grace widow,’ for the first has no foundation in fact, and is simply a barbarism, or fungus which has attached itself to the English language. ‘Grace widow’ is the term for one who becomes a widow by grace or favor, not of necessity, as by death, and originated in the early ages of European civilization, when divorces were granted but seldom, and wholly by authority of the Catholic church. When such decree was granted to a woman the Papal receipt stated ‘Viduca de gratia,’ which interpreted is ‘widow of grace.’ In the law of France it would read ‘Veuve de grace,’ which in English gives ‘widow of grace,’ or ‘grace widow,’ ‘veuve’ being translated as ‘widow.’ ”

The judge apparently mangled the Latin vidua ex gratia as “Viduca de gratia.” As we’ve said, we couldn’t find vidua ex gratia in any Latin dictionaries or church documents. Nor, of course, could we find the gibberish “Viduca de gratia.”

In fact, nowhere in any official documents—religious or secular, English or American—have we found a single instance of the phrase “grace widow.” Nor have we found any instance of a woman’s being declared a widow by reason of divorce or desertion.

Certainly marriages could be annulled or dissolved, but even in those cases, as far as we can tell, no woman was ever subsequently proclaimed a widow by any court or ecclesiastical authority.

Nevertheless, Judge Turpie’s assertions live on. News agencies must have distributed that brief news item as short “filler,” since the same paragraph, credited to the Indianapolis News and with only minor changes, later ran in newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States (including the New York Times).

In the 1890s the same paragraph, or part of it, was also reproduced in the British journal Notes and Queries as well as in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (it was dropped in the 1959 edition).

In 1889 the term “grace widow” even appeared in A Dictionary of Law, by William Caldwell Anderson: “Grace widow. A widow by grace, by decree of a court; a wife living apart from her husband; a grass widow.”

But in 1895 an article in Law Book News excoriated Anderson’s work and specifically mentioned “grace widow,” calling Anderson’s derivation “philologically impossible” and “pronounced by the best authorities to be ‘certainly wrong.’ ”

The Law Book News writer probably quoted The Century Dictionary of 1889, which had this in its “grass-widow” entry: “The explanation reflected in the dial. form grace-widow, as if a widow by grace or courtesy, is certainly wrong.”

Nevertheless, once that mythological “grace widow” etymology was in circulation, it continued to crop up in early 20th-century publications.

And although Brewer’s Dictionary later dropped “grace widow” and other authors attempted to set the record the straight, the myth survives on the Internet.

In his book Devious Derivations (2002), the editor and word sleuth Hugh Rawson calls “grace widow” a “false refinement.” As he writes, “The grass widow, divorced or otherwise separated from her husband, is not termed a widow by French grâce, as if this were a courtesy title.”

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Q: I hear educated people pronounce the word “congratulations” as if it were spelled “congradulations.” This occurs to the point that many people must believe it is spelled that way too. Is this an example of a spelling change based on a common mispronunciation?

A: You’re right that many people spell “congratulations” with a “d” in the middle, though they’re often deliberately misspelling the word as a pun in which “congradulations” are sent to recent graduates.

The standard spelling, as you point out, is “congratulations.” However, many people who aren’t punning replace the first “t” with a “d,” probably because of the way the word is often pronounced in the US.

There are three standard ways to pronounce the first “t” in “congratulation” (or “congratulations”). American dictionaries say it’s pronounced as “ch” or “j,” while British dictionaries say it’s pronounced as “ty.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, list only the “ch” and “j” pronunciations.

The UK versions of the Oxford, Cambridge, and Macmillan online dictionaries show only a “ty” sound in their written pronunciation guides, but their audio pronouncers sound somewhat like the first American pronunciation (“ch”).

As for the sound you’re hearing, it’s probably the second American one (“j”), which as we’ve said is considered a standard pronunciation in the US. In fact, the “j” is sometimes written as “dʒ,” a sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet that combines the “d” sound with the “s” of “vision.”

If you listen carefully to yourself saying “congratulation,” you may hear a “ch” sound where the first letter “t” is written. And if you hear a “t” sound instead, you’ll probably notice a “y” sound stuck to the end of it.

Yes, spelling and pronunciation are related, but not quite as closely as you seem to think. Even Siri, the voice on our iPhones, is programmed to pronounce the first “t” of “congratulation” as “ch” when using American English. If it used a perfectly enunciated “t” here (like the one in “kite”), Siri would sound even more like a robot than it does.

As we explained on the blog in 2014, the letter “t” isn’t always aspirated crisply (as in the words “tea” and “bite”).

When it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable (as in “water,” “butter,” and “atom”), it’s often a mere flick of the tongue that sounds a bit like a cross between “t” and “d.” Linguists refer to this sound as a “flap” (some use the word “tap,” but it’s the same sound).

When the letter comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable (as in “mitten,” “button,” or “mountain”), another kind of “t” is often heard. This “t” is pronounced as a glottal stop—the air flow through the vocal cords actually stops, skips over the “t,” then is released. As a result, those three words sound like  mi’nbu’n, and moun’n.

As for the etymology of “congratulation,” English borrowed the word from French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin verb congrātulārī (con-, together, plus grātulārī, to express joy).

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Harington’s 1591 translation of Orlando Furioso, an Italian epic poem by Lodovico Ariosto: “Only Gradassos faint congratulation, / Makes men surmise, he thinks not as he saith.”

Harington may be even better known for A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), which describes a forerunner of the modern flush toilet. He installed one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace. The “Ajax” in the title is a pun on “jakes,” an old term for a privy or a latrine.

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Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

(We’re repeating this post for Thanksgiving Day. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2012.)

Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”?

A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real drumstick. Even the bone alone isn’t quite like a drumstick—it has big knobs at each end instead of a single knob or padded head.

So calling this part of the bird a  “drumstick” seems to be stretching a metaphor. But why use a metaphor at all?

Etymologists think that people started calling this part of a fowl the  “drumstick” because the word “leg” wasn’t polite table talk in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Neither were the words “thigh” and “breast,” so discreet (OK, prudish) diners referred to them as “dark meat” and “white meat.” 

Sometimes the breast of the turkey was referred to as—ahem—the “bosom.” And occasionally the term “upper joint” was used instead of “thigh,” and “lower joint” or “limb” instead of “leg.” 

Yes, really. There actually was a time when “leg,” “breast,” and “thigh” were considered too coarse for the ears of ladies and unfit for mixed company. 

The word “drumstick,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in the mid-18th century  to mean “the lower joint of the leg of a dressed fowl.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Samuel Foote’s play The Mayor of Garret (1764): “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.”

Our fellow word maven Hugh Rawson recently discussed
dinner-table euphemisms like these on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

As he writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms.” 

Rawson cites a lecture, “The Laws of Disorder,” by the Unitarian minister and speaker Thomas Starr King, who died in 1864: “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks.” 

Such terms, particularly in America, made table talk easier for everyone, Rawson explains: “Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of ‘breast meat,’ dark meat instead of a ‘thigh’ and a drumstick in place of a ‘leg’ saved embarrassment all around.

The 19th-century British novelist and naval captain Frederick Marryat pokes fun at this kind of squeamishness in Peter Simple (1834). In one episode, Rawson points out, the novel’s hero describes a dinner party on the island of Barbados. 

“It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said ‘Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.’ ”

The OED cites another example from Marryat’s works as an example of “limb” as a euphemism for “leg,” a usage it describes as “now only (esp. U.S.) in mock-modest or prudish use.” 

In his book A Diary in America: With Remarks on Its Institutions (1839), Marryat says a young American woman told him that “leg” was not used before ladies; the polite term was “limb.” She added: “I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”

That example, like several others from the OED, seems to have been used with humorous intent. 

For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his novel Elsie Venner (1861), has this bit of dinner-table conversation: “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the—under limb?” 

And John S. Farmer, in his Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1885), uses this illustration: “Between you’n me, red stockings ain’t becomin’ to all—ahem—limbs.”

Euphemistic language has proven itself useful, not just at the dinner table. It comes in handy for swearing, too. 

We’ve written before on our blog about euphemistic oaths like “doggone it,” and “gosh a’mighty,” milder substitutes for “God damn it” and “God almighty.” 

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Emigrate or immigrate?

Q: I was just reading an email announcement from the BackStory website in which “immigrate” was used where “emigrate” should have been. Is this a case of sloppy copy-editing? Or is this distinction no longer considered meaningful by editors?

A: The verbs “emigrate” and “immigrate” have had different meanings for hundreds of years—and they still do, according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked.

We haven’t seen the announcement from the website of the public-radio program BackStory, but the use of “immigrate” for “emigrate” in professionally edited writing is relatively rare and probably the result of sloppiness.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the misuse of these words “may be less of a problem than is often suggested,” adding, “Our evidence shows that almost no one does, at least in edited prose.”

This is how Pat describes the difference between “emigrate” and “immigrate” in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“EMIGRATE/IMMIGRATE. You emigrate from one country and immigrate to another. Grandma emigrated from Hungary in 1956, the same year that Grandpa immigrated to America. Whether you’re called an emigrant or an immigrant depends on whether you’re going or coming, and on the point of view of the speaker. A trick for remembering: Emigrant as in Exit. Immigrant as in In.”

The first of these verbs to show up in English was “immigrate,” from the Latin im- (into) and migrāre (to move). The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1623 dictionary by Henry Cockeram: “Immigrate, to goe dwell in some place.”

“Emigrate,” from the Latin ē (out) and migrāre (to move), showed up a century later. The OED’s first citation is from a 1782 treatise by Thomas Pownall on the study of antiquities and history:

“The surplus parts of this plethorick [printed phletorick] body must emigrate.” (The phrase “plethorick body” here refers to a plethora of population.)

Merriam-Webster’s usage manual notes that “emigrate” and “immigrate” make “a case in which English has two words where it could easily have made do with only one.”

“The two words have the same essential meaning—‘to leave one country to live in another’—and differ only in emphasis or point of view: emigrate stressing leaving, and immigrate stressing entering,” the M-W editors add.

Since we have two words, we might as well use them as they were intended.

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Is “posse” racist?

Q: “Posse”? Racist? I trust you know the current controversy over that word. If a black celebrity says it is, I guess that makes it so, but has it been? Where does this come from?

A: Is “posse” a racist term? Not necessarily. But it has a negative, “gang” connotation in some dictionaries. And an African-American might consider it racist when used in reference to his friends.

“Posse” made news on Nov. 14 when Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knicks, used the word in comments he made about LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In an interview with ESPN, Jackson was critical of James for demanding “special treatment” when he was playing for the Miami Heat a few years ago. The NBA star, whose hometown is Akron, Ohio, apparently demanded that he get to spend an extra night in his home state after playing a game in Cleveland.

“When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night,” Jackson said. “They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t.”

The Knicks president went on to say: “You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”

Here, “posse” was a reference to James’s longtime friends, fellow athletes, and business associates, some of whom grew up together.

James, who is a successful businessman off the court, took offense at “posse,” suggesting it had racial overtones:

“I believe the only reason he used that word is because it’s young African Americans trying to make a difference,” James said. “If he would have said LeBron and his agent, LeBron and his business partners or LeBron and his friends, that’s one thing. Yet because you’re young and black, he can use that word. We’re grown men.”

We were surprised to hear that “posse” was objectionable, but many people were not.

The next day, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks told ABC News that “I think everybody would understand” why James objected to the term. “To some people, the word ‘posse’ might not mean anything. It might just be a word. To some other people it could be a derogatory statement. It all depends on who you mention it to and who you’re talking about in essence.”

As for himself, Anthony said, “I would never want to hear that word about me and my—I don’t want to say crew—but people that I consider family or people that I come up [with], been through thick and thin with. I’d want to be called a tight-knit group or family. That’s what I consider those close people to me.”

Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the Detroit Pistons, was also sympathetic to James, according to the New York Post: “When all that came out, I had to ask myself: Have I ever used that word before with a white player? The answer is no.”

“I understand why it’s offensive,” Van Gundy added. “I’ve never used that word publicly, but I have used it in talking to people I know. It has never been in conjunction with a white player.”

Others were less critical of the term. Magic Johnson, according to New York Newsday, praised James and his business team in several Twitter posts, then wrote: “Phil Jackson made one small mistake by using the word posse.”

“I know Phil Jackson, he’s a good man,” he continued. “I don’t think he meant to disrespect LeBron James and his team.”

So what about the word itself? In all the news coverage, there’s been very little about its etymology or its definitions.

In classical Latin, posse was a verb meaning “be able.” It was derived from the phrase potis esse (esse for “be” and potis for “able” or “powerful”).

In medieval Latin, as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, posse came to be used as a noun meaning ‘power, force.’ It formed the basis of the expression posse comitatus, literally ‘force of the county,’ denoting a body of men whom the sheriff of a county was empowered to raise for such purposes as suppressing a riot.”

“The abbreviated form posse emerged at the end of the 17th century, but really came into its own in 18th- and 19th-century America,” he writes.

As it turns out, the noun “posse,” which was introduced into English in the mid-1600s, has had negative associations in some of its usages, but other senses of the word are benign or positive.

Like the longer phrase “posse comitatus,” the short form “posse” once meant “the population of local able-bodied men whom a sheriff may summon to repress a riot, pursue felons, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was used this way in 1646, for example.

But at almost the same time, in 1645, it was also being used loosely to mean “an assembled force, band, or company, often with hostile intent.”

This is the OED’s earliest example: “All the Posse of Hell, cannot violently eject me.” (From Thomas Fuller ‘s Good Thoughts in Bad Times, the reflections of a Loyalist in the time of Charles I.)

However, by the 1700s “posse” was being used figuratively, according to the OED, to mean “any throng or assembled group (of persons, animals, or things); a clutch.” In this sense, the word is found “now usually without negative connotation,” the dictionary adds.

Sometimes it’s even used semi-humorously, as shown in many OED citations. In a letter written in 1728, for example, Jonathan Swift mentioned a “whole posse of articles.”

And in a 1787 journal entry William Beckford wrote, “A whole posse of the young lady’s kindred—brothers, cousins and uncles—stood ready at the street door to usher me upstairs.”

In her Letters From Abroad (1841), Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote: “Found her flying from a posse of cock-turkeys.”

In other citations, the word simply means a group, as in these examples from Oxford:

“I met Mr. Ferdinand, M. d’Herigny, and a posse of their friends, who were just entering the Carreau Wood, to hunt.” (From Benjamin Webster’s play The Village Doctor, 1839.)

“He posed a posse of rhetorical questions.” (From Frederic Raphael’s biography Byron, 1982.)

“May I suggest that the Transport Secretary, together with a posse of ministers, visits Heathrow and Gatwick.” (From a July 1990 issue of Flight International.)

The word is also used colloquially, the OED says, to mean a peer group, especially of the young. Oxford cites these examples:

“[In 1982] the d.j.’s developed a specialized presentation. … ‘Posse’ was used to refer to any group.” (From Anita M. Waters’s book Race, Class, and Political Symbols, 1985.)

“He … jammed with both a posse of M-Base acolytes from Belgium and with Surinamese musicians based in Amsterdam.” (From a 1990 issue of Straight No Chaser, a British magazine devoted to black music.)

“There are about 20 seats up there, so there was Leo and his posse and his mom all watching the movie.” (From a January 2001 issue of a London newspaper, the Star.)

This sense of the word—a group of friends—is also found in all the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, both American and British.

In Jamaican English, however, “posse” has a more pejorative meaning—a criminal gang, often involved in drugs. This sense of the word is known in the US, since two of the OED’s citations are from American sources:

“Enforcement agents blame Jamaican posses for some 500 homicides and … gun-running.” (From Boston magazine, July 1987.)

“Blake, a former posse leader, has agreed to help attack the Caribbean drug pipelines.” (From a September 2000 issue of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis.)

Though the OED doesn’t say so, this criminal sense of “posse” is also used in reference to American gangs, according to at least two standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has the old “sheriff’s posse” definition, plus these others: “A search party”; “A gang involved in crimes such as running guns and illegal narcotics trafficking; “(Slang) A group of friends or associates.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) lists those same senses of “posse.” It words the criminal sense this way: “a gang, esp. one engaged in selling drugs.”

We don’t find that meaning in any other standard dictionaries. Merriam Webster Unabridged, for example, includes all of those above, except the gang sense.

Getting back to your question, is “posse” racist?

Standard dictionaries generally define “racism” as the belief that one’s own race is better than others, and as discrimination or prejudice based on that belief. The adjective “racist” describes someone or something that fosters such discrimination or prejudice.

By that definition a white man’s use of the term “posse,” with its Jamaican gang associations, in reference to the friends of a successful black athlete and businessman may perhaps be seen as racist.

In fact, we often hear the adjective “racist” used loosely to describe anyone or anything that demeans a racial, ethnic, or religious group. This sense isn’t in standard dictionaries, but we wouldn’t be surprised to find it there one of these days.

However, dictionaries may not be the best place to settle a dispute about whether a word like “posse” is racist in certain situations.

As the editors of Merriam-Webster Online say in a usage note, dictionaries “are not always well suited for settling disputes” like this:

“The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”

We doubt that Phil Jackson meant to refer to LeBron James and his associates as a gang. He likely meant the word in the sense of a group of friends or associates.

But LeBron James didn’t interpret it that way.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this. Words don’t operate in a vacuum. The same word can be neutral, positive, negative, or perhaps even racist, depending on the context.

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Dial A for anachronism

Q: When I call a doctor’s office, I always hear this message: “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” The terms “hang up” and “dial” were meaningful in the days of rotary phones. But I imagine that millennials must find them quaint or silly. How long will it be before they’re replaced?

A: Many old words die out, while others live on with new meanings. In horse-and-buggy days, for example, a “dashboard,” was a board or apron that prevented horses’ hooves from throwing mud onto passengers. But the word survived into the automobile era as the instrument panel on a car.

Will the old telephone terms “hang up” and “dial” survive in the age of smartphones? Perhaps.

The paper-editing terms “copy,” “paste,” and “carbon copy” (or “CC”) have lived on in the digital age, as has the analog phone term “ringtone” (originally, “ringing tone”). And if you work in an office with a telephone exchange, you’re familiar with the sound of a “dial tone.”

Most standard dictionaries now define the verb “dial” simply as to make a phone call, and “hang up” as to end a call.

However, it wouldn’t be hard to rewrite that doctor’s message (“If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911″) without using the old terms or creating new ones: “If this is an emergency, call 911.”

The Collins English Dictionary reports a drop in the use of “dial” (both noun and verb) since 2002, though our googling indicates that the verb is still quite popular. The sentence “If this is an emergency, dial 911” is apparently more than three times as popular as “If this is an emergency, call 911.”

Even if English speakers eventually abandon the use of “dial” for making phone calls, we wouldn’t be surprised if the phrasal verb “dial down” survives in its figurative sense of to lower the intensity of something, as in “He needs to dial down his rage.”

(“Dial down” showed up in its literal sense in 1935, and figuratively in 1988, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

The word “dial” has evolved since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a noun for an instrument used to measure time—an hourglass, a clock, a watch, and so on. It ultimately comes from diēs, classical Latin for “day” and the source of the English word “diurnal.”

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1410-12 nautical inventory in which the term “dyoll,” according to the dictionary, “is likely to refer to a sandglass.” (The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites a sundial for the earliest usage.)

When the verb showed up in the 17th century, it meant “to survey or lay out (land, a mine) with the aid of a miner’s or surveyor’s compass.”

The first OED citation is from a 1653 chronicle in verse about lead mining in Derbyshire: “To make inquiry, and to view the Rake, / To plum and dyal.” (A “rake” is a vein of ore.)

The use of the noun “dial” in reference to telephones showed up at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest OED citation is from American Telephone Practice (1900), by K. B. Miller:

“The subscriber … places his finger in the slot numbered 6, and turns the dial until his finger strikes the stop on the lower edge of the dial, then he lets go and the dial returns to normal position.”

The dictionary’s first use of the verb “dial” in the telephone sense is from a 1918 congressional report about extending the telephone system in the District of Columbia: “Making it possible to dial from any station connected with the War Board to any other automatic station connected to that board.”

Oxford‘s earliest citation for “hang up” used for a telephone is from Modern American Telephony in All Its Branches (1912), by Arthur Bessey Smith: “When the subscribers are through talking, they hang up their receivers.”

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we discuss the history of “dashboard” and other old terms that are now used for the most part in new ways. Here’s an excerpt:

Loophole. In the 1300s a ‘loupe,’ later a ‘loop hole,’ was a small vertical slit in a castle wall for spotting enemies and shooting arrows at them. It probably came from a Middle Dutch word, lupen, meaning to lie in wait, watch, or peer. So an archer trapped in a besieged tower would shoot through a loophole at the surrounding forces. Today a loophole is usually an omission or ambiguity that gives you an opening to evade a legal provision.

Earmark. For centuries, farmers notched the ears of livestock as a means of identifying them, and many ranchers still do. The resulting noun, originally spelled ‘eare-marke,’ dates from 1523 and the verb from 1591, according to the OED. These days to ‘earmark’ usually means to set aside funds for a specific purpose, a metaphorical usage dear to the hearts of politicians since the mid-nineteenth century.

Transfixed. It once meant pierced or stuck through with an arrow or a spear. The verb ‘transfix,’ according to the OED, first appeared in print in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590), where Semiramis, the queen of Assyria, is ‘transfixt’ by her son’s own sword. Nowadays someone who’s ‘transfixed’ is fascinated or mesmerized, as if stuck to the spot.

Tenterhooks. In the 1400s, tenterhooks were nails or pointed, L-shaped hooks set along the edges of a wooden frame (called a ‘tenter’) for stretching and drying newly woven woolen cloth. In the eighteenth century, people began using the word figuratively, and ‘to be on tenterhooks’ (no, not ‘tenderhooks’!) was to be tense or held in suspense. In today’s far from relaxing times, that’s the principal meaning.

Bellwether. Once upon a time, everybody knew that a wether was a castrated ram, and a bellwether the sheep that wore a bell to lead the flock. The word today has a literal meaning only in sheep-raising circles. Most of us now regard a bellwether as something that signals future trends.

Distaff. In the eleventh century a distaff (then spelled ‘distaef’) was a staff wound with unspun flax or wool. The ‘dis’ in ‘distaff’ was probably from a Low German word diesse, meaning a bunch of unspun flax. The staff, about a yard long, was held under the left arm, and wisps of material were pulled through the fingers of the left hand, then twisted with the fingers of the right and wound onto a spindle. The word ‘distaff’ came to be associated with women’s work, and it’s now a noun or adjective referring to the feminine side of things.

Dashboard. Believe it or not, we had dashboards before we had cars. In the early nineteenth century, a dashboard was a barrier of wood or leather used as a mud guard at the front, and sometimes the sides, of a horse-drawn carriage. The dashboard kept mud from being ‘dashed’ into the interior by the horses’ hooves. When you go for a spin today, the horses under your hood don’t splatter mud on the passengers, but a dashboard is standard equipment.

Deadline. The original deadline was a four-foot-high fence that defined the no-man’s-land inside the walls around the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, during the Civil War. Any captive Union soldiers who crossed the deadline were shot. The word first appeared in an inspection report written in August 1864 by a Confederate officer, Lieut. Col. D. T. Chandler: ‘A railing around the inside of the stockade and about 20 feet from it constitutes the “dead-line,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.’ After the war ended in 1865, Capt. Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the infamous camp, was tried and hanged for war crimes. Not until the early twentieth century did ‘deadline’ come to mean a time limit. The OED’s first mention is in the title of a play about the newspaper business, Deadline at Eleven (1920). This usage may have been influenced by a somewhat earlier sense of the word: a guideline marked on the bed of a printing press. These days, as we all know, journalists aren’t the only ones with deadlines to meet.

Linchpin. The word ‘linchpin,’ which dates back to the 1300s, began life as a pin inserted into an axle or a shaft to keep a wheel from falling off. It was used exclusively in that way from the days of horse-drawn carriages to the T-Birds and Coupe de Villes of the 1950s. The metaphorical use of ‘linchpin’ (as a vital person or thing) is relatively new—the OED’s first citation is a 1954 diary entry by the author Malcolm Muggeridge. But today only mechanics and hobbyists still use the word in its original sense.”

Some old words have needed a little help to survive in a changing world, as we wrote on the blog in 2012. What was once simply a “guitar,” for example, is now referred to as an “acoustic guitar” to distinguish it from the newer “electric guitar.”

The term “retronym,” which arrived on the scene in the 1980s, refers to such a new name coined to differentiate the original form of something from a more recent version. Other retronyms include “analog watch” (as opposed to a digital one), “conventional oven” (versus a microwave), and “skirt suit” (as opposed to a pantsuit).

Getting back to your question, will the verbs “dial” and “hang up” die out? Or will they be repurposed for the age of smartphones? Only time will tell.

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A copper’s nark

Q: I’ve been doing a bit of time travel these days via old radio recordings. On a 1950 broadcast of Whitehall 1212, a program based on Scotland Yard cases, a key character is a “copper’s nark.” In the states he’d be called a “stool pigeon.” How did Brits come up with “copper’s nark”?

A: The term “copper’s nark,” meaning a police informer, showed up in Britain in the late 19th century, but “nark” itself had been used earlier in that same sense and still earlier to mean a nasty person.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “nark” is of “unknown origin,” but adds that “perhaps” it comes from nok, the word for “nose” in the dialect of Romany spoken in England.

However, the OED says this “assumed development would require that the Romani word had an extended sense denoting a person, but this is not attested.” (The English word “nose” has been used as a slang term for a police informer since the 1780s.)

When the word “nark” appeared in the mid-19th century, it referred to an “annoying, unpleasant, obstructive, or quarrelsome person,” according to the dictionary.

The first example in the OED is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “They are the rankest narks vot ever God put guts into, or ever farted in a kickses case [pair of trousers].”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “nark” used in the snitch sense is from The Vulgar Tongue, an 1857 slang dictionary that defines it as “a person who obtains information under seal of confidence, and afterwards breaks faith.”

(The author, Ducange Anglicus, is a pseudonym formed from the surname of the 17th-century French philologist Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, and the Latin word for “Englishman.”)

The next citation refers specifically to a police informer: “Nark, a person in the pay of the police; a common informer.” (From  A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, 1860, by John Camden Hotten.)

The third Oxford example (from the May 24, 1879, issue of the journal Notes and Queries) uses the full term you heard on the radio program Whitehall 1212 (the old phone number for Scotland Yard): “Copper’s nark, a police spy.”

In the late 19th century, the word “nark” took on the additional sense of a “police officer.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from No. 747: Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy, an 1891 novel by Francis Wylde Carew (pen name of Arthur E. G. Way): “If you don’t turn up my fair share, I’ll put the narks upon you. S’elp me never, I will.”

Finally, the verb “nark” has been used since the late 1800s in the sense of to act as an informer or to annoy. Here’s an example for the “annoy” sense from John Dalby’s 1888 novel, Mayroyd of Mytholm: “That’s just what he’s ta’en to him for, just to nark Mayroyd.”

All the OED citations for “nark” in its various senses are from British, Australian, or New Zealand sources.

However, the dictionary has an entry for a similar word, “narc,” which it defines as chiefly North American slang for a “police agent or investigator concerned with narcotics.”

Oxford describes the American usage as a “clipping or shortening” of the noun “narcotic,” and notes a similar US slang term, “narco,” for illegal drugs, a South American drug baron, or a police agent concerned with narcotics. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds that “narc” can also mean an informer.

Although the OED describes “narc” as a clipped form of “narcotic,” the dictionary says it may also have been influenced by the British term “nark.” In fact, the earliest Oxford citation for the American usage spells the word “nark”:

“The narcotics bureau of the Treasury Department wanted to keep all drugs illegal, to step up law enforcement, add thousands of T-men, G-men, and narks to the payroll.” (From The Politics of Ecstasy, 1966, by Timothy Leary. We’ve filled in an ellipsis in the OED example.)

The next citation spells it the usual American way: “The police didn’t frighten him. The Narcs didn’t frighten him.” (From Shaft, a 1971 detective novel, by Ernest Tidyman, that inspired four films and a TV a series.)

And here’s an example from American Heritage for “narc” used as a verb meaning to “snitch”: “He was caught dealing drugs because his roommate narced on him.”

As for “stool pigeon,” the term originally referred to a hunting decoy—a live pigeon fastened to a stool to attract game birds. If you’d like to read more, we discussed the usage on the blog in 2008.

Getting back to “copper’s nark,” we’ll end with this example from George Bernard Shaw’s 1916 play Pygmalion: “It’s a—well, it’s a copper’s nark, as you might say. What else would you call it? A sort of informer.”

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A Melican man

Q: In your “Phoo, pfui, and phooey” post, you reference a 1926 Lorenz Hart lyric from “A Melican Man.” I remember my mother singing such a song back in the ’50s (she was born in 1907). Can you tell me something more about the song?

A: “A Melican Man” was written for the musical Betsy (1926), which was a horrific flop for Rogers and Hart. The only good song in the musical, “Blue Skies,” was written at the last minute—by Irving Berlin.

We doubt that your mother was familiar with “A Melican Man.” Like several other songs, it was cut from the production before the musical’s New York opening. There’s more about the play on the musical database Ovrtur.

You can also find the song in The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart (1995 expanded edition). Unfortunately it’s not online, but it may be at a library near you.

Something to keep in mind as you search for your mother’s song. Another old song, entitled “Melican Man” and set to a foxtrot, was published in the same year (1926) and is credited to Leland A. White, Mary Black, and Lucile Burton.

There was also a 1913 song, “Me Melican Man” (described as “A Pigtail Rag”), by Albert J. Weidt. We can’t tell you anything about the lyrics of those songs.

It may be that the song your mother sang had “Melican man” in the refrain or other lyrics, but not in the title.

The term “Melican man” showed up in the mid-19th century as a caricature of the pidgin spoken by Chinese immigrant laborers in the US.

A song called “Hay Sing, Come From China” was published anonymously in the 1860s and tells of a Chinese immigrant out West who wins the heart of an Irish girl, who later abandons him for a “Melican man”—that is, an “American man.”

The word is repeated several times, as in this verse:

Oh, my name Hay Sing, come from China.
Me likee Irish girl, she likee me.
Me from-a Hong Kong, Melican man come along,
Steal an Irish girl from a poor Chinee.

This song and others in a similar vein were popular on minstrel circuits, which caricatured Asians as well as blacks, and which toured well into the early 20th century. Chinese caricature songs were also popular on the vaudeville circuits.

The original “Hay Sing, Me From China” is anthologized in Songs of the American West (1968), by Richard E. Lingenfelter, Richard A. Dwyer, and David Cohen.  Again, it’s not online but it’s a prominent book and may be in a nearby library.

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A richly woven tapestry

Q: The fabrics in our lives assume multiple meanings, as in, “I didn’t cotton to him because he tried to pull the wool over my eyes.” A topic for the blog?

A: Fabric and sewing terms are often used figuratively. To borrow a cliché of book reviewing, English is a richly woven tapestry.

We’ve written several posts about these terms, including one in 2008 about “cotton,” a word of Arabic origin that has been used figuratively since the 1600s to mean “get on together” or “suit each other.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an anonymous Elizabethan play about the life of the 16th-century English mercenary Thomas Stukley (also spelled “Stukeley,” “Stuckley,” and “Stucley”):

“John a Nokes and John a Style and I cannot cotton.”

(From The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley, 1605. The play is in The School of Shakespeare, Richard Simpson’s 1878 collection of Shakespearian apocrypha and other works associated with Shakespeare.)

Here’s a later example from Lady Anna, an 1874 novel by Anthony Trollope: “You see, she had nobody else near her. A girl must cotton to somebody, and who was there?”

The OED says the source for this sense of “cotton” is uncertain, but it suggests that the usage may come from the original meaning of the verb when it showed up in the late 1400s: to “form a down or nap” on cloth.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the original meaning is from a 1488 entry in the accounts of  the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: “viii elne of cotonyt quhit clath” (“eight ells of cottoned white cloth”). An “ell” was roughly four feet; if a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.

In commenting on the evolution of “cotton,” the dictionary points the reader to a 1608 example from The Family of Love, a play by Thomas Middleton. The citation uses the verb figuratively to mean “prosper” or “get on well,” and at the same time harkens back to its original sense: “It cottens well, it cannot choose but beare A prety napp.”

In the early 20th century, the verbal phrase “to cotton on to” came to mean “to form a liking for” or “to  get to know about,” according to Oxford citations.

Here’s an example for the liking sense from “Children of the Bush,” a 1907 short story by the Australian writer Henry Lawson: “I s’pose the fact of the matter was that she didn’t cotton on to me, and wanted to let me down easy.”

And this is an example for the understanding sense from See How They Run, a 1936 novel by the Irish writer Jerrard Tickell: “I don’t seem to cotton on to German somehow.”

As you’d imagine, the word “wool” in its original sense (the “fine soft curly hair” of sheep and similar animals) is very old, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary, dated around 725, that translates lana, Latin for “wool,” as uul in Old English.

In the 16th century, English speakers began using the noun figuratively in the expression “against the wool” (the wrong way).

The earliest OED citation is from The Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John (1531), by William Tyndale: “He wresteth all the Scriptures & setteth them clean agaynst the woll, to destroy this article.”

In the 19th century, the noun showed up in the expression to “pull (or ‘draw’ or ‘spread’) the wool over someone’s eyes.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from the April 24, 1839, issue of the Jamestown (NY) Journal: “That lawyer has been trying to spread the wool over your eyes.”

And here’s a “pull” example from the Sept. 29, 1842, issue of Spirit of the Times, a short-lived Philadelphia daily newspaper: “Look sharp, or they’ll pull wool over your eyes.”

In a recent post, we noted that the verb “sew” is often used figuratively, especially in the expression “all sewed (or sewn) up,” which showed up in the early 1900s to describe a situation that’s brought to a conclusion.

The first OED citation is from True Bills (1904), a collection of sketches by the American humorist George Ade: “The Man with the Megaphone Voice cut no Ice whatsoever, for they had him sewed up.” (The loudmouth was prevented from speaking at a formal dinner.)

We wrote a post in 2015 that discusses several other fabric or sewing terms, including “yarn,” “weave,” “thread,” and “knit,” and one in 2014 that considers the use of “thread” in the online sense.

The “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with may be related, but the evidence is uncertain. One theory is that the expression “spinning a yarn” comes from sailors’ telling stories while making rope—that is, twisting yarn.

The verb “weave” has been used metaphorically (as in “a richly woven tapestry”) since the 1300s, while the noun “thread” has referred to a narrative train of thought since the 1600s, and a series of messages or posts on the same subject since the 1980s. The adjective “knit” has been used metaphorically to mean joined since the 1300s, as in “a close-knit family” or a “well-knit” novel.

Here are the OED‘s earliest known examples of those and some other figurative uses of textile terms.

“chiffon” (light and delicate, like the diaphanous fabric): “Chiffon pumpkin pie.” (From Fashions in Foods, a 1929 cookbook published by the Beverly Hills Women’s Club.)

“embroider” (to embellish rhetorically, often with fictions or exaggerations): “The Græcian Historians and Poets, imbroder and intermixe the tales of auncient times, with a world of fictions.” (From The History of the World, 1614, by Sir Walter Raleigh.)

“fleece” (to swindle or overcharge): “The cardinall knowing he was well prouided of monie, sought occasion to fleece him of part thereof.” (From The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, 1577-87, by Raphael Holinshed.)

“homespun” (homely and rustic, like the homemade yarn or cloth): “Lest my homespun verse obscure hir worth, sweet Spencer let me leaue this taske to thee.”  (From Thomas Watson’s Eglogue Vpon the Death of Walsingham, 1590.) “Eglogue” is an early spelling for “eclogue,” a short poem.

“knit” (joined, as in “a close-knit family”): “First body and saul togyder knyt.” (From the anonymous Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience, 1340.)

“plush” (luxurious, like the sumptuous fabric): “If one were to pass his life in moving in a palace car from one plush hotel to another.” (From the March 1890 issue of Harper’s Magazine.)

“tweedy” (casual, countrified, preppy): “Iris stood before them in tweedy brevity of skirt and pertness of tam-o-shanter.” (From Between Two Stools, a 1912 novel by Rhoda Broughton.)

“weave” (to create an intricate story or plan): “Wo! … seith the Lord, that ȝee [you] schulden do counseil, and not of me; and wefen [weave] a web, and not bi my spirit.” (From John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Vulgate Latin Bible into Middle English.)

“yarn” (a story): “Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.” (From a glossary of criminal slang in The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, 1819.) Despite this citation, the OED says the usage originated as nautical slang.

“thread” (a narrative train of thought): “If one read skippingly and by snatches, and not take the threed of the story along, it must needs puzzle and distract the memory.” (From James Howell’s Instructions for Forreine Travell, 1642.)

“thread” (a linked group of posts or messages): “When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.” (From a May 30, 1984, post on a Usenet group,

“wooly” or “woolly” (hazy and confused): “It [a scene in a picture] looks woolly, undecided in shapes.” (From an 1815 issue of The Sporting Magazine.)

“tapestry” (a colorful and intricate mixture of things): “Nature neuer set forth the earth in so rich tapistry, as diuers Poets haue done.” (From An Apologie for Poetrie, written sometime before 1586 by Philip Sidney.)

We’ll end with the word “fabric,” which meant a building when it showed up in English in the 1400s. It didn’t come to mean a textile until the late 1700s.

English borrowed the term from French, but the Latin source is fabrica, the trade of a faber, a worker in metal, stone, wood, and so on (a carpenter, for example), according to the OED.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is probably “a prehistoric Indo-European base meaning ‘fit things together.’ ”

The first example in the OED (as “an edifice, a building”) is from William Caxton’s 1483 translation from the Latin of Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), a collection of stories about medieval saints, by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa: “He had neuer studye in newe fabrykes ne buyldynges.”

How did the English word for a “building” come to refer to cloth? As Ayto explains, “the underlying notion of ‘manufactured material’ gave rise to the word’s main present-day meaning ‘textile.’ ”

The first OED citation for this new sense is from An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea (1753), by Jonas Hanway: “We are every day making new fabrics.… No nation can make such excellent cloth as this.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add the reference to “cloth.”)

The dictionary’s next example, which we’ve also expanded, is from An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India (1791), by William Robertson:

“There they observed the labours of the Silkworm, and became acquainted with the art of working up its productions into a variety of elegant fabrics.”

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It’s powwow time

Q: I assume “powwow” comes from a Native American language, but how did this word spread to all parts of the country when the indigenous peoples spoke so many different languages?

A: You’re right in thinking that “powwow” was an indigenous American word. You’re also right in suspecting that it wasn’t originally used throughout the continent, since Native American tribes did speak many different languages.

The word came into English in the early 17th century from Narragansett, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This was one of the Eastern Algonquian languages spoken in the coastal Northeast.

To the Narragansetts, who were indigenous to what is now Rhode Island, the word “powwow” meant a priest—that is, a shaman or healer. The word was also known among the Massachusett Indians.

The meaning in reconstructed proto-Algonquian, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), was “one who has visions.”

Native American languages were not written until the advent of Europeans, so “powwow” was first recorded in the 1620s by English colonists who spelled it a variety of ways (“powah,” “powaw,” “pawawe,” etc.).

In the 1630s another meaning of the word was recorded in English, and it’s the principal meaning today. Here’s the OED’s definition: “A religious or magical ceremony (especially one with feasting),” as well as “a council or conference of North American Indians.”

This ceremonial sense of “powwow” apparently originated in English, not in Narragansett, which had other words for “meeting” (miâawene), “religious feast” (nákommit), “feast” or “dance” (nickómmo), and “solemn public meeting” (esaqúnnamun), according to colonial-era glossaries.

As American Heritage explains, the new usage evolved “because of the important role played by the healer or holy person in these events.”

“Today, when speaking in English, some Native American communities themselves use the word powwow to refer to meetings or gatherings held according to the traditional ways of their people,” the dictionary adds.

So how did “powwow” spread from New England to tribes across the continent? Our guess is that the Narragansetts themselves had something to do with it.

Notable as traders and importers of goods from other tribes, the Narragansetts were also trading with the British and Dutch at least as far back as 1623, according to Barry M. Pritzker, in A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples (2000).

The British recorded the word the following year, in 1624 (we’ll get to its use in English later). But it’s reasonable to assume that “powwow” spread first from the Narragansetts to neighboring tribes and later to distant ones.

As Pritzker notes, for most of the 17th century the Narragansetts were the dominant tribe in New England. In the mid-1670s, after what is known as King Philip’s War, many Narragansetts were dispersed among other tribes, and some ended up as far west as Wisconsin. No doubt they took their words along with them.

“By 1880, at least thirty tribes were organizing public-invited gatherings, increasingly referred to as ‘powwows,’ ” Craig Harris writes in Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow (2016), a book about American Indian music.

But it’s likely that European settlers and traders who had picked up the word also helped spread it as they traveled across the continent. OED citations show that the use of “powwow,” in both of its senses, was widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One white settler in particular helped to popularize “powwow” and to preserve many other Narragansett words—Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Plantation, an English settlement that welcomed religious dissenters.

It was the Narragansetts, then a powerful and influential tribe, who sold land to Williams in 1636 for the settlement.

Williams was not only a clergyman and a statesman but also a language scholar, and he’s responsible for much of what we know of the Narragansett and other Algonquian languages in colonial times.

He said that his book A Key Into the Language of America (1643), a study of the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of the native people, was “framed chiefly after the Narrogánset Dialect, because most spoken in the Countrey.”

But even before Williams arrived on the scene, “powwow” had entered English.

When first recorded in English in the 1620s (spelled “powah”), the word meant “a priest, shaman, or healer,” according to the OED.  This is also what it meant to the Narragansetts. In his book, Williams spelled the word powwaw (plural powwaûog) and said that to native speakers it meant “priest.”

Here is Oxford’s earliest citation in English writing:

“The office and dutie of the Powah is to bee exercised principally in calling vpon the Divell, and curing diseases of the sicke or wounded.” (From Good Newes from New-England, 1624, by Edward Winslow, who acted as the Pilgrims’ primary negotiator with New England Algonquians, including the Wampanoag, Massachusett, and Narragansett tribes.)

In the following decade the ceremonial meaning of “powwow” came into English. The earliest example we’ve found is from “A Discourse About Civil Government,” a tract written sometime in 1638 or ’39 by the clergyman John Davenport:

“These very Indians that worship the Devil, will not be under the government of any Sagamores [chiefs] but such as join with them in the observance of their pawawes and idolatries.”

(The OED quotes part of this passage, but gives an imprecise date, 1663, and an incorrect author, John Cotton. In his 1702 biography of Davenport, Cotton Mather credits the tract to Davenport and says the name “Cotton” was substituted for “Davenport” on the printed tract “by a mistake.” An 1839 commentary by Leonard Bacon demonstrates convincingly that the tract was written “sometime between April 15th, 1638, and June 4th, 1639.” The tract was published in 1663, but the title page notes: “Written many Years since … And now Published.”)

The modern spelling of the word as “powwow” (often hyphenated, “pow-wow”) was recorded as early as 1634, according to OED citations, though the spelling fluctuated for a couple of centuries until that became the standard.

A third, and more general, meaning of the word emerged in the early 19th century, defined in the OED as “a meeting, a conference, esp. of powerful people; (also) bustle, activity.”

The dictionary describes this usage as “colloquial” and says it first appeared in the US: “The Warriors of the Democratic Tribe will hold a powow at Agawam on Tuesday.” (From the June 5, 1812, issue of the Salem Gazette in Massachusetts.)

We still use “powwow” this way, as in this more contemporary example from the OED: “A family pow-wow after lunch decided that the afternoon should be spent on a secluded beach.” (From a 1987 issue of the Sunday Express Magazine, London.)

Among Native Americans today, “powwow” usually means a festive get-together celebrating Indian culture, and less commonly a medicine man or woman. Pritzker’s Native American Encyclopedia defines it this way:

“Powwow: Commonly used to describe a gathering at which native people dance, sing, tell stories, and exchange goods, the term also refers (in a mainly Algonquian context) to a healer or a healing ceremony.”

Today the Narragansett language has died out, though revival efforts are under way. Meanwhile, “powwow” has lived on in other Native American languages as well as in English.

The Narragansetts have lived on too. Today, as Capers Jones writes in The History and Future of Narragansett Bay (2006), their yearly powwow is “perhaps the most long-lived Indian meeting on the North American continent.” The tribe’s 341st annual powwow was held in Charleston, RI, last August.

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Testing the waters

Q: Do you know when the phrase “to test the waters” came to mean “to float an idea”? I can’t help wondering if it once had something to do with “to take the waters,” as at a spa.

A: The expression “to test the waters” (or “water”) has been used literally since the 19th century in the sense of testing water for its purity, chemical content, and so on.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a report in the February 1881 issue of the Canada Medical Record about an outbreak of typhoid fever at Bishop’s College University (now Bishop’s University) in Lennoxville, Quebec:

“It appeared desirable to test the waters qualitatively as to their constitution, as to presence of ammonia or ammoniacal salts, chlorides, and organic matters, also for magnesia.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has a somewhat later citation from The Fatal Three, an 1888 novel by the English writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “I have tested the water in all the wells.”

In the 20th century, the expression “to test the waters” took on the figurative sense you’re asking about, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “to make a preliminary test or survey (as of reaction or interest) before embarking on a course of action.”

The earliest OED citation for this sense is from A Little Murder Music, a 1972 mystery by Diana Ramsay: “ ‘If you’re attempting to establish a motive—’ ‘I’m just testing the water,’ Meredith said.”

And here’s an example from Judith Krantz’s 1980 novel Princess Daisy: “ ‘I guess it’s just a lucky thing that Supracorp’s such a big business,’ Kiki said, testing the waters.”

The OED doesn’t have an example for the expression used in the literal sense of testing the temperature of water, such as before going in for a swim or giving a baby a bath.

But we’ve found many examples in database searches, including this one from Building the Baby (1929), by Carolyn Conant Van Blarcom: “Test the water with a thermometer or your elbow before putting the baby in.”

You asked if “to test the waters” once had something to do with “to take the waters,” a much older usage that the OED defines as “to drink or bathe in the waters from a mineral spring or spa for reasons of health or well-being.”

As far as we can tell, the two expressions have nothing in common except the H2O, which they refer to either literally or figuratively.

The earliest OED citation for the older “take the waters”  is from The Yorkshire Spaw, a 1652 treatise by John French on four medicinal wells: “I approve not of taking the waters too fast.”

However, we found an example from the 1980s that uses “test the waters” in the sense of “take the waters” at a spa. In Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980), the biographer Ronald Steel writes:

“During the summer of 1898, when with his parents at the resort town of Saratoga Springs, where New Yorkers of all classes retired to test the waters and bet on the horses, he met his first authentic hero.” (The hero was Admiral George Dewey, whose squadron had just defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila.)

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When “tract” is off track

Q: Several educated people I know use “tract” when they mean “track,” as in “The political science tract is one path to law school.” My desultory search of reference works finds nothing on this usage. Do you condone it?

A: No, “tract” and “track” are not synonyms. They mean different things and are not interchangeable.

As a general rule, the word for an extent or expanse of something (like a plot of land), or for a system of organs, is “tract.” The word for a trail, path, line, or course (academic or otherwise) is “track.”

However, people quite often confuse these words.

Sometimes they mistakenly use “track” in place of “tract,” as in this citation from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “SCAAP skirted those obstacles by buying tracks of undeveloped land.”

Or this Fox News headline from 2014: “Have digestive problems? Tips, tricks to get your digestive track in check.”

In both cases, the correct word is “tract,” meaning an area of land in the first example and a bodily system in the second.

Less often, people use “tract” where “track” is called for, as in this example from Garner’s Modern American Usage (4th ed.): “to help you keep tract of where you are in the filing system.”

Or on the academic websites that offer “advance tract” or “college pre-med tract” or “pre-law tract” programs.

In those cases the correct word is “track.” In the Garner’s example, to “keep track of” means to mentally follow the course of something. In the school examples, it means a course of study.

Despite their similar sounds, “tract” and “track” come from different sources, “tract” from Latin and “track” from Germanic.

But as we’ll explain, both of these words, first recorded in English in the 15th century, ultimately have to do with pulling, dragging, or drawing out. So over the centuries they’ve occasionally overlapped.

We’ll start with the more limited word, “tract.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it comes from the noun tractus, which in Latin means “a drawing, dragging, pulling, trailing,” derived from the verb trahĕre (to draw, drag).

The more distant ancestor is a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as tragh– (pull, move, run), which is a “rhyming variant” of dhragh– (drag), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

The first example in writing is far off the beaten path. In 1486, it appeared as an obscure term in heraldry for a longitudinal division of a field within a coat of arms.

The OED’s earliest example is from a Middle English work, The Book of St. Albans, which has a passage devoted to the subject: “Off tractys in armys” (“Of tracts in arms”). This sense of “tract” is now obsolete.

The principal meanings of “tract” all have to do with the extent or duration of something, senses that began showing up around 1500 in relation to time.

These senses of the word, and the dates when they first appeared, include a time delay or deferral (1503-04); a period of time, as in a “longe tracte of tyme” (sometime before 1513); a stretch of territory or an expanse of space, air, water, etc. (1533); an anatomical structure, usually extending lengthwise, in a plant or animal, such as the “alimentary tract” (1681); a bounded parcel of land, especially one slated for development (1912).

The OED notes, though, that over the years “tract” was sometimes used in the senses of “track” and “trace,” but later on, the words diverged again.

For instance, during the 16th to 19th centuries “tract” was sometimes used to mean a path, route, or course of action. This usage is now rare or obsolete, the OED says, and the meaning is “usually expressed by track.”

And during the same period “tract” was sometimes used to mean a mark left behind, like a footprint or trail. This usage, too, is now rare or obsolete, and Oxford says the usual word is “trace.”

Another, unrelated meaning of “tract” should be mentioned here. The noun for a piece of writing, as in a book or pamphlet, showed up in the 1400s, an apparent abbreviation of tractātus, a Latin noun meaning “a handling, treatment, discussion, treatise,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest examples, “tractes of God” and “a generalle tracte,” are from 15th-century documents that are perhaps as early as 1425 or as late as 1475.

When “track” entered English in the 1400s, it meant pretty much what it means today, if you add in the later figurative uses.

This is the OED’s earliest definition: “The mark, or series of marks, left by the passage of anything; a trail; a wheel-rut; the wake of a ship; a series of footprints; the scent followed by hounds.”

The dictionary’s first written example is dated 1470-85: “Myght I fynde the trak of his hors I shold not fayle to fynde that Knyghte” (from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).

Unlike “tract,” as we mentioned earlier, the noun “track” did not come from Latin, according to etymologists.

“Track” entered English through Old French (trac), but language scholars generally think the French borrowed it from Germanic sources, the OED explains.

The dictionary says that it may have entered French by way of the Middle Low German and Middle Dutch noun trek (a pull or a haul). In both Germanic languages, the verb trekken means to draw, pull, tug, drag, or haul.

How did an English word derived from Germanic sources for dragging and pulling come to mean a trail?

The OED explains that “the original sense would appear to have been the line or mark made on the ground by anything hauled or dragged, whence also the mark made or path beaten by the feet of man or beast.”

Though etymologists don’t link “track” to ancient Indo-European, it seems likely that the Germanic trekken has prehistoric origins that would connect it to “tract.” But the evidence, if it exists, apparently hasn’t been found.

Some later senses of the word, and the dates when they were first recorded in writing, include a route of travel (1576); a course of action or conduct (1638); a path or rough road (1643); a railway line (1806); a race course (1836); a branch of athletics (1905); a set of grooves on a record album, hence a recorded piece of music (1904); an educational stream (1959).

The word has given us many catchphrases and figurative expressions, including to shoot someone “dead in his tracks” (1824); to “make tracks” (1835-40); to be on a “false track” (1871); “covering up his tracks” (1878); “to keep track of” (1873); “on the right track” (1886); “on a wrong track” (1889); “one loses all track of” (1894); “kept close track of” (1902); “from the wrong side of the railroad tracks” (1945, later with “railroad” omitted); “made me stop dead in my tracks” (1954); “keep us on track” (1978).

With that, we’ll stop in our tracks.

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Couples therapy

Q: I’m curious to hear your views about the correct use of the word “couple” when referring to therapy. Is it “couple therapy,” “couples therapy,” or “couple’s therapy”?

A: All three appear regularly in popular and scholarly publications. A fourth version, “couples’ therapy,” isn’t seen as much.

Which term should you use? Well, usage writers haven’t weighed in on the subject, but these are our thoughts.

If you’re writing for publication, use the one preferred by the publication. Otherwise, we’d recommend “couples therapy.” It showed up first in print, it’s the only one in standard dictionaries, and it appears more often than the others in medical dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “couples therapy” as “any form of therapy aimed at relieving problems in a sexual or domestic partnership.”

The earliest written examples date from the mid-1960s, but the usage probably existed earlier, since experiments with this therapy began a decade earlier.

The earliest example that we’ve found in our database searches is from Family Therapy and Disturbed Families, a 1967 book edited by Gerald H. Zuk and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.

A chapter in the book, written by Carl A. Whitaker and John Warkentin, is entitled “The Secret Agenda of the Therapist Doing Couples Therapy.”

As we’ve said, earlier examples probably exist, since Whitaker began experimenting with couples therapy in the mid-1950s, according to Reshaping Family Relationships: The Symbolic Therapy of Carl Whitaker (1999).

The authors of the book, Gary Connell, Tammy Mitten, and William Bumberry, discuss Whitaker’s early work:

“While it was perfectly acceptable for both partners to be in their own individual therapy, the idea of exposing them to each other during a therapy hour was unorthodox. When the presenting complaint seemed relational, Carl began inviting both partners to attend.”

The OED also has a citation for “couples therapy” from the same year as the Whitaker/Warkentin example above:

“The reason you took up couples therapy is because you got bored with individuals.” (From an interview with Whitaker, recounted in Techniques of Family Therapy, 1967, by Jay Haley and Lynn Hoffman.)

The term has been used steadily ever since. Oxford has this more contemporary example, from the British magazine Diva (May 27, 2000): “We had spent a fortune on couples therapy and, believe me, we really worked hard when we were in that room.”

The singular form, “couple therapy,” which the OED defines as meaning the same as “couples therapy,” has been around since the 1970s.

The dictionary’s earliest example is the title of a 1970 article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry: “Behavioral Approaches to Family and Couple Therapy.”

This later example is from a Texas newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News (Sept. 17, 2005): “The sex therapist may want to work with him alone at first, then eventually include couple therapy.”

The OED doesn’t have any citations for “couple’s therapy,” but we’ve found several dating from the 1970s.

The earliest is from a 1970 issue of Voices, a journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists: “The therapist is always involved during couple’s therapy with the struggle between the spouses.”

We’ve found entries for the therapy in only two standard dictionaries, Meriam-Webster Unabridged and the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Both entries are for “couples therapy,” which the Unabridged defines as “usually short-term counseling designed to help couples understand and resolve problems, dissatisfaction, and conflict in their relationship.”

It gives this example from the March 1990 issue of Vogue: “For wealthy addicts or poor ones, addiction is never an isolated problem, but often requires treatment for depression or anxiety, or couples therapy for the many addicts in dysfunctional relationships.”

We’ve found several medical dictionaries with entries for “couples therapy,” including the online Dorland and Merriam-Webster medical references. However, the entry in Mosby’s Medical Dictionary (9th ed.) is for “couples’ therapy.”

As for the various terms for the therapists themselves, the plural “couples therapist,” defined in the OED as “a practitioner of couples therapy,” is the oldest.

This is the OED’s first citation: “The sex therapist must be an extremely skilled psychotherapist and couples therapist if he is to be successful.” (From Helen Singer Kaplan’s The New Sex Therapy, 1974.)

And this is the dictionary’s earliest example for the singular form, “couple therapist,” defined as meaning the same as “couples therapist”:

“There may be a perception of one of the therapists in family therapy which is dominated by his role as an individual or couple therapist.” (From an article by Roger L. Shapiro and John Zinner, collected in Exploring Individual & Organizational Boundaries, edited by W. Gordon Lawrence, 1979.)

The OED doesn’t have a citation for “couple’s therapist.” The earliest we’ve found is from Soul Survivors: A New Beginning for Adults Abused As Children, a 1989 book by J. Patrick Gannon:

“If you select an experienced couple’s therapist, who is savvy in the issues that survivor relationships present, it may be well worth the time and the expense.”

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The roll of the dice

Q: When an indeterminate number of dice are rolled, does one say “die roll” or “dice roll”? I play a lot of tabletop role-playing games and some authors tend towards one usage, some the other. I would like to be correct in my own usage. (I favor “die roll.”)

A: Traditionally, the word “dice” refers to either a game played with dice, or to more than one of the cubes used in such a game.

While traditionalists still prefer “die” for just one of the cubes, many usage authorities now define “dice” as one or more.

If an indeterminate number of dice are to be rolled, you ask, is it a “die roll” or a “dice roll”? We would say “dice roll.”

In the phrase “dice roll,” the noun “dice” is being used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to modify the noun “roll.” We think the word “dice” in that phrase can be viewed two ways: either as a game played with dice or as one or more of the cubes used in the game.

The phrase “die roll,” in our opinion, is a legitimate but stuffy way of referring to the roll of a single cube.

However, the popular online dictionary Wiktionary notes that “die” is “predominant among tabletop gamers.” If the phrase “die roll” is part of the specialized language used by the gamers you play with, then feel free to use it yourself.

We haven’t used the singular “die” ourselves in this post because we use “dice” for both the singular and plural in the gaming sense. We’ll explain our thinking later, but let’s look first at the history of these words.

When the term showed up in early Middle English, the singular was “die” (originally spelled “dē” or “dee”), and the plural was “dice” (originally, “dēs” or “dees”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The plural showed up first in writing. The earliest OED citation is from Robert Mannyng’s Middle English translation (circa 1330) of Roman de Brut, a verse history of Britain by the Norman poet Wace:

“Somme pleide wyþ des and tables” (“Some played with dice and tables”). Backgammon was once referred to as “tables.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the singular is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “The chaunce is cast upon a dee, / But yet full oft a man may see.”

However, the OED also has citations dating from the late 1300s for a Middle English version of “dice” used in the singular.

The first example, from a 1388 act of Parliament, uses the plural “dyces,” suggesting the existence of a singular “dyce.”

The next example, a Latin-English translation from around 1425, is clearer: “Hic talus, dyse.” (Talus means “ankle bone” as well as “dice.” The Romans made dice from the tali, or ankle bones, of animals.)

So is “die” or “dice” the singular today when used in the gaming sense? The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical principles, says “dice” is by far the dominant singular.

“The form dice (used as pl. and sing.) is of much more frequent occurrence in gaming and related senses than the singular die,” the dictionary says.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard (or general) dictionary, says this in a usage note:

“Historically, dice is the plural of die, but in modern standard English, dice is both the singular and the plural: throw the dice could mean a reference to two or more dice, or to just one. In fact, the singular die (rather than dice) is increasingly uncommon.”

However, other standard dictionaries are divided about the oneness of “dice” when the term is used in games. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “die” is the singular and “dice” the plural. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says either “die” or “dice” can be singular.

Usage guides are also divided. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rejects “dice” as “a false singular,” but Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says: “The small cubes with faces bearing 1-6 spots used in games of chance are the dice (pl.); and one of them is called a dice.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language sides with Fowler’s: “Dice is etymologically the plural of die, but the latter is virtually no longer in use (outside the fixed phrase The die is cast), with dice reanalyzed as the lexical base: another dice ~ a pair of dice.”

We agree with the OED, Oxford Dictionaries, Fowler’s, and Cambridge that “dice” now is both singular and plural. However, we also believe that when at the gaming table, do as the gamers do.

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How “awk” lost its way

Q: In your post about “awkward,” you mention a Middle English adjective “awk,” but you don’t cite any instance of it. Did it ever occur in ME as a word in itself, disconnected from the suffix “-ward”? By the way “awk” has a cognate in modern Swedish: avig (the wrong way).

A: Yes, “awk” was a word in Middle English. In fact, it was a word in early Modern English too, though it’s now considered obsolete.

“Awk” was an adjective in Middle English, and an adjective, adverb, and noun in early Modern English. However, the latest citation for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1690s.

(Middle English was the language spoken from around 1150 to 1500, according to the OED, followed by early Modern English.)

The dictionary says “awk” probably came from Old Norse, where afugöfug, or öfig meant “turned the wrong way, back foremost.” Like you, the dictionary notes that the modern Swedish cognate, or relative, has a similar sense.

Oxford says “awk” had cognates in Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old Sanskrit. For example, the cognate in Old Sanskrit, apák or apáñch, meant “turned away.”

When “awk” showed up in Middle English, according to the OED, it had three meanings: (1) “Directed the other way or in the wrong direction, back-handed, from the left hand.” (2) “Untoward, froward, perverse, in nature or disposition.” (3) “Out-of-the-way, odd, strange.”

Here are the earliest examples for each sense, all dated from around 1440. The first two are from Promptorium Parvulorum (Storehouse for Children), an English-Latin dictionary; the third is from Morte Arthure, an anonymous poem based on the legend of King Arthur:

(1) “Awke or wronge, sinister.” (2): ”Awke or angry, contrarius, bilosus, perversus.” (3) “Off elders of alde tyme and of theire awke dedys [deeds].”

The adverb and noun appeared (and disappeared) in the 1600s, according to the OED citations.

The adverb was used in the phrases “to ring awk” (“the wrong way, backward”) and “to sing awk” (“in sinister or ill-omened wise”).

Here’s a sinister/ominous example from Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of Livy’s history of Rome and the Roman people: “What if a bird sing auke or crowe crosse and contrarie?”

Finally, the noun meant “backhandedness, untowardness, awkwardness” when it showed up in the mid-1600s. Here’s an OED citation from a 1674 scientific treatise by the English physician Nathaniel Fairfax: “What we have hitherto spoken, will seem to have less of auk in it.”

In case you’re wondering, the noun “awk,” sometimes spelled “auk” or “auke,” isn’t related to the avian “auk,” a family of diving birds including the puffin and the extinct, flightless “great auk.”

The English name for the bird is derived from its name in Old Norse, álka, which gave Swedish alka and Danish alke.

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Are the Clintons a dynasty?

Q: For years, Bill & Hillary Clinton have been called a “dynasty” in the mainstream media. But “dynasty” properly refers to a ruling family that wields power over generations. A married couple does not constitute a dynasty. However, this improper usage is catching on. Do you have any idea where it comes from?

A: Yes, “dynasty” did have a generational sense when it showed up in English in the 15th century, and that sense is often lost when the word is used today. Is this newer usage legit? Here’s the story.

English borrowed “dynasty” from the French dynastie, but it’s ultimately derived from δυναστεία, or dunasteia, classical Greek for power, lordship, or domination.

When “dynasty” showed up in English writing, it meant a “succession of rulers of the same line or family,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from John Capgrave’s Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, an abbreviated history that the dictionary dates from sometime before 1464, the year Capgrave died: “Than entered þat lond [Egypt] þei of Tebes tyl xxxvi Dynastines had regned.”

But in the 1800s, “dynasty” took on various figurative and other extended meanings, weakening its generational sense. An “Aristotelian dynasty,” for example, might refer to Aristotle and his followers.

The earliest figurative citation in the dictionary is from John Reeves’s On Psalms (1800): “The next dynasty of theologists, the schoolmen.”

And in the 20th century, according to the OED, “dynasty” took on a figurative sports sense: “A run of success (by a team or club) which lasts for several seasons; a team or club achieving such success.”

The dictionary’s first sports example is from the Aug. 20, 1925, issue of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun: “It may be that the present Athletics and Pirates, setting most of the pace in this year’s pennant battles, are about to create new dynasties.”

The word “dynasty,” as you’ve noticed, is often used loosely, from the  original TV Dynasty to the newer Duck Dynasty and the book Kardashian DynastyIs it now acceptable to refer to a “Clinton dynasty”?

Most of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult have expansive definitions for “dynasty” that would apply to the Clintons, especially if Mrs. Clinton is the next president.

For example, the definition of “dynasty” in Oxford Dictionaries online, a different entity from the OED, includes this sense: “A succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes this sense: “A succession of rulers from the same family or line.”

Cambridge Dictionaries online defines “dynasty” as “a series of rulers or leaders who are all from the same family,” while the Collins English Dictionary says it can refer to “any sequence of powerful leaders of the same family.”

Merriam-Webster Online defines it as, among other things, “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.”

And the Macmillan English Dictionary’s definition includes this sense: “a family whose members are very successful in business or politics for a long period of time.”

As we often remind our readers, especially the traditionalists among them, language changes. And the word “dynasty” has been changing since it showed up in English more than five centuries ago.

We think it’s legitimate to call the Clintons, like the Bushes and the Kennedys, a dynasty.

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Why the dead are “late”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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Graphic language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Relational therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When chairmen carried chairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, origin unknown.

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

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

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When “my wife” is “the wife”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Melania’s pussy bow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Needlework: sewer or sewist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is “pussy” a dirty word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What is a con-see-AIR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A stiff upper lip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Make no bones about it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “potter” in “potter’s field”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The OED also has these later citations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A note to our readers

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