The Grammarphobia Blog

Lobbies where lobbyists lobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Did clams give us “clammy”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can “such as” be separated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Did froggie go a-wooing, or no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is that officer a police?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calculus class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do you sleep in your contacts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Close encounters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Did World War I give us cooties?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A moving appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “basket case” myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to shorten a child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A half-dollar vs. 50 cents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are “loath” and “loathe” related?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When the future is present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does “daresay” have a past?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learner driver or student driver?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These ones and those ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Garage sailing, in knots or mph?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chardonnay facts and fictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And where did the parent vines come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is “so fun” ready for prime time?

Q: I often hear people say things like “We went to the circus and it was so fun.” I think the correct usage would be “it was fun” or “it was so much fun.”  I find it strange to see a noun like “fun” used as another part of speech. Help please!

A: As we’ve often said, English usage changes over time and we do our best to stay on top of it. We’re glad you asked us this, since it gives us a chance to review what we last wrote about “so fun,” back in 2008.

Six years ago we noted that “fun” is traditionally considered a noun, as in “We had fun” or  “That was fun.” (In the second example, “fun” can be called a predicate noun—a noun that follows a linking verb and renames or describes the subject).

But the use of “fun” as an adjective has long been regarded as improper (“We had a fun day” … “It was so fun”).

We concluded that the use of “fun” as an adjective “isn’t acceptable, but it’s now so common that someday it just might be.”

Well, perhaps the day has arrived. Almost every dictionary that we’ve consulted now recognizes the adjectival use of “fun,” though not necessarily its use in the phrase “so fun.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, labels “fun” as an “informal” but nevertheless “standard” adjective meaning “enjoyable; amusing.”

Here’s how the dictionary puts it in a usage note:

“The use of fun as an attributive adjective, as in a fun time, a fun place, probably originated in a playful reanalysis of the use of the word in sentences such as It is fun to ski, where fun has the syntactic function of adjectives such as amusing or enjoyable. The usage has become widespread and must be considered standard, though writers may want to avoid it in more formal contexts.”

American Heritage isn’t alone by any means. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) and Random House Webster’s College Dictionary also have entries for the adjective “fun”—and both call it “informal.”

By labeling a usage “informal,” dictionaries generally mean it’s widely found in everyday talk and casual writing, but not in formal writing or formal speech.

Two other respected and widely used sources, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Cambridge Dictionaries online, go even further.

Both have entries for “fun” as an adjective without reservations of any kind—there’s no label of “informal” or anything else.

But what about “so fun”? Is it, too, regarded as a standard usage?

None of the aforementioned dictionaries indicate as much. In all their examples, “fun” is an attributive adjective (one that precedes the noun): “a real fun guy,” “a fun party,” “a fun person,” “a fun time,” “a fun gift,” and so on.

In the phrase “so fun,” however, the word “fun” is a predicate adjective—one that follows a linking verb (like “be”) and modifies a subject previously mentioned.

It could be that the lexicographers at those dictionaries regard the word’s use after the noun (rather than before) as going too far.

In fact, American Heritage specifically uses the phrase “attributive adjective” in its note about “fun.” And two other sources, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the Macmillan Dictionary online, recognize the adjective—but say, “only before noun.”

For another perspective, we turned to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which raises this very interesting point:

“No commentator has attempted to tackle the question of whether fun is a predicate adjective as well [as an attributive adjective], and probably with good reason, for there is no sure way to prove that fun in ‘That was fun’ is either an adjective or a noun.”

Like you, and like many others, the two of us don’t use “so fun.” A sentence like “The party was so fun” doesn’t sound idiomatic to us. However, the use of “fun” as a predicate adjective isn’t as jarring to us in phrases like “rather fun” or “awfully fun.”

Well then, is “so fun” legit?

The usage is out there, but not as out there as you might think. Although a Google search for “so fun” can get more than 5 million hits, the number drops to a few hundred or a few thousand when you actually call up the results (depending on how you do your search).

We wouldn’t recommend using “so fun” until the editors at a few standard dictionaries clearly indicate that the use of “fun” as a predicate adjective is standard English.

One other problem has to be mentioned. Adjectives generally have comparative and superlative forms, so if “fun” is an adjective, should we also recognize “funner” and “funnest”?

That depends on the dictionary you consult. Most don’t comment on the extended forms, but two do.

This is from the American Heritage usage note: “The inflection of the adjective (as funner, funnest) is another matter, however. Although this practice goes back to the 1950s, the inflected forms are almost never used in edited prose aside from direct quotations, usually of children.”

And this is from the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate entry for “fun” as an adjective: “sometimes funner; sometimes funnest.”

It’s true that we “sometimes” hear people use “funner” and “funnest,” but we have to agree with American Heritage that the speakers are usually children—or adults quoting them.

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How dim is dimunition?

Q: Just now, the chairman of the board of a financial institution with several hundred billion dollars of assets under management used “dimunition” where he  meant “diminution.” I don’t often hear either word, but I hear “dimunition” about as often as “diminution.” Do you OK this usage?

A: No, we don’t recommend using “dimunition” to mean a decrease or the act of decreasing. Although Google searches indicate that thousands of people use “dimunition” that way, many thousands more prefer “diminution.”

More important, we haven’t found “dimunition” in a single standard dictionary, either as an entry or as a variant of “diminution,” the accepted spelling of the word.

Although the spelling of “diminution” has varied a bit since it entered English in the 1300s, none of the forms have included “dimunition” or something pronounced like it, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English borrowed the word from the Anglo-Norman term diminuciun, but the ultimate source is deminutio, classical Latin for a decrease.

The earliest example in the OED is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “To encrece or maken dyminucioun / Of my langage.”

Here’s an example, with the modern spelling, from an article by Joseph Addison in the Sept. 23, 1712, issue of the Spectator: “I shall give my reader a Copy of his Letter, without any Alteration or Diminution.”

The usage you’ve noted seems to be relatively new. The earliest example we could find in a search of Google Books was from Communicating Ideas: The Politics of Scholarly Publishing (1991), by Irving Louis Horowitz:

“Less speculative is that the new information technology represents not a dimunition but an addition to what now exists in the way of publishing potential.”

For what it’s worth, most of the early examples were from academic, scientific, or political writing. And, no, we didn’t find a military example of “dimunition” in the sense of a weapon with a double whammy.

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Because and effect

Q: I was on the Web a while ago and saw that the American Dialect Society chose “because” as its 2013 Word of the Year (not “selfie” like some others). This is “because,” as in “I’m so happy today because in love.” Yeccccch! Does this seem likely to transfer into standard English?

A: Traditionally, “because” is followed by a phrase beginning with “of” (“because of his age”) or by an entire clause (“because he was so young”).

But lately “because” has been used in a new way—followed by only an adjective, a noun, or an interjection. Examples: “She ate the leftovers because hungry” … “We’re convinced because facts” … “I bought this bikini because wow!”

This usage, which isn’t widespread enough yet to make it into standard dictionaries, represents a new grammatical function for an age-old word.

So far, this new use of “because” is mostly a youth thing, not found in mainstream writing. The people who use it in their writing—for the most part informally and online—tend to be trendy young sprouts.

We’ve never actually heard it with our own ears (possibly because we move in somewhat creakier circles than those aforementioned young sprouts).

The reason the American Dialect Society found this usage interesting is that it represents not just a new piece of vocabulary (like “selfie” or “twerk”), but a change in an existing word’s grammatical function.

Ben Zimmer, chairman of the society’s New Words Committee, explained in January on the ADS website why the group chose “because” as its word of the year.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’ ”

Later, in his Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website, Zimmer explained that “despite the competition, because won on the first ballot, the clear favorite of word-watchers who get excited to see a trusty old word used in novel ways. And with that, I bid you adieu, because tired.”

You ask whether this “because” will make its way into standard English. Well, the fact that it’s mostly used by the young—and online—doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a temporary fad and that it won’t become a permanent part of the language.

Many standard usages start out as slang or youthful expressions. As with all language change, this one will be adopted by people who find it useful. And if enough people adopt it, the new “because” will have staying power.

But even if this “because” does become mainstream, our guess is that it won’t happen overnight.

It’s worth noting that “because” hasn’t always existed in its modern form. It evolved for centuries before arriving at what we now consider its “traditional” usage.

When it entered Middle English around 1305, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, our word “because” was an adverbial phrase consisting of a preposition and a noun, “by cause.”

Chaucer, for example, wrote in The Franklin’s Tale (circa 1395): “By cause that he was hir neghebour.”

It was “directly modeled on the French par cause,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

In English, this phrase was often preceded by “for,” and was followed by “of,” or by an infinitive, or by a clause introduced by “that” or “why.”

This OED citation, with an introductory “for,” is from the writings of Robert Copland (c. 1541): “For bycause that the sayde indication is nat taken of the same cause ….”

In these usages, as we said above, “because” functioned as an adverb.

But as John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, “already by the end of the 14th century, that and why were beginning to be omitted, leaving because to function as a conjunction, a move which would perhaps have exercised contemporary linguistic purists as much as ‘The reason is because …’ does today.”

Chaucer was an early perpetrator. In The Franklin’s Tale, mentioned above,  he wrote a line omitting “that” in the poem’s prologue: “By cause I am a burel [unlearned] man … Haue me excused of my rude speche.”

The construction with “of” dates to the mid-14th century. The OED’s earliest example is from John Wycliffe’s The Last Age of the Church (1356): “Þe synnes bi cause of whiche suche persecucioun schal be in Goddis Chirche” (“The sins because of which such persecutions shall be in God’s Church”).

Here again, the OED notes, “for” was sometimes tacked on before, as in this 1578 translation from the works of John Calvin: “Man ought to have excelled all other Creatures, for because of the mind wherewith he was indued.”

The use of “because” followed by a “to” infinitive died out in the 16th century, but we can show you what it looked like.

This is from Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of the works of the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil: “Arithmetike was imagyned by the Phenicians, because to vtter [sell] theyr Merchaundyse.” Here “because to” meant “in order to.”

The point of all this is that “because” has changed before, and it could change again. Only time will tell.

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“Rather than” is rather puzzling

Q: I have a question about the following sentence: “My mind still worships the idol of specialness rather than love God.” Is the word “love” correct, or should it be “loves”? The phrase “rather than” seems to be the decisive factor.

A: The word “love” in that sentence is an infinitive, so it doesn’t have to agree with the singular subject.

Although the wording is grammatically correct the way it is, we’d rearrange the sentence to make it a bit easier to understand:

“Rather than love God, my mind still worships the idol of specialness.”

Are you wondering how “love” can be an infinitive if it isn’t preceded by “to”? We’ve discussed bare (or “to”-less) infinitives several times on our blog, including in a post last year.

If you want to keep the current word order, we think readers would find a participle (“loving”) clearer than an infinitive (“love”):

“My mind still worships the idol of specialness rather than loving God.”

You’re right that “rather than” is the decisive factor here. This will take a bit of explaining, because “rather than” constructions can be confusing.

People commonly use “rather than” in comparisons, and generally the terms being compared are grammatically parallel.

For example, the two are both nouns (“adopted a dog rather than a cat”), adjectives (“orange rather than red tomatoes”), prepositions (“up the hill rather than down”), similar verb forms (“he floats rather than swims”), and so on.

But where verb forms are concerned, the terms being compared in a “rather than” construction aren’t always alike. This can happen when one of the verbs is an “-ing” form (a participle, like “loving”) or an infinitive (like “love”).

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language puts it (page 1,317), the terms in a “rather than” sentence are sometimes “clearly non-coordinative”—that is, they’re not parallel.

The book gives this example: “They obeyed the order rather than suffer torture or death.” The first verb (“obeyed”) is in the past tense; the second (“suffer”) is an infinitive.

As the Cambridge Grammar points out, when the terms aren’t parallel—or the “constituents are not syntactically alike”—you can easily move the “rather than” part to the front: “Rather than suffer torture or death they obeyed the order.”

In general, as Robert W. Burchfield says in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), “matching forms are best” in “rather than” constructions.

“The only snag,” adds Burchfield, “is that many kinds of English, including literary English, are more complex, and call for greater subtlety.”

Burchfield cites instances from published sources in which the terms don’t match—one of the verbs is either an “-ing” form or an infinitive (we’ll underline them in his examples):

● “the subject reveals its limitations, rather than providing a springboard for the author”;

● “Rather than dwell on this shortcoming he went off into half-baked musings.”

“Rather than” has long been in use in the kinds of comparative constructions we mentioned above—parallel and otherwise.

Here “rather” is a comparative adverb (meaning more properly, more readily or willingly), and “than” is a conjunction.

Since Old English, “rather” has had meanings associated with priority of some sort—that is, a sense of one thing coming ahead of another, whether in preference, in time, in importance, or for purposes of contrast.

One of its meanings was “earlier, sooner, previously,” the Oxford English Dictionary says (so “rather than” meant sooner or earlier than).

That old sense of “rather” is long gone, but interestingly the expression “sooner than” still carries the meaning “rather than,” as in “I’d sooner have this one than that.”

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The original martinet

Q: Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News the other day that a man who’s a strong leader in America today can expect to be called a bully, a tyrant, a martinet, and other negative terms. Where does ”martinet” come from?

A: John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins traces the usage back to “the name of Jean Martinet, a 17th-century French army officer who invented a system of drill.”

Ayto notes that the first appearance of the term in English—in The Plain-Dealer, a 1677 play by William Wycherley—was a reference to the drill system devised by Martinet, a lieutenant colonel:

“What, d’ye find fault with Martinet? Let me tell you, sir, ’tis the best exercise in the world; the most ready, most easy, most graceful exercise that ever was us’d.”

By the 1700s, the term meant a military drillmaster as well as “a rigid, inflexible, or merciless disciplinarian,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example of the more general sense, from Tancred; or The New Crusade, an 1847 novel by Benjamin Disraeli:

“She knew that the fine ladies … were moral martinets with respect to any one not born among themselves.”

The most recent OED example is from The White Dove, a 1986 novel by Rosie Thomas (pen name of the British romance writer Janey King):

“The grey, starched martinet in her office lined with bound copies of nursing journals.”

As you may be aware, the word “martinet” has had many other meanings since it showed up in English in the early 1400s.

It has meant a bird (a martin or swift), a student at the University of Paris, a watermill, a siege engine, a demon, and a cat-o’-nine-tails once used in French schools.

Why a cat-o’-nine-tails?

The OED suggests that tails of the whip supposedly resembled the forked tail of a swallow (a martin is a swallow). However, we wonder if the name of that 17th-century drillmaster may have influenced the usage.

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How sick is this usage?

Q: In striking down California’s teacher-tenure system, a state judge, Rolf Treu, wrote that ineffective teachers had a “negative impact on a sick number of California students.” I’ve always considered this use of “sick” to mean “excessive” (or maybe “amazing”) to be slang, but now it will be in law books. When does a word stop being slang?

A: Judge Treu didn’t use the phrase “a sick number” in his tentative decision on June 10, 2014. He clearly wrote “a significant number,” but some news organizations got it wrong.

A news outlet that got it right was BloombergBusinessWeek, which reported  on June 12, 2014, about the judge’s ruling.

The Bloomberg reporter, Karen Weise, wrote that in the trial an expert testifying for the state said that “as many as 3 percent of California teachers—8,250 in all—are ‘grossly ineffective.’ ”

“Taken together,” she added, “the judge found that ‘the number of grossly ineffective teachers has a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students now and well into the future.’ ”

A number of dictionaries recognize the use of “sick” as a slang term meaning excellent or impressive. But none of them say “sick” has ever meant numerous or excessive.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides several quotations, from the early 1980s onward, in which “sick” means excellent, impressive, or risky.

The earliest example is from a 1983 typescript on campus slang compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Sick, unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick.”

This later example is from a 2002 issue of U.S. News & World Report: “ ‘That’s siiiick!’ gushes an admiring fan.”

Today, the usage is generally found in reference to skateboarding and surfing, the OED says.

Over the years, there have been many other meanings associated with “sick.” One of the better-known is the colloquial use of “sick” to describe an unpleasant brand of humor.

The earliest OED citation is from Punch in 1959: “The prototype of sick jokes is one that goes ‘But apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ ”

“Sick” has also been used as a slang term to describe a drug addict who craves a fix or who’s suffering from withdrawal, a usage that Green’s Dictionary of Slang has traced back to 1938.

Another use of “sick,” to mean disgusted or mortified, dates from 1850, the OED says.

Yet another, which dates back to Old English and is still very much with us today, is described this way in the OED:

“Deeply affected by some strong feeling, as (a) sorrow, (b) longing, (c) envy, (d) repugnance or loathing, producing effects similar or comparable to those of physical ailments.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from The Fates of the Apostles, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. (The OED dates the poem to 975, but it could have been written as far back as the 800s.)

The opening lines in Old English have been translated as “Sorrowful at the end of my journey and sick at heart, I discovered this song.”

The original and still most common meaning “sick”—that is, ill or ailing—predates that poem by a century.

The earliest known use is from King Aelfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work, The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius.

In modern English the passage reads, “As it is the custom of physicians to say, when they see a sick man.”

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: how World War I changed the English language. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
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In the nick of time

Q: In regard to your recent article about the criminal uses of “nick,” what about its use in the expression “nick of time”?

A: The noun “nick,” which referred to a notch or groove when it showed up in the 1500s, soon took on an additional meaning: the exact point of time when something takes place or needs to be done.

The earliest example of this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Arthur Golding’s 1565 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “there commeth in the nicke.”

The OED says this use of “nick” alone is “now somewhat rare,” but notes the longer form you’ve asked about.

When the expression “nick of time” showed up in the early 1600s, it meant pretty much the same thing as “nick”—that is, a crucial moment when something occurs or has to occur.

The OED’s first citation for the full version of the expression is from a 1610 sermon by the English clergyman John Day: Even in this nicke of time, this very, very instant.”

Another example, from a 1757 letter by George Washington, refers to a sweet-scented tobacco crop that “must if the Ship arriv’d Safe get to Market in the Nick of time.”

And here’s an example from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables: “If Mr. Andrews hadn’t caught her by her sash just in the nick of time she’d have fallen in.”

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The divoon comedy

Q: My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees song is “Kiss Them for Me,” which contains the line “It’s divoon, oh it’s serene.” Did the band coin “divoon” or is it a real word? It sounds like something Noel Coward made up so he could complete a difficult rhyme.

A: No, the English rock band Siouxsie and the Banshees didn’t coin the word “divoon.” It’s been around since at least the 1930s. And Coward apparently didn’t use the term, though he and his work have sometimes been described as divoon.

The 1991 song by the Banshees is a homage to the actress Jayne Mansfield. (“Divoon” was a Mansfield catchword and Kiss Them for Me was a 1957 film she did with Cary Grant.)

Is “divoon” a real word? Well, it’s as real as any other slang word. You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but a lot of slang dictionaries have entries for “divoon,” defining the term as lovely, delightful, divine, or wonderful.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “divoon” as an intentional alteration of “divine.”

The earliest example of the word in Random House is from Lonely Boy Blues, a 1944 novel by Alan Kapelner: “Oh, say, that soldier boy was utterly divoon!”

We’ve found an earlier example in The Happy Island, a 1938 novel by Dawn Powell: “they had both gone from mahogany toenails to a deep tearose and smoked tiny Cuban cigars and said things were ‘divoon’ one week and ‘gallicious’ the next.”

Margaret Reed discusses the intentional mangling of words in “Deliberate Mispronunciations,” a paper published in a 1932 issue of the journal American Speech.

Reed cites “anteecue” for “antique,” “genu-wine” for “genuine,” “a norange” for “an orange,” a “k-nife” for a “knife,” and many more examples.

She attributes the usage to “light-hearted youth.” But we—two not-so-tender punsters—don’t want to give youth all the credit (or discredit) for taking liberties with the language.

In a July 7, 2010, post on the Oxford Etymologist blog, Anatoly Liberman offers an explanation  of why someone would turn a word like “divine” into “divoon” (though he doesn’t actually discuss “divoon”).

“The vowel sound oo has the ability of giving a word an amusing appearance,” Liberman writes.  “Whoever hears snooze, canoodle, and nincompoop begins to smile; add boondoggle to this list.”

Liberman cites “Ooglification in American English Slang,” a 1977 article by the linguist Roger Wescott in the journal Verbatim:

“Hence the idea of the ‘ooglification of American slang,’ formulated in this form by American linguist Roger Wescott: if you want a word to sound slangy, substitute oo for its stressed vowel.”

[Update, Aug. 2, 2014: A reader of the blog writes us to point out that on a 1936 recording of “Let’s Sing Again,” Fats Waller refers to two of his sidemen, who have just played solos, as the “clarinoot” and the “tromboon.”]

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Some words about the N-word

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say the N-word is derived from Latin. I’ve read that it comes from the area of Africa called Niger. Slavers changed “Niger” to “nigger” as a form of humiliation.

A: “Nigger” dates back to the 16th century, when a group of words beginning with the letter “n” started showing up in English in reference to Africans or African Americans.

These words included “Negro,” “nigro,” “niegro,” “neger,” “neager,” “negar,” “niger,” and “nigger.” (Some of these terms were originally capitalized, but only “Negro” is today.)

All of these words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are ultimately derived from the classical Latin word for black, niger.

The OED says the N-word was spelled “niger” when it first showed up in the late 1500s, though “it seems likely that the form niger … is intended to represent the same pronunciation” as “nigger.”

The double-g spelling first appeared in the early 1600s, according to the dictionary, but “niger” was “the preferred form up to the end of the 18th cent.”

At first, Oxford says, the word “nigger” was used by whites “as a relatively neutral (or occas. positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent.”

It didn’t become a racial slur until sometime in the first third of the 19th century, according to Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, a 2001 book by the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.

The earliest example of “nigger” in the OED (spelled “niger”) is from Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of Spanish epistles by Antonio de Guevara: “the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnesse.”

The reference to “the Nigers of Aethiop” here is simply an English translation of the original Spanish, “los negros en Ethiopia.”

The OED’s first example of the word with a double-g spelling is from a 1608 letter in the factory records of the East India Company: “The King and People [of ‘Serro Leona’] Niggers, simple and harmless.”

The dictionary says the comments in the letter, while “expressing patronizing views, reflect underlying attitudes rather than a hostile use of the word itself.”

Clearly derogatory uses began showing up in the early 1800s. Kennedy cites a comment from the abolitionist Hosea Easton about the negative usage.

In A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837), Easton describes “nigger” as “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”

Interestingly, the OED says the word “nigger” was initially “used by black people (esp. African Americans) as a neutral or favourable term.”

However, this statement is open to argument, since the dictionary’s early examples come from white writers describing the speech of African Americans, often in what would now be considered heavy-handed, if not racist, attempts at humor.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “nigger” (and the earlier “niger”) is “probably an alteration” of the even earlier “neger,” a term for a black person first recorded in writing in 1568.

This word “neger,” Oxford says, was adopted from nègre, a word first recorded in Middle French in 1516 as a noun meaning “black person.” The French nègre was adopted in turn from the Spanish noun negro. It was this Spanish noun, negro, that gave English the word “Negro.”

We can understand why you might think “nigger” comes from the geographic name “Niger,” but there doesn’t seem to be any documented evidence that would support this.

The area referred to as Niger is named for the River Niger in West Africa, but the origin of the river’s name is uncertain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used similar names in referring to the River Niger, according to A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, an 1841 reference by Charles Anthon.

Ptolemy, for example, called what appeared to be the River Niger “the Nigeir,” while Pliny the Elder called it “the Nigris.” Herodotus didn’t mention a specific name, but he described what seemed like the same river.

“From all, then, that has been stated,” Anthon writes, “it will satisfactorily appear, that the great river of the Libya of Herodotus, the Nigris of Pliny, the Nigeir of Ptolemy, and the Niger of modern geography, are one and the same river.”

However, it’s uncertain whether those classical names for the Niger, the third-largest river in Africa, were references to the color black or to an African name for the river.

One theory is that the early names referred to the color of the river’s water. But unlike the Rio Negro in Brazil, whose water is dramatically dark, the Niger isn’t black or blackish, according to online images. (The 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson wrote of “Niger’s yellow stream.”)

Another theory is that the river was named for the black soil on its banks. A third hypothesis is that the classical names refer to the “river of the blacks.”

And a fourth is that the names are derived from a Tuareg phrase for the river: egerew nigerewen or egerew n-igerewen (“river of rivers”).

But as we’ve said, there is no evidence to support any of these theories. No matter how the classical names originated, English writers have been referring to the river as the “Niger” since around 1600, according to the OED.

The dictionary doesn’t have a citation for the usage, but here’s an example from Sylva Sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, a posthumously published 1627 collection of scientific writings by Francis Bacon:

“And the confines of the River Niger, where the Negroes also are, are well watered.” (Was Bacon suggesting a connection between “Niger” and “Negroes”? It’s hard to say.)

Getting back to the derogatory nature of “nigger,” we wrote in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, that the word “is now the most bitterly resented racial slur a white person can utter.”

However, we noted that “young rappers now treat it as an honorific of the ’hood—repackaged as ‘nigga,’ ‘niggahz,’ etc.—to the dismay of some of their elders who have painful associations with the original.”

In a 2009 item on our blog, we mentioned that “nigger” (or “nigga”) had been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African Americans. We explained that attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are examples of semantic bleaching.

We also directed readers to an interesting paper on the subject by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York. His paper, published in the book African-American English (1998), discusses sexism in gangsta rap.

You might be interested in another post we ran a few years ago about the mythology of  blackness, and how lightness and darkness came to be identified with goodness and badness.

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It’s no yoke—or is it?

Q: Most of us were taught that the yellow part of an egg, though pronounced like “yoke,” is spelled “yolk.” But a recent AP story called it “yoke” many times. And the Webster unabridged lists “yoke” as a variant spelling. Does that mean it’s perfectly OK?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and only two of them list “yoke” as a variant spelling of “yolk.”

Those two dictionaries—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s Third New International, Unabridged—consider both “yolk” and “yoke” to be standard English for the yellow stuff in an egg.

The fine print in the front of those dictionaries explains what the wording within an entry means.

M-W Collegiate treats the “yoke” spelling as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often” than “yolk.”

However, Webster’s Third treats “yolk” and “yoke” as “equal variants,” though the first one “may be slightly more common.”

No matter what the editors at those two dictionaries say, we wouldn’t recommend using “yoke” for the yellow part of an egg.

The lexicographers at most standard dictionaries online (Collins, Macmillan, Cambridge, Oxford, Webster’s New World, etc.) don’t consider “yoke” a variant of “yolk,” either standard or nonstandard. (The old Webster’s Second lists “yoke” as a dialectal variant of “yolk.”)

The Associate Press stylebook doesn’t have entries for “yolk” or “yoke,” and we suspect that the people who wrote and edited the AP story and its photo captions simply misspelled “yolk.” (We wouldn’t be surprised if the misspelling is corrected online after the appearance of this post.)

Interestingly, the word “yolk” was occasionally spelled “yoke” in the 1800s, and the word “yoke” was occasionally spelled “yolk” in the 1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the only contemporary variant for “yolk” in the OED is “yelk,” a spelling that is found in some scientific and technical works but that “appears to have ceased to be frequent since the third quarter of the 19th century.”

Oxford  lists “yoke” as the only contemporary spelling for the device that’s used to couple oxen together for pulling a plow or wagon, as well as for the many figurative senses of the word.

Both “yolk” and “yoke” date back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “yolk” was geolca, geoloca, or gioleca in Old English, and “yoke” was geoc, gioc, ioc, or iuc.

The OED’s earliest citation for “yolk” (spelled gioleca) is from the Metres of Boethius, Old English poems based on the writings of the Roman philosopher Boethius. Some scholars think King Aelfred (849-899) was the author of the metres, or narrative poems.

The first Oxford citation for “yoke” (spelled iuc) in its oxen sense is an entry from around 1050 in Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabulary (1884), by Thomas Wright and Richard Wülcker.

A somewhat earlier entry in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon from sometime before the year 1000 uses the word (spelled geoc)  for “a similar appliance anciently placed on the neck of a captive or conquered enemy.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “yoke” is ultimately derived from jug-, jeug-, or joug-, an Indo-European root meaning “join” and the source of such English words as “conjugal,” “join,” “junction,” “subjugate,” and “union.”

Ayto says “yolk” is ultimately derived from ghel- or ghol-, the Indo-European root for the color yellow. A “yolk,” he writes, “is etymologically a ‘yellow’ substance.”

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Can a woman be testy?

Q: A headline on Politico about an exchange between Hillary Clinton and an NPR reporter said, “Hillary gets testy over gay marriage.” It strikes me as inappropriate to use a word derived from the male reproductive organs to describe a woman.

A: The word “testy” doesn’t refer to the testes. It comes from an entirely different part of the human anatomy—the head.

In the 14th century, English adopted “testy” from testif, an Anglo-French term derived from teste, the Old French word for head and the ancestor of the modern French word tête.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is testa, the classical Latin term for an earthenware pot. In the post-classical period, Ayto notes, testa “was used humorously for ‘head.’ ”

When “testy” first showed up in English in the 1300s, according to Ayto, it meant headstrong or impetuous. But by the 1500s the meaning of “testy” had evolved from impetuous to impatient to irritable.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (used in the headstrong sense) is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374), in which Diomede is described as “Hardy, testyf, strong and cheualrous.”

The first OED citation for “testy” used in the irritable sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde: “Whiche wyll suffre his pacient though he be neuer so testy or angry.”

None of the Oxford citations use “testy” to describe a woman, but we’ll end with an example from Buried Alive (2011), Myra Friedman’s biography of Janis Joplin.

Dave Richards is quoted as saying he was initially terrified by Joplin when he was hired to help with the band’s equipment: “She was testy, testy about masculinity, about femininity, about everything.”

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Negative thoughts

Q: A colleague in the operating room where I work said to a patient: “You are allergic to no medications.” We all agree that the sentence is awkward at best, but we are debating whether it is in fact incorrect. Can you provide me with an answer (or at least your expert opinion)?

A: This use of “no” with a noun is a perfectly legitimate way to form a negative statement. “You are allergic to no medications” is simply another way of saying “you are not allergic to any medications.”

You may feel one sentence is more felicitous than the other (because of  rhythm, context, and so on), but both are grammatically acceptable.

In constructions of this kind, you have the choice of using a negative either with the noun or with the verb. One version uses “no” with the noun (“no medications”) and the other uses “not” with the verb (“are not”).

When used with a noun, “no” is an adjective, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When used with a verb, “not” (which may be contracted to ’nt) is an adverb; the OED calls it “the ordinary adverb of negation.”

The fact that the noun is plural makes no difference. It could just as well be singular, as in “There’s no milk” (another way of saying  “There isn’t any milk”).

Here are a few more examples. (Note that we sometimes add a form of “do” + “not” to a verb in making it negative.)

“He feels no pain” = “He does not feel any pain.”

“I’ve read no books this year” = “I haven’t read any books this year.”

“We see no problems ahead” = “We don’t see any problems ahead.”

“The applicant has no letters of recommendation” = “The application doesn’t have any letters of recommendation.”

We answered a similar question in 2008 about the legitimacy of “I know of no place” to mean “I don’t know of any place.”

As we wrote then, the two sentences are grammatically equivalent. One may be more graceful than the other, but they’re both correct.

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