The Grammarphobia Blog

Publicly vs. publically

Q: In a recent post, you used the word “publically” (a typo, I hope). It got me wondering why “publicly” is the only adverb formed from an adjective ending in “-ic” that doesn’t use “-ally” (at least it’s the only one I can think of). Is there a historical reason?

A: Well, some standard dictionaries do include “publically” as a variant spelling, but it’s described as less popular than “publicly.” In fact, “publicly” outnumbers “publically” by more than 100 to 1 in Google searches.

More to the point, we prefer “publicly” to “publically,” and we’ve changed that post. We should have known better, since our blog once touched on this subject.

As we wrote in 2010, the adverb form of an adjective ending in “-ic” almost always ends in “-ically.” The notable exception is “publicly.”

As we’ve said, some dictionaries recognize “publically” as a variant, but its acceptability depends on which dictionary you consult.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, labels “publically” a “nonstandard variant of publicly.”

But the entry in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognizes “publicly, also publically.” This use of “also” means that M-W considers the variant standard English though it “occurs appreciably less often.”

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Publically is an occasionally used variant spelling of publicly. It is either based on the obsolete publical or, more likely, simply on analogy with many other –ically adverbs.”

The mention of “publical” is significant, because obviously any adjective ending in “-ical” will have the “-ically” ending when it becomes an adverb.

And as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “it can frequently be unclear” how an “-ically” adverb was formed.

Was “-ly” added to an adjective ending in “-ical,” like the rare “publical”? Or was “-ally” added to an adjective ending in “-ic,” like “public”?

The question is relevant because at one time many adjectives had both “-ical” and “-ic” forms, as with “rustical/rustic,” “romantical/romantic,” “athletical/athletic,” “optimistical/optimistic,” “scenical/scenic.”

Sometimes there were briefly two corresponding adverbs, as with “rustically/rusticly,” “romantically/romanticly,” “phlegmatically/phlegmaticly.” But generally the “-ically” adverbs were more common.

Today, many of the “-ical” adjective forms have died out, but despite that, the surviving adverb forms “almost always” end in “-ically,” the OED says.

This is true even when only the adjective ending in “-ic” is currently used, Oxford adds, “as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

And where both adjectives (“-ical” and “-ic”) exist today, the corresponding adverb ends in “-ically,” as with “comically” (for “comical” and “comic”), “poetically” (for “poetical/poetic”), and “historically” (for “historical/historic”).

The elephant in the room is “publicly.” And that’s the form we generally use on the Grammarphobia Blog—except when we forget.

It’s always been the predominant form, and it’s much older. It was first recorded, according to the OED, in 1534, more than 250 years before “publically” showed up in writing in the late 18th century.

The Merriam-Webster’s usage guide concludes its entry on “publically” with this advice: “You can use it if you like, but we do not really recommend it, because it will look unfamiliar to many who encounter it.”

Note: Some dictionaries include “franticly” as an acceptable variant, but the usual adverb is “frantically.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Smart talk

Q: I’m curious about how “smart” came to mean intelligent as well as stylish. Which came first?

A: The adjective “smart” has meant fashionable since the 1700s and intelligent since the 1500s, but it’s meant painful much, much longer—since Anglo-Saxon days.

When the adjective first showed up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant biting or stinging, like the pain from a rod or whip. The verb “smart” (to hurt or sting) appeared about the same time.

The earliest example of the adjective in the OED is from Sermo ad Populum Dominicis Diebus, an Old English homily: “Ic wylle swingan eow mid þam smeartestum swipum” (in Modern English, “I want to beat you with that smart whip”).

Although “smart” can still mean painful (“a smart slap in the face”), it’s used more often these days in the sense of intelligent, fashionable, neat, impertinent, or technically advanced (like a smart phone or a smart missile).

Some standard dictionaries describe the intelligent sense as chiefly American and the neat sense as chiefly British, though both usages can be heard on either side of the Atlantic.

Middle English writers widened the original painful sense of the adjective to include mental as well as physical pain.

In The Book of the Duchess (1369), for example, Chaucer writes: “Hym thought hys sorwes were so smerte” (“He thought his sorrows were so smart”).

Around the same time, the adjective took on a new sense—fast, rapid, brisk. Why? We haven’t seen an explanation, but it could be because the sting of a whip prompts a riding horse or a draft animal to speed up.

The earliest OED example of this speedy sense is from an English law, written sometime before 1325, that discusses novel disseisin, an old legal remedy to recover dispossessed lands:

“Þer nis no writ … ware-þoru þe plaintifs habbez smarttere riȝt þane þoru þe writ of nouele disseisine” (“There is no writ through which plaintiffs have faster justice than through the writ of novel disseisin”).

Later in the 1300s, the adjective “smart” came to mean lively, active, or prompt. And by the start of the 1400s, it meant forward, impudent, cheeky, or pert.

As you can see, the sense of being quick of foot was quickly evolving to mean quick of mind. By the 1570s, according to OED citations, the evolution was complete.

The dictionary’s first example of “smart” used to mean intelligent is from a 1571 poem by the Scottish ballad writer Robert Sempill: “Smart in my schuitting [shooting] & singular in my Science.”

This later example is from Argenis, a 1628 book by the Scottish satirist John Barclay: “For he, a smart young man, and of great iudgement … held vp the Kings side.”

In the early 1700s, the adjective took on the sense of neat and stylish. The OED’s first citation, referring to a stylish wig, is from The Lying Lover, a 1704 comedy by the Irish writer Richard Steele: “What shall I do for Powder for this smart Bob.”

In a few years, “smart” was being used in the sense of fashionable, elegant, and sophisticated. The first example in the OED is from a description of a painting in the March 27, 1719, issue of the Free-Thinker:

“In the rising Scale is a Cluster of smart Men, in tawdry Dresses, with little Rapiers, cocked Hats, and tied Wigs; holding divers Sorts of Mathematical instruments.”

In this better-known example, from Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), Edward Ferrars is speaking to Mrs. Dashwood:

“I always preferred the church as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me.”

So how did an adjective meaning painful and intelligent come to mean fashionable?

Our guess is that it might have evolved along the lines of “cute,” an abbreviated version of “acute” that progressed from clever, sharp, and shrewd to attractive, pretty, and charming.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A usage to hate on?

Q: An MSNBC host used “hate on” the other day. My teen-age son and daughter use it too. This seems to be a recent thing—a clunky product of social media, I think. Is it grammatically sound?

A: You ask whether the verbal phrase “hate on” is grammatically sound. A better question might be whether it’s standard English.

The editors at the few standard dictionaries that include “hate on” disagree on how standard the phrase is.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes the usage as “slang,” which it defines as “coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms.”

The online Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries describe the usage as “informal,” which they define as conversational or relaxed language. Neither one suggests that it’s nonstandard.

There isn’t much written evidence for “hate on” before the late 1990s, though contributors to discussion groups say they recall hearing it in the early ’90s in black English.

The phrase began cropping up in the late ’90s in hip-hop lyrics. The 1999 single “Hate Me Now,” recorded by the rapper Nas, has the lines “Hate on me … but I’m still the same ol’ G.”

Some academics have taken note, suggesting that the usage may involve complaining publicly rather than stewing in silence, and that it may include an element of jealousy.

Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California, discusses “hate on” in his book The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop (2003).

“In hip hop, verbs often function in a very active way,” Boyd writes. “To ‘hate’ on someone is to use the expressive powers of negativity to cast an aspersion on those who are visibly successful.”

The form “hate on,” Boyd suggests, “becomes more than simply an attitude or silently held feeling of contempt. It is the active usage of that word. It is now common to hear people talk about someone hatin’ on them.”

The anthropologist Marcyliena Morgan, in her book Language, Discourse and Power in African American Culture (2002), says that in black English the phrasal verb “hate on” carries an element of envy, “as in Don’t be hatin’ on my hair.”

More than a decade later, the usage is no longer limited to what linguists often refer to as African American Vernacular English, and has apparently become a general slang term among younger Americans.

Keep in mind, too, that English has always made liberal use of prepositions and adverbs to form new versions of old verbs.

This is how the 17th-century phrase for changing one’s habits, “turne the leafe,” eventually became “turn over a new leaf.” (The “leaf” here, by the way, means a page in a book, not a tree leaf.)

Getting back to “hate on,” here are two examples of the usage from the standard dictionaries that discuss it.

Cambridge: “These kids get hated on for no good reason at all.”

Oxford: “I can’t hate on them for trying something new.”

The expression reminds us of “brag on,” which we wrote about on the blog last March and which means to praise or boast about.

While the verbal phrase “hate on” is fairly recent, a similar usage in which “hate” is a noun existed in the 1940s—to “have (or take) a hate on” someone. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines it as “to dislike intensely; hate.”

The slang dictionary’s earliest sighting is from the Jan. 22, 1949, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “The brightest boy in the class cannot get by forever if everyone takes a hate on him.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has an example from earlier in the ’40s of a similar usage in Australian slang: to “have a hate against” someone or something.

The OED cites this entry from A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang (1941), by Sidney John Baker: “Have a hate against, actively to dislike a person or thing.”

Random House’s latest citation for the usage is from a 1992 episode of the television crime drama Likely Suspects: “He had a hate on for Breen.”

But the expression “to have a hate on” is still with us today. This headline ran on the BloombergBusiness website in 2014: “Does Bill Ackman Have a ‘Hate-On’ for Allergan?”

And here’s an example from the June 22, 2015, issue of the Toronto Star: “Twenty per cent of Canadians are peeved by tailgaters while 19 per cent have a hate on for those who drive too slowly.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Miser, miserly, and miserable

Q: I assume that “miser” and “miserly” are relations of “miserable,” but how exactly are they related?

A: All three are ultimately derived from miser, a Latin adjective meaning wretched or unfortunate.

The use of the “adjective in the sense ‘miserly’ is not recorded in Latin, but may have existed,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED says, the Romans sometimes used miser in the sense of “wretched in one’s social or financial circumstances.” Could those “financial circumstances” have sometimes been “miserly”?

The words “miserable” and “miser” both showed up in English around the same time in the 15th century.

The OED’s earliest example of “miserable,” meaning living in a wretched condition, is from a poem by Thomas Hoccleve written around 1422: “To helle goon tho soules miserable.”

However, the dictionary has a question mark in front of the Hoccleve citation, indicating that it’s not sure of the exact meaning of “miserable” here.

The OED’s first definite example—written sometime in the 1400s and cited in Liber Pluscardensis, a history of Scotland—refers to the “mynd of miserabile humanite.”

When “miser” first showed up in English, according to Oxford, it was as an adjective meaning miserly or parsimonious, but that sense of the word is primarily heard now in Scottish.

The dictionary’s first example, also from the 1400s, is a citation in the Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, a German literary and linguistic journal:

“Of his plentevous bloode he was not misser, / For he sufferd his manhod to be slayne.”

When “miser” showed up as a noun in the 16th century, it referred to “a miserable or wretched person,” but that sense is now obsolete, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Apophthegmes of Erasmus: “So did the philosophier call hym a miser, that had no qualitee aboue the commen rate of manne.”

It wasn’t until the late 16th or early 17th century that the noun took on its modern meaning of someone who hoards his wealth or is stingy.

The earliest Oxford example is from Shakespeare’s Henry V. In the play, written around 1600, the King of France’s son says stinting on defense “Doth like a Miser spoyle his Coat, with scanting / A little Cloth.”

Finally, the adjective “miserly” meant stingy and parsimonious from the moment it first showed up in print, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED’s earliest example is from Christ’s Teares Ouer Ierusalem, a 1593 work by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe:

”If there were any that had dudgen-olde coughing miserly Fathers they could not endure.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

This usage is legit, no?

Q: Is there any grammar rule that forbids using the word “no” at the end of a question?

A: No! English speakers often end a sentence with “no?” to make it a question, especially in casual speech.

One might say, for example, “You enjoyed it, no?” to mean “You enjoyed it, didn’t you?” Notice how the addition of “no?” turns an ordinary declarative sentence into a casual question. (In fact, “yes?” is sometimes used in the same way.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “no” is being used here as a “question tag” to mean something like “is that not so?” or “am I not correct?”

The OED labels this usage “colloquial,” meaning it’s more characteristic of everyday speech than more formal language.

Oxford’s examples of the usage are all fairly recent, dating from the 1930s. The first is from a British novel, Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street (1932):

“He was at one of those big schools, where they all live together. A public school they call it, no?”

This more contemporary example is from a 1998 article in the Independent (London): “The people who make Watchdog and Esther will now also be in charge of all the features at Radio 4—inspires you with confidence, no?”

The OED’s latest citation is from a Canadian novel, Anil’s Ghost (2000), by Michael Ondaatje: “Look—the rubbish here in the halls. This is a hospital, no?”

Sometimes, Oxford says, this “no” is used “in representations of the speech of those for whom English is not a first language, corresponding to French n’est-ce pas?, Spanish no?, etc.”

This citation, from E. G. Webber’s comic novel Johnny Enzed in Italy (1945), is an example of the dialectal use: “All this us der merry laugh gives, no?”

But many native speakers of English use this question-tag “no” routinely, so if it was ever considered broken English, it is no longer.

As we mentioned, the adverb “no” at the end of a sentence is a relatively recent usage, according to the OED.

But “no” at the front is many centuries old, and dates back to Middle English. (Again, we’re talking about the adverb, not the adjective, as in “No dessert for you, young man!”)

Oxford’s earliest written citation is from “The Clerk’s Tale” (circa 1395), by Geoffrey Chaucer: “I ne heeld me neuere digne in no manere / To be youre wyf. No, ne youre chambrere.” (I never held me worthy in any way / To be your wife. No, nor your chambermaid.)

John Keats used this “no” in his obscure drama “Otho the Great,” written around 1819: “No, not a thousand foughten fields could sponge / Those days paternal from my memory.”

By now this construction is so common that it’s unremarkable. One of its more familiar variations is in the expression “No you don’t.”

The OED’s examples begin with this stagey citation from Frederic Reynolds’s comedy Fortune’s Fool (1796): “No—you don’t—you shan’t quit the room.”

We’ll conclude with the most recent OED citation, a scrap of dialog from the film script of South Park (1999), by Trey Parker and others:

Satan: I am the dark master! Kyle’s mother: Oh no you don’t!”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

This boot’s not made for walkin’

Q: Your recent post about “my foot” has left me wondering about another expression involving feet: “to boot.” Your thoughts?

A: The “boot” in the phrase “to boot” has nothing to do with footwear or feet. It’s entirely unrelated to the more recent English word “boot,” the one that may give you blisters.

The original “boot” is an extremely old noun that was used in Anglo-Saxon times to mean “advantage,” “good,” “profit,” or “remedy,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is long dead, for the most part. It survives in the adjective “bootless” (helpless or ineffectual) and the phrase “to boot,” which the OED defines as “to the good,” “to advantage,” “into the bargain,” “in addition,” “besides,” and “moreover.”

“Boot” appears in many Old English manuscripts and may date from as far back as the early 700s. But its ultimate source is older than written language.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this “boot” can be traced to a prehistoric Germanic root, reconstructed as bat-, which is also the source of the Old English betera (“better”) and betest (“best”).

That same ancient root is also the source, the OED says, of the obsolete verb “beet,” which once meant to make good or make amends, and of the old noun “bot,” meaning compensation.

From earliest times, this “boot” was used alone as well as in the phrase “to boot.”

The word is used alone (written bote) to mean a medicinal cure or remedy in the Old English poem Elene, written by Cynewulf sometime between 750 and the late 800s, the OED says.

And it appears (as bot) in Beowulf, which may date from 725, in the sense of compensation paid for injury or wrongdoing.

The earliest citation in the OED for “to boot” (spelled to bote) is from Daniel, an anonymous and undated Old English poem inspired by the biblical Book of Daniel. But these later citations are easier to understand:

“A hundreth knyghtes mo … and four hundreth to bote, squieres of gode aray.” (From the Chronicle of Robert Mannyng, 1330.)

“Bi assent of sondry partyes and syluer to bote.” (From Piers Plowman, by William Langland, 1377.)

“For two books that I had and 6s. 6d to boot, I had my great book of songs.” (From Samuel Pepys’s Diary, 1660.)

As we mentioned above, the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective “good”—that is, “better” and “best”—are derived from the same source as the nearly defunct “boot.”

So while English virtually abandoned the old “boot,” it kept relatives of that word for the comparative and superlative forms of “good.”

That raises a question. Why didn’t English simply adopt “gooder” and “goodest” instead of “better” and “best”? Again, the OED has the answer.

The adjective “good” never did have “regular comparative or superlative” forms in the Germanic languages, Oxford says.

“These were supplied,” the dictionary says, “by formations from the common base of better adj. and best adj.”—in other words, from the ancient Germanic root bat-.

Similar irregular patterns, the OED adds, show up in “adjectives of comparable meaning in other Indo-European languages.” Oxford mentions one such sequence—the classical Latin bonus (good), melior (better) and optimus (best).

In short,“gooder” and “goodest” were never standard in English. However, Oxford says, they did “occasionally occur from early modern English onwards, often in jocular or playful language.”

Now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of “to boot,” you’re probably wondering about the other “boot,” the one that is made for walking.

This “boot” dates from the early 14th century, when it was borrowed from Old French (bote) and meant a sort of shoe, usually of leather, extending above the ankle.

The origins of the French word are uncertain, according to several etymological dictionaries, though there were similar forms in other languages—bota (Provençal, Portuguese, Spanish), and botta (medieval Latin).

A related sense of “boot”—it now means the trunk of a car in British English—is older than you might think.

Since as far back as 1608, according to OED citations, “boot” has been used to mean part of a horse-drawn coach. And since 1781 it’s meant a place to store luggage and cargo.

One final note. The 19th-century noun “bootstrap” is self-explanatory—a strap for pulling a boot on.

What’s interesting is that this noun was used in the early 1950s in computing to mean a fixed sequence of instructions that would initiate the loading of an operating system.

The term was first recorded, according to OED citations, in 1953 in Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers:

“A technique sometimes called the ‘bootstrap technique.’ Pushing the load button … causes one full word to be loaded into a memory address previously set up … after which the program control is directed to that memory address and the computer starts automatically.”

(The computer usage was probably influenced by the expression “pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” or more directly perhaps by Robert Heinlein’s 1941 time-travel short story By His Bootstraps.)

In the 1970s and ’80s the word was eventually shortened to “boot” (both noun and verb), and today it’s a household word—at least in houses that have computers.

If you’d like to read more, we had a post last year that discusses the history of the word “booty” in its various incarnations. One would assume that pirates’ “booty” would be related to the “boot” that means profit, but so far no connection has been proved.

[Update. A reader writes on August 26, 2015: “Thought you might be interested to know that the term ‘boot’ is very much alive in the tax accounting field. When two parties exchange property, ‘boot’ is the additional amount of cash or property one party receives to make the value of the exchange equal.”]

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A kiss, a slap, and a padiddle

Q: When I was growing up in Philadelphia, we used to call a car with only one headlight a “padoodle.” I can’t find it in my Webster’s dictionary. Could this have been some highly local slang?

A: The word you’re thinking of is usually spelled “padiddle,” though it’s sometimes seen as “bediddle,” “padungle,” “perdiddle,” “perdiddo,” and “padoodle,” according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The slang term, which refers to a car with only one working headlight, is also an exclamation shouted in a courting game played by young couples out for a drive.

DARE has examples of the usage from the Midwest, the West, and the East, though we hadn’t heard of the word before you wrote (Pat grew up in Iowa, Stewart in New York).

The regional dictionary has this 1959 explanation of the usage cited in Folklore From Kansas (1980), edited by William E. Koch:

“If a fellow sees a car coming with only one light and says ‘padiddle,’ he may kiss his girl. If she sees it first and says ‘padiddle,’ she may slap the boy.”

DARE also has examples from California, Washington, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, New Jersey, and Long Island, NY.

The usage seems to have originated in the 1940s. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US colloquialism of unknown origin.

The OED’s earliest example is from an “Archie” comic strip in the May 23, 1948, issue of the Nevada State Journal:

“Let’s play ‘padiddle.’ … When a car goes by with one headlight if I say padiddle you have to give me a kiss!”

However, we’ve found a Library of Congress catalog that lists the Feb. 10, 1940, copyright for an unpublished song, “Let’s play padiddle; w Donna Mae Carlson,” suggesting that the usage dates at least as far back as the early ’40s.

The word sleuth Grant Barrett has described a less romantic version of the game played by children. In this version, according to an April 16, 2008, post on his blog, “If you shout first, you get the right to punch another passenger on the arm.”

Finally, DARE cites a third version of what happens when a padiddle comes into view, from an unpublished letter to the Newsletter of the American Dialect Society:

“If you see one coming, you’re supposed to kiss any handy members of the opposite sex and pinch any of the same sex.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A blindingly obvious oxymoron?

Q: I was reading an article about Edward Snowden in the New Yorker the other day and stopped at the phrase “blindingly obvious.” My first reaction was that the combination of “blindingly” and “obvious” was an oxymoron. But then I thought that maybe “blindingly” was there to emphasize the obviousness. So, what do you think?

A: In discussing the former government contractor who leaked numerous classified documents, the article in the June 3, 2015, issue of the New Yorker says:

“The President and others have praised the U.S.A. Freedom Act, but haven’t mentioned the blindingly obvious fact that without Edward Snowden the law wouldn’t exist.”

No, the phrase “blindingly obvious” isn’t an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. The word “blindingly” is being used here, as you suspect, as an intensifier.

The word “blind” has had many uses since it showed up in the West Saxon Gospels in the late 10th century as an adjective meaning sightless.

In addition to indicating sightlessness, it’s meant unguarded (as in “blind side”), reckless (“blind fury”), closed at one end (“blind alley”), flying by means of instruments (“blind flying” or “flying blind”), unquestioning (“blind loyalty”), unrevealed (“blind copy”), and so on.

The adverbs “blind,” “blindly” and “blindingly” have similarly strayed in varying degrees from the original sightless meaning of the adjective, giving us such phrases as “blind drunk,” “blindly accept,” and the one you’re asking about, “blindingly obvious.”

Cambridge Dictionaries Online says “blindingly” means extremely in the expression “blindingly obvious,” and Cambridge gives this example: “It’s blindingly obvious that she’s not happy at school.”

The online Macmillan Dictionary defines “blindingly obvious” as completely obvious, and includes this example: “Isn’t it blindingly obvious he’s in love with you?”

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “blindingly,” but it hasn’t been updated since 1887, when the OED was the NED (the New English Dictionary).

The earliest example, from an 1849 sermon by the English theologian Julius Charles Hare, uses the adverb loosely to mean in a blinding manner: “The darkness which lay blindingly on the hearts and souls of mankind.”

Although the OED doesn’t have any citations for “blindingly” used as an intensifier, we’ve found quite a few 19th-century examples in searches of literary databases.

This is from an 1892 article in the New Review, a British literary magazine, about Barrack-Room Ballads, a collection of songs and poems by Rudyard Kipling:

“Only a man of the most blindingly original genius could have written them, and I hope they may win the ear and heart of England, and make England more careful of her gallant children and defenders.”

And here’s an example from Harper’s Chicago and the World’s Fair (1893): “It was frightfully hot in Chicago, it was blindingly hot in the car, and it was hotter still in the country.”

And here’s another, from an 1898 article in the Bookman, a New York literary journal, commenting on the works of the American novelist and short-story writer John Fox Jr.:

“While ‘A Cumberland Vendetta’ is blindingly illiterate, ‘A Mountain Europa,’ truly the best thing he has written, is not.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “blindingly obvious” is from the June 14, 1919, issue of the New Statesman:

“Compared with this terrible and blindingly obvious fact, even the tale of German atrocities sinks into the position of an irrelevancy.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A pronouncing primer

Q: I pronounce “primer,” the textbook, to rhyme with “trimmer.” But people I otherwise admire pronounce it to rhyme with “timer.” May I harbor ill will against them? Or are they simply using an acceptable alternate pronunciation?

A: The word for the elementary textbook was pronounced with a short “i” (rhyming with “trimmer”) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century.

Americans still pronounce it that way. But in the late 19th century, the British began pronouncing it with a long “i” to rhyme with “timer” and that’s now the usual pronunciation in the UK, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes that the long “i” pronunciation for the textbook “is the primary one given in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict.” (In 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones published the first edition of his English Pronouncing Dictionary, which has remained in print in various editions.)

We’ve checked the pronunciation of “primer” (used in the textbook sense) in six standard dictionaries. The three British references list it with a long “i” while the three American sources list it with a short “i.”

So which pronunciation is correct? It depends on which side of the pond you call home.

But English speakers on both sides pronounce “primer” with a long “i” (as in “timer”) when it’s used in other senses (such as an undercoat of paint or a cap used to ignite an explosive). We ran a post in 2012 about the use of “primer” in painting.

English adopted “primer” in its learning sense from primarium, medieval Latin for a prayer book. In classical Latin, primarius was an adjective meaning primary.

Such devotional books were often used to teach children to read, which soon led to the use of “primer” for a beginning (or first) school book, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The earliest OED example of the word used in its prayer-book sense is a 1378 reference to one red “primer” in M. T. Löfvenberg’s Contributions to Middle English Lexicography and Etymology (1946).

The earliest example for the textbook sense is from “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): This litel child his litel book lernynge, / As he sat in the scole at his prymer.”

An interesting aside: Daniel Jones, whose pronouncing dictionary we cited earlier, may have been the inspiration for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Henry Sweet, a mentor of Jones, has also been mentioned.

[Note: This item updates and expands on an April 4, 2008, post about the pronunciation of “primer.”]

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When “mow” rhymes with “cow”

Q: I believe Pat misspoke on Iowa Public Radio the other day when she said the noun “mow,” as in “hay mow,” is pronounced the same as the verb. My family on my dad’s side are farmers from Wisconsin, and I’ve always heard it pronounced MAU, rhyming with “cow.” I’ve never heard it pronounced MOE, as in “Mow your yard.”

A: You’re right! Pat mistakenly pronounced the noun, a place for storing hay, as MOE, rather than MAU when she appeared on Talk of Iowa on July 8, 2015. Apologies are in order.

Despite similar spellings, the noun and the verb are pronounced differently. The noun rhymes with “plow” while the verb rhymes with “hoe.” Pat, who comes from Iowa, should have known better.

Why don’t these words sound alike? As it happens, they’ve been different for a very long time, because they come from different sources reaching far back into prehistory.

The “mow” where hay or straw or grain is stored can be traced to an Old English word, muha, dating from before 800, that meant a heap or pile.

The word’s cousins in old Germanic languages meant “crowd,” “flock,” and “common people,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

Ultimately, however, the word goes even further back, to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as muk- (heap, pile), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The other “mow,” the one that means to cut down, has its distant beginnings in another Indo-European root, reconstructed as me– (to cut down grass or grain with a scythe).

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this prehistoric me– gave us three strains of English words:

(1) our verb “mow” (as in reap), which started out as mawan in Old English;

(2) “mead” and “meadow,” which come from words for a mown field;

(3) “math,” a nearly defunct agricultural word for a mowing (it survives today in the word “aftermath,” literally “after mowing”).

The archaic “math,” by the way, has nothing to do with numbers. We wrote about the two words spelled “math” in a 2012 post on the blog.

Given that both versions of “mow”—the noun and the verb—are so strongly associated with farming, one would assume their two pronunciations would have merged into one by now.

But it hasn’t happened. All modern dictionaries, as Pat has learned to her embarrassment, give MAU for one and MOE for the other. Live and learn.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Nonplussed about “nonplussed”

Q: I’m troubled by the word “nonplussed.” It still means perplexed here in Australia (as it does in England). But in the USA, it’s evolved to have two incompatible meanings. Does this ambiguity render it less usable?

A: The participial adjective “nonplussed” has meant perplexed or disconcerted since it showed up in written English in the early 1600s, but a lot of people—and not just Americans—now think it means the opposite: unfazed or indifferent.

We’ve checked six standard dictionaries—three American, three British—and none of them consider the new usage standard English.

In fact, only two of them (Oxford Dictionaries online and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.) take note of the recent usage, which began showing up in print half a century ago.

Oxford labels this unperturbed sense as “North American informal,” and adds in a usage note, “It is not considered part of standard English.”

American Heritage lists the indifferent sense as a “usage problem,” and notes, “This usage is still controversial and should probably be avoided, since it may well be viewed as a mistake.” In a 2013 survey, a majority of AH’s usage panel rejected this sense.

“Nonplus” began life in the late 1500s as a noun meaning a state of perplexity in which no more can be said or done. In classical Latin, non plus means no more.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1582 treatise by the English Jesuit priest Robert Parsons: “Beynge now brought to a non plus in argueing.”

An adjectival version of “nonplus” (probably short for “at a nonplus,” according to the OED) showed up in 1589 in Albion’s England, a historical poem by William Warner: “Soone his wits were Non plus, for his wooing could but spell.”

When the term is used adjectivally today, however, it’s usually in the form of the participial adjective “nonplussed.”

The verb “nonplus,” meaning to perplex or confound, first showed up (as a past participle) in Joshua Sylvester’s 1605 translation of the poetry of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, according to OED citations.

We’ll skip ahead, however, to a clearer example from The Historie of the Holy Warre (1639), by Thomas Fuller: “I know it will non-plus his power to work a true miracle.”

The first appearance of the participial adjective “nonplussed” in OED citations is from A Continuance of Albion’s England, a 1606 addition to Warner’s lengthy historical poem: “As lastly did the non-plust Nunne vnto her Charmes agree.”

The OED describes the recent use of “nonplussed” to mean unperturbed rather than perturbed as “orig. and chiefly U.S.” It suggests that the usage probably arose because of confusion with other “non-” words.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from the Aug. 2, 1960, issue of the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune: “The Rev. Dr. Braddeley remained nonplussed. ‘I don’t intend to make a habit of going to the races.’ ”

And here’s an example, from Flying (1974), by Kate Millett: “He is nonplussed. Has probably been in this bind a hundred times.”

Although the OED and Oxford Dictionaries online consider the recent usage American (or chiefly American), we’ve found many examples in the British news media.

The website of The Independent, for example, used the term in a recent story about an explosion during the destruction of 10 tons of confiscated beer in Kenya.

As politicians hurry from the scene, the report says, the sign-language interpreter “appears nonplussed by the explosion and barely reacts.”

We’ve even found some examples from Down Under, including a recent report on Nine News Australia about a Canadian pilot who took his four-year-old daughter on a flight of aerial gymnastics.

“Nonplussed at first as she sits strapped in behind her dad, the young girl begins squealing and laughing uncontrollably when her dad guides the aircraft through the sky in thick, undulating loops.”

Why are so many English speakers using “nonplussed” to mean the opposite of the traditional sense?

The linguist Mark Liberman suggested in an Aug. 6, 2008, post on the Language Log that the recent usage may have been influenced by words with meanings similar to those of the traditional and newer senses.

“The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of nonplussedperplexed, confounded, confused, addled, befuddled, bewildered, muddled, etc.—are generally un-negated, while there are quite a few words with a sense similar to the new meaning of nonplussed that include a negative element: impassive, unperturbed, nonchalant, unfazed.”

Getting back to your question, is the recent usage making “nonplussed” unusable? Not yet. As we’ve said, we couldn’t find a single standard dictionary that accepts the new sense of “nonplussed” as standard English.

But stay tuned. English is a living language. And words have a way of surprising us.

(Note: This expands and updates a Feb. 2, 2007, post on the Grammarphobia Blog.)

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A hamlet by any other name

Q: Did the word “hamlet” mean a town in Shakespeare’s day?

A: The noun “hamlet” referred to a small village in Elizabethan times. But that sense of the word probably had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s naming of the title character in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

English adopted “hamlet” in the 1300s from Old French, where hamelet was a diminutive of hamel (village), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers notes that hamel itself was a diminutive of ham, a word for home in many old Germanic languages, including Old English. (No, it’s not related to the cut of meat.)

Interestingly, the Old English sense of ham as home survives in such place names as Birmingham and Nottingham, where the term originally referred to a manor.

The two earliest examples of “hamlet” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng. Here’s one citation: “He died at a hamelette, men calle it Burgh bisandaes.”

And here’s an example written in Shakespeare’s day (from The View of Fraunce, 1604, by the travel writer Robert Dallington): “One hundred thirtie two thousand of Parish Churches, Hamlets, and Villages of all sorts.”

As for the title character of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, scholars believe it’s ultimately derived from a legend in Gesta Danorum, a history of the Danes composed in Latin around 1200 AD by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus.

The protagonist of the legend is Amleth, whose father and uncle are joint rulers of Jutland, the peninsula that forms the mainland portion of Denmark.

In Saxo’s tale, Amleth’s father is killed by his uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother. Amleth feigns madness to keep from being murdered by his uncle, but he eventually avenges his father’s killing and becomes king of the Jutes.

Saxo’s Latin version of Hamlet was printed in Paris in 1514. François de Belleforest translated it into French in 1570 as part of his collection Histoires Tragiques. Both works were available when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Full, fuller, fullest

Q: I heard a comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential. How can this be correct?  If I pour water into a glass until it’s “full,” how can I make it “fuller” or “fullest”? There’s no entry for “fuller” or “fullest” as an adjective in my old Webster’s Second (my back still hurts from lifting it). What’s up?

A: We don’t want you to get a hernia, but if you check the entry for the adjective “full” in your unabridged Webster’s Second, you’ll find that the comparative “fuller” and the superlative “fullest” are listed as inflected forms.

You apparently think that “full” is an “absolute adjective,” which is what some usage writers call a modifier that shouldn’t be used in the comparative (“fuller”) or the superlative (“fullest”), or with other qualifiers (“very full”).

So something can be “full,” in your opinion, but not “fuller” or “fullest.” However, some so-called absolute adjectives are routinely used as comparatives and superlatives, and “full” is a good example.

A glass that’s half full, for example, is obviously “fuller” than one that’s a third full. And a glass that’s filled to the brim is the “fullest” of the three.

Yes, “full” generally means containing as much as possible, but the adjective has many other senses, as in “full of energy,” “full of himself,” “full-fledged,” “a full heart,” and so on.

And some standard dictionaries define “full” in its primary sense as something less than full. Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, says it means “holding or containing as much as possible or a lot.”

We’ve written several times on the blog about absolute adjectives, including a post in 2008 that briefly discusses such phrases as “a more just society” and “a more perfect union.”

Getting back to your question, we see nothing wrong with that comment on WNYC about helping students reach their “fullest” potential.

Technically, “full” would be the proper adjective. The comparative “fuller” would be used to compare two things of varying degrees of fullness, and the superlative “fullest” to compare three or more.

But “fullest” is often used idiomatically as an emphatic version of “full.” The expression “to the fullest extent of the law,” for example, is notably more popular than “to the full extent of the law,” according to Google searches.

In fact, we’ve found many early examples of “fullest” used in this sense. State papers from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I concerning Scotland, for example, contain a March 1, 1564, comment by guests at a banquet that they “were merriest when the table was fullest.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield defends the idiomatic use of superlatives:

“Use of the superlative is idiomatic in such phrases as Put your best foot foremost; May the best man win; Mother knows best. And who would wish to introduce a comparative into Milton’s Whose God is strongest, thine or mine?”

When the adjective “full” first showed up in Old English, according to the OED, it meant (as it does today) “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

But for centuries, writers have felt the word needed something extra—using it, as Oxford says, “often with intensive phrases, as full as an egg, full to the brim, full to overflowing, full up (colloq.), etc.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

To honor or to celebrate?

Q: Already this season, I’ve heard three people who ought to know better “celebrate” the retirement of treasured old guys. They meant to “honor” the guys, not “celebrate” their retirements. But maybe I’m the only one who notices.

A: For hundreds of years, the verb “celebrate” has meant to observe or acknowledge a significant event—such as a retirement—as well as to honor or praise someone or something.

In our opinion, not many people would construe the celebration of a retirement as a backhanded way of saying, “Good riddance. We’re better off without him.”

Readers can tell the difference between celebrating (that is, applauding) the overthrow of a tyrant in Mitteleuropa and celebrating (that is, publicly acknowledging) the retirement of a “treasured old guy” at the Booth School of Business.

The word “celebrate” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb celebrare, which originally meant to attend in great numbers, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Latin verb is also the source of such English words as “celebrity” (about 1380), “celebration” (1539), and “celebrant” (1839).

When “celebrate” first showed up in English in the mid-1500s, it meant (among other things) to observe with solemn rites or to honor with religious ceremonies.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible: “From euen to euen shall ye celebrate your Sabbath.”

In a little more than a century, however, writers were using “celebrate” for more secular observances.

In The Conquest of Granada, a 1672 play by Dryden, the King of the Moors says: “With pomp and Sports my Love I celebrate.”

Finally, here’s an updated example of the usage from the 1937 first edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Celebrate, v.i., to drink in honour of an event or a person; hence, to drink joyously.”


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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A happy ending

Q: I’m Dutch and I recently read (from someone claiming to be a native English speaker) that the use of “happy end” is a common mistake made by those not intimately familiar with the language. Instead “happy ending” should be used. Can you enlighten me?

A: In the phrase “happy ending,” as you know, “ending” is a gerund, an “-ing” word that’s formed from a verb but functions as a noun.

Both the noun “end” and the gerund “ending” mean, among other things, a conclusion. So “happy end” and “happy ending” would seem to mean the same thing.

Although both are technical correct, “happy ending” is the idiomatic phrase (the one used naturally by a native speaker) when referring to the happy conclusion of a novel, play, movie, and so on.

The earliest example of the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Memorable Conceits, a 1602 translation of a book by the French writer and printer Gilles Corrozet:

“A good entrie or beginning is not all, without it haue a happie ending.” (In the original French, “happie ending” is heureuse issue.)

And here’s a citation from a May 10, 1748, letter by Samuel Richardson in which he discusses a scene from his recently published novel Clarissa:

“The greater Vulgar, as well as the less, had rather it had had what they call, an Happy Ending.”

The OED defines “happy ending” as “an ending in a novel, play, etc., in which the plot achieves a happy resolution (esp. by marriage, continued good health, etc.), of a type sometimes regarded as trite or conventional.”

The dictionary adds that in the US the phrase is also used for “an orgasm, esp. one experienced by a man after sexual stimulation given after (or during) a massage.”

The OED doesn’t have an example of this usage, but the comedian Jim Norton uses the phrase in the sexual sense in the title of his 2007 book, Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch. The cover shows him lying on a massage table.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A first-generation American?

Q: As an immigrant and an American citizen for nearly 70 years, I have always considered myself a “first-generation American,” and I dislike seeing the term applied to the first generation born in the US. If you haven’t addressed this, would you, please?

A: Your usage is fine, but so is the one you dislike. “First generation” can mean either the first to arrive in a new country or the first to be born there. Here’s the story.

When the noun “generation” showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant offspring or family as well as the descendants of one family or one period of time.

English borrowed the term from the Old French generacion, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is generare, Latin for to bring forth.

Chambers says all these early senses of the English noun were first recorded in Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325.

The use of the adjectival phrase “first-generation” to describe the first “generation of a family to do something or live somewhere”—showed up in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a September 1896 letter by Cannon Samuel Barnett, Warden of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London.

In the letter, Cannon Barnett writes of meeting an American who described himself as a “first-generation man.”

Oxford has only one citation for the phrase you’ve asked about, but it’s a relatively recent example. It comes from Then We Came to the End, a 2007 novel by Joshua Ferris that describes “first-generation Americans” power-spraying the asphalt at a loading dock.

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of the usage, including one from Descendants of Aaron and Mary (Church) Magoun, of Pembroke, Mass., an 1891 book of genealogy.

Aaron’s great-grandfather, John Magoun, who came from Scotland to Massachusetts in 1670, is described in the book as “the first generation, American.”

This would support your use of the expression to describe an immigrant who becomes a US citizen. However, we’ve found another 19th-century example that uses the phrase “first-generation” to describe American-born citizens.

In No Enemy (but Himself), an 1895 book, Elbert Hubbard writes that only foreign women were willing to work in the cornfields in Indiana: “The first generation American-born, go on a strike.”

In fact, the OED says the phrase “first-generation” can be used to designate “a naturalized immigrant or a descendant of immigrant parents, esp. in the United States.”

So it’s correct (at least in the opinion of Oxford’s editors) to refer to a naturalized American citizen like you as well as an American-born child of immigrants as a “first-generation American.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Did Stella die?

Q: Two dinner companions recently got into a spirited debate about using “died” in referring to a euthanized pet. Leaving aside the general advisability of being specific, is there any authority for characterizing “died” as incorrect or misleading here?

A: As two long-time owners of Golden Retrievers and Labs, we’ve had to put down several ailing dogs over the years.

If someone asks about them, we usually say they died. In the rare instances when we have to be specific, we’ll say we put them down or we euthanized them.

If a friend were to ask whether our debilitated, 12-year-old Labrador Retriever Stella died a natural death, for example, we’d say she was put down. In speaking to a vet, we might say she was euthanized.

If there’s no reason to be precise, however, we aren’t. If a friend were to ask if Stella is still alive, for example, we’d simply say, “No, she died.”

Is this use of “die” incorrect?

No. The primary meaning of the verb “die” in standard dictionaries is to stop living. And that’s what Stella did (with a little help from her best friends).

Is the usage misleading? Yes, but English speakers are often deliberately imprecise or misleading.

The usual answer to the question “How are you?” is “fine” or “OK” or “good” or something similar. Only rarely is precision expected: “the CT scan was negative” or “the stitches are coming out tomorrow.”

If someone dies, is it really necessary in casual conversation to mention that he was wearing a “Do not resuscitate” band or that his family had ended life support?

In other words, if it’s relevant, add the painful details. If not, don’t. Save yourself and others the discomfort.

Interestingly, the verb “die” doesn’t generally appear in Old English literature. Instead, an Anglo-Saxon might have said someone “is dead” (wesan déad ) or “was dead” (wæs déad).

However, “die” does exist in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and other early Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb “is generally held to have been early lost in Old English” and “re-adopted in late Old English or early Middle English from Norse.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb (deȝen in Middle English) is from the History of the Holy Rood, a Christian manuscript written around 1135 about the Cross.

We’ll end with an example of the verb “die” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 68:

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before the bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Out of the question

Q: Every once in a while an expression that I’ve heard all my life suddenly sounds strange. Why, for example, do we refer to something unthinkable or impossible as “out of the question”?

A: When the word “question” showed up in English in the early 1200s, it meant (as it does today) something that’s asked about, discussed, or debated.

English adopted the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from Latin. In classical Latin, a quaestio was, among other things, a subject for discussion, which is a clue to the expression you’re asking about.

When “out of the question” first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not relevant to the matter under discussion.”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from a 1607 religious tract in which the English Puritan clergyman Robert Parker argues that the effective use of the sign of imposing hands (that is, the laying on of hands) “is out of the question.”

And here’s an example from A Defence of the Right of Kings, a 1642 tract in which Edward Forest attacks the writings of the Jesuit priest Robert Persons:

“This cunning and curious Composer of Bookes, and Contriuer of cases, doth in this his chiefe proposition, worke himself quite out of the question.”

Over the years, according to the dictionary, the expression came to mean “not to be considered or countenanced; impossible.”

This is an example of the new usage from The History of Betsy Thoughtless, a 1751 novel by Eliza Haywood: “A marriage with miss Betsy was, therefore, now quite out of the question with him.”

The OED’s latest citation is from James Ryan’s 1997 novel Dismantling Mr Doyle: “And the yellow and red checkered head scarf Mrs Doyle produced as a possible necktie was, he insisted, out of the question altogether.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ubiquitousness ubiquitous?

Q: The question herein to be addressed centers around the so-called word “ubiquitousness” (I frankly contest its claim to the title). Do you agree with the editor who changed my use of “ubiquity” to “ubiquitousness”?

A: We prefer the simpler “ubiquity.” It’s more ubiquitous than the clunky “ubiquitousness.”

You can find “ubiquitousness” in a few standard dictionaries, but “ubiquity” appears in more. And the people who use the English language clearly prefer the shorter word.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “ubiquity,” 5.4 million hits; “ubiquitousness,” 90,000.

When the noun “ubiquity” showed up in English in the early 1570s, it referred to the omnipresence of God.

The word comes from ubiquitas, post-classical Latin for “the omnipresence of Christ or of his body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, ubique meant  anywhere, everywhere, wherever.

The OED’s earliest citation for “ubiquity” is from A Booke of Christian Questions and Answers, Arthur Golding’s 1572 translation of a work by the French Protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze:

“The Vbiquitie or Eueriwherbeing of Christs manhod mainteined by Brentius and certeine others.”

By the late 1500s, according to Oxford, the term “ubiquity” was being used secularly to mean “the ability, or apparent ability, to be everywhere at once.” Today that sense generally refers to “being seen or encountered everywhere.”

By the early 1600s, the term had widened to mean the state of “being present everywhere or apparently everywhere; widespread presence; prevalence, pervasiveness.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked now define “ubiquity” loosely as the fact that someone or something is widespread or seems to be everywhere.

This is an example of the freer usage from Oxford Dictionaries online: “I heard more gnatcatchers, but I never did see one, which was a bit surprising given their general ubiquity.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines it loosely as the “existence or apparent existence everywhere.”

American Heritage has this example from the 20th-century critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno: “the repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture.”

The adjective “ubiquitous” showed up two centuries after the noun “ubiquity,” with a similar theological sense: “Of God, Christ, the soul, etc.: present in all places; omnipresent.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Remarks on an Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1772), by the Scottish writer James Macpherson:

“When we think him [sc. God] in some matter straitned, or abdridged of room, for his Omnipresence, on the supposition of his essence not pervading this ubiquitous nothing, we seem to forget who he is.”

By the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the adjective was being used more generally in reference to a person, thing, quality, and so on that’s widespread, predominant, very common, popular, or omnipresent.

The first OED example is from an 1802 survey of Londonderry by G. V. Sampson: “The almost ubiquitous and perennial daisy, bellis perennis.”

The latecomer in this lot, the noun “ubiquitousness,” was coined in the 1850s by adding “-ness” to the adjective. (The suffix “-ness” is used with adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and some other terms to form abstract nouns.)

The dictionary’s first example of the usage is from the April 1852 issue of Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal:

“In vain you would track their course … and cry ‘Eureka’, at each bend, fancying you have at length found it [sc. a winding river]. Hopeless delusion! You have yet to learn the ubiquitousness of its character.”

The most recent OED example—from the April 10, 2009, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London—refers to the ubiquitousness of unavoidable ‘musak.’ ”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

An anonymous artery?

Q: I’m puzzled about why the “brachiocephalic artery” is commonly referred to as the “innominate artery.” In other words, why is an artery with a precise name vaguely referred to as an anonymous artery?

A: Let’s first look at the adjective “innominate,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “not named, unnamed, anonymous.”

English adapted the term in the 17th century from the late Latin innominatus, which was used in the writings of the early sixth-century philosopher Boethius.

The earliest example in the OED is from Some Yeares Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and Afrique (1638), by Thomas Herbert: “Zeyloon … was not innominate to the Antients.” (Zeyloon, once an alternate spelling of Ceylon, is now known as Sri Lanka.)

By the 19th century, the term was being used, sometimes in English and sometimes in Latin, to refer to various bones, arteries, and veins in the human body.

The first Oxford example is from Phillips’s New World of Words, a 1706 edition edited by John Kiersey: “Innominata Ossa … the Nameless Bones, two large Bones plac’d on the sides of the Os Sacrum.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “innominate artery” is from George Rolleston’s Forms of Animal Life (1870): “The aorta [in birds] divides after a very short course into three great trunks, by giving off two subequal innominate arteries.”

Interestingly, the term “brachiocephalic artery” appeared in print dozens of years before “innominate artery,” according to OED citations.

The Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology (1836-39), edited by Robert Bentley Todd, has an entry for the “brachio-cephalic artery.”

So the term that you consider more precise apparently showed up before the one that you consider fuzzier. Hmm!

So why is the “brachiocephalic artery,” which supplies blood to the right arm, the head, and the neck in humans, commonly referred to as the “innominate artery”?

Mosby’s Medical Dictionary (8th ed.) says the term “innominate” is sometimes used for body parts that have descriptive names rather than precise ones (like the aorta, the femur, or the tibia).

“The term is traditionally applied to certain anatomic structures, often identified by their descriptive name, such as the hip bone and brachiocephalic artery,” the medical dictionary explains.

In other words, the “brachiocephalic artery” is referred to as nameless because “brachiocephalic” here merely indicates that the function of the artery involves the arm and head.

We can understand if you’re still puzzled by all this. The idea of a descriptive name being nameless strikes us as odd too. But who are we to complain, no matter what it’s called—as long as surgeons can find it?

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Judgment (or Judgement) Day

Q: I’ve noticed that you spell “judgment” without the extra “e” in the middle. I use the same spelling, but “judgement” is increasingly popular. During my law school days, I encountered the word with no small regularity, and both American and English texts used “judgment.” If I never saw the written word, though, I would assume “judgement” was correct. It seems right. Could you shed any light on the situation?

A: The word “judgment” has been spelled many different ways since it showed up in Middle English in the 1200s, sometimes with an “e” and sometimes without.

Here’s a small sampling of early spellings: “gogement,” “gugement,” “iugegement,” “iuggyment,” “iugment,” “iugumen,” “jugment,” “judgment,” and “jugmente.”

The word initially had an “e” when it was adapted from Anglo-Norman, where it was variously spelled judgement, jugemen, juggement, juggment, jogement, jougement, jujement, and gugement.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “e”-less spelling with “dgm” in the middle appeared in the early 16th century, “and by the late 17th cent. judgment had become the prevailing spelling, although judgement  was still commonly found.”

During the 19th century, the OED adds, “the form judgement gained in frequency in British contexts, and is now the usual spelling in general British use.”

However, the dictionary notes that “judgment  has remained the standard spelling in British legal contexts when used to refer to a judicial decision, as well as in U.S. usage.”

No doubt the version of the word with “e” in the middle looks right to you because it begins with “judge,” the spelling of the verb and noun.

However, the word “judge” didn’t give us the word “judgment.”

The noun “judge” didn’t appear until a century after “judgment,” while the verb “judge” showed up for the first time in the same manuscript as “judgment.” All the early spellings were in Middle English.

So what, you’re wondering, is the situation today?

Well, standard dictionaries in the US and the UK generally include both “judgment” and “judgement” for the non-legal usage. But “judgment” is more popular in the US and “judgement” in the UK.

So the two spellings are standard English on either side of the pond, though the presence of “e” might raise a few eyebrows in the US while its absence might raise some in the UK.

We’re not aware of an increase in the popularity of “judgement” in American English, but given the word’s shifting history, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the “e” become fashionable in the US one day, as it did in the UK during the 19th century.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Up and at ’em!

Q: The phrase “up and at ’em” is older than you suggest—at least in Spanish. Is it borrowed? The Spaniards who conquered the New World used arriba y a ellos as a battle cry.

A: Although “up and at ’em” has a Spanish equivalent—arriba y a ellos—we’re doubtful that the English expression came from Spanish. In fact, the English version apparently appeared first.

In our 2010 post, we mentioned an Oxford English Dictionary citation (“the up-and-at-’em aspect of things”) dating from 1909.

In addition, the OED has examples like this one, found in a letter written by Katharine Mansfield in 1919: “Lets up and at em this winter.”

Oxford also has examples of “up and at” from the late 19th century that are followed by other pronouns, like “up and at it” and “up and at him.”

But in our own searches, we’ve found published examples of the uncontracted “up and at them” from early 19th-century England. And while Americans borrowed language from Spanish in the early 1800s, the British generally did not.

The earliest examples we’ve found appeared in 1815 in hastily published accounts of the Battle of Waterloo, which had been fought in June of that year.

The Duke of Wellington, according to these sources, used the expression as a war cry on the famous battlefield. This example is from The Battle of Waterloo (1815), written “By a Near Observer”:

“The Duke, who was riding behind us, watched their approach, and at length, when within a hundred yards of us, exclaimed, ‘Up, Guards, and at them again!’”

Another, from A Short Detail of the Battle of Waterloo (1815), was said to have been “collected on the spot” (apparently by a British officer). It has this passage:

“ ‘Up, Guards, and at them,’ cried the Duke of Wellington, who was then with a brigade of the Guards. In an instant they sprung up, and, assuming the offensive, rushed upon the attacking columns with the bayonet.”

But while Wellington’s words were indeed published in 1815—and in different accounts—he denied late in life that he’d said them.

In an 1852 letter to his friend John Wilson Croker, a former Secretary to the Admiralty, Wellington wrote:

“What I must have said, and possibly did say was, Stand up, Guards! and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack.” (Published in The Croker Papers, 1884.)

Whether authentic or not, the battle cry became instantly famous and was widely quoted from 1815 on. It was popular on playing fields, in the streets, and in sporting circles.

Christopher North’s novel Winter Rhapsody, serialized in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, describes a schoolboys’ game in which a character shouts, “Guards, up and at them!” (From the February 1831 issue.)

This example is from an eyewitness account of a riot that occurred on March 18, 1833, in the Irish city of Newry:

“Again these poor fellows came to the charge, ‘up and at them,’ and routed the mob completely.” (The testimony was published in the papers of the House of Commons in July 1835.)

And this sporting example is from a description of a four-mile steeplechase in Shropshire in December 1837:

“Tarporley, again all right, was up and at ’em across the ploughed field.” (The report was published in the January 1838 issue of a British magazine, the Sportsman.)

As for the Spanish phrase, arriba y a ellos, it seems to have originated later.

The earliest example we’ve been able to find is from an Oct. 10, 1889, speech by the Cuban national hero José Martí at Hardman Hall in New York.

In the speech, commemorating Oct. 10, 1868, the beginning of the Cuban wars of independence, Martí quotes “almirante Nelson” (not the Duke of Wellington) as using the battle cry:

Y el almirante le dijo, de una buena tronada de la voz: “¡Al diablo las maniobras: arriba y a ellos!” (“And the admiral told them, in a thunderous voice, ‘The hell with maneuvers, up and at them!’ ”)

We haven’t been able to find any examples of arriba y a ellos from the days of the Conquistadors—at least not in Spanish.

But it appears that the Aztecs who resisted the Spanish conquest may have used a version of “up and at them” as a battle cry in their native language, Nahuatl.

In The Human Record: Sources of Global History (4th ed.), Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield provide firsthand accounts of the events that made history.

One of these is the battle for Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1519, as Cortés and his forces set out to conquer Mexico.

The account the authors quote, compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary, was written in Nahuatl and Spanish some 25 years after the battle.

Sahagún mastered Nahuatl and collected oral histories from Aztec survivors of the battle.

This is from Sahagún’s account in La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva Espanã, translated into English from Nahuatl:

“When they [the Spaniards] got to Tlilhuacan, the [Aztec] warriors crouched far down and hid themselves, hugging the ground, waiting for the war cry, when there would be shouting and cries of encouragement. When the cry went up, ‘O Mexica, up and at them!’ the Tlappanecatl Ecatzin, a warrior of Otomi [elite] rank, faced the Spaniards and threw himself at them, saying, ‘O Tlatelolca warriors, up and at them, who are these barbarians? Come running!’ ”

(We searched the Spanish text in various versions of Sahagún’s account and couldn’t find the expression arriba y a ellos.)

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are two head better than one?

Q: No grammarian I/me, but why is “head” singular as well as plural when referring to cattle?

A: In both the singular and the plural, the noun “head” has long been used numerically.

It’s used for a number of animals (“twenty head of cattle,” “each head of sheep”) as well as measuring (“two heads taller,” “leading by a head,” and so on).

The earliest written example of “head” used for a number of animals comes from an Old English land charter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The document contains the phrase “mid xii heafdon sceapa” (“with 12 head of sheep”).

This sense of “head” is defined in the OED as “an individual animal, esp. a herd animal.” And Oxford notes that the word is used “usually with plural unchanged after a numeral or other quantifier.”

Here are a couple of 19th-century examples in which “head” is used in reference to singular or plural animals:

“The low grounds were laid under water, and many head of cattle drowned” (from The Annual Register for the year 1772).

“Every head of cattle about the place had died” (from Anthony Trollope’s novel The Belton Estate, 1866).

But “head” isn’t used for animals exclusively. In English writing, the phrase “a head” has meant “per person” since at least as far back as the 900s, according to citations in the OED.

And this usage is still with us. A report in a British newspaper, the Independent, noted in 2000: “Delegates will start the day with a ‘coffee, tea and danish’ at £5.95 a head.”

The English word “head” has ancestors in more than a dozen old Germanic languages.

It can “probably” be traced, according to the OED, even further back to a prehistoric Indo-European root that means “cup” or “vessel.” Oxford draws a comparison to the Sanskrit noun kapāla (“cup,” “skull”).

The “shift of meaning from ‘vessel’ to ‘skull, head’ ” is in fact “quite common” in other languages, the linguist Winfred Philipp Lehmann writes in A Gothic Etymological Dictionary (1986).

Lehmann points out, for instance, that the semantic resemblance between a skull and a vessel can be seen in the nouns tête in French and kopf in German. They once meant something like “bowl” or “vessel” but today only the meaning “head” has survived.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ancient Indo-European root of “head” (kauput- or kaupet-) “probably had connotations of ‘bowl’ … as well as ‘head,’ although which came first is not clear.”

Ayto says kaput-, a variant of the Indo-European root, “seems to be responsible for the Latin word for ‘head,’ caput (source of a wide range of English words).”

Thus, our word “head” is distantly related to such English words as “capital,” “captain,” “capillary,” “chief” and (yes!) “cup.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

The rub of the green

Q: In golf, the expression “rub of the green” basically means bad luck—as when a putt for a birdie is knocked off line by a dive-bombing red-winged blackbird. Does “rub” in this case have any link to Shakespeare’s “Aye, there’s the rub”?

A: When the noun “rub” showed up in regional English in East Anglia in the early 1500s, it referred to a stone used for sharpening a scythe—that is, a whetstone.

But by the 1570s, the noun was being used to mean an unevenness of the ground in the game of bowls, or lawn bowling.

In the 1580s, “rub” came to mean “an obstacle, impediment, or difficulty of a non-material nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shakespeare was using “rub” in that sense in the early 1600s when he wrote Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, which includes “there’s the rub.”

Is there a link, you ask, between Shakespeare’s use of “rub” and the golfing expression “rub of the green”?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the early sense of an obstacle in the game of bowls gave us the “extended sense of any obstacle or hindrance (as in Hamlet’s there’s the rub).”

We’d add that the usage in lawn bowling no doubt gave the golfing world the expression “rub of the green,” which showed up in the early 1800s, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the golfing usage is an 1812 entry from The Story of R & A (1956), J. B. Salmond’s book about the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews:

“Whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green.”

The OED says the expression has two meanings, the one you’re asking about and a wider one: “a) Golf an accidental interference with the course or position of a ball; (b) fig. good (also bad) fortune, esp. as determining events in a sporting match.”

Here’s an example of the wider sense from the Dec. 31, 1931, issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

If he is unfortunate in having finished his task before his problem was knocked completely out of shape by England’s suspension of the gold standard, that is just the ‘rub of the green.’ ”

By the way, when the expression “aye, there’s the rub” first showed up in Hamlet, the interjection “aye” was spelled “I.”

The expression doesn’t appear in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest print edition of Hamlet. (Some scholars consider the abbreviated text in the First Folio unreliable.)

But in the Second Quarto (1604), the expression is written as “I there’s the rub,” and in the First Folio (1623), it’s “I, there’s the rub.”

In fact, the word “aye”was spelled “I” when it suddenly showed up around 1575, according to the OED, and it appeared that way well into the 1600s.

The dictionary discusses several theories about the source of the word “aye,” but ultimately describes it as “origin unknown.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online says that “aye” is “probably from I, first person personal pronoun, expressing assent.”

The online Collins Dictionary agrees that it’s “probably from pronoun I, expressing assent.”

And we’ll add our aye.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

My foot!

Q: Can you please tell me the origin of the expression “my foot!”?

A: The word “foot” has traveled quite a bit since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon days as a noun for the part of a leg, below the ankle, that a person stands on.

It has meant a foot in measurement (since sometime before 1000), a foot of verse (around 1050), the foot of a bed (sometime before 1400), the bottom of a page (1669), a presser foot on a sewing machine (1877), and so on.

In the early 20th century, it showed up in “my foot!” (or “your foot!”), a colloquial expression of “contemptuous contradiction,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Mary the Third, a 1923 play by Rachel Crothers:

“Mother: She was honest enough to tell me that—and I could have persuaded—

“Father: Honest your foot! She’s fooled you—deceived you.”

And here’s a “my foot!” example from Hay Fever, a 1925 comedy by Noël Coward:

“Judith: It’s so silly to get cross at criticism—it indicates a small mind.

“David: Small mind my foot!”

Jonathon Green, writing in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, describes the phrase as a euphemistic variation on “my arse!”

The earliest example of the usage in Green’s Dictionary is from the April 1, 1905, issue of the Sporting Times. In the item cited, one man apparently corrects another for using “my hat!” instead of “my foot!”

“Said No. 2: ‘My hat! this is a really nice girl!’

“Said No. 1: ‘She is a nice girl, old chap, but that was
my foot!’ ”

(The phrase seems to be used here as a mild version of “my God!”)

The next example in Green’s (from The Harvester, a 1911 novel by Gene Stratton-Porter), clearly uses the phrase to suggest contemptuous rejection:

“ ‘She can’t leave her people. Her grandmother is sick.’

“ ‘Grandmother your foot!’ cried the old woman.”

In looking into your question, we came across a related exclamation that might interest you. Chaucer uses the oath “Christ’s foot!” in “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of the Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“Ey, Cristes fote! what wil ye do therwith?”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can “since” mean “because”?

Q: In your “disrupter”/“disruptor” post, you use the word “since” in the sense of “because.” To me, “because” indicates cause and effect, while “since” indicates time. Am I being hypercritical?

A: Yes, you’re being hypercritical. The word “since” has been used as a conjunction in the sense of “because” for hundreds of years.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1593): “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere, to see if they’ll disdain me.”

Bryan A. Garner, one of our more traditional grammarians, says it’s a “canard that the word properly relates only to time.”

“In modern print sources, the causal sense is almost as common as the temporal sense,” he writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.).

We’d caution, however, that the use of “since” for “because” can be ambiguous if both causal and temporal readings are possible.

As Pat writes in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage guide, “Just be sure the meaning can’t be confused, as in, Since we spoke, I’ve had second thoughts. In that case, since could mean either ‘from the time that’ or ‘because,’ so it’s better to be more precise.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that “since” may be “a bit less emphatic” than “because” when used in the causal sense. Perhaps, but that’s for the writer to decide.

The word “since” has been an adverb, adjective, preposition, and conjunction since it showed up in Middle English in the 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It had various early meanings (then, thereupon, immediately afterward, etc.) before the modern temporal and causal senses showed up in the 1500s.

The earliest “because” example in the OED is from The Comedye of Acolastus, a 1540 translation by John Palsgrave of a Latin play about the Prodigal Son by the Dutch writer Gulielmus Gnapheus: “Go to, let it be … syns it lyketh so.”

We’ll end with this example from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766):  “Then what signifies calling every moment upon the devil, and courting his friendship, since you find how scurvily he uses you?”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

We have some ideas to share

Q: How about the use of the word “share” to mean communicate, as in “I want to share my concerns with you”?

A: People have been sharing opinions and feelings since Shakespeare’s time, but the more personal sense of sharing that’s common today dates from the 1930s. Here’s the story.

When the verb “share” showed up in the mid-1500s, it meant to cut into parts or cut off, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s ultimately derived from scearu, an Old English term for cutting.

By the late 1500s, according to the OED, “share” was being used in the sense of dividing something into portions or shares.

And by the start of the 1600s, the dictionary says, the verb had taken on the sense of sharing “an action, activity, opinion, feeling, or condition.”

Oxford’s earliest example for this sense, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), refers to “all the counsell that we two haue shar’d.”

The contemporary sense you’re asking about (to share one’s personal experiences or feelings with others) dates from the early 1930s.

The first example in the OED is from Arthur James Russell’s For Sinners Only (1932), a book about the Oxford Group, a Christian organization founded by the American missionary Frank Buckman:

“They [the Oxford Group] defined Sharing as meaning two distinct things—further definable as Confession and Witness.”

And here’s an example from The Challenge of the Oxford Groups (1933) by S. A. King: “What does the Bishop think a man feels when he has ‘shared’ for ‘witness’ and finds that God has used that ‘sharing’ to bring a brother out of … bondage?”

The Oxford Group evolved in the late 1930s into Moral Re-Armament, a moral and spiritual movement headed by Buckman.

In “the language of Moral Re-Armament,” according to the OED, the verb “share” had the sense of “to confess one’s sins openly; to impart to others one’s spiritual experiences.”

However, the verb was soon being used loosely to describe the sharing of quite secular feelings and experiences.

The dictionary cites two early nonreligious examples from Going Abroad, a 1934 novel by Rose Macaulay:

“She would, thought he, be able to share with another girl in a way she could not with him.” And this one, from later in the book: “I must say, I did annoy my father a bit by sharing with him a few things I’d thought about him.”

We’ll end with an example from Your Eyelids Are Growing Heavy, a 1982 crime novel by Barbara Paul:

“She ‘shared’ with the group the fact that she’d begun to have severe bouts of depression.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why “disastrous” isn’t a disaster

Q: When did the “e” disappear from “disastrous”? In other words, why don’t we spell it “disasterous”?

A: English borrowed both the noun and the adjective from French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source of the noun was désastre while the source of the adjective was désastreux (masculine) and désastreuse (feminine)

However, both “disaster” and “disastrous” are ultimately derived from astron, Greek for star and the source of the English word “astronomy.”

Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the underlying meaning of the adjective is ill-starred and of the noun a “malevolent astral influence.”

The adjective, which showed up in the late 1500s, was originally spelled “desastrous” or “dysastrous.” Although an “er” version, “disasterous,” showed up briefly in the early 1600s, it didn’t catch on.

The earliest example in the OED is from Ciuile Conuersation, a 1586 translation of a work by the Italian writer Stefano Guazzo about economics and society:

“If she aford mee but one sparkle of hope and favour, she doth it to no other ende, but to make mee more desastrous.”

The noun, which first appeared in the early 1600s, was spelled “disaster” from the beginning. Shakespeare, who used it in seven of his plays, was probably responsible for popularizing the Anglicized spelling of the French noun.

The OED’s earliest example is from Hamlet (1604): “Starres with traines of fier and dewes of blood / Disasters in the sunne; and the moist starre, / Vpon whose influence Neptunes Empier stands, / Was sicke almost to doomesday with eclipse.”

Why, you ask, is the “e” in “disaster” missing from the modern adjective “disastrous”?

We suspect that the pronunciation of the adjective in French may have influenced its spelling in English. And Shakespeare’s decision to Anglicize désastre as “disaster” probably influenced the spelling of the noun.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Not every “uu” is a “double-u”

Q: I’ve read your article about why a “w” is called a “double-u.” What puzzles me is why we still have words with “uu”—i.e., “vacuum,” “continuum,” and “triduum.” And why the “w” in “weltanschauung” is pronounced like a “v.” Just curious.

A: As we said in that 2011 post, English words were written in runic letters until the seventh century, when the Latin alphabet was introduced.

But the Latin alphabet of that time had no symbol for the sound of “w,” so such a symbol had to be invented.

At first the symbol used was “uu” or “double u.” But in the eighth century the runic letter ƿ (called a “wyn”) was borrowed for this purpose and was used in English writing for several centuries.

In the meantime, the old “uu”, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “was carried from England to the continent.”

There, the OED explains, it was used to represent the “w” sound “in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin.”

It was Norman scribes who introduced a ligatured version of the old “uu,” forming the letter “w.” This new letter traveled from France to England in the 11th century, and by about 1300 it had replaced the old rune ƿ in English writing.

Although this new “w” was probably regarded as a single letter from the beginning, “it has never lost its original name of ‘double U,’ ” the OED says.

Now for your question about why some English words continue to be written with “uu.” The reason is that they have retained the “uu” spellings they had in Latin.

For example, “vacuum” is from the Latin noun spelled the same way: vacuum.

However, the “uu” combination in English does not sound like “w.” In the case of “vacuum,” it can sound like “yoo” or like “yoo-uh.”

The latter pronunciation is a diphthong—two syllables merged into one sound. This double sound is observable in the spelling of the word in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese: vacuo.

A handful of similar words spelled with “uu” also come from Latin words with identical spellings. And in these the “uu” is pronounced as a diphthong: “continuum,” “residuum,” and the uncommon “triduum,” meaning three days (or specifically the last three days of Lent).

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Happy hour

Q: I noticed a sign yesterday outside a bar that listed “Happy Hour” as being from 4 to 7. Besides wondering about the oddity of describing a three-hour-period as an hour, I became curious about the history of “happy hour” as an expression. Any ideas?

A: The phrase “happy hour” showed up in the early 20th century as a US Navy term for a period of entertainment offered the crew on a ship.

Interestingly, the earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary describes this nautical happy hour as lasting several hours.

Here’s the citation from the May 8, 1914, issue of the Day Book, a short-lived Chicago newspaper whose most famous reporter was Carl Sandburg:

“The happy hour is really several hours set apart three nights a week for the entertainment of the crew. … The entertainment consists of moving pictures, boxing bouts … and dramatics from vaudeville to tragedy.”

The OED defines the sense of the phrase you’re asking about as “a period of time (originally hour, now often longer), usually in the early evening, during which drinks are served in a bar or other licensed establishment at reduced prices.”

The dictionary’s first example for this modern sense—from the Nov. 26, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times—describes “the stampede at a Valley tavern during its ‘Happy Hour’ from 5 to 6 p.m. when all drinks are 25 cents.”

Here’s a more recent citation, from the March 24, 2011, issue of Time Out New York: “You can … indulge in the anytime happy hour—just drop $20 to drink as many beers and bottom-shelf mixed drinks as you’d like for two full hours.”

English borrowed the word “hour” from Old French in the mid-1200s, but it’s ultimately derived from hora, Latin for “hour” and Greek for “season” or “time of day.”

The OED says the English word originally meant—as it does now—“a space of time containing sixty minutes; the twenty-fourth part of a civil day.”

But by the early 1300s, according to the dictionary, the word “hour” was being “used somewhat indefinitely for a short or limited space of time, more or less than an hour.”

Oxford’s first citation for this usage, from a Middle English manuscript written around 1325, refers to “Þis hure of loue” (“this hour of love”).

So it’s not at all surprising that the Happy Hour sign you saw at a bar referred to three hours. Time passes quickly when you’re drinking.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A bad yegg

Q: Would you be able to help? I’m trying to find the origin of the word “yegg.” It seems to be an Americanism, but so far all I’ve been able to learn is that its origin is unknown.

A: Yes, standard dictionaries generally say the origin of “yegg” (or “yeggman”) is uncertain or unknown, but there are several theories about where the term comes from.

The most common suggestion is that this slang term for a burglar or safecracker is derived from John Yegg, the name or alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as we can tell, the name “John Yegg” appeared in this context for the first time in an account of the annual convention of the American Bankers’ Association on Oct. 2-4, 1900, in Richmond, VA.

A report on crimes involving banks describes how “$540 stolen from the Scandinavian American Bank (member A. B. A.), St. Paul, Minn., on August 9, 1899, by professional sneak thieves, was returned to the bank in an express package.”

A letter accompanying the money, signed “JOHN YEGG & CO.,” reportedly said, “having been hounded by the detectives all over the country, we concluded the wisest thing to do was to make restitution.”

The account adds that “Wm. Barrett, one of the thieves believed to have been concerned in this robbery, was arrested at Milwaukee, Wis., on August 26, 1899, for this and another crime.”

This story about fearful outlaws returning their loot sounds too good to be true. We suspect that Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which handled security for the ABA, may have embellished it.

However, Pinkerton’s is probably responsible for popularizing the use of the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” for a burglar or bank robber, especially one who roams the country and cracks safes with explosives.

In a Sept. 15, 1901, interview with the New York Times, Robert Pinkerton, who ran the detective agency’s New York office, said, “This class of men have become very expert in the use of explosives.”

“The stuff for blowing open safes is carried from place to place in rubber bottles or hot water bags, and if they are discovered by the police, the ‘Yeggs’ claim that they are lung protectors,” Pinkerton added.

He noted that “many of the banks robbed are in small towns, where there is no police protection, and mostly in towns where lights are turned out at midnight or before.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang cites several other theories, including one that traces the term to “John Yeager who led a gang of tramps who robbed the Reading railroad,” and another that says it’s a corruption of “yekk,” a word for beggar “from one of the many dialects spoken in Chinatown” in San Francisco.

We lean toward the “John Yegg” theory. The Oxford English Dictionary appears to lean that way too. It describes the usage as an Americanism and adds: “Said to be the surname of a certain American burglar and safe-breaker.”

The earliest example of “yegg” in the OED is from the June 23, 1903, issue of the New York Evening Post: “The prompt breaking up of the organized gangs of professional beggars and yeggs.”

However, we found this earlier example in the February 1901 issue of McClure’s Magazine. Josiah Flynt, writing about the criminal population in Chicago, said the “great majority are what certain detectives call ‘Yegg-men.’ ”

You don’t see the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” much nowadays. They rose in popularity during the early 1900s, reached a peak in the ’20s, and then quickly fell out of favor, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When “stay” means stop

Q: Why does “stay an execution” mean stop it, rather than “stay with it” or “stay the course” or “stay put”?

A: Phrases like “stay an execution” or “stay one’s hand” make sense once you know that the original meaning of “stay” was to halt or stop.

“Stay” can be traced by way of Old French back to the Latin verb stare (to stand).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the earliest meaning of the English verb, recorded in writing around 1440, was “to cease going forward; to stop, halt; to arrest one’s course and stand still.”

That sense of the word is now defunct, but “stay” soon evolved into related meanings that are still in use today.

For example, several uses of “stay” in the sense of stopping an activity emerged in the 16th century. One of these meant to cease, delay, or prevent an action or a process, a usage that’s often found in legal terminology, according to the OED.

The earliest recorded examples are from the papers of King Henry VIII in the 1520s to 1540s. This one dates from 1542-43: “Item that no execucion of any iudgement geuen … be staied or deferred.”

This later example, also cited in the OED, is from Edmund Burke’s last writings on the French Revolution (often called Letters on a Regicide Peace, 1796):

“When a neighbour sees a new erection, in the nature of a nuisance, set up at his door … the judge … has a right to order the work to be staid.”

We also mentioned the phrase “stay one’s hand,” a usage that the OED describes as “somewhat” archaic.

The dictionary says it literally means “to cease or cause to cease from attack,” though it’s chiefly used figuratively in the sense of to restrain someone from doing something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Daniel 4:35): “And none can stay his hand, nor say vnto him, What doest thou?”

In short, “stay” originally meant to stop. The sense of remaining in place or being stationary—today’s more common meaning—evolved in the 16th century from the earlier one.

Here’s an example of the new usage from The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare wrote in the early 1590s: “Your ships are stay’d at Venice.

And here’s one from Romeo and Juliet, which may have been written around the same time: “Upon a rapier’s point: stay, Tybalt, stay!”

Those three expressions you mentioned—“stay with it,” “stay the course,” and “stay put” showed up in the 19th century.

Before we sign off, a couple of side issues that you might find interesting.

You’ll notice that in his quotation, Edmund Burke used the past participle “staid,” a common spelling of “stayed” in the 16th through 19th centuries.

This is the source of the 16th-century adjective “staid,” which we use for people who are steady or sedate—or, as the OED says, “free from flightiness or caprice.”

Finally, there’s an entirely different verb “stay,” which is Germanic instead of Latin in origin and means to secure by ropes or “stays.”

The source of this verb is the 11th-century noun “stay” (stæg in Old English), originally a thick nautical rope for supporting a mast.

A related word is the 14th-century noun that means a prop or support, as in the stiff whalebone or metal “stays” (early 1600s) that ladies once laced themselves up in.

A more distant relative is “steel,” a Germanic noun that was recorded as far back as 725 in Old English (stæli).

The ancient ancestor of “steel” as well as these two “stays” (the rope and the support) is a prehistoric Germanic base, stagh or stakh (“be firm”), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Participial physics

Q: Driving myself nuts over this sentence: “Not having heard of it, I was confused.” What is “having”? We have a present participle followed by a past participle! Please help this struggling English grammar teacher.

A: In that sentence, “having” is an auxiliary verb (sometimes called a “helping verb”). When combined with a past participle—like “heard”—it forms what’s called a perfect participle: “having heard.”

You may be puzzled because you’re trying to figure out what tense this is. In fact, we aren’t dealing with tenses here but with participial phrases. And participial phrases act as adjectives, not verbs.

In your sentence—“Not having heard of it, I was confused”—the phrase “not having heard of it” modifies the subject, “I.”

This might be better explained with a simpler sentence: “Stopping to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “stopping” is a present participle, and the participial phrase “stopping to chat” modifies the subject, “Tom.”

If we use a perfect participle instead of a present participle, the sentence looks like this: “Having stopped to chat, Tom was late for work.” Here, “having stopped” is a perfect participle, and the participial phrase “having stopped to chat” again modifies “Tom.”

You can use either version, of course—with a present participle or a perfect participle. So why use a construction that sounds more complicated?

A perfect participle, as in “having stopped to chat,” serves to emphasize not only the sequence of events but also their causal relationship. The “having” part underscores the fact that Tom’s stopping to chat not only preceded but also caused his being late for work.

Verbal phrases that include some form of “have” are called “perfect” because their action is complete rather than ongoing. This is true whether the verbal phrase functions as a verb (“have heard”) or as a modifier (“having heard”).

The perfect tenses of the verb “hear” are “have heard” and “has heard” (present perfect); “had heard” (past perfect); “will have heard” (future perfect); and “would have heard” (conditional perfect).

The perfect infinitive is “to have heard,” and the perfect participle is “having heard” or, in its negative form, “not having heard.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

How French is your onion soup?

Q: Can you shed some light on the origin of the term “French onion soup”? A colleague of mine claims that the word “French” refers not to the origin of the soup but rather to the manner in which the onions are chopped (“frenched”).

A: Well, the onions in French onion soup are often frenched—that is, cut into thin lengthwise strips. And some people add “frenched” to the name of the dish.

But as far as we can tell the name of the soup originally referred to its place of origin, not the way the onions were sliced.

That’s not surprising, since the adjective “French” usually refers to France, its people, its culture, or its language, according to standard dictionaries.

In fact, English speakers were eating “French onion soup” for dozens of years before the term “frenched” was used to describe vegetables cut into thin strips.

The earliest example for the soup that we could find—from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1828), by Christian Isobel Johnstone—refers to Potage à la Clermont as “a French Onion Soup.”

The recipe doesn’t include cheese, one the typical ingredients today in French onion soup. More to the point, it calls for the onions to be “cut in rings,” not frenched.

In Dinners at Home: How to Order, Cook and Serve Them (1878), the recipe for “French Onion Soup” is also cheese-less. And the pseudonymous author, referred to as “Short,” says the onions should be cut “crossways,” not frenched.

The earliest English example we could find for a “French onion soup” recipe similar to the modern one—with cheese, butter, bread, flour, broth, and so on—is from Every-Day Helps (1892), a collection of household tips published by Wells, Richardson & Co.

However, the recipe, which calls for pouring the onion broth over a slice of fried bread and sprinkling grated cheese on top, makes no mention of how—or even if—the onions should be sliced.

The use of the term “frenched” to describe thinly sliced veggies first showed up in the early 20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary describes the usage as chiefly North American. The earliest example is from the Feb. 25, 1903, issue of the Ottumwa (Iowa) Daily Courier: “Dinner … Frenched Potatoes with Parsley.”

Here’s a more recent citation from the Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun: “Blanch cut or frenched beans for 1½ minutes, whole beans for two minutes.”

Interestingly, the word “soup,” like its cousin “sop,” originally referred to a “piece of bread soaked in liquid,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

English borrowed the word from the French soupe, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb suppare (“soak”).

“One way of making such sops was to put them in the bottom of a bowl and pour broth over them,” Ayto writes, “and eventually soupe came to denote the ‘broth’ itself—the sense in which English acquired it.”

The term “onion” has a somewhat fuzzy etymology. It’s derived from unio, a Latin word for a single large pearl, but Roman farmers also used the term for a variety of onion without shoots.

The OED speculates that the use of unio for a single pearl may be traced to unus, Latin for “one,” or that it may come from the pearl’s similarity in shape to an onion.

Ayto suggests that the use of unio for an onion may be the result of “a proud onion-grower comparing his products with pearls” or “an allusion to the ‘unity’ formed by the layers of the union.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Plovers lane

Q: I was at a loss to explain the pronunciation of “plover” to the son of a friend. Some sources say it rhymes with “lover” and others with “rover.” A poll of birders indicates that PLUH-ver is favoured over PLOH-ver by a small majority. I bet there’s a worthwhile post lurking here.

A: You betcha! Both the PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver pronunciations are listed in standard dictionaries. Some have one, some the other, and the rest include the two of them.

So both pronunciations are standard English, though the eight dictionaries we’ve checked usually give only PLUH-ver for an online audio pronouncer.

(Some British dictionaries describe PLOH-ver as an American pronunciation, but the three US dictionaries we consulted include both PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver.)

Interestingly, the common name of the shorebird was spelled all sorts of ways  for hundreds of years after it showed up in English in the early 1300s. Those spellings undoubtedly reflected different pronunciations.

In fact, the first syllable was spelled—and pronounced—two different ways (plo- and plu-) in medieval Latin, the source of the English word. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes several theories about the origin of “plover,” a collective name for any of various wading birds of the family Charadriidae.

One theory is that the name was influenced by the classical Latin word for rain, pluvia, because plovers arrived with the rainy season, or were active then, or were easily hunted in the rain.

Another theory is that the upper plumage of some plovers appears to be spotted with raindrops.

However, the OED leans toward the theory that the name “plover” is simply imitative of the cries of various plovers.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “plover” is a reference to “pluvers” from a manuscript, dated 1304-05, in the British Museum.

Over the next three centuries, the word was spelled in dozens of ways, including plouier, ploware, plowere, pluwer, plovere, plower, pluuer.

Here’s an example from The Unfortunate Traveller, a 1594 novel by Thomas Nashe: “As fat and plum euerie part of her as a plouer.”

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that English speakers settled on “plover” as the proper spelling of the bird’s name.

For example, Robert Lovell’s 1661 translation of a Greek work on zoology and mineralogy has an entry for “plover” with this description: “The flesh is very pleasant, and better than the green Lapwing.” (The feathers were also used in hats.)

Plover populations were devastated by hunting in the 19th century, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects them in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

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