The Grammarphobia Blog

Another thing (or think?) coming

Q: Which is correct: “If you think that, you have another thing/think coming”? I see “thing” more often, but “think” makes more sense to me.

A: The two expressions, which are used to express disagreement, showed up in print within a couple of months of each other in the late 19th century.

The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary say that “to have another thing coming” resulted from a “misapprehension of to have another think coming.”

We tend to agree with that explanation, but word sleuths keep coming up with earlier examples for the expressions, and the question of which one inspired the other hasn’t been conclusively answered.

We agree with you that “think” makes more sense here than “thing.” Our guess is that whoever coined the expression was apparently using the noun “think” as a play on the verb “think.”

However, the noun “think” was relatively new at the time, and many people could have heard it as “thing,” a much more common noun that dates from early Anglo-Saxon days.

In fact, the phrases “think coming” and “thing coming” are often pronounced the same way, as the linguist Mark Liberman explains in a May 3, 2008, post on the Language Log.

More important, idiomatic expressions don’t have to make sense. The original expression may indeed have used “thing coming,” not “think coming.”

Both versions are common today, though “another thing coming” is more common, especially in the US, according to our searches of contemporary English databases.

The News on the Web Corpus, for example, has more than twice as many examples for “another thing coming” as for “another think coming.”

(The NOW corpus contains 4.3 billion words from web-based newspapers and magazines published between 2010 and the present time.)

As for the etymology here, when the noun “think” showed up in the early 19th century, it meant an “act of (continued or concerted) thinking,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from an 1834 issue of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine: “We lie lown yonder … and have time for our ain think.”

The expression “to have another think coming,” which Oxford defines as “to be greatly mistaken,” showed up six decades later.

The earliest OED example is from the May 21,1898, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a coming fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.”

But we’ve found an earlier example. It’s from the April 9, 1897, issue of the Daily Argus News in Crawfordsville, Indiana:

“Having elected him republicans think they have some voice in the distribution of the spoils and there is where they have another think coming to them.”

The earliest OED citation for “to have another thing coming” is from Wilshire Editorials, a 1906 collection of editorials in the various magazines published by Gaylord Wilshire:

“Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things … we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing coming.”

(The OED notes that the word “thing” here was “think” when the editorial originally appeared in 1904 in Wilshire’s Magazine.)

However, the language investigator Garson O’Toole has found an earlier example for the “another thing” version. It appeared in an article about bicycle racing in the June 24, 1897, issue of the Elmira (NY) Daily Gazette and Free Press:

“In witnessing these things they imagine that these battles and quarrels of the track are carried on after the races are over. The people who think this ‘have another thing coming,’ for the men travel in one of the most peaceful parties that follows any line of sport.”

(O’Toole, a k a  Gregory F. Sullivan, points out that “another thing” in that example may be referring to the phrase “these things” rather than to the verb “think.”)

Additional examples may turn up as more written English is digitized. And preferences about “think coming” vs. “thing coming” may change.

From what we know now, the “another think” version was the first to show up, but English speakers today prefer “another thing.”

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Hello, Minnie!

Q: We saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and noticed that the Italian libretto makes generous use of “hello,” notably with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” at the saloon. I don’t see anything about “hello” on your blog. Would you like to correct this oversight?

A: We’ve discussed “goodbye” in several posts (most recently, in 2011), but we haven’t written about “hello.” What better time than now?

Despite its ubiquity today, the use of “hello” as a greeting is relatively new, dating back only to the mid-1800s, at least in writing. However, “hello” was used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as the 1820s, and its ancestors date from the 16th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hello” used to attract attention is from the Oct. 4, 1826, issue of the Norwich (CT) Courier: “Hello, Jim! I’ll tell you what: I’ve a sharp knife and feel as if I’d like to cut up something or other.”

The first OED citation for the term used to express surprise is from a letter in the Sept. 23, 1827, issue of the U.S. Telegraph, a Washington, DC, daily: “Hello, sez Joe Laughton, wher’s Bil Perry un Olla Parsons?”

And the earliest example in the dictionary for “hello” used as a greeting is from the May 28, 1853, issue of the New York Clipper, an entertainment weekly: “Hello ole feller, how are yer?”

The first Oxford citation for “hello” used in the telephone sense is from an Aug. 15, 1877, letter by Thomas Alva Edison to T. B. A. David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh:

“Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison — P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.” (We’ve expanded the citation by going to the dictionary’s source, the October 1987 issue of Antique Phonograph Monthly.)

The OED notes that Edison “is popularly credited with instigating the practice of saying hello when answering the telephone” and “for the word’s subsequent popularity as a greeting. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, preferred ahoy to be used.”

Etymologically, “hello” is the last in a line of similarly spelled words that can be traced back to the 1500s.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “hello” is ultimately derived from “holla” or “hollo” (1588), a shout to attract attention, and perhaps from “holla!” (1523), an exclamation meaning “stop!” or “cease!”

Chambers seems to dismiss suggestions that the usage may have been borrowed from, or influenced by, similar terms to attract attention in Middle French (holà) and German (halloholla).

“The more probable explanation,” the dictionary says, “is that hello, hallo, holla and hollo are all natural formations in English and that they are parallel to natural formations in German, French and other, if not all, languages.”

By the time Puccini’s opera about the California Gold Rush had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” ringing out, the use of “hello” as a greeting was an everyday occurrence.

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The poop about pooped

Q: After separating the recyclables into three bins and dragging them out to the street, my hubby turned to me and said he was pooped. Speaking of which, where does “pooped” come from?

A: The adjective “pooped” (or “pooped out”), meaning exhausted or worn out, showed up in the early 20th century in American English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Sergeant Eadie (1928), Leonard H. Nason’s fictional account of an artilleryman in World War: “I haven’t had any sleep in two nights, and I’m a little poobed [sic].”

The OED inserted the bracketed “sic.” Nason, a sergeant in World War I and a lieutenant colonel in World War II, used “poobed” two other times in the book, so that’s probably what the word sounded like to him.

The next Oxford citation, from Soldiers March! (1930), a World War I novel by Theodore Fredenburgh, uses the usual spelling: “The whole outfit is too pooped to have any goldbricking.”

The OED says the adjective is derived from the somewhat earlier verb “poop” (or “poop out”), meaning to break down, stop working, or give out.

The dictionary’s earliest example for this colloquial verb is from a 1927 issue of the journal American Speech: “Poop out, fizzle.”

The OED says the origin of the verb is uncertain, but it points the reader to the verb “poof” (1915), meaning to appear or disappear like a puff of air, and the interjection “poof” (1868), an expression of such appearing or disappearing.

In case you’re curious, the adjective “pooped” is not related to the “poop” having to do with defecation.

When the verb “poop” showed up in the Middle Ages, it had nothing to do with defecating. Rather it meant, Oxford says, “to produce a short blast of sound, as with a horn; to blow, toot.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, with the past tense “pooped” spelled “powped,” is from “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer (circa 1390):

“Of bras they broghten bemes, and of box, / Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped” (“They brought out trumpets of brass and boxwood, / Of horn and bone, on which they blew and tooted”).

In the late 1600s, the OED says, this now-obsolete musical sense of “poop” evolved to mean, in nursery slang, to “break wind.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the farting sense of “poop” is from Richard Hogarth’s Gazophylacium Anglicanum, a 1689 etymological dictionary: “To poop, from the Belg. Poepen, to fart softly: both from the sound.”

Oxford notes that the verb “now usually” means “to defecate.” The first example is from an 1882 book by Frederick William P. Jago about the Cornish dialect: “Poop, or Poopy, to go to stool. (Said by children.)”

Since we used the noun “poop” in the title of this post to mean the latest information or the inside story, we should discuss the origin of this sense too.

The OED says this colloquial usage apparently evolved from its use in the early 1900s as cadet lingo at the US Military Academy at West Point.

The dictionary’s first citation is from the 1911 issue of Howitzer, the military academy’s yearbook: “Poop, a speech; a thing to be memorized.”

The Oxford entry for the noun includes 1904 and 1908 citations from the yearbook in which “poop” is used as a verb meaning “to memorize completely” or “to be able to quote verbatim.”

The first citation for “poop” used to mean the inside story is from the Jan, 6, 1945, issue of the New Yorker: “That’s pretty confidential poop, and it wouldn’t have done for us to tip off the Japs about our course.”

The earliest example for its use as up-to-date information is from a 1947 issue of American Speech: “The word poop, which indicated the latest information, whether official or unofficial, was also incorporated into poop sheet, denoting the latest bulletin or directive.”

In explaining the origin of the usage, the OED cites this passage from Military Customs and Traditions (1956), by Mark Mayo Boatner:

Poop, information of any sort, usually written (on a ‘poop sheet’). Of West Point origin, probably from the fact that the cadet adjutant makes important announcements in the mess hall from a balcony known as the ‘poop deck’ (from its resemblance to a ship’s poop deck).”

When “poop” showed up as a nautical term in the late 15th century, it referred to the stern, or rear end, of a ship.

English borrowed the term from Middle French, where the stern was referred to as la poupe. The ultimate source is puppis, classical Latin for the rear or afterdeck of a ship.

The earliest example in the OED is from The Book of Fayttes [Feats] of Armes and of Chyualrye, a 1489 translation of a French work written by Christine de Pisan in 1410: “The pouppe whiche is the hindermost partye of the shippe.”

Today, the “poop” (or “poop deck”) refers to the superstructure at the stern of a ship, as in this OED example from The Agüero Sisters, a 1997 novel by Cristina García:

“The nebulous lights Christopher Columbus saw from the poop deck of the Santa María were probably Bermuda fireworms.”

Finally, here’s an example from the July 7, 2016, issue of the New York Post that combines the nautical and excretory usages:

“New Yorkers who want to sail across the pond with Fido on the Queen Mary 2 will now be able to make their pooches feel right at home, thanks to the British cruise ship’s new kennel lounge and refurbished poop deck — which has been fitted with an authentic city fire hydrant.”

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Compounding the problem

Q: In your “Compound fractures” post from 2012, you discuss hyphenating “potentially confusing compounds.” Shouldn’t that be “potentially-confusing”? I’m not being snarky, mind you, just trying to understand.

A: The use of hyphens in compounds is pretty straightforward—except when it isn’t.

One of the many exceptions to the conventions of hyphenation is that when an adjective is modified by an “-ly” adverb, the compound doesn’t get a hyphen.

Pat uses these examples in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I: “That’s a radically different haircut. It gives you an entirely new look.”

We’ve written before about when to hyphenate compound modifiers, but a little repetition never hurts.

You’re probably familiar with the general practice.

Two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue suit,” “dark-haired toddler,” “well-done steak”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a suit of powder blue,” “a toddler who’s dark haired,” “a steak well done”).

The hyphenation of longer adjectival phrases before a noun is similar: “an up-and-coming playwright,” “run-of-the-mill special effects,” “a business-as-usual attitude,” “a ruthless, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners corporate policy.” (Some of these may be hyphenated even after the noun: “The special effects were run-of-the-mill.” Check your dictionary.)

Now for some more exceptions.

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens.

Some prefixes usually take hyphens (as in “self-effacing manner,” “quasi-official position”). Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre-,” “re-,” “ultra-,” “anti-”).

However, the hyphenation of prefixes is very fluid, and authorities may differ. A prefix that’s hyphenated in one dictionary or style guide may not be in another. If in doubt, check your dictionary or style manual.

In case you’d like a short refresher course on hyphens, we wrote in April 2013 about omitting part of a hyphenated term (as in “full- and part-time job”); in July 2012 about hyphens in dimensions (like “five-foot-six woman”); and in January 2012 about when to hyphenate a term like “African American.”

You can find others by putting “hyphen” in the search box on our  blog.

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Batten down the hatches

Q: We’re having a big storm in Grand Rapids and I’ve battened down the hatches. I assume this originated as a nautical expression. When did it come ashore?

A: Yes, “batten down the hatches” does indeed come from seafaring lingo. The nautical expression showed up at the turn of the 19th century, and took on a figurative sense for landlubbers in the mid-20th century.

However, the story begins on land with the noun “baton,” which meant a staff or stick used as a weapon when English borrowed the term from the French bâton around 1550.

A century later, an offshoot of “baton” showed up in writing as the carpentry term “batten,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When “batten” appeared in 1658, it meant a small beam or piece of wood used to strengthen, support, or fasten. And to “batten” (1675) was to strengthen or fasten with battens.

In the 18th century, to “batten down” took on the nautical sense of to nail strips of wood (“battens”) around the edges of a tarp placed over the hatch to keep water out.

The noun appeared first. The earliest written example in the OED is from An Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769), by William Falconer:

“The battens serve to confine the edges of the tarpaulings close down to the sides of the hatches.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “batten down the hatches” is from Vocabulaire des Termes de Marine, a 1799 French-English dictionary of sailing terms published in Paris.

The dictionary translates “to batten down the hatches” as “mettre des listeaux aux panneaux des écoutilles.”

The identical translation appeared soon afterward in a general French-English dictionary published in London, Abel Boyer’s Royal College Dictionary (20th ed., 1802).

In a few decades, the expression was appearing regularly in accounts of storms at sea.

Here’s an example from A Brief Narrative of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay, an 1824 account of the voyage by Capt. George F. Lyon of the Royal Navy:

“These soon wetted every one thoroughly, and the lower deck was flooded before we could batten down the hatches.”

The OED hasn’t yet updated its entry for “batten down the hatches.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from One False, Both Fair, an 1883 novel by John B. Harwood:

“Batten down the hatches—quick, men.” (Serialized in Chambers’s Journal, London. The quotation appeared in the Jan. 13, 1883, issue.)

We haven’t discussed “hatch,” a very old word that the OED says was “inherited from Germanic.” In Old English, it meant a half-door or gate, or part of a divided door.  Since then, “hatch” has had many meanings associated with openings or entries.

The first nautical use came along in the middle to late 1300s, when “hatches” were movable planks forming the floor of a ship, above the hold.

Soon afterward, the OED says, a “hatch” in a ship came to mean “a trapdoor or grated framework covering an opening on a deck.”

The earliest OED citation is “brystis the hetches” (the Middle English can be translated as “break open the hatches”). It’s found in a translation, dated around 1440 and perhaps earlier, of the poem Morte Arthure.

The noun “hatch” has been used this way on boats ever since. And that nautical meaning, used figuratively, gave us the 20th-century drinking expression “down the hatch” (that is, down the throat).

Getting back to your question, the OED doesn’t discuss the figurative use of “batten down the hatches,” though it has one recent example in a discussion of “lock up your daughters,” a humorous reference to the arrival of a sexy man:

“Batten down the hatches, lock up your daughters, tie down the bassbins: this is a monster of a drum’n’bass affair” (from the Aug. 25, 2004, issue of Time Out).

The earliest figurative example we’ve found is from an article about hurricane forecasts, in the February 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the General Contractors Association, published in New York:

“ ‘Batten down the hatches!’ will be a general cry next summer and many summers to come, and it will be only a part of the new verbiage that contractors will add to their vocabulary.”

And here’s an example from Woman in Levi’s, a 1967 memoir by Eulalia Bourne, a rancher and schoolteacher in Arizona:

“I hurried my horse in an effort to get home, batten down the hatches, and give welcome to the rain. It outraced us.”

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Was Elizabeth Bennet blowsy?

Q: I just finished reading your dispatch about whether a “blown rose” is in bloom or has finished blooming. I’m surmising the adjective “blowsy” is related to the “past-its-prime” meaning of “blown.” Yes?

A: Etymological bloodhounds have tracked the adjective “blowsy” (sometimes spelled “blowzy”) to the noun “blowze,” but the scent ends there. Here’s what little we know—and what else we suspect—about these two words.

Let’s begin with “blowze,” which originally meant a farmer’s wife when it showed up in the 1500s, but later came to mean a beggar woman or a prostitute, as well as a woman who’s pudgy, red-faced, or scruffy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun (spelled “blouse”) is from Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie, a 1573 book by Thomas Tusser:

“Whiles Gillet his blouse, is a milking thy kow: sir Hew, is a rigging, thy gate or the plow.”

The OED says “blowze” is “of unknown origin,” but adds, “Perhaps originally a cant term”—that is, insider dialect. The dictionary also notes similar “Dutch and Low German words with the sense of ‘red’ or ‘flushed.’ ”

Oxford goes on to say that “some of the uses appear to be influenced” by the verb “blow” used in the sense of moving air. It doesn’t give any details, but this may refer to the inflated face of a chubby woman or the wind-blown hair of one who’s disheveled.

The OED editors apparently don’t believe that the verb “blow” used in the blooming sense influenced the noun “blowze” or the adjective “blowsy.”

However, this plump, ruddy example from Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus (1594) caught our attention: “Sweete blowse you are a beautious blossome sure.”

We’ll leave “blowze” with this example of the noun used to mean a beggar woman or prostitute:

“His bonny Blouze or dainty doxie, being commonly a collapsed Tinkers wife, or some high way commodity, taken up upon trust” (from The Whimzies, a 1631 book of character sketches by Richard Brathwait.)

When the adjective “blowsy” showed up in the 1700s, it meant “dishevelled, frowzy, slatternly,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example uses the adjective to describe a man’s messy hair: “Long his beard, and blouzy hair.” (From “The Barber,” circa 1770, a parody by Thomas Erskine in the form of an ode.)

The OED says the adjective soon took on the additional sense of “having a bloated face; red and coarse-complexioned; flushed-looking.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is in a Dec. 8, 1778, letter from Samuel Crisp to the novelist Fanny Burney:

“Thinking herself too ruddy & blowsy, it was her Custom to bleed herself.” (Crisp, a family friend, addresses Burney as “My dear Fannikin.”)

Finally, a disheveled example from Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. Here Miss Bingley is abusing Elizabeth Bennet (behind her back, naturally) for walking through muddy fields to see her ailing sister Jane at Netherfield:

“Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

In case you’re wondering, “blowze” and “blowsy” are not related to the “blouse” that one wears, despite similar spellings above. English borrowed “blouse” in the early 1800s from French, where it referred to a blue workman’s shirt.

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A ‘fount’ or ‘font’ of knowledge?

Q: In your recent post about “cold feet,” you refer to a character in Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus as a “font of academic gobbledygook.” Don’t you mean “fount”?

A: Both “font” and “fount” are derived from the Latin fons (a spring or fountain) and its combining form, font-. One figurative meaning of both “font” and “fount” in American dictionaries is a source of something.

That said, we didn’t intend to use “font” in our post. Although both words can mean a source in standard American English, we use “fount” for that sense and have changed it on the blog. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

“Fount” is the traditional usage for this figurative sense, and the only one considered standard in British dictionaries. The UK version of Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, considers “font” a variant when used to mean a source.

However, a page on the Oxford Dictionaries blog hints that the situation may be changing, even though a poll of its readers supports the traditional usage:

“The standard accepted form is fount of knowledge, and this was also the term chosen by the majority of voters in our poll (67%) despite the Oxford English Corpus suggesting that font of knowledge is now the more common form.”

The corpus, a database of contemporary English that includes nearly 2.1 billion words, surveys web pages and printed text in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Our own searches of the even larger NOW Corpus at Brigham Young University had similar results. NOW (for “news on the web”) contains 4.2 billion words used by web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present.

Now, let’s look at the history of these words.

“Font,” the older of the English terms, originally meant (and still does) a “receptacle, usually of stone, for the water used in the sacrament of baptism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ecclesiastical Latin is font-em or fontes baptismi.

The earliest OED citation for “font” (fante in Old English) is from the Canons of Ælfric, a pastoral letter written around 1000 by the English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Ne do man nænne ele to þam fante” (Ælfric here is explaining the proper use of oil, ele, with a baptismal font.)

When the word “fount” showed up nearly six centuries later, it meant a spring. It apparently developed as a shortening of “fountain,” which appeared in writing in the early 1400s as fownteyne, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. (“Fountain,” like “font,” ultimately comes from the Latin fons, for a spring or fountain.)

The OED’s earliest example of “fount” is from “The Rape of Lucrece,” a 1594 poem by Shakespeare. We’ve expanded the citation to convey the flavor of the poem:

Why should the worme intrude the maiden bud?
Or hatefull Kuckcowes hatch in Sparrows nests?
Or Todes infect faire founts with venome mud?
Or tyrant follie lurke in gentle brests?

By the early 1600s, “fount” was being used figuratively to mean a source. The first OED example is from an English translation of “Eclogue IV,” a Latin poem by Virgil:

“From this fount did all those mischiefes flow.” (In Michael Drayton’s Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall, circa 1605.)

Soon, “font” was being used to mean “fount” in the sense of a spring, as in this OED example from Coryate’s Crudities, a 1611 collection of travel writing by Thomas Coryate: “Delicate fonts and springes.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, English writers began using “font” figuratively to mean a source, though “fount” was more common in this sense, according to our database searches.

Here’s an example from “Childish Recollections,” an 1806 poem by Byron:

Friend of my heart, and foremost of the list
Of those with whom I lived supremely blest,
Oft have we drain’d the font of ancient lore;
Though drinking deeply, thirsting still the more.

We should note here that in typography, the British generally use “fount” and Americans “font” to refer to a typeface, a usage that showed up in the late 1600s.

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Does your grandma suck eggs?

Q: In your post last month about the verb “suck” and its relatives, you refer to several negative senses of “suck eggs.” But you didn’t discuss the only usage I had heard: “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

A: That old rebuke, “Don’t teach your grandmother (how) to suck eggs,” has been used for hundreds of years to put down presumptuous upstarts, though it’s not heard much now.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the proverbial expression is “said to those who presume to offer advice to others who are more experienced.”

In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge says teaching granny here is to “give advice to one’s senior; esp. to instruct an expert in his own expertise.”

The earliest example in the OED is from The Comical Works of Don Francisco de Quevedo, a 1707 translation by John Stevens of the Spanish writer’s poems and plays: “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs.”

We haven’t found any wording like this in the original Spanish, so we assume Stevens was translating loosely and using a comparable English expression.

Jonathan Swift used the maxim a few decades later in Genteel Conversation, a 1738 satire on how to converse in society: “Go, teach your Grannam to suck Eggs.”

Many other languages have expressions about trying to teach one’s betters what they already know. These are often translated into English as “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” even though that’s not the actual wording.

Here are some of these proverbs, and their literal translations:

Latin: Ne sus Minervam doceat (“A sow does not teach Minerva [goddess of wisdom]”); Delphinum natare doces (“You’re teaching a dolphin to swim”); Aquilam volare doces (“You’re teaching an eagle to fly”); À bove majori discit arare minor (“The young ox learns to plow from the elder”).

French: Les oisons veulent mener les ois paître (“The goslings want to drive the geese to pasture”); Il ne faux pas apprendre aux poissons à nager (“One does not teach fish to swim”).

Italian: Insegnar nuotare ai pesci (“To teach fish to swim”); L’uovo ne vuol saper più della gallina (“The egg should not know more than the hen”).

German: Er will seinen Vater lernen Kinder erziehen (“He would teach his father to raise children”); Das Ei will klüger sein als die Henne (“The egg wants to be wiser than the hen”).

Spanish: Aún no ha salido del cascarón y ya tiene presunción (“He hasn’t left the shell, but he’s already being presumptuous”).

There have been many English variations on the theme, some dating back to the late 1500s, according Partridge.

The upstart has been admonished not to teach a grandmother (or granny, granddame, etc.) to spin, steal sheep, milk ducks, grope a goose (check for eggs), sup sour milk, or roast eggs, among other things.

As for the version you asked about (“Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”), we’ve never seen an authoritative explanation for what it literally means.

But we assume that “suck eggs” here simply refers to extracting the yolk and white from an eggshell. This point was made in an anonymous parody in Punch (“Pristine Proverbs Prepared for Precocious Pupils,” Jan. 25, 1873):

Teach not a parent’s mother to extract
The embryo juices of an egg by suction;
That good old lady can the feat enact
Quite irrespective of your kind instruction

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Can ‘across’ mean ‘around’?

Q: When did we change from saying “around the world” to “across the world”? Doesn’t “across” contradict our notion that the world is round?

A: “Across” doesn’t always mean in a straight line. It can also mean distributed “throughout, all over, in all or many parts,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Similarly, “around” doesn’t just mean encircling something. It can also mean in “every direction from a central point; on every side, all about.”

So we see nothing wrong with the phrase “across the world.” (We also have no quibble with “across the globe,” and “globe” implies roundness even more than “world,” since Earth isn’t a perfect sphere.)

As for actual usage, “around the world” is overwhelmingly more popular than “across the world,” according to a comparison of the two phrases in the millions of books tracked by Google’s Ngram Viewer.

As you can see, “around” leaves “across” in the dust and continues to trend upward in the latest results. Breakdowns of British and American English show much the same results.

For the bigger picture—use on the Internet up until today—simple Google searches also show “around the world” is way ahead: And for what it’s worth, “around the globe” leads “across the globe.”

So whether people are talking about the world or the globe, they prefer “around” to “across.” But as we said, there’s nothing wrong with “across” in this context.

The Ngram comparison we mentioned above shows that both “around the world” and “across the world” are found in writing published since at least as far back as 1800.

In our own searches, we haven’t found any examples of “across the world” older than 1800, but we found “around the world” in an obscure play first acted in 1680.

Here’s the rather overwrought passage, from Elkanah Settle’s tragedy Fatal Love: or, The Forc’d Inconstancy:

Nay, tho you scatter all my sprinkled Ashes
Around the World, each Atom of my Dust
Shall find a Soul, and flye into his Bosom.

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A lawyer walks into a bar

Q: My question, should you care to consider it, is which came first—the “bar” where attorneys work or the “bar” those attorneys may frequent after work?

A: We briefly mentioned the connection between one “bar” and the other in 2014, but we didn’t go into detail. To make a long story short, the “bar” at which you practice law came before the “bar” at which you drink.

Etymologically, however, they’re the same word. So here’s the longer story.

The noun “bar” (first spelled “barre”) came into Middle English in the 1100s from the Old French barre, which acquired it from the late Latin barra (“bar” or “barrier”).

In English, the word’s original meaning was “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. All other senses of the word are derived from that.

Today the noun “bar” has three overall meanings, roughly having to do with its physical shape, its purpose, and the area it defines.

So broadly speaking, the uses of “bar” fall into these categories: (1) something, like a rod or band, that’s longer than it is thick or wide; (2) something that obstructs or confines, like the related word “barrier”; and (3) a place defined by a rail or barrier.

That third group of meanings explains the use of “bar” in reference to the courtroom as well as the saloon. Various legal meanings date from the early 1300s, the OED says, and the drinking sense from around 250 years later.

The earliest known “bar” in the courtroom sense indicated “the barrier or wooden rail” separating the judge’s seat from the rest of the court, the dictionary says. This was where the barristers, litigants, prisoners, and others stood to address the judge.

In the reign of Edward I, when French was still spoken in English courts, the term “a la barre” was recorded in two legal documents dated 1306, according to the online Middle English Dictionary. Soon afterward the term was Anglicized, “at (or to) the bar.”

In the first recorded English use, this “bar” was “the place at which all the business of the court was transacted,” and the term soon became synonymous with “court,” according to the OED. So “at the bar” meant “in court.”

The dictionary’s earliest quotation is a reference to “countours in benche that stondeth at the barre.” (In Middle English, “countours” meant “pleaders.” The source here is a 1327 collection of political songs.)

In the sense of “bar” as the place where a prisoner stands for arraignment, trial, or sentence, Oxford‘s earliest example is from an indefinite time in the 1300s:

“Brynge forthe to the barre that arn to be dempt.” (The word “dempt” meant “condemned.” This is from a cycle of medieval mystery plays, Ludus Coventriae.)

Quite early on, the word was used figuratively to mean any kind of tribunal, as in this OED citation from the Wycliffite Sermons (circa 1375):

“Ech man mote nedis stonde at þe barre bifore Crist” (“Each man must needs stand at the bar before Christ”).

In the mid-1500s, “to be called to the bar” first meant “to be admitted a barrister,” the OED says. (A “barrister,” first spelled “barrester,” was a person called to the “barre.”)

Originally, however, this particular “bar” was in the classroom, not the courtroom. Here Oxford explains what “bar” meant to law students at the Inns of Court in the 1540s:

“A barrier or partition separating the seats of the benchers or readers from the rest of the hall, to which students, after they had attained a certain standing, were ‘called’ from the body of the hall, for the purpose of taking a principal part in the mootings or exercises of the house.”

After 1600, this was “popularly assumed to mean the bar in a court of justice.” In an OED citation from 1650, “call’d to the Barre six yeares agoe” means qualified to practice law six years ago.

“The bar” also began to mean barristers as a group in the mid-1500s, and within a century it was used for the profession itself. The term “bar association” originated in the US in 1824, the OED says; the American Bar Association was formed in 1878.

All this has made us thirsty, so let’s move on.

The “bar” meaning the place where one goes to drink came along in the late 1500s, and here again it originally implied some sort of barrier.

This is the OED‘s definition: “A barrier or counter, over which drink (or food) is served out to customers, in an inn, hotel, or tavern, and hence, in a coffee-house, at a railway-station, etc.”

This “bar” also means “the space behind this barrier, and sometimes the whole apartment containing it,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation is from Robert Greene’s “The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching,” a 1592 pamphlet in defense of cheating and petty theft:

“He was well acquainted with one of the seruants … of whom he could haue two pennyworth of Rose-water for a peny … wherefore he would step to the barre vnto him.”

Here’s a handful of later examples:

“[I] laid down my Penny at the Barr … and made the best of my way to Cheapside.” (Joseph Addison, the Spectator, 1712.)

“He sees the girl in the bar.” (Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful, 1834.)

“A bottle of champagne quaffed at the bar.” (From the American notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837.)

We mentioned above that “bar” can be traced to the Late Latin barra, but nobody seems to know where barra came from. The OED says it’s “of unknown origin.” And with that, unfortunately, the trail goes cold.

It may be true, as some have suggested, that the ultimate source is Aramaic, a wide family of related Semitic languages and dialects.

An Aramaic preposition pronounced “bar min” (transliterated as br mn), means “except for,”  “aside from,” or “outside of.” But we haven’t found any evidence of a connection.

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A plethora of notions

Q: I recently came across a blogger’s statement that “there is a plethora of entries” for derogatory terms in dictionaries. My ear tells me it should read “there are a plethora of entries.” Am I right?

A: You’re right—and so is the blogger.

“Plethora” is a singular noun, like “plenitude” or “abundance,” so it’s quite normal to write “there is a plethora of,” no matter what comes after “of.”

However, it’s also quite normal to use “plethora” with a plural verb like “are.”

It all depends on whether the writer views the plethora as a collection of things or as the things in the collection.

This is called notional agreement—agreement based on a writer’s meaning rather than on grammatical form.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, when the subject of a verb is “a plethora of followed by a plural noun,” then “notional agreement holds sway.”

“Writers who view the plethora as a lump use a singular verb; those who view it as a collection of discrete items use a plural verb,” Merriam-Webster’s adds.

So the writer of your sentence viewed “plethora of entries” as a “lump” rather than as the “discrete items” making up the lump.

We’ve discussed notional agreement several times on the blog, including posts in 2016, 2013, and 2012.

“Plethora” has an interesting history in English. It first showed up in 16th-century medical usage, where a “plethora” meant an excess of fluid in the body, especially an accumulation of blood.

Not until the 17th century did “plethora” begin to acquire more general, nonmedical meanings.

In both medieval Latin and ancient Greek, plethora meant fullness, medically or in general, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Greek verbs meaning to fill or to be full are the ultimate source.

The French adopted the medical term (as pléthore) in the 1530s. The English “plethora” may have been influenced by French or it may have come directly from Latin or Greek.

At any rate, the earliest OED example of “plethora” in English is from John Banister’s A Needefull, New and Necessarie Treatise of Chyrurgerie (1575). We’ve inserted medical definitions in the citation:

“In curing these kyndes of Ulcers, the causes must first be diligently searched, to witte whether it be Plethora [excess of fluids], Cacochymia [diseased fluids], or Cachexia [wasting].”

The medical sense of “plethora” has lasted into our own time. Here’s a modern OED example: “patients with congestive heart failure and inferior vena cava plethora” (from the journal Clinical Cardiology, 2000).

The figurative use of “plethora” as a glut of something bad began turning up in the mid-1600s. Here’s an example from Joseph Beaumont’s drama Psyche (1648):

“Whose never-failing Virtue did displace / Griefs vast Plethora which had her opprest.”

In the early 1800s, the figurative sense began mellowing and by the end of the century “plethora” was appearing “more usually” in neutral and positive ways, according to the OED.

Now, the dictionary says, it usually conveys a “neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety.”

Here’s a positive example from a fashion article in the August 1882 issue of Ballou’s Monthly Magazine (Boston): “There is a perfect plethora of white and twine-colored thick muslin.”

In this sporting example from the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911, the word is either neutral or positive: “Of [yacht] races there was a plethora; indeed no fewer than 400 matches took place.”

Finally, here’s a clearly positive example from The Long View, a 1956 novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard: “An attractive woman will automatically collect a plethora of men.”

Some usage commentators still insist that a “plethora” is not just an abundance, but an undesirable overabundance. However, a plethora of historical evidence contradicts this.

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A blown rose, by any other name

Q: On a recent trip to London, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. Hence this question. How did the phrase “blown rose” come to mean a rose that’s bloomed?

A: Let’s set the scene for anyone who isn’t familiar with the passage in Shakespeare’s play. When Cleopatra is told that a messenger from Caesar has arrived, she remarks to her ladies-in-waiting:

What, no more ceremony? See, my women!
Against the blown rose may they stop their nose
That kneel’d unto the buds. Admit him, sir.”

The bud that once brought admirers to their knees is now a fading flower that no one stops to sniff.

The adjective “blown” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times to mean “in bloom” or “having bloomed” (the usage in Antony and Cleopatra), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the phrasal adjective “full-blown” is more common today in describing a flower at its peak, as well as anything else that’s fully developed.

When “blown” is used by itself now to describe a flower, it often refers to one that’s over the hill, according to our searches of digital databases.

How, you ask, did the adjective “blown” get its flowering sense?

We’ll have to go back to the Anglo-Saxons, when Old English had two distinct verbs “blow,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

One verb, written bláwan in Old English, meant to send out air, while the other, blówan, meant to come into flower. They had the same past tense, bléow.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the air sense to the reconstructed base bhlē- and the flowering sense to bhel-, but it says the two roots were “possibly identical” in prehistoric times.

Both verbs “blow” are now in standard dictionaries, with identical spellings and conjugations, but the “blow” that refers to the movement of air is much more common than the one that refers to flowering.

Interestingly, some people conflate the two senses, according to examples we’ve seen, and believe a “blown rose” refers to a rose whose petals are blown by the wind.

The earliest example in the OED for the verb “blow” in the flowering sense is from Old English Leechdoms, a medical work dated at around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).

The two earliest Oxford example for the verb with the airy sense are from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

Here’s an example from the Book of Luke: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”).

We’ll end with two lines from “The Lotos-Eaters,” an 1832 poem by Tennyson:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass.

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Is might (v.) a kin of might (n.)?

Q: I can’t recall seeing any discussion on the two usages of “might” in “It might happen if I try with all my might.” Care to discuss?

A: This may surprise you. The verb “may” and its past tense “might” ultimately come from the same prehistoric ancestor as the noun “might.”

So the two forms of “might” in your example (“It might happen if I try with all my might”) are relatives.

Etymologically, the verb “may” means to have power, while the noun “might” refers to power itself.

The common ancestor of these words is magh-, a reconstructed Proto Indo-European base meaning to “be able, have power,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That prehistoric root gave birth to the ancient Germanic ancestors of the verb “may” and the noun “might.”

The ancient Germanic magan (to be able), for example, gave Old English magan, the early infinitive form of “may,” while the ancient Germanic mah-ti (power) gave Old English miht, the early form of the noun “might,” American Heritage adds.

(The reconstructed prehistoric forms are rendered somewhat differently by different etymologists, and the early spellings in Old English manuscripts vary.)

In early Old English, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “may” had three primary uses:

(1) as an intransitive (or object-less) verb, meaning to be strong or have power or influence, (2) as an auxiliary with a bare (or “to”-less) infinitive expressing the power or ability to do something, and (3) as an auxiliary expressing possibility.

Later in Old English, the OED says, the verb developed several other senses, including (4) as an auxiliary to ask for or grant permission to do something.

Senses 1 and 2 died out in the early 1600s, according to Oxford citations, while 3 and 4 are among the primary uses today for the verb “may.”

The earliest OED example for sense 1 (a full verb meaning to be strong) comes from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from the 700s with the Latin Psalms and interlinear Old English translations:

Exurge domine non praeualeat homo: aris dryhten ne meg mon” (“Arise, O Lord; man should not be powerful”). We’re translating the Old English here. The King James Version translates the Latin as “Arise, O Lord, let not man prevail.”

The first Oxford example for sense 2 (an auxiliary verb used to express the power to do something) is from Rituale Ecclesiae Dunelmensis, a manuscript from the early 800s that describes the liturgical services in the Diocese of Durham in northeast England:

“Gif men færlice wyrde unsofte oððe sprecan ne maege halga him ðis wæter” (“If he has been speaking quickly and harshly, one may not bless him with this water”). Here, maege (Old English for “may”) is being used in the sense of “can” (be able, or have power, to do something.)

The earliest OED example for sense 3 (an auxiliary used to express possibility) is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s:

“On ðara Deniscena healfe wearð ofslægen Eohric hira cyng & Æðelwald æðeling … & swiðe monige eac him þe we nu genemnan ne magon” (“On the Danish side their king Eohric was killed, and the atheling Æðelwald … and many others that we may not name here”). The obsolete term “atheling” refers to a prince or other member of a noble family.

And the first Oxford citation for sense 4 (an auxiliary to ask for or grant permission) is from “Judgment Day I,” a poem in The Exeter Book (circa 940), a collection of miscellaneous Old English writing:

“Oft mæg se þe wile in his sylfes sefan soð geþencan” (“Often a wily mind may let you decide for yourself what’s right”).

As for the noun “might” (maehte in Old English), here’s an example from the Vespasian Psalter:

Potentiam tuam et iustitiam tuam deus usque in altissimus: maehte ðine & rehtwisnisse ðine god oð in heanisse” (“Thy might and thy righteousness, O God, reach to the most high”).

As for “mighty” and “mightiness,” they’re also relatives, but we’ll skip the citations, if we may.

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It’s medieval, albeit still with us

Q: I heard a radio DJ the other day, on a jazz station, using “albeit,” which is a nice word. I wonder if it’s a short form of an earlier phrase in the language.

A: We’ve mentioned “albeit” a couple of times on the blog, most recently in a 2015 post about the phrase “at all.”

As we wrote then, “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.

The conjunctive use is almost unknown today, but a trace of it lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it.” Today, it’s a venerable way of saying “although.”

Some language writers have dismissed “albeit” as archaic, but the word is alive and well today, according to our searches of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

In the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler includes “albeit” in a list of archaisms. But in the 1965 second edition, Sir Ernest Gowers says the term “has since been picked up and dusted and, though not to everyone’s taste, is now freely used.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the comments by Fowler, Gowers, and others as “a most curious business since albeit never seems to have gone out of use.”

The dictionary says the usage “may have faded somewhat in the later 19th century,” but it has “considerably increased in use since the 1930s, to judge by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.”

The word “albeit” began life in the early 1300s as an expression made up of the old conjunction “all,” the verb “be,” and the pronoun “it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says it originally meant “though it is true that; even though; although” (pretty much what it means now).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Middle English entry, dated sometime before 1325, in Statutes of the Realm (2011), a compilation of English statute law:

“Also þerase man rauisez womman … mit strenkþe, albehit þat heo assente afterward, he sal habbe þilke iugement þat his iseid bifore” (“Also in that case where man ravishes woman … with violence, albeit that she assents afterward, he shall have such judgment as was said of him before”).

In “The Knight’s Tale” (circa 1385), Chaucer uses the three-word expression: “Al be it þt [that] it is agayn his kynde / Of al this stryf he kan remedie fynde.”

And here’s an OED example from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (c. 1611): A worthy Fellow, / Albeit he comes on angry purpose now.”

The Merriam-Webster’s usage manual has many 20th-century examples from well-known writers, including Robert Frost, George Santayana, Vladimir Nabokov, E. B. White, and Mary McCarthy.

Here’s an example from “Time Out,” a poem in A Witness Tree, a 1942 collection of Frost’s poetry:

It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).

We think “albeit” is a splendid old word! It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s here to stay. This is how R. W. Burchfield describes it in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.):

“One of the most persistent archaic-sounding words in the language.”

If you use it, make sure you pronounce it right. As Bryan A. Garner explains in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “The first syllable of albeit is pronounced like all, not like your friend Al.”

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Muffs, mufflers, and muffed

Q: My wife is using a small blanket to cover her fractured hand. She can’t get a glove over her brace. The other night, she said, “Hand me my muff.” I thought of Mimi’s cold hands in La Bohème. Also “muffing” a fly ball, the “muffler” on necks and cars, and the more salacious uses. Hmm.

A: The “muff” that warms your hands is related to the “muffler” that warms your neck. And to “muff” a fly ball may also be a relative of the hand warmer, but that etymology is up in the air. As for those hot words, you can thank the hand warmer too.

The first of these words to show up in writing is the “muff” that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “covering, often of fur and usually of cylindrical shape with open ends, into which both hands may be placed for warmth.”

The OED labels the term “historical” (that is, relegated to the dustbin of history), though we remember seeing lots of them in our youth. Well, perhaps we’ve become historical ourselves.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from Sym and His Brudir (1568), a Middle Scots satire of church abuse: “His beird it wes als lang & blak / That it hang our his mouf.”

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue suggests that the word “mouf” in that citation may refer to “a muffler of some kind round the neck.” It’s hard to tell from some of the early examples in the OED whether the term is being used for something to warm the hands or the neck.

However, the next Oxford citation clearly refers to a hand warmer, though we had to go to the original text to confirm it. Here’s an expanded version of the passage from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels, a 1601 satirical play by Ben Jonson:

“Mary, I will come to her, (and she alwayes weares a Muffe if you be remembred) and I will tell her: Madame your whole selfe cannot but be perfectly wise: for your hands haue witte enough to keepe themselues warme.”

The OED says English probably borrowed the word from Dutch, where mof is now a muff as well as an ethnic slur for a German, but the ultimate source is the Middle French moufle (mitten). The online version of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française traces it back to muffala (medieval Latin for “mitten”).

The use of “muffler” for a “wrap or scarf (freq. of wool or silk) worn round the neck or throat for warmth” appeared at the end of the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.

The first example is from Mother Bombie, a 1594 comedy by the dramatist John Lyly: “Silena, I praie you looke homeward, it is a colde aire, and you want your mufler.”

Interestingly, the “muffler” that warms your neck is related to the “muffler” that deadens the sound of your car’s exhaust, a usage that showed up at the end of the 19th century.

Both senses are derived from the verb “muffle,” which comes from moufle, the same Middle French term believed to be the source of “muff.”

When “muffle” showed up in the 15th century, it meant to wrap something around the face to provide concealment or protection from the weather.

The first OED example is from Generides, an anonymous medieval romance, or adventure story, written sometime before 1450: “She mufled hir face hir to desgyse / That noon shuld know hir in noo wise.”

By the 16th century, “muffle” also meant to cover someone’s mouth to prevent speaking—for example, to gag someone.

Here’s an early definition from Manipulus Vocabulorum (1570), an English-Latin dictionary, by Peter Levens: “To Muffle ye mouth, obturare.” (In Latin, obturare is “stop up.”)

And in the 18th century, “muffle” took on the sense of wrapping something—such as a drum, a bell, or an oar—to deaden sound:

“They laid all their oars across, except two in each boat, which they muffled with baize, to prevent their being heard at a distance.” (From a 1761 issue of the British Magazine, or Monthly Repository for Gentlemen and Ladies, edited by Tobias Smollett.)

The OED describes the use of “muffler” for the device on a vehicle as “chiefly N. Amer.” The earliest citation is from A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1895), edited by Isaac Kaufman Funk:

Muffler, a device to render noiseless the escape of steam from a vacuum-brake, exhaust-pipe, or safety-valve.”

(With a former classmate, Adam Willis Wagnalls, Funk founded the Funk & Wagnalls Company, known for its dictionaries and other reference books.)

To answer your question about muffing a fly ball, we’ll have to back up somewhat and begin with a version of the noun “muff” that showed up in the early 19th century.

This “muff,” the OED says, means a “foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person; spec. one who is clumsy or awkward in some sport or manual skill.”

Oxford says this sense of “muff” may come from the word’s original use for a hand warmer, “perhaps conveying the sense of something soft (and, by extension, something weak), or perhaps implying clumsiness commensurate with keeping one’s hands in a muff.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1819), by James Hardy Vaux:

Mouth, a foolish silly person …. Muff, an epithet synonymous with mouth.” (Oxford defines “flash language” as the language of thieves.)

The new noun usage led to the use of the verb “muff” for bungling on the playing fields, though the earliest example in the OED is from cricket, not baseball:

“All the best of our players completely muffed their batting.” (From Cricket Sketches of the Players, an 1846 book by William Denison, a cricketer and sportswriter.)

The earliest known baseball citation is from the Aug. 12, 1882, issue of the Philadelphia Press: “That usually reliable fielder muffed the fly.”

By the 20th century, the verb “muff” was being used in the wider sense of bungling something or making a mess of it.

Here’s an example from The Hairy Ape, a 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill: “Yuh got what I was sayin’ even if yuh muffed de woids.” And here’s one from a 1941 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien: “I muffed my exams.”

We’ll end with what the OED describes as the slang use of the noun “muff” for the “female pubic hair. Hence also: the vulva, the vagina.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, a 1699 slang dictionary written anonymously by “B. E. Gent”:

Muff, c. a Woman’s Secrets. To the well-wearing of your Muff Mort, c. to the happy Consummation of your Marriage Madam, a Health.” (The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has published the book as The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699.)

Interestingly, the OED labels the pubic sense of “muff” as slang, but it labels “muff-diver,” “muff-dive,” and “muff-diving” as coarse slang. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall as the dictionary’s editors discussed the labeling of these terms.

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When “mortify” meant to kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The emperor’s cold feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is “monthslong” a word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Intend on” vs. “intend to”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Little Buttercup, disassembled?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming for to carry me home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suck, sucker, and sucking up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those egg-sucking expressions have roots going back to the early 1600s, when a “suck-egg” meant a thieving animal, hence a fool or a greedy person. The OED defines a “suck-egg” as “an animal that is reputed to suck eggs, e.g. a weasel, cuckoo,” and says the term figuratively meant a “silly” or “avaricious person.”

The term “suck-egg” was also used pejoratively before nouns, as in “suck-egge Weasell” (1631), “Suck-egge-fly” (1658), and, especially in American English, “suck-egg dog” (1872 or earlier).

The adjectival use of “suck-egg” survived well into the 20th century, as in this OED citation: “Hayes got up and slunk off like a suck-egg dog caught in the hen-house.” (From the Virginia Quarterly Review, January 1931.)

However, new positive senses for “suck” showed up in the 20th century, such as “suck it up” (to work up one’s courage in the face of adversity, 1967).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Note: This post was updated on April 8, 2017.]

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Can a ‘run-on’ sentence run on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shards or sherds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adjectives galore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Interested in’ vs. ‘interested to’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which egg came first?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lay waste to Carthage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fatal or mortal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like a death’s head at a feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elder vs. older: an eald story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scratch made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A mite interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An adverb, forsooth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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